Iraqi Insurgents, ‘Werewolves’ and the Uses of History

Mr. Biddiscombe teaches history at the University of Victoria and is the author of The Last Nazis: SS Werewolf Guerrilla Resistance in Europe 1944-1947 and Werwolf!: The History of the National Socialist Guerrilla Movement, 1944-1946 .

Nearly a decade ago, I published two books, Werwolf! and The Last Nazis, both of which have since been cited by right-wing pundits and opinion-makers in order to establish a point of comparison for the current war in Iraq.  Both volumes were focused on the Nazi effort – codenamed"Werwolf" – to raise guerrillas against the Allied invaders and occupiers descending upon Germany in 1944/45, and a subsidiary part of this story involves the way in which small fragments of this movement continued to operate for months, or even years, after the end of the Second World War.  Of course, when I wrote my books the U.S. invasion of Iraq still lay in the realm of geopolitical musings by a few"neo-conservative" thinkers and strategists, and little did I imagine how my studies would subsequently be employed.

Soon after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Ezra Levant and James Carafano cited my books in order to show how resistance by the remnants of a totalitarian regime had previously accompanied the collapse of such a structure, with the implication that U.S. forces had dealt adroitly with such issues in 1945 and would no doubt have similar success along the Tigris and Euphrates. "Occupations are rarely easy," noted Carafano.[1]  Even Donald Rumsfeld cited my work in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars [2], and I should add, in the interest of full disclosure, that in August/September 2003, I supplied considerable raw data on the"Werwolf" movement to the Defense Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, thinking that the uses to which such information was put was the responsibility of its recipients rather than its provider.

Michael Ledeen and Steven Plaut have provided more recent variations of the insurgency/"Werwolf" analogy.  In particular, they have focused on the tough security measures undertaken by occupation forces in Germany in order to suffocate the"Werwolf" threat, an angle that serves as an indirect apologia for heavy-handed coalition tactics in Iraq, and Plaut also argues that an insurgency can be quashed by solely military means.[3]  Such comparisons also reinforce a larger desire by the Bush Administration – and its intellectual allies – to establish an equivalency in the popular imagination between Naziism and"Islamo-fascism."

I have often commented on the value of such analogies [4], although as the argument behind them continues to evolve, so does my response.  For starters, there are some seeds of truth behind the comparison, particularly regarding the periods when both Nazi Germany and Baathist Iraq had been invaded, but their central governments were still intact.  The spring of 1945 was the peak period of"Werwolf" activity in Germany, when paramilitary vigilantes, guerrillas and cut-off bands of soldiers wreaked considerable damage upon German society and engaged in pinprick attacks against the Allies.  In Iraq too, March and April of 2003 was a period when cut-off elements of the army, along with the Saddam Fedayeen, attacked American lines of communication, most memorably at Nasiriyah.  In both cases, the strategies of the embattled regimes was to cause severe enemy losses through attrition, hoping to prevent defeat long enough that a settlement could be mediated.  Obviously, this gambit failed in both instances.

Even after the end of conventional fighting in each country, there are still some limited grounds for making comparisons.  Each occupied country underwent a purging of cadres belonging to the state party, as well as a rapid demobilization of the army, leaving thousands of embittered and unemployed castaways, although in Iraq this situation was aggravated because"deBaathification" accompanied a true revolution – the shift of control from one group to another, Sunni Iraqis to Shiite Arabs and Kurds – to a degree that never occurred in Germany (or at least in western Germany).  In both countries, the infrastructure had been battered through air strikes, although in Iraq much of the damage had been done in an earlier conflict, the 1991 war over Kuwait, and the wreckage had never been adequately repaired.  Both postwar societies were plagued by criminality and banditry, which reflected dire economic circumstances, and in both countries there was a disastrous round of looting at the"zero hour," the moment when authority shifted hands.  Finally, in both cases the postwar resistance movement assumed a hydra-headed character, being defined by a multiplicity of local groups and cells – or even lone individuals – that made it difficult for the occupying powers to crush.

