Great Authors on World War II:
Stephen G. Fritz
This is Part II 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. Please read Part I here.
To read the complete paper including footnotes, click here.
Stephen G. Fritz is professor in the Department of History at East Tennessee State University in the Fall of 1984. His specialty is nineteenth and twentieth century European History, with a focus on twentieth century Germany.
Book by Stephen Fritz
Endkampf: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Death of the Third Reich

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

At the end of World War II, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, fearing that retreating Germans would consolidate large numbers of troops in an Alpine stronghold and from there conduct a protracted guerilla war, turned U.S. forces toward the heart of Franconia, ordering them to cut off and destroy German units before they could reach the Alps. Opposing this advance was a conglomeration of German forces headed by SS-Gruppenführer Max Simon, a committed National Socialist who advocated merciless resistance. Under the direction of officers schooled in harsh combat in Russia, the Germans succeeded in bringing the American advance to a grinding halt. Caught in the middle were the people of Franconia. Historians have accorded little mention to this period of violence and terror, but it provides insight into the chaotic nature of life while the Nazi regime was crumbling. Neither German civilians nor foreign refugees acted simply as passive victims caught between two fronts. Throughout the region people pressured local authorities to end the senseless resistance and sought revenge for their tribulations in the "liberation" that followed.

Stephen G. Fritz examines the predicament and outlook of American GI's, German soldiers and officials, and the civilian population caught in the arduous fighting during the waning days of World War II. Endkampf is a gripping portrait of the collapse of a society and how it affected those involved, whether they were soldiers or civilians, victors or vanquished, perpetrators or victims.

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon at a special, discounted price, click here.
And yet the dominant theme running throughout the letters of these Landser is not so much disillusionment as stubborn resiliency. “In deep darkness, I sit among the vacationers (those on leave) who are returning from the homeland,” wrote Siegfried Roemer in March 1944. “Many are concerned about the aerial bombing damage. They speak bitterly and out of deep resignation, yet I am convinced that at the front each of them will continue to do his duty.” In the midst of his misery, Hans Pietzcker stressed, “We stuck it out true to our duty and responsibility.”

And in the same letter in which he expressed his loneliness at the loss of his old comrades, Will Thomas went on to note proudly, “The attitude of the men is also wonderful despite all of the difficulties and all of the privations.” Horstmar Seitz, so full of despair in noting that “the past is distant and dark and deadened by the blows of shells” nonetheless marveled, “and yet we stand here for women and their laughter, for beauty, for the homeland, and for ourselves.” Similarly, Helmut Pabst threw off his acrid cynicism to declare that in the struggle for Germany’s existence, “duty was not good or evil, but rather an inviolable attitude until the final consequence.”

Had the anonymous Landser, then, become the embodiment of Junger’s worker-soldier who thrilled in the dark, chaotic, inexplicable beauty of war, and for whom ideological motivation was superfluous? Certainly, one can find examples of nihilist bravado among the letters written by Landsers, many of whom seem consciously to have adopted a Jungerian attitude.

“The front line, the entrenched riflemen, have deeply impressed me,” wrote Hans-Heinrich Ludwig from Russia, “especially their attitude. These fellows are fabulous. A complete resignation to fate.” Seeking to explain this feeling to his wife, Harry Mielert claimed, “There forward in my foxhole I was a free man.... Can you understand that I yearn somewhat for the freer life in the dangerous trenches?”

During the retreat out of Russia, Mielert again emphasized this sense of existential freedom. The war, he claimed, “is again a great selection process. Whoever is not able to come along is left behind. The men abandon all their belongings and possessions in order to save their naked lives.” Similarly, Harald Henry admitted to distress, but claimed, “Our suffering is an infinitely beautiful, colorful, painfully lively suffering.” Confessed Hans-Friedrich Stacker, in a reference to Junger’s most famous state­ ment, “I have slowly come to the understanding behind the words: ‘war is the father of all things.”

Others also closely mimicked Junger. “Men die daily, and daily rise from the dead,” wrote Wolfgang Kluge in an eerie parallel to Junger’s notion of rebirth through war, while in another letter he touched on the notion of affirmation, arguing, “We who must walk on the shadowy side of life hang on to the beauty of life more than those who possess it.” War affirmed life, as life, to Siegfried Roemer, seemed to affirm war: “But to us the war has now become a life-form, to be sure full of danger and filth and blood, but we stand in the middle of it and affirm it to a certain degree.”

To Heinz Kuchler, it seemed “really curious to go marching into war with the attitude that we must have: without hate, without passion. And in spite of it we ‘fight.’ “Kuchler later noted that “the war here (in Russia] is being carried on in a ‘pure cultural’ sense, every evidence of humanity appears to have disappeared in deed and in heart and con­ science.”

