Every month, it seems, yet another movie is released based upon some real or some fanciful event of World War Two. Invariably, like some stylized Greek drama in which the actors all wear the same masks and all chant the same lines, the cast in these propagandistic morality plays are as predictable as the message. . . .
On one side are arrayed the Allies, the good guys; generally, these are the happy-go-lucky gum-chewing Americans who are heroically “fighting for freedom” and are striving to save the world and the folks back in Ohio from slavery. On the other side are the arrogant Germans, the evil Nazis; this is the dark force the world is being saved from, those overbearing monsters who live only to murder, rape, torture, kill, and make lampshades and bars of soap out of defenseless, harmless Jews.
It has now been over 70 years since the conclusion of the so-called “Good War.” Thousands of books, articles and movies have been devoted to this pivotal period and the supposedly heroic sacrifice of the so-called “Greatest Generation.” Despite the sheer tonnage of material dedicated to the victor’s version of WWII, there has yet to be an honest, accurate and straight-forward retelling of that cataclysmic event and what it really looked like, not merely from the victors’ perspective, but through the eyes of the vanquished, as well.
The following is from my book Hellstorm—The Death of Nazi Germany, 1944-1947. To date, this book remains the only in-depth account of what the end of the war and the beginning of the so-called “peace” looked like from the German perspective. To this day, what happened to Germany and her people, especially after the war, remains the darkest and best-kept secret in world history. And to this day, what happened to Germany and her people also remains, by far, the greatest and most sadistic crime ever committed in the history of mankind.
Since the German invasion of the Soviet Union in September 1941, the fight on the Eastern Front had been little better than a savage war of annihilation. A contest between “European Nationalism” on the one hand, and “International Communism” on the other, would have been a most desperate struggle under any conditions. But then, fighting for his life, Josef Stalin deliberately exacerbated the situation.
Dubious over the loyalty of his armed forces, aware of the massive Russian surrenders during the First World War, the Red premier steadfastly refused to sign the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war or the Hague Treaty regarding land warfare. It was Stalin’s belief that if a soldier had no guarantee of survival in captivity, then he must of necessity fight to the death in battle. Despite such ruthless measures, Soviet troops surrendered by the hundreds of thousands in the first weeks and months of the war. Swamped by the flood of prisoners, strained to adequately clothe, feed and house such numbers, and understandably hesitant to even do so unless the Russians reciprocated, the Germans time and again tried to reach an accord with Stalin. The efforts were flung back with contempt.
“Soviet soldiers do not surrender,” communist officials airily announced. “[A] prisoner captured alive by the enemy [is] ipso facto a traitor…. If they had fulfilled their duty as soldiers to fight to the last they would not have been taken prisoner.”
“Everyone who was taken prisoner, even if they’d been wounded . . . was considered to have ‘surrendered voluntarily to the enemy,’ ” wrote Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, whose own brother was captured and promptly disowned by her father. “The government thereby washed its hands of millions of its own officers and men . . . and refused to have anything to do with them.”
Hence, growled a disgruntled captain of Russian artillery, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “[Moscow] did not recognize its own soldiers of the day before.”
Not surprisingly, many Red Army men, including General Andrei Vlasov, swiftly turned on their government after capture and became “traitors” not only in name, but in fact, by joining the Germans in their anti-communist crusade.
That the Soviets would treat their own troops in such a deplorable manner bode ill for that German soldier, or Landser, unlucky enough to fall into enemy hands. Although responses varied greatly among Soviet units and some captured Germans were treated as POWs, most were not. During the first glorious days of German victory in 1941, the Red Army’s headlong retreat precluded the likelihood that large numbers of Landsers would be captured. Nevertheless, thousands of unwitting Germans did fall into communist hands and were dispatched on the spot.
On July 1, 1941, near Broniki in the Ukraine, the Soviets captured over 160 Germans, many of them wounded. In the words of Corporal Karl Jager:
After being taken prisoner . . . other comrades and I were forced to undress. . . . We had to surrender all valuable objects including everything we had in our pockets. I saw other comrades stabbed with a bayonet because they were not fast enough. Corporal Kurz had a wounded hand and . . . could not remove his belt as quickly as desired. He was stabbed from behind at the neck so that the bayonet came out through the throat. A soldier who was severely wounded gave slight signs of life with his hands; he was kicked about and his head was battered with rifle butts. . . . Together with a group of 12 to 15 men I was taken to a spot north of the road. Several of them completely naked. We were about the third group coming from the road. Behind us the Russians commenced the executions . . . panic broke out after the first shots, and I was able to flee.
