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!

The Twelve Year Reich

A Luftwaffe soldier stands guard at an entrance to a newly built barracks. The text says “Errichtet unter der Regierung Adolf Hitlers im Jahre 1935“, which translates as “Erected during the rule of Adolf Hitler in the year 1935”. While the location is unknown, it isn’t impossible that the barracks are still standing. There are many buildings dating from the period that are in use today, most notably the Olympic arena in Berlin. In most cases, swastikas were removed and the buildings put to use again. The Nazis built with posterity in mind, and while grandiose plans like the reimagining of Berlin into Germania, the capital of Greater Germany, never saw the light of day, many other structures survived the war. Some of them appear in movies set in the period, like in Valkyrie (2008), where they form an effective backdrop. As for posterity, Hitler’s vision of a thousand year Reich fell short with 988 years, but it was indicative of the attitude that Nazism was to last once it had asserted dominance. History teaches us that empires rarely survive for that long, but had the Nazis won, we might’ve seen a post-war world much like the one in the 1994 HBO TV movie Fatherland (based on Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name). Let’s be happy that life in the Tausendjähriges Reich is the domain of speculative fiction and alternate history. Hitler and his cohorts managed to mess up things enough in the twelve years they got.


Daddy is home

Today is 8 May. 73 years ago, the war was over in Europe. People rejoiced, but the grim aftermath was still to be dealt with. Years of rebuilding began. Displaced persons by the millions had to settle in new countries. Rationing was still in effect. Millions of families waited for loved ones to return home after longer or shorter stays in prisoner o war camps. Some waited in vain for family members who were lost forever. The children in the photo appears to be lucky, as it seems like their father has returned home, probably after a few months in an Allied PoW camp. The photo has just a short caption on the back: “August 1946”. The kids, ages ranging from about five to twelve years, pose next to a small tent pitched from Zeltbahn shelter quarters in the garden of their house. They are the lucky ones, with their parents alive and a house to live in. The older boys had probably been members of the Deutsches Jungvolk, the section of Hitler-Jugend for boys aged 10 to 14 years. Hopefully, the political indoctrination didn’t last long enough to mar them for life.

Post-war life for children born just before or during the war wasn’t easy. As they grew older, they had to deal with the collective guilt without having had a say back during Hitler’s reign of terror. Some longed for the camaraderie experienced in the Hitler Youth, while others rebelled against their parents as the crimes of Third Reich became known. As the children in the photo grew older and went abroad, they experienced the distrust – or sometimes pure hate – that met many Germans after the war. My mother was met with suspicion when we went to Scotland in 1977, as she was mistaken for a German, and I’ve experienced similar reactions even 70 years after the war. Germans born long after the war was over have to deal with snide remarks. In the early 1990’s, I met a young German about my own age in Denmark. A long-haired, friendly fellow, he told me that he enjoyed going to Denmark, but that some older Danes could ask him why Germans went to their small neighbor. He usually shrugged it off, saying something about culture and nature, but the hostility of a particular Dane was the final straw. “Why do you Germans insist on coming to Denmark?” Deadpan, the young German replied: “Tradition”.

So, anyway, this is a day for commemoration. The Germans of today have nothing to be ashamed of. Those who were old enough to have participated in the war are in their 90s now, and then they mostly served as simple soldiers. Place the blame where it belongs – with the politicians and generals who allowed it to happen. Pay attention to what’s happening today, with governments with totalitarian tendencies pushing events closer to a new confrontation.