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Inspection of Selbstschutz unit in Bydgoszcz (in German Bromberg), Poland. From l. to r.: Josef "Bloody" Meier, leader of Selbstschutz in Bydgoszcz; Werner Kampe, new SS mayor of Bydgoszcz; and Ludolf von Alvensleben, leader of Selbstschutz in Pomerania
Country Central and Eastern Europe, occupied Poland, Czechoslovakia and Ukraine
Allegiance Germany, Nazi Germany, the SS
Type Paramilitary police reserve

Selbstschutz (German: Self-protection) was a Nazi German paramilitary organisation formed after World War I for ethnic Germans who lived outside Germany. It operated in territories of Central and Eastern Europe before and after the beginning of World War II notably in Poland, the Free City of Danzig, Czechoslovakia and Ukraine. The ethnic German members of Selbstschutz were citizens of these countries. Notably, the name stands also for units of ethnic German, Austrian, and Swiss civil defence after World War II.

The first incarnation of the organisation aimed at returning Polish-inhabited territories back to Germany following the rebirth of Poland. In 1921, the units of Selbstschutz took part in the fights against the Polish Third Silesian Uprising. In 1938, a campaign was started by local Selbstschutz in the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland in order to subjugate the local Czechs prior to the Munich Conference.

During the Invasion of Poland of 1939, a number of similar units conducted sabotage actions directed by the emissaries trained in Nazi Germany. These groups were officially merged into one organization, the ethnic German Volksdeutscher Selbstschutz (Self-Defense Force) of more than 100,000 men. They took part in fighting the Poles as the Fifth Column, but also served as auxiliary forces of the Gestapo, SS and SD during the early stages of the occupation of Poland, and helped the Nazi administration in the newly formed Reichsgau Danzig-West Prussia and Reichsgau Wartheland. They served as local controllers, informers, and members of execution squads particularly active in the wave of mass murders of Polish intelligentsia during Operation Tannenberg and other more local and vengeful atrocities. The killings of Poles and Jews ascribed specifically to members of Volksdeutsche Selbstschutz is estimated at the minimum of 10,000 men, women and children.[1] The force was disbanded in winter 1939/40 and the majority of its members joined the German SS or Gestapo by the spring of the following year.


The Selbstschutz militia were active in Silesia on the German side of the Polish/German conflicts in the area. In 1921, its organized units resisted the Polish rebellion in the Third Silesian Uprising; which was aimed at seceding Upper Silesia from Germany.

Mennonite units

At the end of World War I Russian Mennonite men in Ukraine from Molotschna and Chortitza formed Selbstschutz units with the help of the German imperial army. Before the end of the occupation, German soldiers supervised the creation of several Selbstschutz units, leaving guns, ammunition, and a few officers to command the groups. Together with a neighboring Lutheran colony, the young men from Molotschna formed twenty companies totaling 2,700 infantry and 300 cavalry, which, during the Russian Civil War, held back the forces of anarchist Nestor Makhno until March 1919. The self-defense groups were forced to retreat and disband by Makhno and the Red Army. The attempt to defend the villages departed from the Mennonite's traditional teaching of nonresistance and was disapproved by many colonists. However, in the absence of effective governmental authority and when faced with the horrific atrocities committed by the anarchists, many came to believe in the necessity of self-defence. Later church conferences and delegations officially condemned this action as a "grave mistake".[2][3]

World War II

File:Selbstschutz leaders in Bydgoszcz.jpg
Selbstschutz leaders in Bydgoszcz: SS-Standartenführer Ludolf von Alvensleben, SS-Obersturmbannführer Erich Spaarmann, SS-Obersturmbannführer Hans Kölzow, SS-Sturmbannführer Christian Schnug
Members of Selbstschutz leading Polish teachers to open graves in the "Valley of Death" near Bydgoszcz
File:Piaśnica execution.jpg
Execution of Polish intelligentsia by a unit of Selbstschutz during the mass murders in Piaśnica

The Selbstschutz were reintroduced during the late 1930s in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Selbstschutz activists worked to indoctrinate ethnic Germans and commit acts of terrorism against the Czech population in the Sudetenland.[4]

In the interwar period German minority organizations in Poland such as Jungdeutsche Partei, Deutsche Vereinigung, Deutscher Volksbund and Deutscher Volksverband actively cooperated with Nazi Germany through espionage, sabotage, provocations and political indoctrination. They maintained close contact with and were directed by the NSDAP, Auslandsorganisation, Gestapo, SD and Abwehr. It is estimated that 25% of the German minority in Poland were members of these organisations.[5]

By October 1938, SD agents were organizing the Selbstschutz in Poland. Ethnic Germans with Polish citizenship were trained in the Third Reich in various sabotage methods and guerilla tactics. Even before the war, Selbstschutz activists from Poland helped to organize lists of Poles who later were to be arrested or executed in Operation Tannenberg.