“My hands were tied up at my back . . . and we were forced to lie down. . . ,” said another victim in the same group. “[A] Russian soldier stabbed me in the chest with his bayonet. Thereupon I turned over. I was then stabbed seven times in the back and I did not move any more. . . . I heard my comrades cry out in pain. Then I passed out.”
In all, 153 bodies were recovered by advancing Germans the following morning. Despite the summary slaughter of their own men at Broniki and elsewhere, Wehrmacht field marshals strictly forbid large-scale reprisals. One group which could expect no mercy from the Germans was the communist commissars who traveled with Red Army units. Composed “almost exclusively” of Jews, it was these fanatical political officers, many Germans felt, who were responsible for the massacres and mutilations of captured comrades. Explained one witness, Lieutenant Hans Woltersdorf of the elite SS:
One of our antitank gun crews had defended itself down to the last cartridge, really down to the last cartridge. Over thirty dead Russians lay before their positions. They then had to surrender. While still alive they had their genitals cut off, their eyes poked out, and their bellies slit open. Russian prisoners to whom we showed this declared that such mutilations took place by order of the commissars. This was the first I had heard of such commissars.
With the threat of torture and execution facing them, many idealistic German soldiers had an added impetus to fight to the death. In the minds of most Landsers, the war in the east was not a contest against the Russian or Slavic race in particular, but a crusade against communism. In the years following World War I, Marxist revolutionaries had nearly toppled the German government. Because most of the leaders were Jews, and because Lenin, Trotsky, and many other Russian revolutionaries were Jewish, the threat to Nazi Germany and Europe seemed clear. Hence, from Adolf Hitler down to the lowliest Landser, the fight in the east became a holy war against “Jewish Bolshevism.”
“The poor, unhappy Russian people,” said one shocked German soldier as he moved further into the Soviet Union. “Its distress is unspeakable and its misery heart-rending.”
“When you see what the Jew has brought about here in Russia, only then can you begin to understand why the Fuhrer began this struggle against Judaism,” another stunned Landser wrote, expressing a sentiment shared by many comrades. “What sort of misfortunes would have been visited upon our Fatherland, if this bestial people had gotten the upper hand?”
Following the devastating German defeat at Stalingrad in 1943, the “upper hand” did indeed pass to the enemy. Supplied by the US with a seemingly inexhaustible amount of goods, from tanks and planes to boots and butter, the resurgent Red Army assumed the offensive.
As the heretofore invincible Wehrmacht began its long, slow withdrawal west, a drama as vast and savage as the steppe itself unfolded, the likes of which the modern world had never witnessed. In dozens of major battles, in thousands of forgotten skirmishes, a primeval contest was waged wherein victory meant life and defeat meant death.
Overwhelmingly outnumbered in men and materiel, especially the dreaded tank, for young German recruits sent to fill depleted ranks there was no subtle transition from peace to war on the Eastern Front—they simply stepped straight from the train or truck into the inferno. Likewise, the step from boy to man could, and often did, come within a matter of moments once the recruit reached the lines. Guy Sajer’s youth ended abruptly one day when his convoy was ambushed.
“Anybody hit?” one of the noncoms called out. “Let’s get going then. . . .” Nervously, I pulled open the door [of the truck]. Inside, I saw a man I shall never forget, a man sitting normally on the seat, whose lower face had been reduced to a bloody pulp.
“Ernst?” I asked in a choking voice. “Ernst!” I threw myself at him. . . . I looked frantically for some features on that horrible face. His coat was covered with blood. . . . His teeth were mixed with fragments of bone, and through the gore I could see the muscles of his face contracting. In a state of near shock, I tried to put the dressing somewhere on that cavernous wound. . . . Crying like a small boy, I pushed my friend to the other end of the seat, holding him in my arms. . . . Two eyes opened, brilliant with anguish, and looked at me from his ruined face.
In the cab of a . . . truck, somewhere in the vastness of the Russian hinterland, a man and an adolescent were caught in a desperate struggle. The man struggled with death, and the adolescent struggled with despair. . . . I felt that something had hardened in my spirit forever.