However, it is the dissimilarities between the two occupations that are rather more outstanding than the commonalities, especially because the contexts behind the two cases are so different.  Two points come to mind: first, the scale of armed resistance in occupied Iraq far outweighs its counterpart in postwar Germany; and second, the American occupiers have approached the two events far differently.

With regard to questions of scale, the basic point is that size matters.  Some proponents of the insurgency/"Werwolf" comparison have admitted differences in scale, but claim that the two circumstances are thematically similar.  However, the differences in scale owe precisely to the fact that there is a dramatic lack of symmetry between the two resistance movements.  In Germany, the"Werwolf" – if defined loosely – consisted of 5000+ trained guerrillas, as well as an uncertain number of sympathetic civilians and army stragglers.  With a few exceptions, they really were the detritus of the old regime.  In Iraq, some of the insurgency has been fueled by choleric Baathists – here there is a definite point of comparison – but the movement has reached far beyond this base to include nationalists, tribal levies and sectarian extremists of both a Sunni and Shiite variety.  The matter of religion looms particularly large and has been the wedge for introducing al Qaeda into the fray.  The result is that the Iraqi underground movement picked up steam after the end of conventional fighting, rather than losing strength, as was the case in Germany, and that it was able to inflict damage far beyond the level of potshots, wire cuts and sugar-in-the-gas-tank sabotage, which were the most typical forms of resistance in occupied Germany.  In addition, the rapid shift in elites wrought by democratization – as mentioned above – yielded a vicious and widespread counterrevolution.  These factors are reflected in the magnitude of losses sustained by the occupation forces.  In the first three and a half years after the Nazi capitulation, there were at least 64 Americans who died violently at the hands of Germans [5], and it is likely that there were several hundred soldiers killed in similar fashion while manning the garrisons of the other occupying powers.  In contrast, over 3,800 coalition troops have been killed in Iraq since May 2003, although the population of that country is barely a third of the size of the population of occupied Germany, and thus provides a much smaller base for insurgent recruitment efforts.

In addition, it must also be reckoned that"Werwolf" resisters in occupied Germany were totally isolated.  They might have hoped for support from distant Japan, but Tokyo sued for peace a mere three months after V-E Day, while Falangist Spain had enough to do in preserving the character of its regime against (initial) demonstrations of Allied hostility.  With regard to the current conflict in Iraq, however, the insurgents seem to enjoy considerable sympathy throughout the Middle East and Iraq has relatively open borders.  These factors have facilitated a flow of volunteers and supplies from across the Arab world, and more recently, from Iran.

These things suggest that the insurgency/"Werwolf" comparison was only truly tenable during the first few months of the troubled occupation of Iraq, when coalition casualties numbered in the dozens, or even in the low hundreds, and the number of insurgent gunmen was estimated at several thousand.  Once the scale of the fighting increased beyond this limited level, comparisons with events in occupied Germany became more problematic.

To get a full measure of the situation, we should also consider not only the subjects of occupation, but its implementers as well, particularly their methods and mentalities.  Here too, there is a need to draw some fundamental distinctions.  From early 1943 onward, the leaders of the anti-Hitler alliance had decided on the total subjugation and defeat of Nazi Germany.  There was no serious debate within the individual Allied powers about the cause of the war or the reason that it was being fought, nor was there any hesitation about directing sufficient manpower or resources in order to secure a favorable outcome.  The Allied cause was so compelling that additional countries kept joining the alliance until virtually the end of the conflict.  And perhaps most importantly, Germans – rather than just Nazis – were held to be responsible for their country’s fate, and little of a positive nature was expected from this corner, especially after the German opposition movement failed to overthrow Hitler on July 20, 1944.

