Great Authors on World War II:
Stephen G. Fritz
This is Part I of Stephen Fritz's paper—“We are Trying to Change the Face of the World:” Ideology and Motivation in the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. Parts II and III will follow in subsequent issues of the Library of Social Science Newsletter.
To read the complete paper including footnotes, click here.
Stephen G. Fritz is professor of History at East Tennessee State University.  His specialty is nineteenth and twentieth century European History, with a focus on twentieth century Germany.
Book by Stephen Fritz
Frontsoldaten: The German Soldier in World War II

Publisher: U. Press of Kentuck
Author: Stephen G. Fritz

Frontsoldaten: The German Soldier in World War II (1995) is a look at the individual German soldier, as reflected through their letters and diaries.  The personal documents of these soldiers paint a richly textured portrait of the Landser that illustrates the complexity and paradox of his daily life. Although clinging to a self-image as a decent fellow, the German soldier nonetheless committed terrible crimes in the name of National Socialism.

With chapters on training, images of combat, living conditions, combat stress, the personal sensations of war, the bonds of comradeship, and ideology and motivation, Frontsoldaten offers a sense of immediacy and intimacy, revealing war through the eyes of these self-styled “little men.”  It is a book not about war but about men at war and their experiences.

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon at a special, discounted price, click here.

“The man is the first weapon of battle. Let us study the soldier, for it is he who brings reality to it.”
Ardant du Picq

ONE of the enigmas of World War II has been why the average German Landser (soldier) fought so furiously in defense of such a deplorable regime. In an article written during the war and based on interrogations of German prisoners, Peter Weidenreich explained the continued resistance of the Landser by a mix of factors, among them comradeship, fear, good leadership, and faith in Hitler. Shortly after the end of the war, Edward Shils and Morris Janowitz, in their classic study of the combat motivation of the German soldier, narrowed the focus by asserting that the unity and “extraordinary tenacity” of the German Army “was in fact sustained only to a very slight extent by the National Socialist political convictions of its members.”

Indeed, to Shils and Janowitz, “More important in the motivation of the determined resistance of the German soldier was the steady satisfaction of certain primary personality demands afforded by the social organization of the army,” that is, by the cohesion of his immediate primary group, which met certain basic needs, such as comradeship, esteem, concern, and a sense of well-being and power.

Still, Shils and Janowitz hedged a bit by acknowledging the importance of ideology for a “hard-core minority of fervent Nazis in the German Army,” by admitting that the bulk of the rank and file retained, until quite late in the war, a “belief in the good intentions” of Hitler as a leader who had promoted the economic and social well-being of the German people, and by recognizing the impact of the National Socialist Leadership Officers (NSFO) in promoting ideological indoctrination among the troops. Nonetheless, in their conclusion Shils and Janowitz again stressed the importance of immediate primary group structures and comradeship in sustaining the fighting spirit of the Landser.

This almost exclusive emphasis on the relevance of the primary group for German combat behavior remained largely unchallenged for three decades. In 1978, however, Victor Madej returned to the issue of motivation. He rejected the central role of the primary group, arguing instead that German cohesion in combat stemmed from the military skill and efficiency created by an outstanding organization. To Madej, superior performance issued not from cohesion, but cohesion instead resulted from exceptional organization, training, and military skill.

Martin van Creveld seemed to settle the debate when, in effect, he combined the thesis of Shils and Janowitz with that of Madej in claiming, “The average German soldier did not as a rule fight out of a belief in Nazi ideology. Instead he fought for the reasons that men have always fought: because he felt himself a member of a well-integrated, well-led team whose structure, administration, and functioning were perceived to be equitable and just.” Thus, to Creveld, the tight-knit military groups endured because they satisfied “the needs, social and psychological, of the individual fighting man.”