“The first group of T34’s crashed through the undergrowth,” another terrified replacement recalled when Russian tanks suddenly shattered his once peaceful world.
I heard my officer shout to me to take the right hand machine. . . . All that I had learned in the training school suddenly came flooding back and gave me confidence. . . . It had been planned that we should allow the first group of T-34’s to roll over us. . . . The grenade had a safety cap which had to be unscrewed to reach the rip-cord. My fingers were trembling as I unscrewed the cap . . . [and] climbed out of the trench. . . . Crouching low I started towards the monster, pulled the detonating cord, and prepared to fix the charge. I had now nine seconds before the grenade exploded and then I noticed, to my horror, that the outside of the tank was covered in concrete. . . . My bomb could not stick on such a surface. . . . The tank suddenly spun on its right track, turned so that it pointed straight at me and moved forward as if to run over me.
I flung myself backwards and fell straight into a partly dug slit trench and so shallow that I was only just below the surface of the ground. Luckily I had fallen face upwards and was still holding tight in my hand the sizzling hand grenade. As the tank rolled over me there was a sudden and total blackness. . . . The shallow earth walls of the trench began to collapse. As the belly of the monster passed over me I reached up instinctively as if to push it away and . . . stuck the charge on the smooth, unpasted metal. . . . Barely had the tank passed over me than there was a loud explosion. . . . I was alive and the Russians were dead. I was trembling in every limb.
Another Landser who found truth facing Russian tanks was eighteen-year-old Guy Sajer. Armed with single-shot “Panzerfausts,” a shoulder-held anti-armor weapon, Sajer and five comrades cowered in a shallow hole. “Our fear reached grandiose proportions, and urine poured down our legs,” admitted the young soldier. “Our fear was so great that we lost all thought of controlling ourselves.”
Three tanks were moving toward us. If they rolled over the mound which protected us, the war would end for us in less than a minute. I [raised] my first Panzerfaust, and my hand, stiff with fear, [was] on the firing button.
As they rolled toward us, the earth against which my body was pressed transmitted their vibrations, while my nerves, tightened to the breaking point, seemed to shrill with an ear-splitting whistle. . . . I could see the reflected yellow lights on the front of the tank, and then everything disappeared in the flash of light which I had released, and which burned my face. . . . To the side, other flashes of light battered at my eyes, which jerked open convulsively wide, although there was nothing to see. Everything was simultaneously luminous and blurred. Then a second tank in the middle distance was outlined by a glow of flame. . . .
We could hear the noise of a third tank. . . . It had accelerated, and was no more than thirty yards from us, when I grabbed my last Panzerfaust. One of my comrades had already fired, and I was temporarily blinded. I stiffened my powers of vision and regained my sight to see a multitude of rollers caked with mud churning past . . . five or six yards from us. An inhuman cry of terror rose from our helpless throats.
The tank withdrew into the noise of battle, and finally disappeared in a volcanic eruption which lifted it from the ground in a thick cloud of smoke. Our wildly staring eyes tried to fix on something solid, but could find nothing except smoke and flame. As there were no more tanks, our madness thrust us from our refuge, toward the fire whose brilliance tortured our eyes. The noise of the tanks was growing fainter. The Russians were backing away.
After pulling wounded from the burning tanks, Sajer collapsed in a heap. As the young Landser and his exhausted comrades well knew, however, the respite would be brief: “They would undoubtedly reappear in greater numbers, with the support of planes or artillery, and our despairing frenzy would count for nothing.”
Sajer was correct. In yet another contest between man and machine, the soldier and his companions could only watch in helpless horror as the steel monsters overran a gun emplacement.
Our cries of distress were mingled with the screams of the two machine gunners and then the shouts of revenge from the Russian tank crew as it drove over the hole, grinding the remains of the two gunners into that hateful soil. . . . The treads worked over the hole for a long time, and the Russian crew kept shouting, “Kaputt, Soldat Germanski! Kaputt!”
Many scenes from the East Front, like the above, seemed scripted in hell. After a hastily organized force of mechanics, bakers and cooks had beat back one enemy assault, a group of Landsers, including Hans Woltersdorf, crept up to a damaged Russian tank. “The men looked into the tank,” the lieutenant remembered, “and they were near vomiting, so they didn’t look further but instead went away, embarrassed. A headless torso, bloody flesh, and intestines were sticking to the walls.”
