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May 5, 2012

The Russian Front, From The German Viewpoint

While I was away, one of the books I read was Eastern Inferno: The Journals of a German Panzerjäger on the Eastern Front, 1941-43. It's the translation of three journals kept by Hans Roth, a German soldier, during the invasion of Russia. The last entry is dated May 6, 1943. It is likely he kept a fourth journal, but he was reported missing in June 1944 and no fourth journal has ever surfaced. The journals contain his explicit description of battles - the sort of material that he could not write home to his family about.

The journals have been published by Hans Roth's grandson and granddaughter who became aware of their existence in the 1970s when helping her mother move. It is not explained how these three journals made it home to Germany to be preserved, but it seems possible that he would have mailed them with instructions not to read them. The impression one gets from the journal is that his German wife would have obeyed that instruction.

Roth participated in the taking of Kiev and then moved on to fight in the Stalingrad area, but he was not with the Sixth Army and was far from the encirclement that destroyed that army. Much of the book reads like any other soldier's journal might. You could forget you were reading a WW2 German soldier until you are jarred back to reality by a random bit of praise for Hitler. A lot of the book expresses that war is confusing, boring and uncomfortable. A big chunk is the classic "war is hell." But when the Russians (or the "Asiatics", as he sometimes refers to them) finally push back it becomes something more like "war is way worse than any searing hell you could imagine." I felt some sadistic pleasure at his painful descriptions of the Russians' unbelievably vicious assaults as the Germans could only cower, retreat and freeze.

Here's a part that could be written by almost any soldier in any war:

Here on the front, we who proudly bear the name "Frontschweine" have become an inseparable brotherhood of men who have been hardened, who have been welded together by death and blood into a close community. And all that these guys, full of dirt and lice, have to hold on to in order to persevere is one thing: love—the depth of which nobody at home can ever imagine—a boundless love and adoration for everything that says "home." I truly believe that only those who encounter death breathing down their neck every day—be it in hand-to-hand combat or in the heaviest drumfire—are capable of such an unconditional love. Each and every one of us would gladly sacrifice his life for you at home. These are the troops who bear the brunt of it all, who stand at the very front line—this is what we think.

And, like most soldiers, he's patriotic and loyal, mostly accepting what the government tells him without much critical examination. He is convinced that the invasion of Russia was a defensive operation. He never considers the Poles, Russians, or Mongols to be anything better than sub-human (and he doesn't especially like the Italians, either).

Close to the Reds' customs house lies a large mound of fallen Russians, most of them torn to shreds from the shelling. Slaughtered civilians lie in the neighboring house. The horridly disfigured bodies of a young woman and her two small children lie among their shattered personal belongings in another small, cleansed house.

I am compelled to think of you Rosel and Erika, when I witness such horrible images. How wonderful it is that we are able to exterminate these murderous beasts. How good it is that we have pre-empted them; for in the coming weeks these bloodhounds might have been standing on German soil. It is inconceivable what would have happened then!

After the Germans take Kiev, he considers it a fine thing that within 24 hours the SS moves in to begin rounding up Jews. While attacking the city, he views the defensive forces as Russians and "Asiatics." When the city falls, the German army discovers that the entire city is packed with booby traps and remote control explosive devices. He considers these especially horrible and immoral, attributing them not to Russians or "Asiatics," but to the Jews. A couple of times he refers to the politics of the USSR as "Judeo-Bolshevism."

And then one day he is given the opportunity to witness the ultimate conclusion of Nazi thought:

I have a long conversation with a young SS soldiers of this "kill commando." They "freed" all the larger cities which were touched by our advance of the Jewish population. They understand their butcher job well; these boys are experienced killers, I am astonished. We soldiers in the first attack wave have never thought about the stuff that happens behind us in the cities we leave, as we're chasing further after the enemy.

The perspective of the front soldiers is forward, towards the enemy. He tells me about the holocaust of Zhitomir. "At that time we were bloody beginners," says the 19-year-old (with an emphasis on "bloody"). "For two days they had to dig 50-meter-long trenches; each trench was calculated for 250 Jews. We killed a total of 1800 Jews in Zhitomir, 5000 somehow died before.

"Then, on the third day the trenches are ready, everybody, from baby to oldest senior had to strip naked. The first 250 have to step to the edge of the ditch, the throaty barking of 2 machine guns—the next ones are herded forward, they have to climb into the ditch and position the dead bodies nicely next to each other, no room must be wasted—the larger spaces are nicely fitted with the dead children—forward forward, more than 1500 must fit! Then the machine guns rip the air again, here and there somebody moans, a short re-shooting of the machine guns: next! and this continues through the evening. We have so little time, too many Jews inhabit this country!"

First I cannot speak at all. This young man talks about it as if he was on a casual pheasant hunt.

I cannot believe all this and tell him so. He laughs and says I should have a look.

We are riding our bikes to the outskirts of the city, to a steep gorge. I will cut this short; the food in my stomach is curiously loose. What I see there is terrible, this horrible picture I will never forget in my entire life. At the edge of the gorge there are Jews standing, the machine guns are whipping into them, they fall over the edge, 50 meters.

Whatever stays at the edge is "swept" down. When the one thousand quota is filled, the heap of dead bodies is detonated and closed up.

"Well, isn't that a great idea, the detonation?" asks the blond with the smiling boy-face.

My God, my God. Without a word I turn and run more than walk back to the city. This boy is 19 years old! All this does not only leave traces on the clothes; what will happen when these people return into the homeland, back to their brides and women?

Filed under Books,History | permalink | May 5, 2012 at 10:43 AM

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