With the beginning of the Invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, Selbstschutz units engaged in hostility towards the Polish population and military, and performed sabotage operations helping the German attack on the Polish state. In mid-September, the chaotic and autonomous activities of this organization were coordinated by SS officers. Gustav Berger was placed in charge of the organization and district commanders in occupied zones made by the German army were put in place — West Prussia, Upper Silesia and Warthegau.

While the SS leadership was limited to overseeing the operations, local units remained under the control of ethnic Germans who had proven their commitment at the beginning of the war.

Participation in war crimes

Selbstschutz set up locations for massacres of interned Poles. At times, they were organized in places where the Wehrmacht and Ordnungspolizei already established concentration camps. There were 19 such locations recorded in the following Polish cities: Bydgoszcz (see Bromberg-Ost), Brodnica (renamed Strasburg), Chełmno (see Chełmno extermination camp), Dorposz Szlachecki, Kamień Krajeński, Karolewo, Lipno (renamed Lippe), Łobżenica, Nakło (Nakel), Nowy Wiec near Skarszew, Nowe on the Vistula, Piastoszyn, Płutowo, Sępólno Krajeńskie, Solec Kujawski (Schulitz), Tuchola (Tuchel), Wąbrzeźno (Briesen), Wolental near Skórcz, and Wyrzysk (Wirsitz). The majority of the arrested Poles – men, women and youth – were murdered on the spot by the Selbstschutz executioners.[6]

People shot were finished off by blows delivered by shovels and the butts of assault rifles; they were buried in mass graves when still alive. Mothers were forced to place their children in the pits where they were shot together. Before executions women and girls were raped.(...) [The atrocities] evoked horror even in the Germans, including some soldiers. Terrified at what they saw in the town of Świecie two of them felt compelled to submit a report (now in German federal archives).[6]

After the German invasion of Poland Selbstschutz worked together with the Einsatzgruppen in the mass murder of ethnic Poles. For example, they took part in the massacres in Piaśnica, the first elimination "aktion" of Polish intelligentsia. Between 12,000 and 16,000 civilians were murdered there. The Intelligenzaktion was aimed at eliminating Poland's leadership in the country. The murder operations began soon after the attack on Poland and lasted from the fall of 1939 until the spring of 1940.[5][7] As the result of Nazi genocidal policy, in 10 regional actions 60,000 Polish teachers, entrepreneurs, landowners, social workers, military veterans, members of national organisations, priests, judges, and political activists were killed.[8] The Intelligenzaktion was continued by the German AB-Aktion operation in Poland.[9]

In West Prussia, the Selbstschutz organization led by SS-Gruppenführer Ludolf von Alvensleben was 17,667 men strong, and by 5 October 1939 had already executed 4,247 Poles. Notably, Alvensleben complained to the Selbstschutz officers that too few Poles had been shot. German officers had reported to him that only a fraction of Poles had been "destroyed" in the region, with the total number of those executed in West Prussia during this action being about 20,000. One Selbstschutz commander, Wilhelm Richardt, said in Karolewo (Karlhof) that he did not want to build big camps for Poles and feed them, and that it was an honour for Poles to fertilize the German soil with their corpses.[10] There was visible enthusiasm for activities of the Selbstschutz among those involved in the action.[10] Only in one case a Selbstschutz commander was relieved of duty after failing to finish his job with "only" 300 Poles executed.[10]

The total number of Selbstschutz members in Poland is estimated by historians at 82,000. The organization was ordered to be dissolved on 26 November 1939 in favour of service with the SS, yet the work continued until the spring of 1940. Among the reasons for dissolution were the Selbstschutz extreme corruption, disorderly behaviour and conflicts with other organizations as well as excessive use of force.

The existence of a large paramilitary organization of ethnic Germans with Polish citizenship engaged in widespread massacres of ethnic Poles in the course of German war against Poland was one of the reasons for the expulsion of Germans after the war. A description of Selbstschutz involvement made available by the Polish State Museum in Sztutowo contains material compiled three years before the war broke out, for the Nazi authorities to use in extermination of the Poles thereafter.[11]

Civil defense organisation in Germany

Selbstschutz can also be defined as the local self-help of the civil population and of local and national institutions and infrastructures against air raids and catastrophes. The term was coined in the 1920s and was widely used in the 1930s as part of the German preparations for the Second World War. The German Selbstschutz was part of a comprehensive system of air-raid protection conceived by the German government, which covered the civilian population, industry and public administrations. After the end of World War II the organisation was dissolved.