Several soldiers did succeed in pulling an injured driver from the wreck. “He lay there, wearing a distinguished award for bravery,” noted Woltersdorf.
The back of his head was gaping open and bloody brains were pouring out. He was foaming at the mouth and his breath was still rattling, the typical rattle after an injury to the back of the head. You’re dead but your lungs are still puffing….I took his military papers and the award. Later, when it was all over, I would send them to his family and write to them that he had fought bravely to the last for his country . . . he had given his best … they could be proud of him … what does one write at such times?
Terrible in their own right, sights and sounds such as the above were made doubly horrifying by the haunting suspicion that the viewer was gazing down on his own fate. “One always sees oneself sticking to the walls in thousands of pieces like that,” confessed Woltersdorf, “without a head, or being dragged from the tank with a death rattle in one’s throat.”
Facing cold, robot-like tanks was terrifying enough. When humans became such, the results were devastating. Perhaps the most frightening moment in any Landser’s life came when he first faced the human wave. In a nation so vast that it compassed two continents, men were a resource the Soviets could afford to waste . . . and did. Following a Russian artillery barrage upon his position, Max Simon redeployed surviving soldiers along a ridge.
“Then,” the SS general wrote, “quite a long distance from our positions there were lines of brown uniformed men tramping forward. The first of these crossed a small river and was followed at about 200 meters distance by a second line. Then there rose out of the grass—literally from out of the ground—a third wave, then a fourth and a fifth.”
“To see them, the Ivans, rise up from the ground and just stand there, thousands of them, was really frightening,” said another who faced the human wave. “They would stand there, within range . . . silent, withdrawn and not heeding those who fell around them. Then they would move off, the first three lines marching towards us.”
Returning to General Simon:
The lines of men stretched to the right and left of our regimental front over-lapping it completely and the whole mass of Russian troops came tramping solidly and relentlessly forward. It was an unbelievable sight, a machine gunner’s dream. … At 600 metres we opened fire and whole sections of the first wave just vanished leaving here and there an odd survivor still walking stolidly forward. It was uncanny, unbelievable, inhuman. No soldier of ours would have continued to advance alone. The second wave had also taken losses but closed up towards the center, round and across the bodies of their comrades who had fallen with the first wave. Then, as if on a signal, the lines of men began running forward. As they advanced there was a low rumbling “Hoooooraaay.”
“The sound of that bellowing challenge was enough to freeze the blood,” admitted one trembling Landser. “Just the sound alone terrified the new recruits.”
Again, Max Simon:
The first three waves had been destroyed by our fire, but not all of the men in them had been killed. Some who dropped were snipers who worked their way forward through the grass to open fire upon our officers and machine gun posts. The rush of the fourth wave came on more slowly for the men had to pick their way through a great carpet of bodies and as the Soviets moved towards us some of our men, forgetful of the danger, stood on the parapets of their slit trenches to fire at the oncoming Russians. The machine guns became hot from continual firing and there were frequent stoppages to change barrels….
The great mass of the Soviet troops was now storming up the slope towards us but our fire was too great and they broke. About an hour later a further five lines of men came on in a second assault. The numbers of the enemy seemed endless and the new waves of men advanced across their own dead without hesitation…. The Ivans kept up their attacks for three days and sometimes even during the night. Suddenly they stopped and withdrew.
While the slaughter of thousands in such suicidal assaults seemed senseless, the results were not altogether one-sided. The psychological wounds inflicted on the Germans were, as Gen. Simon acknowledged, perhaps an even greater blow than the physical havoc wrought on the Russians. “The number, duration and fury of those attacks had exhausted us… ,” confessed Simon. “If the Soviets could waste men on our small move, and there was no doubt that these men had been sacrificed, how often, we asked ourselves, would they attack and in what numbers if the objective was really a supremely important one?”
