Byers on Gutmann, 'Building a Nazi Europe: The SS's Germanic Volunteers'

Martin R. Gutmann
Richard Byers

Martin R. Gutmann. Building a Nazi Europe: The SS's Germanic Volunteers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xvi + 237 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-15543-5.

Reviewed by Richard Byers (University of North Georgia) Published on H-War (August, 2018) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)

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In his concise but thought-provoking new work, Martin R. Gutmann (Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg) examines a facet of the National Socialist enterprise that has received less attention from scholars in recent years: attempts by the SS to recruit, train, and ideologically groom a new generation of SS leaders from western and northern Europe, as part of larger plans to realize the Nazi New Order in western Europe both during and after the war. Recent scholarship has shed new light on postwar plans for the occupied East, but as Gutmann’s work shows, work also proceeded on preparing a new generation of leaders for similar plans in western Europe once the war ended, primarily through the offices of the Germanische Leitstelle, a subdepartment of the SS RSHA (Reich Main Security Office). Gutmann’s transnational study examines the careers and roles played within this organization by three groups of “neutral” volunteers from Sweden, Denmark, and Switzerland, and attempts to address the motivations, forces, and circumstances that led over eight thousand Danes, Swedes, and Swiss to leave their home countries and join the SS as “Germanic volunteers” between 1939 and 1945.

Using archival materials paired with biographical sources and postwar interrogation reports, Gutmann dispenses with the traditional portraits of these neutral European SS volunteers as vulgar mercenaries, outcasts, and losers, decisively alienated from their own national identities and contexts. Instead, Building a Nazi Europe reframes most of these neutral volunteers, particularly those who entered leadership positions within the Germanische Leitstelle and later the Waffen-SS, as highly educated and successful upper-middle-class individuals, many of whom possessed exemplary military records within their respective national armed forces.

As Gutmann shows, this mythology of the neutral volunteer as an antisocial misfit appeared in the immediate postwar period as a convenient salve for national and individual consciences. It was designed both to ostracize those who abandoned their states of birth to construct the New Order and to distance their actions as individuals from wider collective social attitudes within the neutral states that often proved receptive to German National Socialism’s European ambitions and attracted considerable public support, especially between 1939 and the Stalingrad defeat in early 1943. Gutmann specifically points to what he calls the “internationalist” appeal of German National Socialism, which his subjects saw as a legitimate “third way” between American-inspired liberal democracy and Stalinist Communism, giving his work a contemporary utility worth pondering as right-wing authoritarian populism enjoys a twenty-first-century resurgence across Europe and elsewhere.

Drawing on previously untranslated Swiss, Swedish, and Danish sources, including postwar interrogation reports and memoirs, Gutmann shows how these neutral European SS volunteers saw themselves as legitimate historical actors, as part of a leadership vanguard and an effort to create a new Europe within an imagined greater Germanic Nazi imperium: “an empire in which Germanic racial and cultural unity would supersede artificial borders and institutions.... The volunteers shared a thoroughly anti-democratic vision based on German-Germanic hegemony over the many ‘inferior’ peoples of Europe.... The Germanic ‘brothers in arms of the Waffen-SS would be the seed for a new Europe and form the core of its elites and leaders’” (pp. 3-4). Ironically, the ground zero of this process lay in the brutally violent East, both at the front and in the SS camp system, as the Germanic volunteers forged bonds with their German counterparts by both witnessing and directly participating in genocidal violence.

Across six chapters, Gutmann describes the origins, course, and collapse of the SS’s Germanic projects, which fell apart after 1943 due to bureaucratic conflict both within the SS and between it and other agencies, German chauvinistic racism, and the changing tides of the war. When Swiss-born SS colonel Hans Riedweg, the de facto leader of the Germanic project within the Germanische Leitstelle, gave a speech critical of the SS’s handling of the escape of seven thousand Danish Jews in autumn 1943, retribution was swift, and he and his fellow neutral volunteers were purged from the Leitstelle’s leadership and sent to the eastern front. While many of the neutral volunteers perished during the war’s final months, enough survived and returned to their home countries to warrant postwar criminal investigations and trials in Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland. Gutmann notes that these trials largely ignored the perpetrators’ motivations and wartime activities and focused instead on bolstering emergent mythical national narratives that omitted any references to wartime collaboration and instead highlighted the neutral states’ experiences as victims of German National Socialism. The volunteers themselves emerged from the war unrepentant and determined to testify that they acted out of ideological conviction rather than for materialistic gain; they also saw their stories silenced by the changed contexts of postwar Europe.

Building a Nazi Europe contains much of interest to scholars and readers interested in transnational European history, transnational fascism, and the complex realities of wartime history and memory in Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland during and after the Second World War. Gutmann concludes his work with a series of pointed insights. “The ... volunteers’ story is made more unique by their omission from postwar narratives. Postwar national memory and historiography in Western European countries emphasize a collective aversion and opposition to the ideology and policies of the Third Reich, but this version of the story is irreconcilable with the voluntary participation of thousands of men in the SS’s work.... Perhaps the most unsettling and unique aspect of the neutral Germanic SS volunteers’ service was their ideological objective: a radical reorganization of the continent based on a Germanic strain of the National Socialist ideology. Their desired goals included the end of Liberal European political traditions and the murder and oppression of large parts of the population.... Many of their countrymen seem to have been sympathetic toward their larger goals, at least during the initial stages of the war” (pp. 203-204).

Given Europe’s current political turmoil, and what is known of transnational cooperation among far-right political groups today in Europe, the troubling historical precedents unearthed by Building a Nazi Europe are worthy of considerable attention.

Citation: Richard Byers. Review of Gutmann, Martin R., Building a Nazi Europe: The SS's Germanic Volunteers. H-War, H-Net Reviews. August, 2018. URL:

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