Histoire contemporaine du Luxembourg

The impact of war experiences in Europe – The conscription of non-German men and women into the Wehrmacht and Reichsarbeitsdienst (1938-1945)

WARLUX international conference
Report of the international conference held on 26-28 October 2022 at the University of Luxembourg.

This conference was hosted by the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C²DH) of the University of Luxembourg in connection with the FNR CORE research project ‘WARLUX - Soldiers and their communities in WWII: The impact and legacy of war experiences in Luxembourg’ launched in 2020. It invited scholars to offer substantive new insights into the recruitment of non-Germans in the German armed forces and labour organisations during the Second World War, as well as on the use of biographical sources to study the soldiers’ war experiences.

The conscription of non-German nationals, considered by the Nazis as deutsche Volkszugehörige or Deutschstämmige, violated international law. In politics, society and research, various terms have come into use for the men and women affected by conscription: for example, "Zwangsrekrutierte"/"Ons Jongen" in Luxembourg, "incorporés de force"/"malgré-nous" in France and "Zwangssoldaten" in Belgium. However, these terms describe the mass of people involved. Initial studies and transnational comparisons (QUADFLIEG (2008); STROH/QUADFLIEG (2017); MARŠÁLEK/NEMINÁŘ (2021)1 have focused mainly on the top-down perspective. This conference shed light on the affected individuals and their biographies, exploring the tense situations in which they found themselves.

The conference was opened with a keynote of Jörg Echternkamp (Zentrum für Militärgeschichte und Sozialwissenschaften der Bundeswehr (ZMSBw) / Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg) on “Historicizing Experiences of War: Profits and Pitfalls of Narratological Approaches”. In this presentation he addressed the complexity of researching individual war experiences and the pitfalls and focal points for historians working on these narrative recountings of the past.

PANEL 1 - Mechanisms of recruitment and military service

The next day started with a first panel, moderated by Peter Quadflieg, on the mechanisms of recruitment and military service. Denis Scuto (C²DH, University of Luxembourg) opened this section with a presentation on the connection between naturalisation and military service in the case of Luxembourg occupied by Nazi Germany. He outlined the complexity of the citizenship question in the western occupied territories, and how this was instrumentalized for recruitment purposes as well as for the “(re-)Germanisation” of the population.

Nina Janz (C²DH, University of Luxembourg) continued this panel with a presentation on the topic “Being a Soldier – Between individual and soldierly experientality of Luxembourgish recruits in WWII”. In this conceptual and methodological study, she focused on soldiers' individual experiences by separating the military and the individual level through a comparison of institutional records of the Wehrmacht, on the one hand, and war letters, on the other.

For the final presentation of this panel, we virtually moved to Slovenia where Klemen Kocjancic (Defence Research Centre of the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana) gave insights into the voluntary and forced recruitment of Slovenians for the Waffen-SS, and the post-war treatment of these individuals.

  • 1. QUADFLIEG, P. M. (2008). "Zwangssoldaten" und "Ons Jongen": Eupen-Malmedy und Luxemburg als Rekrutierungsgebiet der deutschen Wehrmacht im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Aachen, Shaker; STROH, F., & QUADFLIEG, P. M. (2017). L'incorporation de force dans les territoires annexés par le IIIe Reich = Die Zwangsrekrutierung in den vom Dritten Reich annektierten Gebieten: 1939-1945: 1939-1945. Strasbourg, Presses universitaires de Strasbourg; MARŠÁLEK, Z., NEMINÁŘ, J., & JADRNÁ MATĚJKOVÁ, H. (2021). Zwangsrekrutierte in die Wehrmacht: Mobilisation – Widerspruch – Widerstand – Gedächtnis in der schlesischen, tschechischen und slowenischen Perspektive.

PANEL 2 - Shifting allegiances

The second panel was dedicated to the shifting allegiances of soldiers, under the moderation of Christoph Brüll. Zdenko Maršálek (Institute of Contemporary History/Czech Academy of Sciences) introduced the subject with his research on forcibly mobilized Wehrmacht soldiers from Silesia and their application for the Allied armies-in-exile while being under Allied captivity. He demonstrated how these soldiers used loyalty - and identity - shifts as part of a survival strategy and an expression of their own, regional identity.

