Straf Battalion: Hitler's Penal Battalions
Walter S. Zapotoczny Jr.
Hardcover, 224 pages w/ 32 photographs
'Straf Battalion' is a term for penal units within the armed forces of Nazi Germany, in which military personnel convicted of offenses, and who would otherwise be sentenced to incarceration, could instead redeem themselves through combat service. These units were formed across the entire spectrum of the German military, including the Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine and even the SS.
The Straf Battalions were divided into two basic categories. Units with the suffix 500 were comprised of soldiers convicted of crimes for the first time, who were placed on probation in front-line units for a specified period, after which they could rejoin their original units. Units with the suffix 999 were comprised of criminals and prison inmates who ‘volunteered’ for front-line military service with the promise of their crimes being pardoned or sentences reduced.
The Straf battalions existed within the broader context of the Nazi military justice, and eventually civilian justice, system. As the war progressed and demands for manpower grew more and more urgent, the standards for recruitment into these units were steadily lowered, and more and more individuals otherwise deemed unfit for military service were funneled through penal units.
Walter Zapotoczny’s book provides a detailed account of the organization, structure and history of the various types of penal units, as well as the Nazi justice system that led to their formation.
The book begins with an outline of the Nazi criminal justice and penal system, which stemmed from its predecessors in the Hohenzollern Empire and Weimar Republic. It describes the gradual politicization of the police and judicial systems, which created the framework for convicted Germans to become tools of the state and be channeled into military service.
Next the book deals with the creation of the penal units, and the circumstances and decisions that led to their formation. This section of the book also deals with the German military penal code and the various punishment alternatives including service in a penal unit.
The book continues with chapters describing the organization and structure of the different types of penal units, though interspersed with these descriptions are sections describing the Feldgendarmerie (Field Police) and the Wehrmacht’s prisons. Certain units, such as the 36. Waffen-Grenadier Division der SS, otherwise known as the Dirlewanger Brigade, merit their own chapter.
The text occasionally wanders off-topic. For example, on page 65 the author provides a brief description of the Strafvollstreckungezüge (punishment trains) which were organic units within larger formations, used to handle short-term convicted soldiers. The author notes that one unit containing such a punishment train was the 11. Panzer Division (identified in the book as the 11th Tank Division). He then devotes four pages to the operational history and Order of Battle for the division, with no further reference to its, or any other unit’s, punishment train, other than a reference within the Order of Battle to the 61st Military Police Platoon.
The reader must also beware of unusual terminology. Infantry battalions are referred to as having ‘armored companies’ which presumably refers to rifle companies. Field Custody Detachments were ‘set up as an Army Group’ which presumably means they were subordinated directly to an Army Group rather than to a lower-level formation such as a division. It’s not difficult to figure out what the author means, but the language is odd nonetheless.
The main text of the book concludes with an overview of the principle of Sippenhaft, or guilt by association, whereby a criminal’s punishment, particularly for political crimes, could extend to his or her entire family. The author does not specify however, how this principle was applied to the families of military personnel in penal units.
The book contains four appendices. Appendix I provides a brief overview of each of the Third Reich’s military organizations, including paramilitary groups such as the National Socialist Motor Corps and National Socialist Flyers’ Corps. Appendices II thru VII, comprising some 52 pages, provide Order of Battle lists for various German Army Groups, taken from the U.S. Army Combined Arms Research Library.
The book lacks an index, but does provide extensive end notes and a short bibliography.
The book contains a great deal of interesting information, and merits a detailed read from cover to cover. This is necessary, at least in part, due to inconsistencies in the structure, so that useful and informative passages sometimes appear in unexpected places. Certain passages are also somewhat confusing; there were several sections that I had to read two or three times to understand the author’s meaning. The book would have benefited greatly from a good proof reader.
Recommended for those with an interest in the subject, and with sufficient patience to handle the quirky phraseology.
Thanks goes out to Casemate Publishing for this review kit.
Reviewed by Neil Stokes
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