Untermensch?

In my collection, I have several photos of prisoners of war captured by Germans. Most of them are either columns of PoWs marching off to captivity, or of a few individuals who often even smiles at the camera. The photos express no ill will towards the captured enemies, and in some cases even curiosity and a certain respect. I know I might be projecting here, and that much is in the eye of the beholder, but then there are a handful of photos that make me ill at ease, as they seem to convey the photographer’s racism and sense of superiority.

People back in the first half of the 20th century were more racist then most of us are today. The British and French had their colonies, and had no qualms about using Indians and Africans in battles far away from their home countries. The US Army was segregated, Afro-Americans thought to be too stupid to operate machinery like tanks. The Japanese perpetrated horrible war crimes against anyone they thought racially inferior, which was pretty much anyone not from Japan. The Germans, fed propaganda extolling the superiority of the “Aryan race” for years, went to war with the idea that they were the race that was entitled to Lebensraum – living space – that “lesser races” were unfit to occupy. This ideology was practiced in the East, starting with the idea that the Slavic peoples by and large were less worthy and in many cases Untermenschen (subhumans).

Coupled with unexpected successes in the beginning of Operation Barbarossa and the lack of planning to handle the enormous numbers of prisoners of war captured, this thinking resulted in the death of several million Soviet PoWs. What I find troubling with this photo is that in my mind, it expresses the German soldier’s view of this Russian. With his slightly crooked teeth, somewhat Asian features, dirty cap and rumpled uniform, as well as the perspective, this is pretty much the Nazi propaganda view of the Soviet subhuman that doesn’t have a place in the Thousand Year Reich. This soldier’s chance of surviving past the first year of captivity was minimal. No one knows his name, but now you’ve seen his face.

Threat from above

“Luftgefährdet – Verschwinde! – Tarne u[nd] Verdunkle” A warning sign, which roughly translates as “Danger from the air. Take cover! Camoflage and black out [headlights]”. The terrain around Shchigry, a town in Kursk Oblast, Russia, is mostly flat farmland with occasional gullies cut by streams, offering little cover from enemy aircraft. Shchigry is located between the Shchigra and Lesnaya Plata Rivers, 60 kilometers northeast of Kursk. During WW2, the town was occupied by German troops from 21 November 1941 to 5 February 1943. This photo of a Pionier squad resting by the roadside, some soldiers enjoying a smoke, was taken on 31 July, 1942. While the Germans enjoyed aerial superiority most of the time, Soviet attacks were a reality. Half a year later, the Soviet airforce had wrested the control of the skies from the Germans.

You’ve been warned

“Hier beginnt der Arsch der Welt!” “Here begins the ass end of the world!” The marshes and forests by the Volkhov River, east of Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) and north of Novgorod, wasn’t the first choice to fight in if you asked a German soldier. The sign was one that was rather frequently photographed, but the other side of it less so. There it says: “Gehst Du von hinnen denk an Götz von Berlichingen.” “If you go further, think of Götz von Berlichingen.” This is a reference to the 16th century mercenary captain Gottfried “Götz” von Berlichingen (1480-1562), known as “Götz of the Iron Hand” due to his prostethic hand after losing his right hand and forearm in 1504. His name became famous as an euphemism for a vulgar expression Er kann mich im Arsche lecken” – “He can lick my ass”, also known as “the Swabian greeting”.

The photo is from May, 1942, when the Volkhov area saw extensive fighting as German forces cut off and obliterated Red Army units in a salient created after a Soviet offensive in January 1942. The battles were savage and the terrain didn’t help. By the end of June, the Soviet pocket was wiped out and the frontline restored.

As for Götz von Berlichingen, there’s one more point of trivia. In October 1943, 17. SS-Freiwilligen Panzergrenadier-Division “Götz von Berlichingen” was formed. It was created from scratch, with the majority of its original cadre coming from replacement units and conscripts, many of whom were Romanian Germans and French volunteers. The division’s sign was a shield with an iron hand. It was a second-rate Waffen-SS division, lacking many of the vehicles that would’ve made it a proper Panzergrenadier division, as well as short on officers and NCOs. It saw its baptism of fire in Normandy in the days following D-Day, June 1944. The climactic battle in the third episode of the TV mini-series “Band of Brothers” sees a unit from the division clashing with US paratroopers in the Battle of Bloody Gulch, south of  Carentan.