Consider the differences in the case of Iraq.  There was no overwhelming consensus in favor of war, and the casus belli soon proved spurious.  Given these factors, it was difficult to build a substantial coalition of allies, or to assemble the large-scale forces needed to impose a thorough occupation (although this failing also owed to the influence of the"transformation" doctrine in the Pentagon).  As the insurgency built up momentum, countries melted away from the coalition rather than being convinced to contribute additional manpower and resources.  Public tolerance for casualties in such a conflict was low, at least by historical standards.  Moreover, the invaders had fond memories of Kurdish and Shiite Arab uprisings in 1991, and they resolved to cultivate such forces, along with anyone else in Iraq who seemed willing to cooperate.  Because domestic and international sentiment behind the war was weak, and internal Iraqi support was overestimated, the fight was necessarily presented to a skeptical public as the"liberation" of Iraq by a relatively limited expeditionary force that expected local help.  Rather than resembling the conquest of Germany, the recent invasion of Afghanistan was the true model.

The principal consequence was that there were no tight controls of the Iraqi population during the early occupation.  Whereas Germans were immediately subjected to curfews, travel restrictions, mass lock-ups and total disarmament, all of which helped break the potential power of"Werwolf" resistance,"liberated" Iraqis were allowed to assemble at will and to roam the countryside looting arms dumps and scavenging weapons.  While millions of Allied troops had overrun Germany in 1945, establishing a dense and imposing presence, less than 200,000 coalition troops attempted to occupy Iraq, although the country is geographically larger than Germany.  The ultimate result was that Iraqi insurgents were given a chance to organize and launch operations, and when an inevitable coalition backlash eventually occurred – think Abu Ghraib, house raids, the segregation of troublesome towns and villages – the hypocrisy of such measures, when compared with the promises made by the coalition, inspired even more armed opposition.

I take little comfort in outlining this sad reality or in making the argument that I have outlined in this forum.  From a personal perspective, my position is actually counterproductive, for as long as the insurgency/"Werwolf" comparison remains a talking point, my books are still a focus of popular interest.  Indeed, it is flattering to find one’s work at the centre of any important debate, and I certainly respect fellow historians such as Michael Ledeen and James Carafano, who have contributed major works to our discipline.  Nonetheless, using history to establish questionable analogies can be dangerous.  Recall how the leaders of desperate Judenräte in German-occupied Europe made disastrous comparisons between past anti-Jewish pogroms and Nazi eliminationist anti-Semitism, or how right-wing ideologues tried to discredit Western détente with the Soviet Union by comparing it to the appeasement of Nazi Germany.  In considering important matters of public policy, the careful employment of reason should always trump"spin," wishful thinking or discourses shaped by an underlying ideological dogma.

  1. Calgary Sun, 28 July 2003; and"NRO: Nationalreviewonline,", as on 22 Sept. 2003.
  2. "Speech: Veterans of Foreign Wars,", as of 26 April 2004.
  3. "Faster, Please!,", as of 26 June 2007; and"The Jewish Press,", as of 10 July 2007.  For a British counterpart to this discourse, see"Labour Friends of Iraq,", as of 26 April 2004.
  4. Los Angeles Times, 27 Aug. 2003; Dallas Morning News, 8 Nov. 2003; and Perry Biddiscombe,"Donald and Me: The Iraq War and the ‘Werwolf’ Analogy," International Journallix, no. 3 (Summer 2004), pp. 669-680.

*A review of casualty records by the U.S. Army Center of Military History shows that there were at least 39 American soldiers killed in fighting during the first few months after V-E Day, and my own data suggests that another 25 were killed in the period 1946-1948. "Attacks on American Troops in Postwar Germany" (a paper sent to the U.S. Defense Department and USAID in September 2003).

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More Comments:

D. M. Giangreco - 8/20/2007

During the early months of the occupation, Werwolf -- a fine book -- was indeed brought up on numerous occasions during discussions at the Army Command and General Staff College. By the time the new session started in the fall, however, the book seldom if ever was mentioned. By that time, it was already understood that the postwar settings were somewhat different.

James Jay Carafano - 8/20/2007

I did think your book was great. I tried to extend the research as much as possible in my book on the Austrian occupation, "Waltzing into the Cold War." A huge difference between Iraq and postwar Europe, Stalin pretty much left western europe alone from 45-48 and even encouraged western communists not make trouble. In Iraq, outsiders threw gasoline on the fire almost from day one.

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