The carnage following battles such as the above was truly horrific. Although most recruits soon became hardened after two or three similar encounters, no soldier ever became complacent about war. The battlefield had many grim faces and no two were alike. Surprisingly, some of the most shattering moments in a Landser’s life concerned the dreadful impact war had on horses, thousands of which served both armies. Harald Henry remembered vividly one animal in particular, lying by the wayside:
It reared, someone gave it a mercy shot, it sprang up again, another fired…. [T]he horse still fought for its life, many shots. But the rifle shots did not quickly finish off the dying eyes of the horse…. Everywhere horses. Ripped apart by shells, their eyes bulging out from empty red sockets…. That is just almost worse than the torn-away faces of the men, of the burnt, half-charred corpses.
After just experiencing what he imagined was all the horror one battle had to give, Lieutenant Friedrich Haag noticed a “beautiful white horse grazing by a ditch.”
An artillery shell … had torn away his right foreleg. He grazed peacefully but at the same time slowly and in unspeakable grief swayed his bloody stump of a leg to and fro….I don’t know if I can accurately describe the horror of this sight. . . . I said then . . . to one of my men: “Finish that horse off!” Then the soldier, who just ten minutes before had been in a hard fight, replied: “I haven’t got the heart for it, Herr Lieutenant.” Such experiences are more distressing than all the “turmoil of battle” and the personal danger.
Although massed human assaults and tank battles were dramatic, earth-shaking events, surviving German soldiers could normally expect a welcome, if brief, respite between contests. Not so with the ever-lurking partisan war. For that Landser behind the front who dropped his guard, the result could mean instant death … or worse. “When German soldiers were captured by guerrillas, they were often abominably treated,” one Wehrmacht general recounted. “[I]t was not unusual for the Soviets to torture their prisoners and then hang them up, sometimes with their genitals stuffed in their mouths.” Other Landsers were released, then sent staggering down roads toward their comrades, naked, bloody, eyes gouged from sockets, castrated.
Unable to deal decisively with the civilian-clad irregulars, German reprisals against the surrounding communities were swift, grim and arbitrary.
“A partisan group blew up our vehicles,” recorded one private, “[and]. . . shot the agricultural administrator and a corporal assigned to him in their quarters…. Early yesterday morning 40 men were shot on the edge of the city. . . . Naturally there were a number of innocent people who had to give up their lives…. One didn’t waste a lot of time on this and just shot the ones who happened to be around.”
As with commissars, “no quarter” was the standard fate of guerrillas who fell into German hands. Wrote a witness:
Businesslike, the men of the field police emerge and tie with oft-practiced skill seven nooses on the balcony railing and then disappear behind the door of the dark room…. The first human package, tied up, is carried outside. The limbs are tightly bound …a cloth covers his face. The hemp neckband is placed around his neck, hands are tied tight, he is put on the balustrade and the blindfold is removed from his eyes. For an instant you see glaring eyeballs, like those of an escaped horse, then wearily he closes his eyelids, almost relaxed, never to open them again. He now slides slowly downward, his weight pulls the noose tight, his muscles begin their hopeless battle. The body works mightily, twitches, and within the fetters a bit of life struggles to its end. It’s quick; one after the other are brought out, put on the railing…. Each one bears a placard on his chest proclaiming his crime…. Sometimes one of them sticks out his tongue as if in unconscious mockery and immoderate amounts of spittle drip down on the street.
As the Wehrmacht was pressed inexorably west, the daily attrition was staggering. Repeated Russian attacks opened gaps in German ranks simply too great to be filled. Outnumbered sometimes ten to one, each Landser was thus expected to fight as ten if they were to survive. Many did. After beating back waves of Soviets with only a handful of men, Leopold von Thadden-Trieglaff refused to abandon his tiny section of line. Holding on throughout the night, the surrounded squad again fought furiously the following dawn.
“[A] hail of fire rained on us, from right, from left,” recorded the young soldier in his journal. “In a few minutes our bunker was full of wounded and I struggled to quiet the poor fellows. . . . Screams and groans, and singing. I had to strain every nerve in order to remain as calm as before.”
Finally, a German counterattack broke through and rescued the survivors, ending “the most terrible night and the hardest battle of my life. . . ,” wrote Thadden-Trieglaff. “As I returned to my command post in the village I gaped at the dead comrades. I was so shaken that I almost cried. . . . When might this hideous defensive struggle come to an end?”
For the heroic twenty-year-old, that end came the following day when he was killed.
As the crushing attrition ground the German Army into the Russian mud, the turnover rate from death and wounds was tremendous. Green recruits often found themselves within months, even weeks, the oldest veterans in their unit.
