Living in the moment

Here we have a junior officer, judging by the map case by his side. It seems like there’s been some horseplay in the snow, as his M36 greatcoat is covered in the stuff. This is one of the more light-hearted photos I have, a reminder that the life as a soldier wasn’t all about misery and death. Most of them were people like you and me, but they were often caught in circumstances beyond their control.

Bound by oaths and loyalties, they felt that it was their duty to fight for their country. One has to remember that information was something very controlled, with severe punishment for listening to e.g. the BBC world news. It took a brave man to oppose orders from above, and one has to remember that they didn’t act with the knowledge that the Reich would fall in a few years, but with the conviction that the Greater Germany would be victorious. If there was to be a place for you in the future Reich, you had to do what you were told. That it didn’t absolve them from personal responsibility was something laid down in the Nürnberg (Nuremberg) Trials, but if Hitler and his cohorts had won, any crimes had been forgotten, or even rewarded.

A majority of the men who served in the Wehrmacht survived the war, even if a third of some year classes were killed, and many more wounded in body or soul. After the war, they were busy rebuilding the Germanies (West and East) and their lives. Like so many veterans, they didn’t speak much about their experiences. They formed societies where they could meet their old comrades at annual reunions. Only among their peers could they feel comfortable. Some arranged meetings with their former foes, and it says something about the perversity of war that men who had fired at each other could sit down and share a beer and tell stories like an international brotherhood.

The number of veterans is dwindling. They are in their 90s now. I’ve met a few through the years, and listened to what they had to tell. Some of them have been rather open about their experiences when they understood that I wasn’t ignorant of what they had gone through. The young man in the photo – if he survived the war – is probably around 95 years old, if he’s still alive. We’re about to enter the year 2019, with the 80th anniversary of the start of the war. In about 20 years, the very last veterans will be gone. Their memories from the war, good and bad, will be lost forever.


Post number 400!

This Oberleutnant wears a sports badge, the Deutsches Reiterabzeichen (the German horse riders badge), which suggests that he’s a member of a cavalry unit. He’s holding a camera, and I find it appropriate to celebrate the 400th post with a photo of a photographer. The hundreds of soldiers, most of them anonymous, who have taken the photos featured in this blog, are to be thanked for their recording of everyday life in barracks, field and frontline. Their photos offer a glimpse into their reality which the more professional photos taken by the official photographers of the propaganda units didn’t always catch.

Most of the photos ended up in boxes or mounted in albums, and I can imagine that they aren’t exactly a source of pride for the many families that inherited them. This explains why it is so easy to get hold on thousands of photos on auction sites like eBay. But what if the Germans had won the war? The albums would’ve been cherished heirlooms, kept by proud citizens of the Groβdeutsches Reich as mementos of grandpa’s heroic time in the Wehrmacht. What did the men who took the photos think themselves? Was it just like ordinary photos, like holiday snapshots and photos of weddings, or did they feel that they documented the struggle for superiority? I think most of them didn’t have any big, lofty ideological motives – they just wanted to have something to remember their time in the army by.

A few photos in my collection are pretty grisly. Dead enemy soldiers, some burned beyond recognition – they’re not nice. Why would ordinary men take photographs of dead people. One might think that it was an expression of Teutonic barbarism, but it’s something pretty universal. All throughout history, soldiers have defiled enemy corpses, sometimes taking souvenirs like ears, scalps, and so on. I remember watching a documentary about kamikaze pilots. One had crashed into a US warship. The ship survived, but the Japanese pilot was just mincemeat. Someone found a femur, and cut it up into bone discs that were used for key rings. Another (in)famous photo is of a young American woman who had received a little gift from her GI boyfriend – the skull of a Japanese soldier. War makes decent people do indecent things. Taking a photo is a pretty mild form of souvenir hunting, all things considered…

I have many, many hundreds of photos, and I’ll try to put them into a historical context. We’ll see what 2019 holds, 74 years after the soldiers stopped taking those photos.

Life at the front

A young Gefreiter, probably on the Eastern Front and probably around the time Operation Barbarossa had started. He’s armed with a pistol, possibly a Pistole 08, more commonly known as a Luger, and has a pair of 6×30 Zeiss binoculars. The other men in the background carry pistols, too, as well as field equipment, which makes me think that they belong to a heavy weapons company.

