Thanks to the movie Downfall, if Americans were asked to name the most famous German general of World War II, the winner would probably be Waffen SS General Felix Steiner.
Steiner has no lines, and does not even appear in the film. But he is the catalyst of one of its most dramatic scenes. In it, Hitler confers with his generals in his bunker as the Red Army surrounds Berlin. Despite the danger, Hitler believes that salvation is at hand. Once Steiner attacks, he will cut off the Russian salient, ending the encirclement and saving the Reich. Hitler’s staff exchange nervous glances before one haltingly informs the Fuhrer that Steiner has not and will not attack. A 4-minute rant follows, as Hitler rages against the Army and the SS. His fury gradually cools down to melancholic resignation as he sees that the end is inevitable.
The scene has spawned a thousand parodies, elevating Steiner to a level of fame few if any other German commanders can match.
But who was this Steiner who so infuriated the Fuhrer?
Felix Martin Julius Steiner was born in Prussia, the breeding ground of Germany’s military elite, to a family that had lived there since 1731. But his familial background was non-military. His father was a middle-class grammar school teacher. That made Steiner less traditional and more pragmatic than his peers.
Steiner spent most of World War I fighting on the Russian front. He was severely wounded and decorated twice with the Iron Cross. In the spring of 1918, he was assigned to the West. He saw how both sides used their young recruits as cannon fodder in doomed offenses. In future years, he would do whatever he could to avoid wasting soldiers’ lives in futile military operations.
After the war, Germany was forced by the Treaty of Versailles to reduce the size of its armed forces to 100,000 men, assigned only to defense. Steiner remained in the Army and advanced rapidly up the ranks of this truncated force. He retired with the rank of major in 1933, the same year Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor and the Nazi Party began consolidating power.
His retirement did not last long. Under Nazi governance, Germany discarded the Versailles restrictions and began expanding the size of its armed forces. Steiner came out of retirement to take part in the expansion.
Steiner was not a committed Nazi. He did not join the Party until 1937, when he enrolled as Number 4,264,295. He did so, not out of conviction, but to advance his career. He realized early on that he could move up faster by circumventing the traditional Army and joining the V-Truppe, the precursor to the Waffen SS.
As commander of the SS Deutschland regiment, Steiner proved himself something of an iconoclast. He reduced the importance of barracks square drills. He equipped his men with lighter weapons, such as sub-machine guns and pistols, instead of the traditional Mauser rifle. He introduced camouflaged battledress to replace the Army’s basic field gray uniform. He broke down social barriers by requiring officers and men to compete against each other in athletic contests. He also required the officers and men to share meals in the same mess area.
After the war, he recounted:
I believe we succeeded in producing a very fine type of young leader who was above all inculcated with the team spirit never taught in the German Army. Everyone in the SS units joined in activities together – the greater emphasis was always on team spirit and comradeship….
Steiner’s methods were tested when his Deutschland unit went into battle in Poland. It was involved in several major offensive engagements, yet suffered only 15 dead and 35 wounded, a remarkably low casualty rate, especially for an SS unit.
His unit saw action in France and Russia, and in many other theaters throughout the war. In between battles, Steiner kept his soldiers training nonstop in the field. His slogan was “sweat saves blood.”
By the regimented standards of the German Army, Steiner was a nonconformist. He called his SS boss Heinrich Himmler a “sleazy romantic.” Himmler responded: “You are my most insubordinate general.” In Russia, Steiner was admonished for criticizing the Nazi policy of treating Soviet POWs as sub-humans, and for saluting with a half-hearted “Heil” instead of the requisite “Heil Hitler.”
In 1941, Steiner was placed in charge of the newly formed SS Division Wiking. This was a polyglot unit — a sort of “United Colors of Benetton” for fascists – composed of volunteers from Holland, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland. According to historian Kenneth Estes, Steiner’s
persuasive enthusiasm and sensitivity to the disparate national characteristics of his foreign troops and the new volunteers made him an ideal choice as the Commander of the first multi-national unit in the German armed forces….
In 1943, Steiner was selected to lead a new SS panzer corps. By then, the course of the war had shifted, and the Axis powers were in retreat. His new unit was supposed to be built around his old Wiking division as well as the Nordland SS division. But in fact, his corps was given whatever troops were available, including even Luftwaffe ground units.
