General unpleasantness

An unnamed British Lieutenant General inspects a Luftwaffe honor guard, sometime in 1935 or 1936. The German Generalleutnant right behind him is Walther von Reichenau. He was born in 1884, joined the army in 1902, and served in the First World War. After the war, he continued his military career. When he was introduced to Hitler by an uncle in 1932, he became a loyal follower and joined the NSDAP (Nazi Party), despite the army regulations that were there to keep the army and politics separate. Apart from furthering his career, he opposed the radical SA (Sturmabteilung) leader Ernst Röhm, who had pressed for SA to become the major military force in the new Reich. Conspiring with Himmler and Göring, he was one of the instigators of “the Night of the Long Knives” in 1934, where Röhm and other leaders of the SA were purged and executed.

In 1938 Adolf Hitler wanted to appoint him as Commander-in-Chief of the Army. Leading figures in the German Army complained and Gerd von Rundstedt, Franz Halder and Ludwig Beck all refused to serve under him. The job went to Friedrich von Brauchitsch instead. von Reichenau led armies in both the invasion of Poland and of France, and was promoted to Generalfeldmarschall in 1940. One would think that such an ardent Nazi and career officer would favor the plans for an attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, but von Reichenau actually opposed them. This didn’t stop him from being appointed to lead the 6th Army.

Once committed to the war in the East, he led the 6th Army in capturing Kiev, Belgorod, Kharkov and Kursk. An anti-semite, Reichenau encouraged his soldiers to commit atrocities against the Jews in the territory under his control (the “Reichenau Order”). On one occasion he told his men: “In this eastern theatre, the soldier is not only a man fighting in accordance with the rules of the art of war… For this reason the soldier must learn fully to appreciate the necessity for the severe but just retribution that must be meted out to the subhuman species of Jewry…” All Jews were henceforth to be treated as de facto partisans, and commanders were directed that they be either summarily shot or handed over to the Einsatzgruppen execution squads.

In other matters, he displayed some sound thinking, like recognizing the Soviet superiority in armor and the risks attached to it, the need for recruiting Ukrainians and Byelorussians to fight the Red Army alongside the Wehrmacht, and the risk of increasing partisan warfare. Reichenau used to go on a daily cross-country run in order to keep fit. On 12 January, 1942, he ran several kilometers in temperatures well below -20 degrees Celcius. When he returned, he had a severe heart attack (some sources say that it was a stroke). After being unconscious for five days, it was decided to fly him back to Germany. Walter von Reichenau died on 17 January 1942, when the plane carrying him to Leipzig crash-landed and he reportedly suffered a fatal heart attack. His funeral was performed with the usual pomp of the Third Reich. Hitler did not attend his funeral.

He was succeeded by General Friedrich Paulus, who took command of the 6th Army. Paulus was a staff officer who had never led a unit larger than a battalion. A year later, he surrendered to the Soviets in the ruins of Stalingrad, his army in tatters. What would have happened if von Reichenau, a much more competent and decisive officer, hadn’t died? One thing is pretty sure, though: if he had survived to the end of the war, he would’ve been one of the generals on trial in Nürnberg, and would probably have ended up in the gallows as a war criminal.

“Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden”

Gefreiter Hans Brasser was born on 20 October, 1917 in Aulhausen (near Mainz). He served in 4. Kompanie, Panzerjäger-Abteilung 33 of the 33. Infanterie-Division. On 17 June, eight days before the end of the Battle of France, he and some other soldiers were killed in action in Loury, just northeast of Orléans. He was 22 years old, and that’s all we know about him. His relatives might know about some grand-uncle who died in the war, but nothing more. At of his funeral, his comrades probably sang “Der gute Kamerad“.

The song “Der gute Kamerad” (“The good Comrade”) is the traditional lament of the German armed forces. The text was written by Ludwig Uhland in 1809, set to music in 1825, and has been translated to several other languages thanks to its universal nature.

I once had a comrade,
You will find no better.
The drum called to battle,
He walked at my side,
In the same pace and step.

A bullet came a-flying,
Is it my turn or yours?
He was swept away,
He lies at my feet,
Like it were a part of me.

He still reaches out his hand to me,
While I am about to reload.
I cannot hold onto your hand,
You stay in eternal life
My good comrade.

One oath to rule them all…

Luftwaffe soldiers swearing the Führereid with their hands on the officer’s saber, the swastika-emblazoned Reichskriegsflagge (national war flag) in the background. The Reichswehreid (national defense oath) of the Weimar Republic urged the soldiers to be loyal to the German constitution, protect the legal institutions, and to be obedient to the President and superior officers. After the Nazi takeover, the oath was changed in 1934 to the Führereid, and bound the soldiers to Hitler personally.

“I swear by God this holy oath, that I want to offer unconditional obedience to the Führer of the German Reich and people, Adolf Hitler, the commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht, and be prepared as a brave soldier to risk my life for this oath at any time.”

This made it hard for more rigid officers and soldiers to contemplate opposition to Hitler and the regime, as they regarded themselves to be oathbound. Still, there were several attempts on Hitler’s life by German officers, the most well-known being the 20 July, 1944 bomb plot, but unfortunately all of them failed.

Off to war

An Unterseeboot type VIIC about to leave its home port of Danzig. A military band is playing, the crew is lined up on the deck, and people in civilian clothes make the Nazi salute. Danzig was the base for the 8. Unterseebootsflottille. The flotilla was primarily a training flotilla, and it’s possible that the U-boat crew in the photo has finished training and is to join its frontline flotilla.

The U-boat war was primarily fought in the Atlantic, but after initial successes (“The Happy Time”), Allied anti-submarine warfare got more effective, and together with the breaching of the German naval code, losses began to mount. 75 % of the U-boat sailors never returned to port.

The most famous U-boat of the VIIC type was probably U-96, at least to the modern public. Immortalized in the German 1981 movie Das Boot, we follow the officers and crew on a months-long patrol in the Atlantic. Based on real events, the movie is regarded as the best submarine movie ever made, and one of the best war movies of all time.