The fine studio photo of a young Gefreiter manages to convey the self-assuredness of a proud Prussian soldier. He belongs to one of the machinegun companies of Infanterie-Regiment 311, which was part of the 217. Infanterie-Division. He has been awarded the Iron Cross, 2nd class, the Infantry Assault Badge, and the Wound Badge in black. His M1935 Waffenrock isn’t part of his personal uniform, but on loan for the photo session.
I was about to post just the studio photo, when I remembered that I had some photos of troops from 217 ID. Sure enough, our young warrior is in the middle of the front row in the top photo. The photos taken in the field show him and his comrades during the winter of 1941-42, when they were posted to Oranienbaum, west of Leningrad (Saint Petersburg). The divisional sign can be seen on the truck in the lower photo.
The division was formed in August 1939 in Allenstein in East Prussia (now Olsztyn in Poland). The division took part in the invasion of Poland, where it was mainly used as a reserve unit. It participated in the fighting in Belgium and France, before going back to East Prussia in July, 1940, where it spent almost a year securing the border. In June 1941 it was part of Army Group North, invading the USSR and capturing Tallinn in Estonia. It saw action on the Leningrad front, but was rushed to Ukraine in October 1943 in order to stem the Red Army advance. The Infanterie-Regiment 311 was disbanded together with the rest of the division in November 1943 after suffering heavy losses.
What’s the thing about having no home to retrun to? East Prussia had been Germanized in the 13th century, and became a province that changed owners over the centuries. The capital was Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). In 1525, it became the Duchy of Prussia, and later a kingdom. When the German Empire was created in 1871, Prussia was the leading state, but after WW1 and the Treaty of Versailles, Prussia was split between Poland and Germany, the Eastern (German) part separated from the rest of the country. This was changed in 1939 and the invasion of Poland, where reconnecting East Prussia with Germany was one of Hitler’s reasons for the attack. East Prussia was relatively unaffected by the war until the vengeful Red Army invaded in early 1945. The civilian population, rightly fearing massacres and rapes, began a mass exodus, and a majority of the 2.2 million Prussians, 85 % of whom were ethnic Germans, fled westwards or were expelled later in ethnic cleansings. Hundreds of thousands lost their lives during those last months, by bombs, in the sinkings of evacuation ships, or freezing to death on the road to safety. This expulsion is still the largest in history, but seldom talked about. East Prussia was divided between the USSR and Poland, and ceased to be a German territory.
It’s funny that it was years after I got the photos, which were part of a bigger lot, that I saw the connection between studio portrait and the dozen or so MG company photos. Could it be an indication that the young man survived the war, as the photos had somehow made it to the west? It’s impossible to know. What we do know is that he didn’t have a home to return to.