Just a year after the appearance of Creveld’s work, however, Elliot Chodoff returned to the issue of ideology. Although agreeing on the significance of both organization and the physical and psychological cohesion of the unit, Chodoff emphasized the importance of ideology in precombat motivation, but stressed that once in action ideology gave way to primary group loyalty as a motivating factor.

It was left to Omer Bartov, then, to take the debate a step further by suggesting that ideology played a decisive role in determining motivation even during combat. As Bartov demonstrated in a number of works, the Landser, perhaps to a surprising degree, carried preordained ideological beliefs with him into the war, especially in Russia.

The consequence of incessant Nazi propaganda and ideological indoctrination in the schools as well as in institutions such as the Hitler Youth and the army was a body of men whose remarkable cohesion in war was a result of the binding force of these ideological beliefs. Bartov emphasized that the brutality of the fighting quickly broke up these carefully nurtured primary groups, so that the only explanation for the amazing resilience of the Landser lay in his ideological motivation. In his stress on ideology, how­ ever, Bartov focused exclusively on negative factors such as racism, anti-Semitism, and a brutal disregard for the occupied peoples.

Certainly, these malevolent influences existed and exerted an influence on the Landser’s behavior, but when this issue of ideology and motivation is viewed “from below,” from the perspective of the average soldier, a picture both more nuanced and complex emerges. In spite of historians’ fascination with events “at the top,” the true reality of war is to be found in the anguish, confusion, and motivation of ordinary combatants.

John Keegan has suggested that there exist areas where social history and military history abut. War from the perspective of the com­ mon soldier constitutes one of those areas. The Wehrmacht in World War II had almost twenty million men under arms, the overwhelming majority of whom were enlisted men, noncommissioned officers, and junior officers. These men came from a variety of backgrounds, yet had one thing in common: they lived the war from below, where everyday life could be frighteningly concrete.

Difficulties, of course, surround this approach. The Landser rarely had the time and solitude with which to record his thoughts concerning the nature of war. In any case, even if time and solitude had been at hand the bulk of enlisted men were typically unversed in expressing themselves analytically, so that many first-hand accounts remain sunk in banalities, or else speak of intimate matters of personal separation rather than of the character and texture of life at the front.

Often, the very soldiers with the most direct experience of battle remain least able to reflect on that experience in writing, some because of the magnitude of the trauma they suffered, others because they lacked the ability to express what it was they saw and experienced even though their level of literacy was generally higher than that of the average G.I. or Tommy. Reading their letters and diaries, one is struck by the remarkable level of intelligence and lucidity.

In part this was a consequence of the rigorous German educational system, but to a great extent owed much to the manner in which the Wehrmacht utilized its personnel. Unlike the American army which, until late in the war, shunted its most educated men into specialized roles, the Wehrmacht from the start deployed a remarkably high percentage of its manpower as combat troops.

Thus, even college educated men routinely found themselves in the frontmost ranks. Further, Nazi doctrine emphasized the notion of a Volksgemeinschaft roughly modeled on the legendary trench socialism of World War I, a national community whose social harmony, unity, and political authority rested on the integration of people from all walks of life, thus transcending class conflict. Since the German Army had a high proportion of educated men in the forward lines who had the ability to reflect on their experiences and commit them to paper, the result was a remark­ ably rich record of life at the front.

The historian seeking to understand the mind of the Landser must nevertheless exercise caution, since the reality of censorship meant that many Landser not only had to avoid any information of a military nature, but political statements which, if critical of the government, could lead to the death penalty. “The censor obviously might not see everything that is written,” confirmed one Landser, then admitted, “But believe me, much crap is still written home.”

Still, the flood of letters to and from the front (estimated at forty to fifty billion total) meant that many passed through censorship unopened; and the longer the war continued, the less seriously many Landser regarded the censor. As two of the leading authorities on German Feldpostbriefe (letters from the field) concluded after studying thousands of such missives, “The mass of soldiers expressed their opinions and views in a surprisingly open and uninhibited fashion.”