“I noticed that it was particularly in the first few days that newcomers were most likely to get killed,” observed Jan Montyn (below).
Gert was one of those newcomers. He was sixteen….I saw in his eyes, behind his round spectacles, the same bewilderment that I had felt myself when I was finding my way around that first day—almost a month ago now. His legs were trembling, he kept blinking. He had never held a real gun in his hands before. And I felt that he would not be with us for long. “You have to think carefully about everything you do,” I told him. “You must not allow anything to become a habit. On the other side there are snipers on the look-out day and night. If you as much as strike a match, you are finished. They notice every regularity in your behavior. When you have to scoop out a trench, don’t throw the earth over the side in the same place twice. . . . Gert nodded. He would remember. But less than two hours later I heard a cry. He had climbed out of the trench. He had been hit with his trousers down. In ten paces I was with him, and pulled him back into the trench by his legs. Oh, you idiot! Did I have to say that …? There was a big hole in his groin. I pulled a roll of substitute bandage out of my breast pocket. But the poor quality paper was drenched within a few seconds. I tried to close the wound by pressing on it with my thumbs, begging and praying that someone might come along. I dared not call; that might provoke mortar fire. Gert lay panting, his mouth half open. He did not seem to feel any pain. For God’s sake let someone come. No one came. The blood that gushed through my fingers mingled with the mud. And Gert no longer moved.
Added to the trauma of watching comrades die one by one, was concern for the safety of loved ones at home. Unlike Allied soldiers, whose words from home brought comfort and cheer, for the German Landser a letter from a loved one was merely one more burden to bear. Penned Martin Poppel in his diary:
My wife wrote to me: “Today we are worn out after this terrible hail of bombs. To be hearing the howling of these things all the time, waiting for death at any moment, in a dark cellar, unable to see. . . . Everything gone. . . .”
No, here at the front we musn’t think about it…. We understood the feelings of the people at home, suffered with them and feared for our loved ones who had to bear terror bombing.
“A few days ago,” scribbled a tormented sergeant, “I found out that just at the same time as we dreamed of home, the rubble was smoking in my home city of Mannheim. What a bitter irony.”
“These pigs . . . think they can soften us up in that way. But that is a mistake, a mistake,” growled another sergeant. “Ah, if only the Fuhrer would send a pair of … divisions to England. They would deal a death dance that would give the devil himself the creeps. Oh, I have a rage, a wild hatred.”
Despite official orders against killing prisoners, the unofficial reality was often quite different. Living without hope, dealing with death on a daily basis, aware of the fate their loved ones at home were facing, as well as their own should they be captured, many crazed, brutalized individuals could not be restrained.
“A prolonged and penetrating cry rose from the hole on my left…,” Guy Sajer noted after one desperate fight. “Then there was a cry for help.”
We arrived at the edge of a foxhole, where a Russian, who had just thrown down his revolver, was holding his hands in the air. At the bottom of the hole, two men were fighting. One of them, a Russian, was waving a large cutlass, holding a man from our group pinned beneath him. Two of us covered the Russian who had raised his hands, while a young [corporal] jumped into the hole and struck the other Russian a blow on the back of his neck with a trenching tool. . . . The German who had been under him . . . ran up to ground level. He was covered with blood, brandishing the Russian knife with one hand … while with the other he tried to stop the flow of blood pouring from his wound.
“Where is he?” he shouted in a fury. “Where’s the other one?” In a few bounding steps he reached the … prisoner.
Before anyone could do anything, he had run his knife into the belly of the petrified Russian.
Following three days of frenzied fighting, Sajer and his sleepless comrades finally snapped.
Sometimes one or two prisoners might emerge from their hideout with their hands in the air, and each time the same tragedy repeated itself. Kraus killed four of them on the lieutenant’s orders; the Sudeten two; Group 17, nine. Young Lindberg, who had been in a state of panic ever since the beginning of the offensive, and who had been either weeping in terror or laughing in hope, took Kraus’s machine gun and shoved two Bolsheviks into a shell hole. The two wretched victims … kept imploring his mercy…. But Lindberg, in a paroxysm of uncontrollable rage, kept firing until they were quiet.
