Bastiaan Willems (independent researcher). Inspiring ‘Strength through Fear’: The Policies of Summary Courts during Nazi-Germany’s final months

This paper examines how regimes are able to weaponize fear in the midst of a crumbling society. In 1945, Nazi-Germany was at the brink of destruction, and the German army, the Wehrmacht, was desperately searching for new combatants to bolster its ranks. What constituted a combatant, however, had been steadily hollowed out due to the regime’s willingness to fight a ‘Total War’. Whereas a soldier is trained to overcome his fear of the enemy, and will often defend or attack a position without regard to personal safety, civilians lack such training and tend to be driven by an inherent urge for self-preservation. Especially in Eastern Germany, where the fighting was particularly savage and seemingly confirmed the population’s primordial fear of ‘the East’, the impulse to get out of harm’s way was strong.

Many German commanders, hardened by years of war, were nevertheless unwilling to acknowledge that the civilians coerced into their units were soldiers only in name. As such, these commanders refused to recognise the fears these men felt. Instead, the new “recruits”, without regard to their training or fitness, were subjected to radicalised National Socialist military laws. Under these laws, German military courts had presided over 25,000 executions during the previous years, and the frequency of court-martial execution only accelerated as the war entered its final stage. The rationale behind the regime’s preparedness to execute this exorbitantly high number of soldiers was rooted in the idea that fear of the superior was to be greater than fear of the enemy. No commander adhered to this doctrine closer than Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner, whose leadership-maxim was ‘Kraft durch Furcht’, or ‘strength through fear’, and who among his men was known as ‘Blutiger Ferdinand’, or ‘bloody Ferdinand’. Schörner, and many of his fellow officers with him, was a proponent of summary courts-martial, which saw soldiers tried and executed without being formally indicted.

These summary executions occupy an intersection between multiple types of fear: commanders threatening these executions sought to encourage their soldiers to overcome their cowardice by not only ensuring that any failure to ‘maintain self-control’ would end in capital punishment, but would also result in a humiliating social death. This social death often took the form of the soldier in question being hanged (as opposed to being executed, which was considered more honourable), normally accompanied with a sign attached to their chest, reading ‘A soldier can die, a coward must die’. Thus, for men like Schörner, fear was both a selfish act of self-preservation that revealed an individual’s disloyalty to the German Volk, as well as a tool to inspire that very same individual to fight for the very same Volk. Within this line of reasoning, the fact that by 1945 the war had long been lost for Germany was of little to no importance. As such, the summary courts also performed a significant, but often ignored, function: they helped create a ‘false consciousness’ of a supposed ‘internal enemy’ by shifting the blame for Germany’s defeat from the High Command to the rank-and-file. By reconstructing the manner in which summary courts rationalised and carried out their executions, this paper retraces how a regime can assert itself through the instrumentalization of fear.