In June of that year, Friedrich Graf von der Schulenburg, an old World War I comrade, stopped by Steiner’s headquarters for a visit. The two reminisced over war stories. As he was leaving, Schulenburg told Steiner: “We shall have to kill Hitler before he ruins Germany.” Schulenburg was a diplomat, Nazi Germany’s last ambassador to the Soviet Union. Steiner of course was a soldier. Yet at this moment it was Steiner who maintained a cautious diplomatic silence, and Schulenburg who spoke out boldly.
Steiner’s silence served him well. Steiner would go on to win more medals bestowed upon him by the hand of the Fuhrer himself. Schulenburg would go on to be hanged by the Fuhrer, accused of participating in the 1944 plot to assassinate him.
Steiner spent most of 1944 fighting to delay the Soviet advance into Nazi-occupied territory, and then into Germany itself. He commanded troops that were conglomerations of depleted Army and SS divisions. His counterattacks achieved some limited successes, slowing the Soviet advance and forcing Soviet Marshall Zhukov to divert forces from the drive on Berlin. Hitler heard of Steiner’s actions, and appreciated him as a commander who could and would still fight.
Steiner, on the other hand, understood the grim reality of Germany’s situation. Since the visit with Schulenburg, he had had other conversations with anti-Nazi officers about plans to arrest Hitler. Steiner had even discussed with other officers a plan to murder Hitler and end the war before Germany was totally destroyed. But by then, Hitler was entrenched in his bunker, impervious to assassination attempts.
On April 21, 1945, as Soviet artillery moved within range of Berlin, Hitler received a briefing in which Steiner’s name was mentioned. Recalling Steiner’s earlier successes in slowing the Soviet advance, Hitler demanded that Steiner be ordered to attack the Soviet salient. By now, Steiner’s forces, grandly named Armeegruppe Steiner, consisted of about only 10,000 exhausted soldiers, mainly survivors from other pulverized units. He also had a few tanks. He recognized that attacking a Soviet army with ten times as many men and hundreds of tanks was a suicide mission. So he ignored the order.
Meanwhile in the bunker, Hitler waited for news of Steiner’s counter-attack. When he was finally told that Steiner was not attacking, he flew into the rage dramatized in Downfall. He sent Field Marshall Keitel to Steiner’s headquarters to command him to attack.
“I won’t do it,” Steiner said. “This attack is nonsense – murder. Do what you want to me.”
On April 27, Hitler ordered that Steiner be relieved. But when his replacement showed up, Steiner convinced him to leave him in charge. Three days later, Hitler committed suicide. By then, Steiner was carrying out his last military action: a march to the West to allow his soldiers to surrender to the Americans, thus saving them from confinement in Soviet work camps.
Unlike his boss Himmler, unlike Himmler’s boss Hitler, and unlike the 167 German generals executed by the Allies for war crimes, Steiner survived the war and its aftermath, and lived on to a comfortable old age.
He spent three years in a British internment camp, while the Allies decided what to do with him. There was abundant evidence of atrocities committed against Jews, civilians, and Soviet POWS in areas in which his Wiking Division had operated. One of the worst incidents was instigated by the Division’s appropriately named Butchery Company. These men, actual butchers, set up a gauntlet through which Jews were forced to run while they stood on both sides, beating them with rifle butts and bayonets. At the end of the gauntlet SS and Wehrmacht officers machine-gunned the Jews, using a bomb crater as a mass burial pit. In 1947, when an Allied interrogator asked Steiner why he should not be held responsible for the Butchery Company atrocity, he answered:
I consider it out of the question that such a crime has occurred …. I have not heard that any German troops whatsoever would have committed this evil deed. This is completely out of the question.
In 1948, Steiner was released, perhaps because his captors were convinced of his innocence, but more likely because the growing threat of Soviet domination of Europe made men like Steiner valuable to the West. In 1952, Steiner participated in the establishment of the Gesellschaft fur Wehrkunde (Association for Military Science), which was instrumental in the formation of the Bundeswehr, West Germany’s resurrected Army. West German politicians, unhappy with the prospect of a former SS General in a position of public prominence, objected. Steiner, offended, withdrew from the project and turned to writing.
He wrote two books – Die Freiwilligen der Waffen (The Volunteers of the Waffen) and Die Armee der Geächteten (The Army of the Outlaws) — in which he contended that the Waffen SS was a purely military force, which had no involvement in the atrocities committed against Jews, civilians, and Soviet POWs in its areas of operation. He also maintained that his multi-national Wiking Division was some sort of embryonic NATO. He wrote a military history entitled From Clausewitz to Bulganin, in which he argued that the origins of the Waffen SS lay not in Hitler’s Reich but in the storm battalions of Germany’s World War I Army.
