The “Malgré-nous”: Alsatian French citizens involuntarily recruited into the Wehrmacht

On French-language QUORA, somebody asked the troll question if it was really true that, after the initial invasion, more French had fought on the side of the Axis than of the Allies. 
Of course this doesn’t hold water: total number of combatants in the Free French forces reached about 1.3 million at the time of Liberation. In contrast, about 11,000 French voluntarily joined the Axis forces (mostly the Waffen-SS — near the end of the war, one French battalion that had been transfered from the wiped-out Charlemagne Division to bolster the 11th Waffen SS Division “Nordland” fought nearly to the last man in the final defense of Berlin’s government district).

About 125,000 or so Vichy French forces in North Africa switched sides from the Axis to the Allies a few days ninto Operation Torch, and there were smaller Vichy French forces (about 8,000 in Syria and Lebanon) who fought against the Allies. (The future Israeli general Moshe Dayan lost one eye to a Vichy French bullet during a 1941 British commando raid to secure bridges across the Litani river. He wore his iconic eyepatch ever since.)


In all, we are talking at most 275,000 French combatants on the Axis side. The missing 130,000 or so in this total were not volunteers at all: they called themselves the “Malgré-nous”, literally “despite ourselves”, idiomatically “against our will”.

You see: the Franco-German border regions of Alsace and Lorraine (capital city: Strasbourg/Strassburg) changed hands several times between France and Germany; most recently to Germany in 1871 after French defeat in the Franco-German War, and back again to France after WW I. Much of the local population did not think of itself as French or German first, but as Alsatian (Elsasser). The local vernacular, Elsasserdeutsch, is fairly close to Swiss German, with influences from both French and Yiddish.[*]

After the Nazi occupation, Alsace-Lorraine was de facto annexed to the Reich as part of the Reichsgau Westmark [“Western march”], which also included the Saarland and the Palatinate/Pfalz in Germany. The Nazis regarded the Alsatians as ethnically German, and hence imposed conscription on them, initially (May 1942) just for labor, from August 24, 1942 also for the Wehrmacht. Many went underground and tried to escape via the Vosges mountain range to Switzerland. Of the remaining 130,000, about 90% were sent to the Eastern Front — where about 32,000 fell in battle and another 10,500 went missing. 
Among the remaining 10% was a small group who had been cherry-picked out of the Wehrmacht draft by Waffen SS recruiters: this was a common practice by that stage of the war. Indeed, 14 Alsatians belonging to the 2nd Waffen SS-division “Das Reich” participated in the Oradour massacre in Normandy, 1 of them a volunteer (sentenced to death after the war), the other 13 “shanghaied” as described above.

The main long-term effect of the Nazi occupation was that the Alsace population now decisively embraced France and French culture — ironically, achieving in a few years what the French themselves had been unable to do in a century.
As for the “Malgré-nous” themselves, initially they were often seen as collaborators — especially by Communists, who did not care for the frank descriptions of Soviet POW camps that newly released POWs gave. Eventually, however, their forced conscription was recognized as a war crime by both France and the German Federal Republic, which in the 1980s started paying a (rather symbolic) indemnity to the about 80,000 surviving “Malgré-nous”.

[*] A very sizable Jewish population used to live in Alsace-Lorraine: I will devote a future blog post to them. As a teaser, let me just point out that Dreyfus is a typical Alsatian-Jewish surname [originally an archaic name for Trier], and Capt. Alfred Dreyfus was originally from Mulhouse.

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