Encountering violence and crimes in autobiographical narratives of Operation “Barbarossa”

Categories // War crimes

Gianluca Cinelli

 By Gianluca Cinelli


On 22nd June 1941, the German armies overcame the Russian resistance on the river Bug and started to penetrate in depth in Russia in a drunken state of exaltation. It was the triumph of the Blitzkrieg which many generals considered the only true form of military art, according to the legacy of Clausewitz and Schlieffen: the dimension of the attack was such that the commanders ignored what other units were doing, and the common motto was “forward, no matter what the others do”, in order to annihilate the enemy before this could strike back. For many a soldier this unstoppable advance was just a leap into the void, because after leaving the last villages of the Reich they found themselves alone in the vastness of an unknown land. Erich Kern remembers that people in Silesia greeted the marching troops in frenzy: old veterans of the Great War advised about the way to annihilate Cossacks and Russian infantry, women threw flowers and the girls kissed the soldiers and gave cigarettes and food. Nonetheless, smoke on the horizon and the feeble thunder of guns began to shake the hearts.

The encounter with war was, according to published memoirs that account for those events, first of all an exploration of an unknown, hostile land. The soldier’s life in the very first weeks of the campaign was reduced to a handful of actions mechanically repeated: advancing, resting, fighting, again and again, without knowledge of the final destination. Passing from a victory to another, German soldiers advanced in a state of exaltation and self-confidence. Thus, the narratives concerning the first stage of the Operation “Barbarossa” present several characteristics of romance: “we were advancing into the gliding day – wrote Erich kern – we kept going on and on along the road that stretched through a scary land” (Kern, p. 55). These warriors believed to bear a new order. The “gliding day” was the time of conquest and self-affirmation, and such an expression corresponds to that symbolism which Northrop Frye called “apocalyptic”, typical of high-mimetic romance that narrates the adventures of heroes and expresses the force of desire through the archetypes of the journey into a land of foes and dangers, of the fight with chaos and finally of the apotheosis in victory and triumph. The exaltation of the hero is one of the main characteristics of the memoirs of the early stage of the Operation “Barbarossa”, although many a witness remembers that the endeavour was also fearful and deadly.

The protagonists of these narratives struggle with the enemy and with the elements, dust and heath in summer, cold wind and snowstorms in winter. Operation “Barbarossa” is depicted as a quest for conquer and domination, as the victory on a bestial enemy and as the liberation of the world from the deadly Communist menace. The conquerors often looked at the vanquished with feelings of superiority and pride, and one of them remembers that the exaltation and the disgust were the most common emotions in those days, when “one could see everything as if half-asleep” (Pabst, p. 20). The march into enemy land also brought the German soldiers to an unexpected encounter with misery and violence: devastated villages full of dead bodies, churches converted into hospitals and piles of rotting corpses were the daily “images of horror and madness” (Pater-Mater, p. 391).

On the other hand, the steppe is represented as a mysterious and mythical land: like the sea, it is immense and prompt to suddenly change itself into a deadly and inhospitable place. The advance into this land is also an ethnographic and geographical exploration of outer borders between Europe and Asia, a barbaric and ancestral world of extreme contradictions, from the unlimited plains to the highest peaks of Caucasus; from the most advanced industrial area of Donetsk to the deep poverty of rural population. Eastward of Lemberg, “the last city of Europe” (Bauer, p. 34), Russia shows a “barbaric beauty” (p. 78) that almost makes the soldiers forget what they are there for. But war is inside the landscape, it is its “abuse” (p. 86): every hut and country house conceals a bunker and although the peaceful peasants look harmless they are instead partisans and soldiers ready to fight. For some authors such as Bamm, the penetration into Russia was also a voyage into myth: when he arrived in the Caucasus, he found out that the most humble hut of peasants was probably the same as Adam’s nest (Bamm, p. 93). Thus, when he went back to Germany in leave, he described that journey as Ulysses’ voyage to Ithaca. So far, the German war in Russia appears as a juvenile and heroic adventure, as the epic of the German people’s struggle for the conquest of its “vital space”.

Nazi myths and mythologies, such as the defence of the Arian race and Western civilization from the Asiatic hordes or the anti-Bolshevik crusade, permeate these narratives. Some witnesses depict Russia and its people from the point of view of the fanatical conqueror: the huts with the straw on the roofs are compared with dogs-lairs and their inhabitants are described as ragged, dirty beasts (Prüller, p. 84):


The passive Slav acceptance was annoying to the more agile and questioning Teuton mind and the ordinary soldiers could not comprehend how human beings could be so lacking in human dignity or spirit that they could accept to live in the primitive conditions which were encountered throughout the conquered regions. In letters, diaries and reports the German word Sauberkeit (cleanliness) was the most frequently recurring one when the writer dealt with the living conditions of the Russian peasant. (Lucas, p. 17)


