|Legion of French Volunteers Against Bolshevism|
LVF soldiers pictured in contemporary propaganda posing with the French flag in November 1941
|Branch|| Wehrmacht (1941-44)|
The Legion of French Volunteers Against Bolshevism (French: Légion des volontaires français contre le bolchévisme, or LVF) was a collaborationist military unit formed from volunteers in Vichy France in order to participate in the German invasion of the Soviet Union as part of the German Army (Wehrmacht) alongside similar formations from other parts of German-occupied Europe. It was officially designated the 638th Infantry Regiment (Infanterieregiment 638).
Created in July 1941, the LVF was not supported by the Vichy administration but originated as part of a coalition of far-right political factions including Marcel Déat's National Popular Rally, Jacques Doriot's French Popular Party, Eugène Deloncle's Social Revolutionary Movement and Pierre Costantini's French League which explicitly supported Nazi policy. By contrast, Vichy's conservative and authoritarian leadership considered itself neutral and were more ambiguous about an alliance with Germany. However, the LVF was tolerated by Vichy and received limited personal endorsement from its leading figures.
Smaller than originally anticipated, the LVF was to the Eastern Front in October 1941 and suffered heavy losses. It was incorporated into the Waffen-SS as the 8th SS Volunteer Sturmbrigade France (8. Freiwilligen Sturmbrigade "Frankreich") in July 1944 and was officially disbanded in September 1944 by which time most of France had been Liberated by the Western Allies. It was replaced by a short-lived SS "Charlemagne" Waffen-Grenadier Brigade.
France declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939 at the same time as the United Kingdom. However, it was invaded and occupied by German forces in May–June 1940 after a disastrous military campaign which pre-war critics of the country's republican regime attributed to the failure of democracy and the corrupting influence of communism, freemasonry and Jews. These were the organising principles of the "National Revolution" declared by the authoritarian Vichy administration under Marshal Philippe Pétain in the aftermath of the defeat. However, the Vichy regime could not control large parts of France under France under direct German occupation and was challenged by more extreme right-wing French political factions (groupuscules) which often shared a more explicitly Nazi and pro-German ideology than Vichy. The three main factions which emerged as leading proponents of collaborationism were Marcel Déat's National Popular Rally, Jacques Doriot's French Popular Party, and Eugène Deloncle's Social Revolutionary Movement. Small in size and widely considered as extremists, these groups looked to German support for their influence and had poor relations with one another.
The Vichy regime, though a puppet state, considered itself to be neutral and not part of an alliance with Germany. However, German overtures to collaborationist factions placed great pressure on Vichy to change this stance and encouraged deep suspicion in Pétain's entourage. The German invasion of the Soviet Union began in June 1941 and had great political significance in France, especially for the collaborationist groups who sought an opportunity to consolidate German support.
The exact origins of the Legion of French Volunteers Against Bolshevism (LVF) are unclear. However, it is generally believed that Doriot was first to suggest a French unit for the Eastern Front within days of the invasion. Rather than looking for Vichy support, he reached out to the German ambassador Otto Abetz. Adolf Hitler approved the unit's creation on 5 July 1941 but mandated that it be organised privately and limited to 10,000 men. This was much smaller than the 30,000 that Doriot and his supporters had imagined but the historian Owen Anthony Davey argues that "the prospect of 30,000 armed French fanatics must have been frightening even to the Germans". At around the same time, numerous similar volunteer units were formed in other parts of German-occupied Europe.
As part of the LVF's recruitment effort, Doriot, Déat, and Deloncle as well as Pierre Costantini's French League agreed jointly to establish a Central Committee to manage recruitment and publicity for the unit. They were assisted by even smaller factions in the French extreme-right, such as Jean Boissel's Frankish Front, Marcel Bucard's Frankish Movement and Maurice-Bernard de la Gatinais's French Crusade for National Socialism. Respected figures from France's intelligentsia and Catholic Church were brought in to provide more respectability.