At first glance, then, the Jungerian worker-soldier, the so-called new man glorified in the years following the Great War, seemed to be personified in the anonymous Landser, who endured the grim everyday life of war and persisted in his job in spite of objective considerations of victory or defeat.

“To have created the new warrior,” boasted Signal magazine, a slick wartime product of Joseph Goebbels’s propaganda apparatus, in 1942, “who dared to advance against the products of war techniques, was the proud achievement of the German Infantry [of 1918],” a feat which touched the Landser even now, for those front fighters had “passed on to the coming generation a legacy of the spiritual kind, the science and teaching of the new man.” Still, this image of the dispassionate, functional warrior obscures the complex interplay of forces that was the reality of the Landser’s motivation. It is not so much that this image is incorrect, as that it is incomplete.

Although some Landsers seemed to validate Junger’s contention that modern war produced an emotionless soldier acting in harmony with the machine but lacking any ideological motivation, such a reading for the average German soldier would be misleading. The typical Landser functioned not as a robot devoid of a sense of purpose, but was in fact sustained by a broad spectrum of values. Anti-Semitism, anti­communism, and Lebensraum were all inextricably linked with the Landser’s conception of duty.

The notion that Germany was under assault from an alleged “Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy” served for many as the prop which sustained them under the burden of war. “Now Jewry has declared war on us along the whole line,” wrote Corporal A. N. not atypically the day after the German attack on the Soviet Union. “All that are in bondage to the Jews stand in a front against us. We ourselves know exactly what is at stake in this game.” This sense of combating a heinous conspiracy was seconded by Private H. K., who asserted, “We are fighting against the Bolshevik world enemy.”

This racist, ideological hostility, when combined with the belief in a preventive war, produced a strange sense of relief mingled with the notion of performing an indispensable task. “The German people have a great obligation to our Fuhrer,” claimed a corporal in mid-July 1941, “for if these beasts who are our enemies here had come to Germany, murders would have occurred like the world has never seen before. No newspaper can describe what we have seen and what crimes the Jews have committed.”

To Private M. M. the purpose of the war seemed self-evident, as “just now one really realizes how it would have been with our women and children if these ... Russian hordes had invaded our Fatherland. I have had here the opportunity to see and observe these uncultivated, mongrel people.”

Indeed, “a complete destruction [of Bolshevism] is ... required,” asserted Corporal W. F. in November 1941, “[for) if these bestial hordes of soldiers were to fall upon Germany all would be gone that is German.” Karl Fuchs alleged that “the battle against these subhumans, who’ve been whipped into a frenzy by the Jews, was not only necessary but came in the nick of time. Our Fuhrer has saved Europe from certain chaos.”

“Every Landser has seen the strange character of Bolshevism,” claimed a soldier in a letter to his mother, “(and] knows what will happen if it comes to Germany.” “For what the Asiatic hordes would not have wrecked,” wrote Captain E. P. “would have been annihilated by Jewish hatred and revenge.”

Not surprisingly, since both Nazi propaganda and ideology hammered at the notion of an identity of interests between Bolsheviks and Jews, some Landser displayed a murderous anti-Jewish attitude. “The political doctrine of Bolshevism ... is but a purely political act of world Jewry,” claimed Wilhelm Priiller. “And just as the Talmud teaches nothing except murder and destruction, so Bolshevism knows but one science: murder and destruction, cruel and barbaric murder.”

To Hans Kondruss, Russia furnished ample evidence that “a whole people has systematically been reared into subhumanity. This is clearly the most Satanic educational plan of all times, which only Jewish sadism could have constructed and carried through. It will be necessary to scorch out this boil of plague radically, ... [since their goal] was the brutalization of a whole people, in order to make use of it as an instrument in the war for Judas’s world domination.”

Others, too, denounced the Jews. “Overall this country makes a ghastly impression on me,” wrote a soldier from Poland in September 1939. “Beginning with the roads, which are indescribably bad and dusty, then this dump with its many pests and finally the endless great number of Jews, these disgusting Sturmer-types.” To Lieutenant H. C., the “mass [of Jews] are filthy swine,” a sentiment readily accepted by others. “I long ago recognized the Jewish poison in our people,” claimed Corporal

F. K. in mid-August 1942. “We see every day what the Jewish regime has done in Russia, and in view of that even the last doubters are likely cured. We must and will be successful in liberating the world from this plague and we will not return before ... the center of the Jewish-Bolshevik ‘world benefactors’ is destroyed.” Russia thus served as a great ideological proving ground, as many Landsers previously skeptical of Nazi propaganda confronted the apparent reality of the Jewish­Bolshevik destruction of a whole nation.

