Veterans' Associations and Political Radicalism in West Germany 1951-54: A Case Study of the Traditionsgemeinschaft Grossdeutschland

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Following the annulment of the Allied law forbidding soldiers to hold meetings in December 1949, and the founding of the Bund versorgungsberechtigter ehemaliger Wehrmachtsangehoriger und deren Hinterbliebenen (BvW) on 28 April 1950, the doors were opened for a stream of new veterans' associations in the Federal Republic of Germany. While former professional soldiers had been complaining since the end of the war about the discrimination heaped upon them by the Allies and their miserable material situation, a much more penetrating and shriller tone was lent to the demands of the veterans' organizations by the commencement of negotiations on a West German defence contribution in January 1951, former soldiers realizing that their services were required once again.(1) During the course of 1951 an energetic effort was undertaken to found a nation-wide soldiers' association,(2) the Verband deutscher Soldaten (VdS), one American journalist noting that the association had first made "a stern declaration of aloofness from politics" and had then "plunged into politics up to its neck."(3) The appearance of former generals at reunions began to hit the headlines not only in Germany but also abroad,(4) and East German propagandists could write gloatingly that the "organizations of former soldiers of the Hitler-Wehrmacht ... constituted on the model of the so-called front soldiers' associations of the Weimar Republic ... are an expression of the reawakening of Nazism in West Germany"(5) Clearly, the question of the radical potential of Wehrmacht veterans had become a political issue which was affecting not only the domestic debate on rearmament in the Federal Republic, but also playing a role in foreign policy considerations in official circles in Bonn.

However, despite the growing interest among historians in the veterans' movement, we appear to be no closer to reaching any conclusions on the level of radicalism and nationalism prevalent in soldiers' associations. The problem with the research to date has been that, in dealing primarily with the emergence of veterans' groups immediately after the war and the founding of the VdS, the connection between political radicalism and veterans has been viewed through the prism of the fight for control of the VdS leadership in 1951.(6) While there are a few studies dealing with veterans' organizations after 1951.(7) with the exception of the Waffen-SS association, there have been no serious scholarly studies of individual associations and, for this reason, a number of interesting questions have not received adequate answers. In particular: Were the worries about radicalized veterans justified? To what extent did veterans' associations represent a radical, antidemocratic potential and, if so, how long did this last? Given that at the time there was talk of a "veterans' movement," what differences and similarities existed between individual organizations?

A closer examination of the history and development of veterans' organizations reveals in fact that there were, at the very least, three separate types of association. First, the majority of those organizations founded immediately after the war were concerned with the issue of social provision for former soldiers, whether this took the form of assisting war invalids and their families, or fighting for the reinstatement of pension rights. Second, there were the associations which were politically radical in their goals, obvious examples being the Stahlhelm and Schutzbund deutscher Soldaten (BdS); these were numerically small, but disproportionately vociferous in their public statements. Third, there were the so-called `tradition associations', which varied greatly, some being founded to encourage comradeship among veterans of an arm of service, others for a particular division; the most influential and well-known were the associations representing the paratroopers, the Afrikakorps and the Gro[Beta]deutschland Panzer Corps.(8) Obviously, in deciding how far radicalism had penetrated organized veterans as a professional interest group, a further key question is how far political values differed between the radical associations and the welfare-oriented and tradition-based associations. …