We were mad with harassment and exhaustion. . . . We were forbidden to take prisoners…. We knew that the Russians didn’t take any … [that] it was either them or us, which is why my friend Hals and I threw grenades . . . at some Russians who were trying to wave a white flag.
Nevertheless, amid the insane upheaval of combat, the same soldier who might one moment murder helpless prisoners could the next risk his own life to pull men from burning enemy tanks. Hans Woltersdorf stood for one eternal instant, his machine-gun trained on several Russians he had surprised, the last flicker of humanity struggling mightily against all the dark forces of his past.
“Do I shoot or not? ” the lieutenant asked himself, as the terrified prisoners begged for mercy. “They got up. . . , stumbled backwards a few steps more to the fir thicket, turned round, put their hands down and ran like the devil…. Did I try to shoot? Did my machine gun really fail to function, as I claimed later?”
Very often, death was the highest act of kindness one could show an enemy. “On Tuesday I knocked out two T-34’s… ,” one Landser wrote. “Afterward I drove past the smoking remains. From the hatch there hung a body, head down, his feet caught, and his legs burning up to his knees. The body was alive, the mouth moaning. He must have suffered terrible pain. And there was no possibility of freeing him…. I shot him, and as I did it, the tears ran down my cheeks. Now I have been crying for three nights about a dead Russian tank driver.”
“From time to time one of us would emerge from torpor and scream,” admitted Guy Sajer. “These screams were entirely involuntary: we couldn’t stop them. They were produced by our exhaustion. . . . Some laughed as they howled; others prayed. Men who could pray could hope.” Sajer continues:
We felt like lost souls who had forgotten that men are made for something else . . . that love can sometimes occur, that the earth can be productive and used for something other than burying the dead. We were madmen, gesturing and moving without thought or hope…. Lindberg … had collapsed into a kind of stupor…. The Sudeten … had begun to tremble . . . and to vomit uncontrollably. Madness had invaded our group, and was gaining ground rapidly….I saw … Hals leap to his machine gun and fire at the sky….I also saw the [sergeant] … beat the ground with his clenched fist…. [I] shout[ed] curses and obscenities at the sky…. After hours and then days of danger … one collapses into unbearable madness, and a crisis of nerves is only the beginning. Finally, one vomits and collapses, entirely brutalized and inert, as if death had already won.
“[We were] the dead or the dead to be,” stated one Landser simply.
As the East Front moved steadily west, the struggle became even more desperate. By the winter of 1944, the Red Army had finally driven the invaders from Russian soil and was pressing them through Poland. Although enormous losses had melted away much German manpower, and although the odds remained overwhelmingly in the Soviets’ favor, the Red Army suffered grievously as well. For every German casualty on the field of battle, there were four Russians. Many Soviet units had been reduced to a mere 50% of their original strength. Consequently, Red ranks were increasingly filled by troops from far eastern provinces. “This is not the Red Army,” spit one Russian officer. “The Red Army perished on the battlefields in 1941 and 1942. These are the hordes of Asia.”
In addition to Asians, Soviet officials called up a motley reserve— boys as young as thirteen, women, cripples, even convicts. “We opened up our penitentiaries and stuck everybody into the army,” Stalin admitted. If possible, these raw levies were thrown away with more criminal disregard than ever. Wrote a German soldier:
It does not matter that these conscripts are untrained, that many are without boots of any kind and that most of them have no arms. Prisoners whom we took told us that those without weapons are expected to take up those from the fallen. …I saw … attacks which were preceded by solid blocks of people marching shoulder to shoulder across the minefields which we had laid. Civilians and Army punishment battalions alike advanced like automata, their ranks broken only when a mine exploded killing and wounding those around it. The people seemed never to flinch nor to quail and we noticed that some who fell were then shot by a smaller wave of commissars or officers who followed very closely behind.
“This was not war anymore,” a Landser who witnessed the massacres confided. “It was murder.”
Of all the horrors the East Front could inflict—human waves, Red crewmen bolted inside burning tanks, murder of prisoners, partisan atrocities—the facet most frightening to the average Landser was undoubtedly “Ivan” himself.
“The Russian infantryman . . . always defended himself to the last gasp. . . ,” remembered Gen. Max Simon. “[E]ven crews in burning tanks kept up fire for as long as there was breath in their bodies. Wounded or unconscious men reached for their weapons as soon as they regained consciousness.”
