In 1943, the National Socialist regime set up a secret programme to find suitable officers to train the troops in “ideological leadership”. Deemed the ultimate weapon, this task was to be performed by officers known as NSFOs (National Socialist leadership officers).

The Wehrmacht and the Party – the NSDAP – were two separate entities and not all members of the Wehrmacht were members of the Party, nor did they necessarily follow the ideology of the Nazis. This programme sought to bring the ideology of the NSDAP into the Wehrmacht and infuse soldiers with passion, dedication and fanaticism for the principles of the Reich.

In the latter half of 1943, the infantry was more often on the retreat than the advance. The 6th Army had been crushed in Stalingrad and mutterings in the homeland that “the war is now lost” were not uncommon.

(© IWM MH 12868 ) Disconsolate German prisoners captured by the Soviets in late 1943.

The National Socialists, however, had a history of success in their expert use of propaganda. The idea that the war could still be won if the ultimate weapon were deployed – the fanatical belief in the ideology of the Third Reich – started to be intensively cultivated.

The ideological training of the Wehrmacht with army, marine and air force, had long been a matter of importance. Officers were instructed in ideological leadership in Ordensburgen (elite education academies). The aim of these was to produce officers trained in NS ideology and technical subjects. This concept provided a basic framework for the subsequent ideological training of the entire Wehrmacht and the NSDAP now proposed a mass campaign to turn every soldier into a fanatical National Socialist.

On June 1, 1942, General Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel of Army Forces High Command (OKW) issued a memo in which he emphasised that it was the Führer’s wish to harmonise the views of political leadership and those of the officer corps. He also proposed that officers for ideological leadership be deployed at all military command authorities. However, the concept was not put into practice at this stage.

(© IWM COL 168 ) Grenadiers march past a Russian church on the Eastern Front, probably Spring 1942. Photograph taken by German Kriegsberichter (War Correspondents) of a Propagandakompanie (Propaganda Company) and published in 1942 for the OKW (German Forces High Command) by Förster und Borries in Zwickau, Germany.

Personal and professional jealousies existed between the officers in Army Forces High Command and the Party Chancellery. This led to tension causing divergence of opinions in the preliminary stages of the programme and ultimately contributed to a lack of concord during its implementation.

On February 1, 1943, General Ferdinand Schörner, Commanding General of the XIXth Army Corps, issued a command in which he ascertained: “Faith is the strongest life force. Military training cannot be separated from ideological training. Today’s soldier triumphs with both his weapon and his ideology… he carries the strong belief in the inherent righteousness of his cause and is willing to stand up and fight for this belief without consideration for himself”.

Schörner’s conclusion that the concept of faith was the decisive weapon also corresponded with Hitler’s ideas. Upon the latter’s instructions, Hermann Passe from the Party Chancellery officially requested the Gauleiter in a letter of September 1, 1943 to find officers “who possess the requirements for accepting politically-specific tasks within the Wehrmacht”. It was up to the local district leaders to find suitable candidates.

“I have been requested to provide the Party’s assistance in proposing such officers suitable to work in the politically ideological field”, Passe wrote. He thus diplomatically removed the onus from OKW to find suitable candidates, while at the same time retaining control over the proposed programme. This tactical move ensured that the responsibility for the programme now lay with the Party and not the military – a crucial factor for the NSDAP in its struggle for control over the military.

The Gauleiter now started to receive lists of suitable men responses from the district leaders. Hitler decided at this point that the new position for ideological leadership officers was to be known as the “Officer for National Socialist Leadership” (NS-Führungsoffizier or NSFO), and Martin Bormann, Head of the Party Chancellery, issued a letter to the Gauleiter on December 21, 1943 stating that the Chancellery would be responsible for drafting the men. The responsibility was now clear and by January 1944 Bormann had complete influence over the NSFO programme. The Führer’s directive for NS leadership in the Wehrmacht appeared from General Headquarters on December 22, 1943.

Hitler had an immense mistrust of the officer corps. The Wehrmacht’s attitudes were fundamentally different from those of the National Socialists. For Hitler, the setback at Moscow in 1941 was the consequence of a discord between the military and National Socialism and the tasks of the NSFOs were thus “decisive for the outcome of the war”. Officers had to be found who were unconditional National Socialists, with excellent service at the Front. Mainly, however, they were “suitable political activists”, capable of speaking on political issues and training soldiers in ideology.

The list of proposed topics on which the NSFO was to hold lectures included “The Purpose of this War”, “The Concept of the Reich”, and “The Ideological Task of the NSDAP”. Further topics offered enlightenment in the area of International Relations: “Europe’s War of Fate in the East” and “The Anglo-American Battle Against Europe” while “The Jew as World Parasite” provided the only direct reference to the NSDAP’s antisemitic policy. The list was rounded off by the extraordinary “Victory Through Faith” and the imposing “Battle as a Law of Life” – a homage to the military origins of the NSDAP.

Some officials and military officers were inspired and motivated by the concept of the NSFOs. A letter from one officer in April 1944, for example, emphasised that not just weapons were the decisive factor, but that convictions were crucial. Ideally, NSFOs should have not only experience at the Front but at the Eastern Front, he advised. The entire course of ideological training should be planned for 4 to 6 months. In particular, the words “Why and What for” were extremely useful. They enabled the men to understand why they were wearing the “field-grey uniform” and the purpose of their service.

According to statistics, 1074 NSFOs were employed full-time on December 20, 1944. Around 50,000 officers were employed part-time in the entire Wehrmacht. The actual impact of the NSFO programme, however, is not noted on record. In the Army, the work seemed to be successful to a certain extent, but in the Navy and the Luftwaffe it was less so. The NSFOs were not intended to work as informers in the same way as the Soviet political commissars of the Red Army. However, in the Führer’s order of March 13, 1945 Hitler writes: “Each soldier is obliged to report any special incident or shortcoming which could harm the conduct of warfare in general”. If the soldier realised that this would not work through normal official channels, he should report it to the NSFO. Failure to make the necessary notification would be punishable by death. In this respect, the NSFO ultimately did become an informer.

Right from the beginning, the NSF programme was set up in an environment characterised by internal power struggles. The resulting discord and confusion did not provide the best basis for creating fanatical National Socialists from German soldiers. At the end, it was not faith that was victorious, but superiority in weapons and troops