Some gleefully noted that the Jews were, in a favorite phrase of Hitler’s, being “eradicated root and branch.” In Russia “the Eastern Jew now reveals himself in all his brutality,” observed Corporal H. K., himself an avid Sturmer reader, then referred approvingly to Hitler’s famous prophecy concerning the fate of the Jews: “that should the Jews once again bring it about that the nations are again plunged into a world war, it would be the destruction of their race and not ours.”

The Wehrmacht high command made determined efforts to encourage racist hatred in the Landser through general orders (such as the infamous decrees of Generals Reichenau and Manstein in late 1941 urging German soldiers to wreak destruction on the “Jewish Bolshevik” system), written propaganda (especially front newspapers), and by means of spoken propaganda, initially by “education officers” and later in the war through the use of the NSFO, whose task, as Wilhelm Priiller indicated in a letter to his wife, was “to support the battle from the philosophical standpoint and to educate the troops along these lines.”

Front newspapers typically sought to reinforce racial and ideological conceptions, referring to the war as an unavoidable struggle “for liberation of the Aryan people from the spiritual and material bondage” of the Jews. Accompanying the message that the Jews were “a plague,” was also an attempt in these newspapers to stiffen morale and urge the soldiers on to new exertions by emphasizing the “inner strength” to be derived from National Socialism, “the greatest power of our times.”

These efforts evidently met with some success according to a monthly Wehrmacht report from August 1944 on the mood of the Landser. The authors pointed to the good comradeship between officers and men and the general acceptance in the ranks of Nazi ideas as evidence of the rootedness of the National Socialist body of thought.

“In our ranks there are certainly those who fight for the sake of the idea of National Socialism,” Egon Freytag acknowledged in a letter from Russia in August 1941. As if to substantiate Freytag’s observation, Wilhelm Priiller enthused in his diary in October 1941: “No one knows what [ the Fuhrer’s] beloved voice means to us.... What a lift his words give us. Is there a finer reward after a day of battle than to hear the Fuhrer?”

Nor did the bitter fighting of 1941 and 1942 necessarily shake the ideological faith of many Landser. Trapped in the Stalingrad pocket, Lieutenant P. G. wrote on the first day of February 1943, and the last day of German resistance: “National Socialist Germany has never been taken so seriously as now.... We live in a time whose value will be recognized only many years later.”

“The Fuhrer made a firm promise to bail us out of here,” moaned another Stalingrad soldier in a perverse litany of faith, “they read it to us and we believed in it firmly. Even now I still believe in it.” Indeed, claimed Prilller of a Hitler speech in December 1942, “We sat there on the clay floor and listened to this voice that we love so dearly. With what enthusiasm we shall carry the attack forward to the enemy tomorrow! ... Even the last man ... has shown his colors for Germany, for his people, and thus for the Movement too.”

By August of 1944, with hope of victory fading rapidly, the Landser often looked to the ideological instruction of the NFSO as a welcome prop in sustaining morale and motivation. One officer reported that average soldiers express greater interest than one usually expects “in instruction in political and other current issues.” Another claimed that “the (ideological] initiative was viewed quite positively” by the soldiers who “listened to the lectures attentively.”

Obviously impressed by a lecture sponsored by the NSFO, Corporal W. P. C. related how “The mean­ ing came out in the speeches that our situation is serious, to be sure, but not hopeless. We must and will not be crushed by this almost over­whelming uncertainty.” Reflecting a union of Junger’s impassive warrior and the true Nazi believer, Lieutenant K. N. contended, “War must always remain a calculation of understanding and burning will. so, that it gives material strength a heroic flight.”

Friedrich Grupe, who trained as one of those front fighters who were to serve as “political shock troops” in the German army, noted that “everything should correspond to the social community of deeds.” In other words, spirit, idealism, and action were to mesh, as German troops were to be inspired not by lectures, but by “speaking as one soldier to another.”

This notion that ideology should be communicated from one comrade to another was important, for trusted officers and fellow Landser exerted great influence on the beliefs of others. As the Nazis surely realized, it was not necessary for all, or even a majority of troops, to be ideologically motivated; a hard core of believers, especially men respected by the others, served to motivate and bind the remainder together. Guy Sajer provided a glimpse of this dynamic at work in his description of a popular Captain brimming with ideological faith:

Captain Wesreidau often helped us to endure the worst. He was always on good terms with his men. He stood beside us during countless gray watches, and came into our bunkers to talk with us, and make us forget the howling storm outside. “We are advancing an idea of unity which is neither rich nor easily digestible, but the vast majority of the German people accept it and adhere to it, forging and forming it in an admirable collective effort. We are trying to change the face of the world.” We all loved him, and felt we had a true leader, as well as a friend on whom we could count.

Concern, friendship, sincerity, idealism: clearly this was a complex and dynamic relationship, something that could not easily be created through the establishment of an NSFO. Yet once developed, it could result in a formidable bond. “I couldn’t find the words,” Sajer later maintained, “to express the intensity of emotion which German idealism created in me.”