The photo made me think what it would’ve been like serving as a German soldier in 1941. I did my military service when I was 21-22 years old (I got a one year stay due to studies, thus entering service a year older than most other guys in our company). Back in 1941, I would’ve been called up if I was 20 years old. The major conflict was the war on the Eastern Front, while North Africa was but a sideshow, and most other fronts were mostly a question of occupation duty. Many divisions raised in 1941 went to those secondary fronts, while the replaced divisions were sent east, but several ended up on the Eastern Front eventually. Considering that 39 % of all men born in 1921 were killed in the war, one’s chances of survival were pretty slim. That risk rose to 50 % or more if one was sent to the Eastern Front, while it sunk to perhaps 25 % or less if one ended up on the Western Front, and even less if sent to Norway or the Balkans. Either way, what you could hope for – unless you ended up somewhere not too detrimental to your health – was a Heimatsschuss – literally “home shot”, or in American parlance a “million dollar wound” – meaning a wound serious enough to have you sent home for a longer period of time or even better: getting you released from army service – but not serious enough to cripple you for life. Then there was the risk of ending up as a prisoner of war…

There was always an inital risk that one would be shot outright after surrendering. It wasn’t uncommon for the Western Allies to shoot German prisoners of war while marching them back to the rear. While not officially sanctioned, there’s ample evidence and eyewitness accounts that American, British, French and Canadian soldiers gunned down unarmed Germans. Still, as a German, you stood a much better chance of surviving if you surrendered to the Allies than the Soviets. Then there was the prisoner of war camps, which will be the subject of next post.

Surviving Hitler

A street scene in a German town. A bunch of Sturmabteilung stormtroopers stands to the left. Just like in Hollywood movies, there are swastika banners everywhere. For anyone not supporting Hitler and the Nazis, it must’ve felt oppressive. Those who could had already left Germany. Those who didn’t get out in time and who were in opposition kept a low profile, unless they wanted to risk ending up in a Gestapo interrogation room or a concentration camp. Others didn’t mind. They had it better than in the 1920’s and 30’s, at least until the bombs started falling, and enjoyed the sense of order after a couple of chaotic decades.

Today is the 74th anniversary of the assassination attempt on Hitler – or rather, the assassination attempt that was closest to success, as there had been numerous attempts before the 20 July plot. Less than ten months later, the war was over for Germany. People could breathe again, but there were many who genuinely missed “the old times”. It’s a phenomenon that repeats itself over and over. Those who weren’t negatively affected by the oppression, or perhaps even thrived under it, bemoan that the good old days are gone. We see it in Russia today, where Stalin is partially rehabilitated.

Germany went through a de-Nazification process after the war, but save for the worst war criminals, officials, judges, doctors and other people who had been part of the system got away with a rap across the knuckles and made to promise to not do it again. Had every Party member and other sympathizers ben put in prison, the system would’ve collapsed and the rebuilding of Germany would’ve become much more difficult. That was the mistake the USA made in Iraq after ousting Saddam Hussein. By weeding out every Ba’ath Party member in the administration and army, the country collapsed and the seeds for the current situation in the Middle East were sown. There were draconian plans to make Germany unable to wage war again (see the “Morgenthau Plan”), but cooler heads fortunately prevailed.

Winning wars are easy compared to winning the peace. Unless the peace is seen as just by the involved parties, there will be resentment that could make conflicts flare up again. Never start a war without having a plan on what to do once it’s won.


The battle is over, but there is no peace save for the dead.

Jean Lallé. Joseph Perrot. Pierre Chassin. For them and eight more French soldiers, not only the Battle of France is over, but also their lives. On 25 June 1940, France capitulated after 46 days of war. 85,000 soldiers had been killed, an average of over 1,800 per day.

I found some personal details on one of the soldiers, Joseph Perrot, buried in the third grave from the left. He was born on 30 June 1912 in Doubs, Franche-Comté (in south-eastern France). Joseph was the sixth of seven siblings, the third son of Jules and Emma Perrot. An older sister born in 1910 died the same year he was born, but the other children survived into adulthood. His father was a livestock trader. After completing school and his military service, he most likely found a job, perhaps in his father’s business, and could marry Valentine Estelle Roux in 1935. The young couple appears to have had no children. Joseph’s regiment, the 60th Infantry Regiment, was mobilized when Germany attacked on 10 May 1940. It was sent north to the front with the rest of the 13th Infantry Division, but despite their best efforts, Joseph and his army friends in the 2nd Company were killed in a battle near the village of Bergicourt in Picardie, south-west of Amiens. Their division had contributed to the success of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force, by slowing down the German advance. Joseph Perrot died just 23 days before his 28th birthday. He is commemorated on a monument to the war dead in La Chenalotte.

