Stolz des Herrenvolks?

The image of the German soldier as some sort of superhuman has been perpetuated through war movies, photos in books and articles (often featuring pics taken by Wehrmacht propaganda units), as the tough opposition in computer games, and – I think – a need to paint the enemy larger than life in order to make the victory over him so much more impressive.

Here we have a study in contrasts. To the left, a blond Germanic warrior, the typical  jack-booted soldier, probably on occupation duty somewhere in France in 1940-41. Just add the iconic helmet, and you would have a nice propaganda picture. I’m pretty sure he was popular with the girls, too. Then we have the rather lumpy-looking Unteroffizier August of the Luftwaffe in Greece, 29 October, 1943… The guy looks like a regular human being (with big feet, though), and if he was ever to star in a movie or TV show, it would be as the bumbling sergeant in some POW camp comedy.

We know absolutely nothing about who August was as a person. A dyed-in-the-wool Nazi or someone who just did what he was told, and happy to be in a relatively safe and cushy location? One thing is for sure, though: he isn’t the image of the bad “Nazi” soldier favored in movies and games. Perhaps he would be like Gert Fröbe’s rotund sergeant in “The Longest Day”, but mostly for comic relief. Like millions of his countrymen, he served an evil cause, but rarely because of a need to be a bad person or to live out some power trip.

That’s the problem with humans – under certain circumstances, good people can be made to do (or at least actively or passively support) bad things. Before we pass judgment on them, we should ask ourselves: “What would I do in the same situation?”. In most totalitarian systems, the rebels and resistance fighters have formed a small minority. Most people just want to manage their own lives, keeping their heads down as to not attract unwanted attention, and perhaps secretly long for a change, only not with them in the first rank.

Reading Sebastian Haffner’s “Defying Hitler” gives an interesting look into life as a young man in the tumultuous times of 1920’s and 30’s Germany, and that the descent into a totalitarian state was gradual. Few people could foresee what was coming, just as we have been surprised by changes in our own time. It is said that history repeats itself, but it is more like that we who know something about history see leaders who haven’t learned anything from history repeating the mistakes of previous generations. All we can strive for is to make the right decisions. What those are? We’ll know with hindsight…

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Chariot of feuer

This photo most likely depicts a parade in France, 1940, possibly in Paris after the surrender of the French army. An Sd.Kfz. 251/4 pulling a field gun rumbles past a Panzer crewman holding a banner of some sort. His padded beret helps date the photo, as it was officially withdrawn from use in January 1941.

The distinctive Sd.Kfz. 251 was the main armored halftrack used by the Heer. It was mainly used by Panzergrenadier troops, but also as a support vehicle with a range of heavier weapons. With 15,252 vehicles made (all versions), there were never enough to go around, which made the Germans use the halftracks for one Panzergrenadier regiment in a Panzer division, the other riding on trucks instead.

It held a squad of soldiers (10 soldiers), a driver and a commander. It was capable of a road speed of 53 km/h (33 mph). It had very good cross-country capability, but the interleaved wheels were susceptible to getting clogged by heavy mud and icy snow.

There are several Sd.Kfz. 251s in running condition, but in war movies, the Czech-built copy OT-810 is commonly used. It has a roof over the crew compartment, so it has to be modified in order to look like the original. The Germans used the American M3 halftrack if they captured one, so if you see one in a movie, it hasn’t to be a goof. The US vehicle had better performance, but without the Sd.Kfz. 251, the Germans would’ve had a harder time with their Blitzkrieg.

All in the family

This German family portrait shows the men engaged in different aspects of the Nazi state. Judging by the uniforms, it was taken in 1934 or later. The father is a member of the SA – the Sturmabteilung, the infamous Stormtroopers – with the rank of SA-Scharführer (equivalent to an Army NCO), and wearing the brown service tunic introduced in 1932. The two sleeve rings (SA-Ehrenstreifen) identify him as an “old fighter” with a join date of 1931 (those who joined after the Nazi power-grab in 1933 were seen as opportunists by some). He wears two sports badges, the Deutsches Reiterabzeichen and the Deutsches Fahrerabzeichen (the German horse rider’s and the horse-and-wagon driver’s badges, respectively).