A ditched gun and a puzzle

Near the Desna River in eastern Ukraine, July 1941, a couple of soldiers belonging to Army Group Center take a look at a ditched Soviet 152 mm howitzer-gun M1937 (ML-20). The ML-20 was one of the most successful Soviet artillery pieces of WW2. Its characteristics positioned it between classical short-range howitzers and special long-range guns. Like so many other Red Army guns left behind, this one will probably be pressed into German service, designated as 15,2-cm Kanonenhaubitze 433/1(r).

The photo is interesting as it makes me wonder who the guy who took it was. On the back of it is pencilled: “Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum” (“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity”), a line from psalm 133. The combination of education and irony appeals to me. Did his erudition and wit see him through the war, or did he end up beneath a birch cross somewhere in the depths of Russia? If so, which psalm was sung over him in the church back in his home town? Or did he return after the war to pick up his civilian career? So many questions, so little answers…

“Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”

A Zündapp KS750 motorcycle and sidecar combination makes its way through the slush and mud of a dismal Russian road, probably in late winter/early spring of 1943. The motorbike rider is interestingly enough wearing a Soviet tanker’s padded crash helmet, instead of the regular steel helmet. It provides better protection and more warmth than the helmet and “Oma”, the tube-shaped, knitted head covering issued with the winter uniform.

The road is marked with poles, which helped vehicles to stay on course in the deep snows and blizzards of winter. The horses and infantry further up the road probably enjoyed the road even less than the MC rider. The German way of warfare relied on good roads and short distances, which made the campaigns in Europe a success. In the USSR, the poor roads and great distances, combined with the harsh winters and mud seasons, made the German Army lose momentum.

After the battle

Tallinn, Estonia: a set of photos, contrasting 1941 with 2017. Some years ago, I acquired a series of photos taken by a German soldier in the summer of 1941. He probably served in the 291. Infanterie-Division, judging by other photos indicating the approach to Tallinn. A few of the photos were taken in the city after the occupying Red Army had been thrown out, and were probably from early September that year. I searched for the locations where the photographer had stood almost 76 years ago and took new photos.

Top: view of Vabaduse väljak (“Freedom Square”), from outside Hotel Palace. In Soviet times, this was the “Victory Square”, before that there were city blocks.

Center: the 15th century artillery tower Kiek in de Kök, which is Low German: Peep into the Kitchen, alluding to the view it offers of the neighbors…

Bottom: view from the northern part of the Toompea (“Cathedral Mountain”, Tallinn’s “high town”, facing north-east. Here, I couldn’t access the exact spot the soldier stood in, but this was close enough.

I hope you’ll enjoy these then-and-now photos. Those of you who would like to take a closer look at Tallinn: do it! It’s a beautiful city, well worth a visit.

A bridge too far away

A Soviet KV-1 tank is abandoned, stuck in the riverside mud of some river during the fighting in the summer of 1942. As the Soviet tanks were generally superior to the German Panzers at the time when it came to armor and armament, most of the losses were due to mechanical breakdown, lack of fuel, or, as in this case, getting bogged down. Another disadvantage was the lack of radios; in most cases, only the platoon commander’s tank was equipped with a radio, and that was set to reception only, not transmission. Tank commanders had to signal each others with flags, something that exposed them to enemy fire.

The KV-1 Model 1942 (called KV-1C by the Germans) featured a cast turret, thicker armor, and a new main gun. Still, most Soviet tanks had crews of four men, with the commander also acting as gunner, which meant that he had to split his attention between the battlefield and the acquisition of targets. The lack of a commander’s cupola made that task even harder. The Germans had five man crews, where the commander could concentrate on the overall situation through his cupola, while the gunner kept track on targets. As all German tanks had two-way radios, they could coordinate much better than the Soviets, partly overcoming shortcomings in armor and armament. With the introduction of the PzKpfw IV Ausf F2/G in the spring of 1942, the Germans had a tank that could match the Soviet armor.

 

Thanks to Daniel Löwenhamn for correction and additional information.