By July 1941, the LVF was actively recruiting and fundraising across France. Its propaganda emphasised the LVF's role in a European "crusade" against communism, drawing from France's medieval history and making little mention of Germany. It established a nation-wide network of 137 recruitment offices, sometimes stationed in expropriated Jewish houses. However, recruitment remained poor and struggled to recruit more than 3,000 men in its initial phase. Attempts were made to recruit former soldiers from among the large numbers of prisoners of war in Germany but this was complicated by the German authorities. The Vichy regime provided no direct support to enlistment, although removed existing laws prohibiting French citizens from enlisting in foreign armies. In some contexts, Vichy officials may even have hindered recruitment in the "free zone" it controlled and there were few volunteers from Vichy's own army. The number of recruits was disappointing and reflected the additional limitations imposed on the LVF in comparison to other foreign volunteer units in light of France's political importance within German-occupied Europe. As Davey noted:
Such organizations were to serve the diplomatic interests of the Reich, not the interests of a nationalist revival in France. If the Legion had ever become truly popular, German support would in all probability have waned or been withdrawn. The limitation on the size of the Legion was an early indication of the restrictive German attitude towards the growth of collaborationist power. No collaborationist leader would ever receive German support for a nationalist movement in France. The LVF, like all their other enterprises, was destined for failure at the moment of birth.
Despite racialised admission criteria, the unit included several non-white colonials most notably the Algerian future nationalist Saïd Mohammedi. There were also a number of White Russian émigrés. The first contingent of recruits was assembled at Versailles for a public parade on 27 August 1941 to mark the LVF's creation. At the ceremonies, Pétain's deputy Pierre Laval and Déat were shot and wounded in an attempted assassination by a follower of Deloncle. The following day, German Army doctors rejected almost half of the LVF's recruits on medical grounds. The recruits had been promised that they would fight in French uniforms but, amid continuing Vichy hostility, were folded into the German Army (Wehrmacht). Contrary to promises that it would be an independent French formation, its soldiers were given ordinary Wehrmacht uniform with an LVF shield on the right arm in the colors of the French flag. It was designated the 638th Infantry Regiment (Infanterieregiment 638) and was sent for basic training in October 1941 at Deba, near Warsaw, in the General Government.
By October 1941, there were two battalions of 2,271 men which had 181 officers and an additional staff of 35 German officers. The internal cohesion of the unit was poor and significant internal rivalries existed, losing 400 men to desertion and disease before ever seeing action. They were sent into combat near Moscow in November and December 1941 as part of the 7th Infantry Division. The LVF lost half their men in action or through frostbite and some individual soldiers deserted to the Red Army in frustration. In 1942 the men were assigned to Bandenbekämpfung (so-called "bandit-fighting" against partisans, their supporters and killing Jews) in German-occupied Byelorussia (modern-day Belarus). At the same time, another unit was formed in France, La Légion Tricolore (Tricolor Legion) but this unit was absorbed into the LVF six months later.
During the spring of 1942, the LVF was reorganized with only the 1st and 3rd battalions. The LVF's French commander, Colonel Roger Labonne, was relieved in mid-1942, and the unit was attached to various German divisions until June 1943 when Colonel Edgar Puaud took command. The two independent battalions were again united in a single regiment and continued fighting partisans, killing partisan supporters and Jews in Ukraine. Historian Jeff Rutherford claims that "Whilst the Wehrmacht focused on the Red Army, SD and other SS formations would combat any resistance movements in the rear. In effect, the German Army willingly ensnared itself in the Nazi machinery of annihilation and extermination by working with the SS to systematically suppress partisan movements and other forms of perceived resistance." Historian Timothy Snyder asserts that by the second half of 1942, "German anti-partisan operations were all but indistinguishable from the mass murder of the Jews." In early 1944, the unit again took part in rear-security operations. In June 1944, as Army Group Centre's front collapsed under the Red Army's summer offensive, the LVF was attached to the 4th SS Police Regiment and fought in a delaying action.
A new recruiting drive in Vichy France attracted 3,000 applicants, mostly members of the Milice and university students. The new formation was known as the 8th SS Volunteer Sturmbrigade France (8. Freiwilligen Sturmbrigade "Frankreich"). On 1 September 1944, the Legion of French Volunteers was officially disbanded. A new unit, the Waffen-Grenadier-Brigade der SS "Charlemagne", was formed out of the remnants of the LVF and French Sturmbrigade, which was also disbanded. In February 1945, the Waffen-Grenadier-Brigade was officially upgraded to a division and became the 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne (1st French). At that time it had a strength of 7,340 men. SS Division Charlemagne members participated in the Battle in Berlin. Reduced to approximately thirty men, most French SS men surrendered near the Potsdamer rail station to the Red Army.
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