Happy Easter!

I will take a brief break over the holidays, as I’ll be busy with my Easter tradition – the GothCon gaming convention! Anyway, we still have snow here in Sweden, and everyone really longs for spring to come. The friendly soldier in the photo has picked a bunch of pussy willow twigs, so it appears like it’s the same time of the year there as here. In a couple of weeks, I’ll be off for the annual National Protection Force (“Home Guard”) manoeuvre, where I’ll don my Swedish Army uniform and  serve for a few days. I hope it won’t be as wet and muddy as last year…


Memories of Mennonites

Two soldiers posing with a sign in what’s today known as Morozivka, Zaporiz’ka oblast, Ukraine – what is the deal with that? To begin with, “Morosowo” was also known as “Hochfeld”. Why a German name on a place deep into the Soviet Union? Read on…

While German troops arrived in the region in mid-August 1941, the photo appears to have been taken after the first snows later that year. It’s also quite possible that the soldiers, looking rather fresh-faced, were new arrivals stationed to Morozivka in the spring of 1942.

The Mennonites is a Christian sect with many similarities with the more well-known Amish. They originated in the Netherlands in the 16th century, but some moved to the Vistula region in Poland in search of religious freedom and exemption from military service. As Prussia emerged as a local power, most of the Vistula Mennonite lands became part of the kingdom. They had to pay heavy fees in order to keep the exemption from military service. In 1763, the Empress Catherine the Great invited all Europeans to settle in various parts of Russia, and the Vistula Mennonites, not happy with the situation in Prussia, heeded the call and began settling in 1789 in lands won from the war with the Ottoman Empire.

Hardworking farmers, the Mennonites mostly kept to themselves, happy to enjoy religious freedom. Things changed with the government’s 1870 plan of Russification of the diverse ethnic parts of the Empire. Afraid to lose their status as pacifists, many Mennonites chose to emigrate to the United States and Canada. Whole villages moved off, and the Russian government, not wanting to lose the best farmers in the Empire, offered an alternative to armed service in 1880. In the chaos following WW1 – the fall of the Czar, the Bolshevik power grab, and the Russian Civil War – the Mennonite communities suffered. More emigrated, mostly to North America. With the Communist collectivization of farms, Mennonite lands were confiscated.

The Mennonites were part of a greater German-speaking population known as the Volga Germans, who had colonized the area following Catherine’s decree. During Stalin’s Great Purge in 1937-38, German-speakers were targeted and in many cases deported to Siberia. When the invading German Army entered the region in 1941, it was seen as a liberator, at least initially. Some Mennonites went on to serve in the Wehrmacht, some voluntarily, some not. Following the war, about a million ethnic Germans, among them Mennonites, were forcibly deported to Siberia, where 200,000 – 300,000 died from starvation and exposure. When Stalin died in 1953, his draconian policies were rescinded, but the German-speaking communities were smashed for good.

So that’s the story behind the sign held by those soldiers in the winter of 1941-42.


Happy New Year?

It’s New Year’s Eve, or “Silvester” as the Germans call it. The soldiers enjoy smokes and drinks, celebrating the end of 1943 and hoping that 1944 will bring about a change in Germany’s fortunes. In the background is the Christmas tree, a window covered by a blackout curtain, an icon and a religious painting. Uniforms jackets, equipment and Zeltbähne hang from hooks. If it wasn’t for the Obergefreiter in the black Panzer jacket, it would be hard to tell what kind of unit they belong to. The piping around the collar patch isn’t bright enough to be the golden yellow of an armored reconnaisance unit, which makes me think it’s the pink of the Panzer troops. On his sleeve can be seen the Kraftfahrbewährungsabzeichen, a badge awarded to experienced drivers.

Whatever hopes they had for 1944, they were thoroughly squashed by the end of that year. The Reich was bombed day and night, the Battle of the Atlantic had been definitely lost, the Allies had taken large parts of Italy and landed in France, causing a retreat back to the German border. The Eastern Front had almost collapsed. The last gamble to turn the tide of the war against the Western Allies, the Ardennes Offensive, had stalled. If anything, the prospects for 1945 were even worse, and if any of the guys in the photo survived the war, they probably spent New Year’s Eve 1945 in a prisoner of war camp.

So this wraps up the first half year of this blog. Next year, I’ll probably update it every two days, as I have to attend to other projects. Rest assured that I have hundreds of photos to write about, so it isn’t like I’m running out of subjects.

Happy New Year!

The middle of winter

These two sentries are lucky to have ample protection against the elements. This is probably the winter of 1942-43. They wear Omas (“Oma” = “granny”), the balaclava-like head protection, as well as heavy coats, and thick felt over-boots. As the regular jackboot had iron hobnails that helped the cold go through the sole and to the foot, the over-boots made stationary tasks like sentry duty more tolerable, plus they reduced the risk of frostbite. After that first disatrous winter of 1941-42, the German Army issued good winter gear. This was collected when spring arrived and sent to depots for cleaning, mending and storing for next winter.

“How’s your girlfriend?”

“I don’t know. She’s been so cold towards me lately.”

Obviously having some free time, these soldiers have built a snow fort and peopled it with a rather frigid lady. If she’s warming to their advances, she doesn’t let on. She’s more likely to have a meltdown sooner or later. They need real girlfriends…

Having a ball (for the New Year?)

Two Unteroffiziere (sergeants) together with a local woman, possibly in Ukraine, 1941-42. She’s making a snowball. Will she throw it at the guy behind the camera? Like so many other photos, this one has no other context than what I could figure out from the uniforms, the houses, and the embroidery pattern on her blouse, which I think indicates a Ukrainian setting.

As the Germans occupied large parts of Europe, local women had to find ways to manage under the new circumstances. Many men were gone – dead or missing in battle, as prisoners of war, or as forced labor. There were children to feed, so some women found employ as cooks, cleaners, washerwomen, and so on. Some entered relationships with German Soldiers, out of opportunism or real love. A minority became real collaborators, actively supporting the occupying forces and ratting on people they didn’t like. As the Wehrmacht had to retreat, many of the mistresses, girlfriends and wives joined their German men, but those who were left behind had to deal with the consequences of their choices. It could get really ugly…

So, the story of woman with the snowball is one of the millions of untold and unknown stories from World War 2.

Well ventilated

After the Christmas food, a visit to the field latrine might be needed. This rather sketchy outhouse doesn’t offer much in the way of privacy or protection from the elements, but on the flip side is that the stink is whisked away by the wind. Judging by the felt boots worn by the soldiers, this photo is probably from the winter of 1942-43.

Going to the crapper in the middle of winter can be an experience. One cannot wear too much, as bulky winter pants and coats tend to get in the way. Then there’s the temperature. I remember the last day of our winter exercise in early January, 1987. After several days in -27º C (-17º F), I had to relieve myself in the morning. I left the tent and went to the “fold-and-crap”, a sturdy cardboard box over a bucket, wearing my woolen uniform pants and a sweater. I thought the temperature was rather pleasant after those days in Arctic conditions. Half an hour later I learned that the temperature was a sweltering -16º C (3º F). How easily one gets accustomed to extreme conditions…