One of 209,410

Private Hans Ringhardt was born in Rogzow, Pomerania, on 15 December, 1919. He was killed near Sorokino in Ukraine on 10 July, 1941, aged 21 years. Nothing more is known about him.

Of the 569,851 men born in Germany in 1919, 209,410 died in the war. That was 36.75 % of all men born that year. They turned 14 years old the year Hitler came to power, and had thus no say in the politics that ultimately led to their deaths. They were subjected to intense indoctrination for most of their teenage years. In war movies they are referred to as “Nazis”, as well as in games and cheap historical literature. Those young men didn’t have much say when it came to politics, as there had been no elections after 1933, and just a minority were members of the NSDAP. They suffered the consequences of decisions taken by others.

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Paying their respects

A couple of men from Propagandakompanie 612 musing at the rows upon rows of crosses at the German war cemetery at Langemark, West Flandres, Belgium, in June 1940. In the cemetery rests the bodies of more than 44,000 soldiers, many of them unknown, who mainly fell in the two battles of Langemark, which were parts of the First Battle of Ypres in 1914, and the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. The number of buried is about the same as the total number of dead or missing German soldiers in the entire Battle of France in 1940, which shows what a great success the latter was. Despite the losses, it was a much smaller price to pay for huge gains.

In the 1914 Battle of Langemark (usually spelled “Langemarck” in the literature), a number of German high school students, who had enrolled in patriotic fervor, were killed when attacking over open ground. They were inexperienced, but according to the legend that sprang up about “the slaughter of the innocents at Langemarck”, they went into battle singing patriotic songs and dying by the thousands. The legend was later exploited in Nazi propaganda, and once Hitler came to power, 10 November was chosen as the day on which the Party inducted students, and after 1938, every member of the Hitlerjugend paid a compulsory fee, known as the Langemarck-Pfennig. As a party publicist put it, “National Socialism and Langemarck are one and the same.” It suited the death-cultish tendencies of Nazi ideology, and mentally prepared young soldiers for the ultimate sacrifice in the years to come. Millions more of war graves would be dug before it was over in 1945.

“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.

In foreign soil

Here, outside the small Russian town of Pillovo, are the graves of some of the men of the 2. BataillonInfanterie-Regiment 220 of the 58. Infanterie-DivisionGefreiter Wilhelm Masa was 22 years old when he was killed in 1941, Schütze Henry Gramkow from Hamburg was 31 years old when he fell, Schütze Heinrich “Heino” Schneider had just turned 21 three weeks earlier, and Gefreiter Heinrich Viet was 22 years old. They were all killed in fighting on 25-26 August, 1941, a week after the division had taken Narwa.

The war went on without them. Their division took part in the long and cruel Siege of Leningrad (modern-day Saint Petersburg). Eventually, the Red Army broke the siege, and the division and most of the other units in Army Group North were encircled in the Courland pocket. Three years after taking Narwa, the division was back in the city, this time as defenders. It then retreated towards Königsberg (Kaliningrad). Small elements of the division were evacuated by ship, but most of its men went into Soviet captivity.