Also in the letters from the front the invasion was initially presented as a just war waged in self-defence against communism and the “Judaic-Bolshevik” plot (Buchbender, p. 72). An NCO wrote on 10th July 1941: “the German people owes a great debt to our Führer, because if these beasts that here are our enemy only reached Germany, we would have such a slaughter like the world has never before experienced” (p. 74). Propaganda imprints letters with its racist arguments: Russians are called “Reds” and “Judaic-Bolshevik gang”; Russia is depicted as a miserable, backward land, and the soldiers portrait themselves as liberators and bearers of civilization (Golovchansky, pp. 18-19). Soon enough, though, the war became brutal: “dogs” and “beasts” were among the most common epithets for the enemy, the metaphor of hunting began to form the core of a new way of self-representation of the German soldiers, who also had to justify the daily slaughter of political commissars, POWs, Jews and civilians. The most fanatical combatants were students, above all those raised as Catholics. Their first letters describe destroyed churches, ragged young people who “bear the guilt of Communism” (Schleicher/Walle, p. 181), and crowds of Russians who greet and cheer the German liberators (p. 182). These “crusaders” glorify the death of their comrades as martyrdom, which is connected with “heroic death” (Heldentode), “loyalty” (Treue) and “sacrifice” (Opfer) (204). Nonetheless, when the Blitzkrieg failed in autumn 1941 these champions of the faith vacillate (199), and the rhetoric of the “crusade” completely disappeared from their letters by the end of December, when the Wehrmacht was defeated in front of Moscow.

Not all witness rets in this illusion of the beautiful adventure. The campaign was not like the former ones in Poland and France: the loss were high and a general crisis of the Wehrmacht was avoided only by pouring more and more replacements in the decimated ranks (Alvensleben, p. 190; Steets, p. 112). Many a veteran who had fought in the Great War noted that this new conflict was much worse (Keppler, p. 62). The first harsh impact with such horrifying nature of the war of annihilation consisted in encountering the huge mass of Soviet POWs, in a scene that recurs in many a narrative:


Without exception, they all begged for a scrap of food or a cigarette. They whined and grovelled about us to wheedle something out of us, they were like whipped dogs, and it mingled pity and disgust became too much for us and we did give them something, they would kneel and kiss our hands and babble words of thanks which must have come from their rich religious vocabulary, and then we just stood, we simply could not believe it. These were human beings in which there was no longer any trace of anything deserving the name human, they were men who really had turned into animals. We found it nauseating, utterly repellent. (Zieser, pp. 58-59)


The clash with the Red Army is mostly remembered as a struggle with enemies more similar to beasts than to humans:


Kahl geschorene Asiaten sind unsere Gegner, Menschen fast aus einer anderen Welt; vorkämpft und trotzig, die Fäuste geballt, liegen sie zahllos im Tod, furchtlose Soldaten, aber verschlagen und hinterhältig. Sie schießen noch, wenn wir schon 50 Kilometer weiter sind, aus den Kornfeldern und Wäldern. Aber man muss einmal vorn bei einem Infanteriekampf gewesen sein, um das zu kennen, was hier Kampf ist; sich gegenseitig steigernde Raserei, Gefangene werden nur selten gemacht auf beiden Seiten. (Pater-Mater, p. 388)


Witnesses mostly pass over war crimes in silence and so does the official documentation (Bartov). Similarly, the Einsatzgruppen reporters for the most part did not simply record the killings, but felt the need to use euphemisms in their report as to cover up the act of murder. In the same way they always gave ‘reasons’ for their actions in order to justify them” (Headland, p. 72). Among commanders, General Manstein wrote in his memoirs Verlorene Siege that the “Kommissarbefehl” was “non-military” in nature, and for that reason he prescribed his officer not to carry it out (Manstein, pp. 176-177; see also Guderian, p. 138). Nonetheless, he ordered on 20th November 1941, to persecute the Jews, who were accused of being the juncture between the Red Army and the partisans (Wette, p. 188). It seems less hard to come across some criticism on war crimes in private writings such as letters (despite censorship) and diaries.