The younger son (on the left) is in the RAD (Reichsarbeitsdienst, National Labor Service), doing his compulsory six months of service with the rank of Arbeitsmann (worker). The older son is wearing the old-style Army service tunic used for parades and other formal occasions. While the mother and daughter are in civilian clothing, it’s a rather safe bet that the are engaged in a Nazi organization for women or two, as the Party permeated every aspect of the State. Some Germans embraced the new order with enthusiasm, while others paid lip service and did the minimum in order to not appear in opposition.

It is hard for those of us who live in democratic countries to imagine life back then. What would one do? Go for it all, just hang on, or be a rebel? The Nazi state never had a complete grip on the German people, but enough people went along with it for it to work, even though the much-touted “Thousand Year Reich” only lasted for twelve years…

 

Thanks to Axis History Forum members HPL2008 and Waleed Y. Majeed for the identification of the SA uniform.

The last straw

Weary German soldiers take a rest, perhaps during the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. They have crashed on the ground, not bothering to remove their equipment. Some appear to be napping. One would think that none would be up to a prank, but the Unteroffizier in the middle of the photo has another idea. Reaching across der Spieß – the company sergeant – he is about to tickle his colleague in the ear with a straw. There’s always a guy like that: the joker in the platoon.

Kurtz und Lang

I have a few photos in my collection which have the same theme: the tallest and the shortest guys in the company standing next to each other. This photo show two buddies, probably around 1939, posing for comedic effect.

To calculate their height, I measured the ammunition pouches. In real life, they are 10 centimeters high, which gave me something to base my calculations on. Give or take a couple centimeters, “Kurtz” is 160 cm’s (5′ 3″), while his buddy “Lang” is 197 cm’s (6′ 6″). It does the German uniform supply system credit that they were both able to get uniforms that fitted, even if “Lang” wears the older three-buckle laced boots, presumably because his size was hard to find.

Short soldiers were ideal as tank crews because of the cramped confines of the vehicles; the third highest-scoring tank ace of all time, Otto Carius, was about 160 cm’s tall. Another Otto was Otto Skorzeny, who at 192 cm’s towered over even other members of the Waffen-SS, in which he was an officer and known as a fearless commando.

The average male was shorter in the 1940’s, in some cases a result of malnutrition after WW1 and during the financial crisis in the 1920’s. On the other hand, people were more slim due to exercise and healthier diets.

Bottom of the barrel

A 10,5 cm schwere Kanone 18 has suffered an internal explosion, completely destroying the field gun. “But isn’t a gun supposed to be able to take an explosion? After all, the charge firing the grenade is pretty strong”, people might object. Yes, but there can be several reasons for a barrel getting destroyed like that. One is intentional destruction, “spiking the gun” in order to deny it to the enemy in case you have to abandon your position, but haven’t got the time or means to take the gun with you. There were even special charges for that (Sprengpatrone Z), made for different calibers. Another reason could be a worn barrel, but there were shot counters that were used to keep track on how many rounds had been fired so the barrel could be replaced in time. Still, a production flaw, like a miniscule crack or small impurity, could lead to a catastrophic failure. A third reason could be the grenade going off or getting stuck right after the charge has been ignited. While the gun breech can take the force of a blast, the barrel itself isn’t thick enough to withstand the force of an explosion. It could be really messy for the gun crew; if they were lucky, they got away with just the shock, but the blast and shrapnel could just as well maim or kill them. There’s no hint of the fate of the crew manning the gun in the photo. For their sake, I hope they survived to tell the tale in their letters home.

Bring on the light show

The sky over a nameless Soviet town is lit up by searchlights and anti-aircraft fire. Nighttime Red Army Air Force raids kept the Germans on their toes, especially the “Night Witches”, female pilots who in the cover of darkness made life miserable for enemy troops. The town in the photo is protected by AA guns, mainly 2.0 cm automatic cannons and the famous 8.8 cm gun, putting up quite a light show as well as a bloody racket. It is doubtful the anti aircraft gunners brought down any enemy aircraft, but I guess few in that town got a full night’s sleep.