As a result, these letters and diaries provide valuable insights into this puzzling problem of what motivated the Landser. After all, no one forced a soldier to make positive comments about the Nazi regime, so that if some letters have the ring of propagandistic mimicry about them, others reflect a genuine sympathy and support for Hitler and Nazism. An army tends to reflect the society from which it sprang, so that if the men of the Wehrmacht fought steadfastly in support of Nazism, something within the Hitler-state must have struck a responsive chord.

As Hegel long ago pointed out, men will much more readily fight to defend ideas than material interests. From the German perspective, World War II, especially that part of it fought in Russia, could be seen as the ultimate ideological war, since many of the Landser understood it as a war of ideas, with the enemy threatening the validity of National Socialist concepts.

The staying power of the average German soldier, his sense of seriousness and purpose, what often went beyond sacrifice, courage, and resolution to fanaticism, depended in large measure on the conviction that National Socialist Germany had redeemed the failures of World War I and had restored, both individually and collectively, a uniquely German sense of identity. The paradox of war remains, as Robin Fox points out, “that so important is the defense of our ideas-our definitions of ourselves and our societies-that ... [we] will willingly strive to destroy [our] perceived enemies and exhibit the highest forms of human courage in so doing.”

In order to come to grips with the motivation of the Landser in World War II, one must look back to the impact of the Great War. Men had been transformed by the horrifying experience of the trenches. Indeed, the very concept of the hero, of the soldier fighting for his country, was redefined in World War I, when, as Jay Baird put it, “bare­ chested men stood against the full force of the weaponry of a technological age.”

The ideal of creating a new man after the bloodletting of the trenches stemmed from the belief that this sort of war had produced a new type of individual, a “frontier personality” who served as an agent of rebirth, regeneration, and new life, a person who journeyed to the limits of existence seeking renewal out of the destruction of war. This new man was not a fighter who enthusiastically sacrificed himself for glory and honor, as did the soldiers of 1914. Instead, amoral, cool, functional, and hardened, he could withstand the ultimate test of battle without his nerves cracking.

He was both a technological warrior who under­ stood that the war had produced a revolution of modernism, as well as a man of steel who gained personal fulfillment through a narcissistic dynamism of will and energy. A certain matter-of-factness thus marked the new man, who replaced the romantic relics of a failed bourgeois age with the image of mechanical precision. “The German factory,” despaired a French soldier already in 1917, “is absorbing the world.”

More than any other writer, Ernst Junger popularized this image of the new man and of a world in which the worker and soldier, made one by the energy of technology and the vitalism of war, fused to create a being who combined “a minimum of ideology with a maximum of performance.” War, he asserted, afforded personal rebirth through passage into the intoxicating world of instinct and emotion, where men thrown together in the hurricane of battle rediscovered courage and passion.

“Perhaps one must lose all in order to gain one’s self,” wrote Horstmar Seitz in October 1942. “We must throw away all culture and education, for us there is only one thing: to begin completely anew, to erect new values and create new forms.” War thus fostered both transfiguration and redemption, forging a community of men who shared a great destiny and encompassed a higher mission, a Gemeinschaft whose merits of action, decision, and existential commitment resulted in genuine self-realization.

Modern war, Junger proclaimed, transformed life into energy, so that it resembled a machine. Indeed, the new face of war led to the develop­ ment of soldiers with ruthless will, men who were resilient and malleable under the new conditions of battle, men who were “day laborers of death... for a better day.” Overblown rhetoric perhaps, although in a letter written in November 1944 Sebastian Mendelssohn-Bartholdy claimed that he “would like to be one of the nameless in the greater community who takes on every sacrifice for the war in order to serve a future that we don’t know and yet in which we still believe.”

To Junger the soldier, whose face was “metallic galvanized” and who stoically accepted pain, was a fighter made of modern material. “We don’t cry,” Harry Mielert noted from Russia in December 1943, “and our exteriors appear hard and like a bizarre personification of the pure manly, cold, warrior.” “This war has shaped us soldiers into something else,” mused Ansgar Bollweg in November 1943.