In general, the soldiers found it disturbing to show themselves in the garb of brutal and insensible killers, especially because they were fighting in a war largely justified by ideological hatred and contempt for the enemy, as well as by racial prejudice. Self-censorship in letters – but also in diaries and later on in autobiographical memoirs – was as a defensive strategy against discouragement, after reality had destroyed the false perspectives of propaganda. Therefore, shootings, hangings, deportation, forced labour, mass mortality from starvation and disease among the Russian POWs hardly make their way into the letters. When the witnesses wrote about crimes, they often regarded them as something for which “others” bear responsibility. Peter Bamm, in his memoirs, calls the SS “the Others” (die Anderen) to distinguish them from the ordinary (and honourable) German soldier of the Wehrmacht. In other witnesses, a fortunate rhetorical device consists in pointing out the “moral dilemma” of military obedience:


If our unit had been given some hardcore Nazi troops, they would have received a rough time from the other men. We were patriotic soldiers fighting for Germany, not a bunch of Nazi brown shirts fighting for Hitler. Most of the soldiers I knew did not support the Nazi Party, even if the practical result of our military effort was to maintain the Nazi regime in power. It is an irresolvable dilemma. When you want to serve your country, yet oppose its political leadership. (Lubbeck, p. 194)


Also the extermination of Jews rarely comes into the discourse (especially in the letters) (Manoscheck; Letzel, p. 203) and it is quite rare to come across explicit testimonies (Jarausch, pp. 291, 315, 316 and 341; Hartlaub, p. 73):


Vor und unter den Bastionen del Flußseite liegt ein altes Werk, das wohl einst den Dünaübergang sperrte. Und dort unten hat man fünftausend Juden eingepfercht, Männer, Frauen und Kinder, die, wie es heißt, mit Abfällen ihre Tage und, wie die Gerüchte gehen, ihre letzten Tage fristen. Wir sehen sie jeden Tag dort unten auf den Kasemattenhöfen wimmeln. Ein furchtbares Menschengerücht dringt herauf. Das also ist der Gestank der Weltgeschichte. […] Sieh dir das mit deinen Augen an: was dort unten vor sich geht, versteckt und halb unter das Erde, das ist mit anderem Gesicht, doch ebenso dumpf und verkrochen, zu allen Zeiten gesehen, sooft Macht, Gewalt und Herrlichkeit über die Erbe rasselten. Und was tust du, wacker Soldat, da oben auf dem Wall der Zitadelle von Dünaburg? Du tust, was alle braven Söldner Babylons, alle redlichen Legionäre Roms in solchen Augenblicken taten: du trittst von einem Fuß auf den andern, du greifst mit zwei Fingern hinter die Halsbinde, um dir Luft zu machen. Und schüttest nachher einen Becher Wodka hinunter. Mir steht der Wodka in diesen Tagen bis zum Hals. (Matthies, p. 19)


From Matthies’ point of view, the German soldier appears as the perpetrator of a crime against mankind: “ich schäme mich nicht meines Volkes, ich schäme mich nicht meiner Uniform, aber ich schäme mich, hinter diesem Stacheldraht der Weltgeschichte, meiner selbst bis in den Grund” (Matthies, p. 26). It is rare to come across allegations directly written in diaries or memoirs. Some witnesses refer to crimes by attributing them to the allied, namely the Rumanians (Keppler, p. 82), others recall those days by using the rhetoric of the “vagueness”:


Real poverty was evident everywhere, and it did not need scientific knowledge to realize that the harassed-looking people were starving en masse. SS, German Field Police and Polish militia were patrolling the streets, obviously working closely together and chasing people on wherever they had collected in groups. Hollow-eyed children, often in rags, came begging for bread. Not having any on us, we were of course in no position to give them any, and though we had been told in special little lectures before we were let out of our train that they were enemy children, dangerous breeds, some of us found it hard to have to shut our hearts. Some who still believed in the basics of Christ’s teaching, must have wondered what had happened. A large part of the population was Jewish who, we were told, lived together in the poorest part of the city, the ghetto. The latter was no German creation, it had been set up by the Polish authorities long ago and walking around the town, we found that the Poles hated the Jews [...]. Many of us had seen the odd Jew wearing the yellow star in a German city; but this was all so different, so incomparable in scale, and seeing them walking around in their abject misery we did not know anymore whether we should hate these people or feel pity for them. […] When the train later pulled away from us and we saw the eerie, staring eyes from every one of the passing openings, many of us felt uncomfortable, if not guilty, but none of us said anything about the encounter. All of us had heard about concentration camps, but the generally accepted understanding was that only anti-social and anti-German elements, like Communists, homosexuals, gipsies and such like, were being kept in there and forced to do a decent day’s work for the first time in their lives. Though we were not far from it, I am sure that most of us at that time had ever heard the name Auschwitz. (Metelmann, pp. 30-31)


As far as war crimes represent the darkest side of the German war in Russia, the witnesses found no better way to deal with this disturbing experience than understatement: “we knew, but only to a certain extent…”, “we would have done something about that, but we could not…”, “we supposed that Lagers existed only to re-educate antisocial individuals…”, and so on. By pretending to be ignorant or by diverting their attention from an uncomfortable truth, the witnesses claimed to be innocent or at least not guilty, insofar as they claimed having fought honourably for their country and not for the Nazi cause. But one of them, recalling the image of a Russian child tore in pieces by a grenade wrote: “though trained to be arrogant and overbearing, I knew I was guilty” (Metelmann, p. 70).