He spent his last years attending reunions of SS veterans, where he was celebrated as a hero. He died of heart failure in 1966. Men who had served under his command came from all over Europe to attend his funeral.
Years later, in January 2018, Dr. Efraim Zuroff, the Israeli historian and director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office, wrote to the President of Finland, Sauli Niinistö, requesting that Finland launch a comprehensive investigation into the role played by Finnish volunteers who served with Steiner’s SS Wiking Division between 1941 and 1943 in the murder of Jews in Ukraine and the Caucasus. The result was a 245-page monograph entitled The Finnish SS-Volunteers and Atrocities 1941–1943, published the following year. Much of it focuses on Steiner’s role.
The Finnish perspective on Steiner is worth examining, in light of Finland’s strange role in World War II. The country was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1939, when that totalitarian state was allied with Hitler’s totalitarian state under the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. After a valiant struggle in the Winter War, Finland was forced to cede territory. Then, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Finns cooperated with Germany by joining in the siege of Leningrad. In the Continuation War, the Finns recovered the territory they had lost in the Winter War. When the tide turned in 1944, the Finns were forced to surrender to the Soviet Union again, and to give up for the second time the same territory they had originally lost in the Winter War. Under the terms of this second surrender, the Finns were required to evict the German Army from their soil. When the Germans refused to leave voluntarily, Finland, in the so-called Lapland War, went to war yet again, this time against Germany.
Due to this unusual history, the Finns had good cause to resent both sides, all of which lends credibility to their evaluation of Steiner.
The Finnish monograph painstakingly examines the personal accounts of veterans and victims, and ultimately concludes that Steiner was not directly responsible for the atrocities. But it is far from an exoneration. On the contrary, the authors conclude that Steiner was not directly responsible only because he knew that the brutish nature of his sub-unit commanders rendered his personal involvement unnecessary:
Steiner certainly wanted a superior, decent and cultivated role for his Division leadership …. However, he did not extend this system to his independent sub-unit commanders. On the contrary, he must here have preferred the rough-and-tumble commanders, i.e. tough-skinned, hardboiled, and battle-hardened men: career officers, former SA- and concentration camp commanders, [Nazi Party] members, and generally individuals who were not inclined to handle matters with kid gloves on. The active use of these commanders made it possible for Steiner to deploy his Division in subduing the resistant elements among the local civilians and getting rid of Jews, Soviet officials, Communists and POWs, while at the same time keeping a personal distance to these repressive actions. To a considerable degree, it can be assumed that Steiner directed the various steps of persecution in an informal and veiled way. The various violent acts occurred without any visible participation from the Division Commander.
Returning to the movie Downfall, we see that Hitler was infuriated by a complicated and interesting man. SS General Steiner’s intellectual hero was Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist. But in his actions, he emulated Nicolo Machiavelli, the Italian diplomat and political theorist.
He was protective of his men’s lives, unwilling to sacrifice them to fulfill Hitler’s deranged ambitions. But if he was a far-sighted commander, he commanded with selective blindness. He allowed those under his command to commit unspeakable atrocities in the conquered territories – as long as they committed them while his back was turned.
He was a Nazi Party member out of pure opportunism. He felt contempt for true Nazis like his boss Himmler. He was willing to listen to talk of removing Hitler, and to tacitly signal his support – as long as he could remain personally uninvolved. He played his cards close to the vest and stood to gain, or at least not lose, however the game turned out. Had the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler succeeded, Steiner probably would have been welcomed into the ranks of the conspirators, and promoted. When the plotters’ bomb failed to kill its target, Steiner’s cautious distance ensured that he would emerge unscathed from the blast.
By the time Steiner was prepared to openly defy his Fuhrer, and was marching his men to the West to surrender to the Americans, the Russians were within blocks of Hitler’s bunker and Steiner’s disloyalty had become irrelevant.
It was not by accident that Felix Steiner survived the war, and enjoyed a comfortable retirement during which he wrote his self-serving books.
According to a Swedish veteran of the Wiking Division, a large oil portrait of Steiner hangs today in West Point, “respected and admired by his former enemies.” The claim is preposterous. The U.S. Army does not honor Nazi generals. But however absurd, the fact that his soldiers believed that his portrait hangs there in a place of honor would doubtless please this wily and opportunistic commander. If there is a Valhalla for Aryan warriors, one can imagine Steiner looking down from on high, ignoring his desperate Fuhrer’s cry for help, while regarding his gullible soldiers’ plaudits with an amused sneer.