“With the sharpness of a predator’s eyes we recognize that the remains of the old world will be crushed between the millstones of this war. The middle ages comes finally to an end.... I see how in the epoch of masses and machines each individual life will always become more explicitly that of a ‘life of a worker’ and how because of that the war gets its cruel character.”

“You can’t afford to be soft in war,” Karl Fuchs asserted in a letter to his wife. “Indeed, you have to be pitiless and relentless. Don’t I sound like a different person to you?” A different person, indeed, one, in fact, very much like the image of the new man that Junger had described.

Junger argued as well that pleasure and horror were inseparable in war, horror at the destruction but pleasure in the will to sacrifice. “The deepest happiness of man,” he declared, “lies in the fact that he will be sacrificed.” To Junger, domination and service were identical, or as Reinhard Goes put it in November 1941, “I have learned that one is only free not only when one can give orders, but also when one can take orders.” Heinz Kuchler wrote from Poland in September 1939, “Our greatness must lie in the ability, not to master fate, but rather to maintain our personality, our will, our love in defiance of fate and unbowed to be a sacrifice to a world order that is not ours.” After all, Junger asserted, war was “a matter of taste.”

Sacrifice and massive loss of life became the most striking reality of World War II for the Landser, especially on the eastern front. “After a week-long ... march, my division went into action at the Dnieper,” wrote Gerhard Meyer in July 1941. “The first encounter of our side with a superior force without artillery preparation cost blood on top of blood.

The positive strength of the division had now sunk under half, eighty percent of the officers had fallen, but we remained engaged.” Nor was his outfit unique. By mid-September 1941, Corporal E. K. of the 98th Infantry Division despaired, “In our company we have 75% casualties.

On 26 October, there were only 20 men,” he wrote. “In each regiment of our division so few remained that a battalion was disbanded. So now each regiment has two battalions and each battalion has two rifle companies, with a strength of 65 men.” Though reduced in strength, these Landsers now faced a massive Soviet counterattack. Writing on Christmas eve 1941, Hans Pietzcker remarked of the savage fighting, “of my thirty-six men there are still only six with me.”

Caught in the same maelstrom before Moscow, Harald Henry exclaimed to his parents, in a burst of unguarded optimism, his “increasing certainty of coming even out of this mess, even if as the last single man of the entire company.”15 The next day Henry was killed northwest of Moscow. Similarly, Will Thomas noted in January 1942, “I am now the only remaining officer of the regiment present since the summer and the only one of the company commanders who were appointed in the fall.”

Two weeks later, Sergeant W. H. lamented, “We marched off with 200 men, and now our company is only 140 men strong.” Martin Lindner commented dryly in September 1942 that his unit had been placed in the most dangerous position in the line, “therefore we also have high losses…In my company there are only a few . . . who have been in action as long as I without being wounded.” Little more than a month later, Lindner, just back from leave and plunged immediately into battle, noted that “two-thirds of my platoon have become casualties.” Lindner himself was killed three days later.

After the first brutal year of the war in Russia, then, the Wehrmacht had already suffered crippling casualties, losses which exploded those primary groups so carefully nurtured by the German Army. In the midst of the fierce fighting around Sevastopol in July 1942, Friedrich Haag reflected on the stark reality produced by this enormous loss of life, “I have recently experienced how difficult it is to lead a company into fire and to sacrifice men whom you hardly know ... They fall next to you, and perhaps one cries: ‘Lieutenant, you must write home,’ and you don’t even know what his name is.”

Soldiers unknown even to each other thus faced an anonymous death on an obscure battlefield. “A letter to an unknown soldier of the company arrived,” Wilhelm Priiller noted ruefully in his diary in February 1942, “in which a girl asked to have information about her dead fiancée. No one wanted to answer it, because there’s no one here anymore who was there when he fell.”