Recruitment for the Wehrmacht was accomplished through voluntary enlistment (1933–45) and conscription (1935–45), with 1.3 million being drafted and 2.4 million volunteering in the period 1935–1939. The total number of soldiers who served in the Wehrmacht during its existence from 1935 to 1945 is believed to have approached 18.2 million. As World War II intensified, Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe personnel were increasingly transferred to the Army, and “voluntary” enlistments in the SS were stepped up as well. Following the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, fitness standards for Wehrmacht recruits were drastically lowered, with the regime going so far as to create “special diet” battalions for men with severe stomach ailments. Rear-echelon personnel were sent to front-line duty wherever possible, especially during the last two years of the war.
Soldiers of the Free Arabian Legion
Prior to World War II, the Wehrmacht strove to remain a purely German force; as such, minorities, such as the Czechs in annexed Czechoslovakia, were exempted from military service after Hitler’s takeover in 1938. Foreign volunteers were generally not accepted in the German armed forces prior to 1941. With the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the government’s positions changed. German propagandists wanted to present the war not as a purely German concern, but as a multi-national crusade against the so-called Jewish Bolshevism. Hence, the Wehrmacht and the SS began to seek out recruits from occupied and neutral countries across Europe: the Germanic populations of the Netherlands and Norway were recruited largely into the SS, while “non-Germanic” people were recruited into the Wehrmacht. The “voluntary” nature of such recruitment was often dubious, especially in the later years of the war, when even Poles living in the Polish Corridor were declared “ethnic Germans” and drafted.
After Germany’s defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht also made substantial use of personnel from the Soviet Union, including the Caucasian Muslim Legion, Turkestan legion, Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians and Russians, Cossacks, and others who wished to fight against the Soviet regime or who were otherwise induced to join. Between 15,000–20,000 White émigrés joined the ranks of the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS, with 1,500 acting as interpreters and more than 10,000 serving in the Russian Protective Corps