People with little knowledge of WW2 in general and the Battle of France in particular make fun of the French effort. “Their tanks had one forward gear and four reverse gears.” “What is the first thing the French Army teaches at basic training? How to surrender in at least 10 languages.” And so on, ad nauseam. Ha bloody ha. The failure of France to withstand the German invasion was mainly due to a command and communications structure that couldn’t cope with the more flexible German approach, plus the overreliance on the Maginot Line, the line of fortifications the Germans circumvented by attacking through Belgium. The British should be the last people to poke fun at the French, as French soldiers bought time with their lives while the Brits slunk away across the Channel. “The Miracle at Dunkirk” hadn’t been possible unless French units had slowed down the Germans, and they were enough of a threat to the German flank to make Hitler issue the order to stop the advance.

Less than 22 years after WW1, which cost France over a million dead, there was another national trauma. Think of soldiers like Joseph Perrot, and honor them by not telling stupid jokes about their perceived lack of bravery.

The lighter side of war

These eight cartoons were part of a large photo lot I bought recently. The anonymous artist has captured the men he served with in one of the Army propaganda companies. Unfortunately, there’s no way of telling which of the 27 or so companies it might be. The cartoons might’ve been drawn around 1943, judging by the cap in the last cartoon. Anyway, the artist certainly had an eye for people. From top left, we have the company commander, a Hauptmann (Captain) portrayed as the father of the company. The dog might be the company mascot. Next is an Oberfeldwebel, the company master sergeant also known as the Spieβ. The apron and broom alludes to the other name used for the Spieβ: “Mutter die Kompanie” – “mother of the company”. The next guy, shouting in dialect, is another Spieβ, as evident by the two cuff rings and black note book. He shouts “What are you, General?” at some hapless soldier who apparently did something not befitting his rank. Last in the top row is a Leutnant (2nd lieutenant), portrayed as a rooster and by all signs something of a ladies’ man.

First out in the bottom row are two officers reading a newspaper with the headline “What does the elegant gentleman wear in the field?” Could it be that some of the company officers strived for a dapper appearance? They wouldn’t be the first… Next is some sort of legal officer, but I haven’t found any information on the organization of propaganda units that tells what function he would’ve had. Censor? The third guy is a Gefreiter (lance corporal) brandishing a Luger pistol. The “UvD” on his helmet aren’t his initials, but the abbreviation of Unteroffizier vom Dienst (“NCO of the watch”). The loop on his shoulderboard is that of an NCO candidate. Last is a rather bullish man, probably an NCO, and by all apperances a guy of a more practical persuasion.

The propaganda companies were the only media units allowed at the front; there were no free news media or even embedded journalists in the Third Reich. They produced articles and movies, as well as posters and other items for local propaganda. Military and civilian newspapers, newsreels, radio broadcasts, articles for magazines like Signal – all of it were intended to convey the official image of things. Through the filter of Nazi policy, the soldiers and public were kept in the dark when it came to the fortunes of the war. While the quality of the photos and articles was generally high, it served to put a spin on the official version that made readers think that the war could still be won even late in the war. One of the darker sides was the obfuscation of the plight of the Jews in the ghettos, and the justification of the actions taken against them (while not mentioning the organized murder).

World War 2 was more than 70 years ago, but propaganda is still an important feature. We haven’t become more clever, and the ways of influencing our thoughts and attitudes have become if anything more insidious and sophisticated. Stay alert.


A Luftwaffe Unteroffizier floating a suggestion on how to invade Britain. Well, it had about as good a chance as Unternehmen Seelöwe (Operation Sea Lion), the projected German invasion of the UK. While the Brits felt real fear of an invasion, especially after losing lots of heavy weapons and vehicles in France and Belgium, they still had a formidable navy and air force. The invasion was never attempted, as the Germans didn’t achieve air supremacy over England – a major requirement in order to make a safe passage across the English Channel. In 1974, an invasion of Britain was played as a war game at the British military academy at Sandhurst. While the Germans managed to land, they couldn’t get enough men, weapons and supplies across in the second wave, and suffered a crushing defeat. The idea of a German invasion of Britain has been the theme for several novels, movies and TV series, though, like Len Deighton’s SS-GB.

As hard as an invasion of Britain would’ve been, invading the United States would’ve been an impossibility. One has to ignore many known facts in order to imagine a Nazi occupation of the US. If crossing the 40 km wide Channel was a challenge, crossing the Atlantic – a distance 130 times longer – was a pipe dream. Also, bringing enough men and gear to occupy the vastness of North America would’ve been totally outside the scope of the German Army. Sorry, authors and games designers – I don’t buy the idea!