“Hundreds of thousands of foreign troops flocked to Nazi Germany to fight in World War Two. Known as Freiwillige or “volunteers,” they came from a surprisingly diverse array of nations.”
IT WAS IN the bombed-out ruins of the Berlin, just a few hundred meters from Hitler’s notorious Führerbunker, that the dying Third Reich decorated one of its last (and most unlikely) heroes.
On April 29, 1945, a SS general by the name of Wilhelm Mohnke took advantage a lull in the savage street-to-street fighting to award a Knight’s Cross to the commander of one particularly stubborn group of soldiers.
Henri Joseph Fenet, a 25-year-old veteran of the Eastern Front, had won the prestigious commendation for his unit’s destruction of more than 50 Soviet tanks over the preceding five days. Facing certain defeat, Fenet and his comrades were determined to fight to the death rather than surrender. That’s because their unit, the 1st Battalion of the 33rd Waffen Grenadiers, was part of the SS Charlemagne Division, a unit comprised almost entirely pro-Nazi Frenchmen. Each member of the brigade had been branded a traitor by the Allies — each expected to be shot if captured.
The Charlemagne Division, which was formed in 1943 by fascist paramilitaries and collaborators from across France, boasted 7,000-soldiers at its peak; now less than 400 men remained. Ironically, turncoats like these would put up some of the stiffest resistance in the war’s final days. The few French volunteers that did survive the conflict’s final inferno were captured by the Soviets and turned over to their countrymen for judgement; many were executed outright. Surprisingly, Fenet escaped a firing squad but was tried in 1949 and sentenced to 20 years hard labour. He earned his freedom in 1959 and became a small businessman. He died in Paris in 2002 at the age of 83.
Interestingly, hundreds of thousands of foreign troops flocked to Germany to fight under the Swastika in World War Two. Most were ardent nationalists who looked to the Nazis to liberate their homelands from the communists or Western imperialists. Others were motivated by racial hatreds. Some were simply enemy POWs who chose to enlist rather than spend the war in prison camps. Known as Freiwillige or “volunteers,” they came from a surprisingly diverse array of nations. Here are some examples:
Recruited in 1940 from Scandinavia, the Baltic States and even the Low Countries, what would become the elite 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking were touted by Third Reich propagandists as Nordic supermen. Fervently anti-communist, Viking volunteers took part in the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 where the brigade participated in the mass slaughter of Ukrainian civilians, partisans and Jews. Among its members was Dr. Josef Mengele, the notorious SS doctor who would later perform horrific medical experiments on inmates at the Auschwitz death camp. He originally served as a medic with the Wiking Division.
Made up of more than 8,000 French-speaking Belgians, the 28th SS Volunteer Grenadier Division Wallonien drew its first recruits from the country’s far-right Rexist Party. It fought in the East against Ukrainian partisans and was later deployed to Carpathian front to stem the Red Army advance there. By April, 1945, what was left of the outfit was merged with a Flemish SS unit, the 27th SS Volunteer Sturmbrigade Langemarck, where it faced certain annihilation in the defence of Berlin. Recognizing the futility of their cause, the Walloons’ own commander, Belgian fascist Léon Degrelle, allowed his men to slip away if they wished. Hundreds did so, but a small corps remained to make a last stand. Utterly routed by Soviet armour, the remnants fled west to surrender to the British.
The Blue Division
Unwilling to openly declare a military alliance with the Nazis, Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco encouraged anti-communists within his country to join the German army’s war against the Soviet Union. More than 40,000 Spaniards, and a number of Portuguese, enlisted in the Wehrmacht through recruitment depots set up in Madrid, Valencia and Seville in 1941.  Comprised largely of veterans from the Spanish Civil War, what would become known as the Wehrmacht 250th Infantry or “Blue Division” took part in the Siege of Leningrad. In a single day in early 1943, the unit suffered 70 percent casualties as the Red Army broke through the Axis lines at Krasny Bor. The disaster, which took place on Feb. 10, would be remembered in Spain as “Black Wednesday.” Franco caved to public pressure and recalled what was left of the Spanish contingent in late 1943. But it would take years for all of the volunteers to return home; some of the hundreds captured at Krasny Bor were held by the Soviets until 1954!
