Armies have long used prisoners as soldiers. Imperial France deployed the Bat’ d’Af’ in the harshest of its colonies. During the American Civil War, captured Confederate soldiers sometimes recanted the rebellion, swore allegiance to the Union and became Galvanized Yankees. The former rebel prisoners fought and bled for the country they once shunned.
The Nazis made liberal use of penal units, especially in the latter days of World War II. Soldiers with discipline problems and criminals from within Germany often ended up in the Strafbattalion — military units comprised of prisoners. The Strafbattalion performed awful missions such as clearing minefields.
But the horrors of serving in the Strafbattalion pales in comparison to the war crimes of the most reviled of Nazi units — the 36th Grenadier Division of the Waffen SS. This notorious group, also known as the Dirlewanger Brigade, began as an experimental unit of poachers and became a division of weaponized criminals.
To understand the 36th Grenadier Division you have to understand its leader — Oskar Dirlewanger.
Born in 1895 and enlisting in the German army at age 18, he fought as a machine gunner on the Western Front. The man had a taste for violence, and the war was the defining experience in his young life. At the end of the war, he became trapped in Romania as German troops surrendered themselves to internment camps.