For further reading

U. von Alvensleben, Lauter Abschiede. Tagebuch im Kriege, Frankfurt am Main, Propyläen, 1971

P. Bamm, Die unsichtbare Flagge. Ein Bericht, München, Kösel, 1964

O. Bartov, The Eastern Front, 1941-45. German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare, Basingstoke, Macmillan in association with St. Antony’s College, Oxford, 1985

J. M. Bauer, Die Kraniche der Nogaia. Tagebücherblätter aus dem Feldzug im Osten, München, Herbig, 1942

O. Buchbender, and R. Sterz, eds., Das andere Gesicht des Krieges. Deutsche Feldpostbriefe 1939-1945, München, Beck, 1982

W. Chales de Beaulieu, Der Vorstoß der Panzergruppe 4 auf Leningrad – 1941, Neckargemünd, Vowinckel, 1961

S. G. Fritz, “We are trying… to change the face of the world”. Ideology and motivation in the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front: The view from below, «The Journal of Military History», 60, 4 (1996)

C. Gerlach, Verbrechen deutscher Fronttruppen in Weißrussland 1941-1944. Eine Annäherung, in Wehrmacht und Vernichtungspolitik. Militär im nationalsozialistischen System, ed. by K. H. Pohl, Göttingen, Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1999

H. Geyer, Das IX. Armeekorps im Ostfeldzug 1941, Neckargemünd, Vowinckel, 1969

A. Golovchansky and others, eds., Ich will raus aus diesem Wahnsinn”. Deutsche Briefe von der Ostfront, 1941-1945, aus sowjetischen Archiven, Reinbeck, Rowholt, 1993

H. Guderian, Erinnerungen eines Soldaten, Heidelberg, Vowinkel, 1950

F. Hartlaub, Von unten gesehen, Stuttgart, Koehler, 1950

R. Headland, Messages of Murder. A Study of the Reports of the Einsatzgruppen of the Security Police and the Security Service, 1941-1943, Rutherford, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992

K. Jarausch, and K. J. Arnold, eds., “Das stille Sterben...”. Feldpostbriefe von Konrad Jarausch aus Polen und Russland. 1939-1942, Paderborn, Schöningh, 2008

J. Keppler, Überwindungen. Tagebuch und Aufzeichnungen aus dem Kriege, Stuttgart, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1958

E. Kern, Der große Rausch. Russlandfeldzug 1941-1945, Weiblingen, Leberecht, 1950

K. Letzel, Deutsche Soldaten – nationalsozialisticher Krieg? Kriegserlebnis – Kriegserfahrung, 1939-1945, Paderborn, Schöningh, 19982

W. Lubbek and D. Hurt, At Leningrad’s gates. The story of a soldier with Army Group North, Barnsley, Pen & Sword Military, 2007

J. Lucas, War on the Eastern Front 1941-1945. The German Soldier in Russia, London, Jane’s Publishing, 1979

W. Manoscheck, The Holocaust as recounted in Wehrmacht soldiers’ letters from the front, in The discursive construction of history. Remembering the Wehrmacht’s war of annihilation, ed. by H. Heer and others, Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan, 2008, pp. 27-49

E. von Manstein, Verlorene Siege, Bonn, Athenäum, 1955

K. Matthies, Ich hörte die Lerchen singen. Ein Tagebuch aus dem Osten, 1941/45, München, Kösel, 1956

H. Metelmann, Through hell for Hitler. A dramatic first-hand account of fighting on the eastern front with the Wehrmacht, Staplehurst, Spellmount, 2003 (1990)

H. Pabst, Der Ruf der äußersten Grenze. Tagebuch eines Frontsoldaten, Tübingen, Schlichtenmayer, 1953

Pater-Mater, Heinz. Ein Menschleben im Krieg geboren – im Krieg verloren, 1915-1942, Heidelberg, Schneider, 1947

K.-T. Schleicher and H. Walle, eds., Aus Feldpostbriefen junger Christen 1939-1945. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der katholischen Jugend im Felde, Stuttgart, Steiner, 2005

H. Steets, Gebirgsjäger in der Nogaischen Steppe. Vom Dnjepr zum Asowschen Meer. August-Oktober 1941, Heidelberg, Vowinckel, 1956

W. Wette, “Rassenfeind: die rassistischen Elemente in der deutschen Propaganda gegen die Sowjetunion, in Deutsch-russische Zeitenwende. Krieg und Frieden 1941-1995, ed. by H.-A. Jakobsen and others, Baden-Baden, Nomos, 1995, pp. 175-201

B. Zieser, In their shallow graves, London, Elek Books, 1956

Leave a comment

Please login to leave a comment.

Normandy landings

Troups marching in France

General Bernard Montgomery

Pilots in World War II