More than 400,000 soldiers from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan also served in Hitler’s war machine. They were known as Ost-Bataillonen or “Eastern Battalions.” Some recruits were motivated by their hatred of Stalin, others were captured draftees who chose to don Wehrmacht uniforms rather than face the appalling conditions of German POW camps. Ostlegionen formations were eventually deployed to Italy, the Balkans and France. In fact, an estimated 6 per cent of Axis troops deployed to defend Normandy in 1944 were recruits from the Caucuses and Central Asia.  One unit of Georgians stationed on the Dutch island of Texel mutinied in April of 1945 rather than fight the Allies on the mainland. They slaughtered their German comrades and refused to lay down their arms until well after VE Day.
The Russian Liberation Army
Millions of Soviet citizens openly aided the Nazis during Second World War — from the Ukrainian paramilitaries and various pro-Axis Cossack units to the Hilfswilliger auxiliaries. None however were as high-ranking as Andrey Vlasov. A decorated Red Army lieutenant-general and the commander of Stalin’s 2nd Shock Army, Vlasov was captured near Leningrad in 1942. After only 10 days in captivity, he defected to the Nazis and took to the airwaves to denounced Stalin. After lobbying Berlin for a year, the 43-year-old former communist was placed at the head of what would become the Russian Liberation Army, an independent corps comprised of 130,000 Soviet POWs and even White Russian exiles who’d fled the Motherland following the Bolshevik takeover in 1917. Armed with Wehrmacht equipment and outfitted in Germany uniforms, the POA (as it was known) was thrown into action in early 1945. Seeing that the war was already lost and fearing that the entire brigade was likely to executed as traitors by the victorious Soviets, Vlasov sent emissaries to the western Allies in hopes of negotiating favourable terms. Some POA commanders even joined the anti-Nazi rebellion in Prague in an attempt to curry favour with the victors. Ultimately, elements of the POA fled westwards hoping to give themselves up to either the British or Americans; most were netted by the Red Army en route. Vlasov was captured and sent to Moscow with a dozen other senior officers to be tried for treason. All were hanged on Aug. 1, 1946.
Bosnian Muslims made up the lion’s share of the 13th Waffen SS Mountain Division. The unit, which was established in 1943 along with a number of Croatian Wehrmacht battalions, became central to Berlin’s widening war against the Yugoslav partisans. The 13th fought in eight different campaigns in the Balkans, where it became feared for its ruthlessness. In addition to seeking out and destroying enemy guerrillas, the 13th waged a relentless assault on local Serbian and Jewish civilian populations. By 1945, the brigade was withdrawn from the region and transferred to the Eastern Front, at which point many of its conscripts shed their uniforms and deserted. After the war, Yugoslav authorities captured and prosecuted 38 officers of the 13th Division for war crimes. Ten were executed.
The Free Arabian Legion
Organized in 1941 by the Palestinian revolutionary Amin al-Husseini, the 20,000-man Free Arabian Legion was founded to help Berlin establish Nazi-friendly regimes in the Middle East, namely in Iraq. Comprised of Arab nationalists and Muslims recruited from POW camps throughout Germany, the legion waited in Greece for the chance to drive the English from Mesopotamia. Such an opportunity would never arise; Britain’s swift suppression of an Axis-backed Baghdad uprising in May of 1941 made sure of that. Instead, the Free Arabian Legion would spend the war in Greece as part of the Nazi occupation force. It was disbanded in 1945.
The Tiger Legion
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Such was the motivation of Indians who took up with the German military during the Second World War. Driven by a burning desire to end British rule in their homeland, 3,000 Indian expats living in the Third Reich along with volunteers from POW camps joined the brigade, which was established by a 45-year-old Bengal nationalist named Subhas Chandra Bose. Known as the Indian Legion, Infantry Regiment 950 or just the “Tiger Legion,” Berlin hoped the unit would spearhead a proposed Axis drive into western India and Afghanistan by way of the Persian Gulf. While a small 100-man detachment was parachuted into modern-day Pakistan in 1942 to foment rebellion against British rule and lay the ground work for a larger invasion, Berlin’s abandoned its designs on the Indian subcontinent after the Axis defeat in the Caucuses. Instead, the Tiger Legion would be consigned to the Atlantic Wall on the French coast. Following the D-Day invasion and the Allied breakout from Normandy, the Indian contingent was transferred to the SS where it fought in the great retreat back into Germany. It disbanded at war’s end and many of its members were shipped back to India where they faced prosecution by British authorities.