Added another German soldier, Erich Dwinger:
Among the prisoners waiting to be ferried back across the river were wounded, many of whom had been badly burnt by flame-throwers. . . . Their faces had no longer any recognizable human features but were simply swollen lumps of meat. One of them also had had his lower jaw torn away by a bullet and this wound he had bandaged roughly. Through the rags his windpipe, laid bare, was visible and the effort it made as his breath snorted through it. Another soldier had been hit by five bullets and his right shoulder and his whole arm was a ragged mass of flesh. He had no bandages and the blood oozed from his wounds as if from a row of tubes….
Not one of them was moaning as they sat there in the grass. . . . Why did they not moan? But this was not the most tragic picture of that day. . . . [S]ome of our soldiers brought out barrels of margarine and loaves of Russian bread. They began their distribution more than thirty metres distant from the place where the badly wounded were lying and these rose up, yes, even the dying rose up quickly and in an inexpressible stream of suffering hurried toward the distribution point. The man without a jaw swayed as he stood up, the man with the five bullet wounds raised himself by his good arm . . . and those with burned faces ran … but this was not all; a half dozen men who had been lying on the ground also went forward pressing back into their bodies with their left hands the intestines which had burst through the gaping wounds in their stomach wall. Their right hands were extended in gestures of supplication. . . . [A]s they moved down each left behind a broad smear of blood upon the grass . . . and not one of them cried … none moaned.
As Dwinger makes implicit, such scenes left a profound impression on thousands of Landsers. The almost unearthly stoicism of the Russian, his fatalism, his willingness to suffer and die in silence, was bewildering to German soldiers. To some, it was as if the harsh climate and crushing conditions of communism had molded a man in which normal human emotions were no longer important.
“It’s not people we’re fighting against here,” one Landser burst out, “but simply animals.”
Perhaps. And yet, as deep as their differences undoubtedly were, there were also similarities, some as elemental and ancient as the earth itself. On December 24, 1944, a strange, seemingly impossible understanding was reached by the deadly foes in which each side promised to stop hating the other “from four o’clock in the afternoon until six o’clock the following morning.”
“An unreal silence fell,” recalled Jan Montyn.
Hesitantly, we crawled out into the open. We on our side. They on theirs. Step by step we approached one another, almost timidly. And the enemy, of whom we had seen nothing until then but the vague movement of a helmet or the barrel of a gun, suddenly turned out to be boys like ourselves. They too were dressed in rags, they too were starving, ill, filthy.
We met in the middle of no-man’s land. We shook hands, exchanged names and cigarettes. They tried out their few words of German, we our Russian. We laughed at one another’s accents. Merry Christmas. We made big bonfires, shared out our Christmas rations….
When we withdrew, after midnight, each to his own side, the fires in no-man’s land were still glowing. For several hours the silence lasted. Then firing broke out. Was it heavier than the day before? Not at all. But there were more casualties than ever. The break, however brief, had broken the resistance of many of us.
Obviously, by the winter of 1944, German soldiers on the East Front were well aware that all their sacrifices during three years of war had been for naught; defeat was inevitable. Close as victory had once been, by invading the Soviet Union tiny Germany had unleashed a force of almost unlimited resources; a colossus spanning much of the globe. To continue the struggle against such a giant was hopeless. And yet, many German soldiers, especially those of the elite SS, were determined to fight to the death, or, as one private wrote, “to sell our skins as dearly as possible.” Explained an observer:
Even the last soldier was aware that the war was lost. He was aiming to survive, and the only sense he could see was to protect the front in the East to save as many refugees as possible. . . . [H]e was hoping for a political solution for ending the war…. but … the demand for unconditional surrender left in the light of self-respect no alternative but to continue the hopeless fighting.
As was the case during the Christmas truce, when “Fritz” looked into the face of “Ivan” the White Russian, or “Popov” the Ukrainian, he generally saw himself reflected. Not so the inscrutable Mongolians and other Asiatic “slit eyes” that usually followed just behind the front. In their faces the German saw something ferocious and frightening and something not seen in Europe since the days of Ghengis Khan. Lurking in the back of every Landser’s mind, especially after the horror at Nemmersdorf, was the nightmare should this new “yellow peril” reach the Reich to run loose among the cities, towns and farms of Germany, among wives, sweethearts, sisters, and mothers.