Félix Streicher (Department of History, Maastricht University) and Nina Janz took a closer look into the double recruitment of Luxembourgish young men, first in the German army (1942-1944) and, after 1945, in the Luxembourgish military. By drawing on Reinhart Koselleck’s concepts of ‘space of experience’ and the ‘horizon of expectation’, they analysed how the first (forced) conscription shaped the expectations and experiences of the post-war national military service.

Machteld Venken (C²DH, University of Luxembourg) presented her extensive research on conflicting loyalties of Polish soldiers who fought both in the German army and the Allied forces during the war. Based on oral history interviews, she analysed the experiences of these soldiers who fought on both sides of the Western Front and pointed out the ambiguities and commonalities.

PANEL 3 - War experiences from below

Panel three shifted the perspective to “War experiences from below” under the moderation of Sonja Kmec. Departing from his own family history, Philippe Beck (Zentrum für Ostbelgische Geschichte & UCLouvain) elaborated on the biographical turning points and adaptive stances of the Eastern Belgians conscripted in the Wehrmacht and the Reichsarbeitsdienst.

Monika Kokalj Kočevar (National Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia) followed by presenting her analysis of rare war diaries written by Slovenes forcibly mobilised into the Wehrmacht, which are kept by The National Museum of Contemporary History in Ljubljana.

The third presentation of the panel was made by Inna Ganschow (C²DH, University of Luxembourg) on the artistic processing of camp experiences by Luxembourgish POWs through the analysis of secretly written and smuggled out notes, diaries and letters. Using the thesis of the Auschwitz concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl, that giving meaning to life in the camp - logotherapy - can have a self-healing effect and increase the chances of survival, she displayed how the authors used writing to give meaning to their life in captivity and find moral support.

The final presenter, David W. Wildermuth (Shippensburg State University) concluded the panel with a close-up on the individual war experiences of “malgré-nous” Marc(z)ell Wolfersberger based on his detailed memoirs.


After a guided tour of the high furnaces of Belval, Elisabeth Vlossak (Brock University) ended the day with a keynote on ‘Forced conscripts' in history and memory. During her presentation she gave insights on the processes of remembrance and memorialization of forced conscriptions and how the post-war memory unavoidably affects the historian’s attempts to write these histories.


PANEL 4 - Draft evasion, desertion, imprisonment and their consequences

The last day of the conference was opened by a fourth and last panel, moderated by Jean-Noel Grandhomme and dedicated to draft evasion, desertion, imprisonment and their consequences. As part of her doctoral thesis Sarah Maya Vercruysse (C²DH, University of Luxembourg) examined the resettlements (Umsiedlung) of families of Luxembourgish deserters and draft evaders and juxtaposed this with the National Socialist principle of family liability (Sippenhaft).

Philippe Gény (l’École Doctorale de l’Université Bordeaux Montaigne), portrayed the captivity of the “malgré-nous” from Alsace and Moselle in POW camps of the Western Allies.

Konrad Graczyk (University of Silesia in Katowice & Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw) focused in his online presentation on aiding and abetting desertion in the jurisdiction of the German Special Courts in the occupied territories of Poland. Based on the examination of judgments of the Special Courts, he elaborated on the complicity in desertion and the legal grounds for prosecution.

Tobias Kossytorz (European University Institute) closed the panel with a lecture on Alsatian draft evaders who resisted their forced incorporation into the German armed forces by fleeing into neighbouring Switzerland. His focus lay on their everyday experience in Switzerland, which he categorized as “privileged precarity”. Precarious due to an unrealistically tight legal framework, harsh labour conditions, and frictions with local population. Yet privileged when compared to the situation of their conscripted peers.


The conference was concluded by Denis Scuto who summarized the main discussion points of the conference and the main insights that were obtained. He expressed the importance of first-hand documents and official records in obtaining information on personal experiences, but stressed the necessary caution that researchers must have when dealing with these sources. They must also remain vigilant not to be drawn into the master narratives, but to show the diversity of experiences and bring this knowledge to the wider public. Despite the great progress made in recent decades, the conference also revealed important research gaps, as well as opportunities for future research, such as the experiences of conscripted women in the Reichsarbeitsdienst.

The conference proceedings will be published in the De Gruyter Series: Transnational History of Luxembourg and is planned for 2024.