There were several forms of Selbstschutz. There was a Selbstschutz organised by air-wardens and forming small first intervention squads. The police and the Selbstschutz took control over infrastructures (railways, post and telecommunications, waterways) and of public bureaucracies (ministry of finance, for instance). There was also a Werkluftschutz of private industry. All forms of Selbstschutz became eventually mandatory, at latest with the start of the war in 1939.

Besides its official function, air-raid protection, the Selbstschutz and its administrative organisation, the Reichsluftschutzbund, had additional functions:

  1. mentally and practically preparing the German population for war,
  2. fostering the feeling of belongingness (Volksgemeinschaft),
  3. controlling the political opinion (through the air-wardens) in the city wards,
  4. security: collaborating with the local police and the Gestapo.

With the Cold War and concomitant German rearmement a new denazified Selbstschutz organisation was created, based on the experience of its forerunner and organised by the Bundesluftschutzverband (BLSV), which was later renamed the Bundesverband für den Selbstschutz (BVS). Among its major activities were the training of the civil population in first aid and propaganda for constructing air-raid shelters. In West Germany in the 1980s, standard telephone directories included a page with instruction from the BVS how to protect yourself in catastrophes and in case of attacks. With the end of the Cold War the BVS was dissolved in 1997.[12]

See also


  1. Jansen and Weckbecker, 1992, pp. 7-8
  2. Smith, 1981, p. 316
  3. Krahn, Cornelius and Al Reimer (2008) [1989]. "Selbstschutz, Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online" (Internet Archive). Retrieved 2014-05-20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. The Avalon Project : Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Vol. 3 - Eleventh Day
  5. 5.0 5.1 Piąta kolumna (Jungdeutsche Partei, Deutsche Vereinigung, Deutscher Volksbund, Deutscher Volksverbarid). Kampania Wrześniowa (2006).
  6. 6.0 6.1 Konrad Ciechanowski (2006). "Oboz dla Jencow Cywilnych (Zivilgefangenenlager)". Obozy Podlegle Organom Policyjnym (Monografia KL STUTTHOF. Chapter 2). Stutthof Museum (Państwowe Muzeum Stutthof w Sztutowie). Retrieved 20 May 2014. Translation from Polish: Rozstrzeliwanych dobijano łopatami, kolbami, a niekiedy zakopywano jeszcze żywych. Matki zmuszano do układania w wykopanych dołach swoich dzieci, a potem je same rozstrzeliwano. Przed rozstrzelaniem gwałcono dziewczęta i kobiety. Unknown parameter |trans_title= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Encyklopedia PWN, Intelligenzaktion. September–November 1939. (Polish)
  8. Maria Wardzyńska, "Był rok 1939 Operacja niemieckiej policji bezpieczeństwa w Polsce. Intelligenzaktion". IPN Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, 2009, ISBN 978-83-7629-063-8
  9. Meier, Anna "Die Intelligenzaktion: Die Vernichtung Der Polnischen Oberschicht Im Gau Danzig-Westpreusen" VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, ISBN 3-639-04721-4 ISBN 978-3-639-04721-9
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Browning (2004). The Origins of the Final Solution. p. 33.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "History of concentration camp Stutthof". State Museum of Stutthof (Muzeum Stutthof w Sztutowie). Retrieved 20 March 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "Bundesgesetzblatt 1997 Teil I Seite 731". Retrieved 20 March 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Jansen, Christian; Weckbecker, Arno (1992). Der "Volksdeutsche Selbstschutz" in Polen 1939/40 (Schriftenreihe der Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte - Bd. 64). München: R. Oldenbourg Verlag. ISBN 3-486-64564-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • C. Henry Smith, Revised and expanded by Cornelius Krahn (1981), "Smith's Story of the Mennonites", Faith and Life Press, Newton, Kansas, ISBN 0-87303-069-9
  • Browning, Christopher R. (2004). The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-1327-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • "Germany and Eastern Europe: Cultural Identities and Cultural Differences", Keith Bullivant, Geoffrey Giles, Walter Pap
  • "Selbstschutz im Luftschutz. Eine Anweisung für jedermann über Schutz und Verhalten bei Fliegerangriffen". E. Ohlenhof, H. von Mutius, Berlin-Wilmersdorf: Selbstschutz Verlag, s.d. [circa], 1925.
  • Georges Jerome Les milices d'autoprotection de la communauté allemande de Pomérélie, Posnanie et Silésie polonaise 1939 1940. Revue Guerres mondiales et conflits contemporains PUF n°163 1991

External links