Many Landser, undoubtedly influenced by Nazi propaganda, thus depicted themselves as conducting an ideological crusade in defense of European civilization and the German community. But there was more to their ideological motivation than just preconditioned racist hatred. Indeed, the profound disbelief and disgust felt by the Landser at the primitive conditions in the communist heartland, the very brutality of everyday life, produced a sense of waging an apocalyptic struggle against a cruel and backward power. The hard fact of the matter was that the reality of the Soviet Union stunned the average Landser.

“This primitiveness surpasses every conception,” wrote Lieutenant J. H. in October 1941. “There is no yardstick for comparison (with Germany]. For us it is a totally odd feeling merely filth and decay-that is the Soviet paradise.” “Peasant houses with straw roofs which look more like dog huts,” Wilhelm Priiller observed of Russia in his diary, “a ragged, dirty, animal like people. The paradise of the workers was nothing but a conglomeration of hunger and misery, murder and mass imprisonments, slavery and torture.” “No matter where you look,” Karl Fuchs concluded in a letter to his wife, “you can’t find a trace of culture anywhere. We now realize what our great German Fatherland has given its children. There exists only one Germany in the entire world.”

Nor were these merely the sentiments of middle-class soldiers. Landser from a working-class background reared in the belief that Soviet Russia was the workers’ paradise often seemed especially shocked and revolted. Direct experience thus reinforced Nazi propaganda, as the men saw for themselves what they regarded as the cruelty and barbarity of Russia. “We are deep in Russia, in the so-called paradise ...,” Private H. wrote disdainfully in July 1941. “Here great misery rules. We all would rather die than live through such misery and agony.”

Raged Corporal W. F., “I am fed up with the much-praised Soviet Union. The conditions here are antediluvian. Our propaganda has certainly not exaggerated, rather understated.” This opinion was seconded by Sergeant H. S., who noted ruefully that “again and again one can almost not imagine how poor and primitive the red paradise is.” A working-class soldier commented in disgust:

Our dwelling for the night was a wooden house already occupied by a Russian family. We were bitten all night by vermin. The inside walls of this hovel were wall-papered with pages from newspapers. The children all had the protruding bellies of long-term malnutrition and this was the Ukraine, the great wheat-growing region of the Soviet Union. The satirical joke which I had heard in a Berlin night club years ago, but had never really believed had become true. “The first communists were Adam and Eve. They had no clothes to wear, had to steal apples for food, could not escape the place in which they lived, and still thought that they were in paradise.”

“Why the men can bear to hold out,” echoed another soldier in September 1943, “one can learn here in the east.”

Even the legendary ability of the average Russian to bear hardships seemed to the Landser to have something sinister about it. “The Russians are poor souls who live a rather wretched existence in their fox­ holes,” Harry Mielert reflected, then noted: “But the Russian is also more primitive, animalistic, and lives more eagerly and routinely in the ground” than we. Erich Dwinger noted in awe the stern, stubborn silence of wounded Russians:

Several of them burnt by flame throwers had no longer the semblance of a human face. They were blistered shapeless bundles of flesh. A bullet had taken away the lower jaw of one man. Five machine-gun bullets had threshed into pulp the shoulder and arm of another man, who was without any dressings. His blood seemed to be running out through several pipes. I have five campaigns to my credit, but I have never seen anything to equal this. Not a cry, not a moan escaped the lips of the wounded.

The combustible mixture of astonishment, disgust, and fear with which many Landsers viewed Russians caused them to see their enemy as something unreal, the product of a brutish and menacing system which had to be eliminated. “It’s not people we’re fighting against here,” concluded Wilhelm Priiller, “but simply animals.” This potent combination of ideology, idealism, and first-hand experience contributed to the extraordinary endurance of the Landser, as many, confronted by a culture which seemed both alien and barbaric, brutal and threatening, believed that they were fighting for their very existence.

If the resilient and resolute Landser thus went beyond Jungerian functionalism and embodied to a great extent the Nazi notion of the hard, dynamic soldier in the service of an ideal, what was it for which they fought? Certainly, the incessant stream of propaganda served to pro­ duce in the minds of many soldiers a legitimacy for the Nazi regime which encouraged willing obedience.

And the flow of racist and anti-Semitic ideological indoctrination undeniably reinforced a general sense of racial superiority on the part of many Landser. But this negative integration, so thoroughly documented by Bartov, by itself could not induce the amazing resilience under conditions of extreme disintegration demonstrated by the average German soldier, a point even Bartov seems recently to have conceded.

“When the fighting in the East physically destroyed such socially cohesive groups [primary groups], the sense of responsibility for one’s comrades, even if one no longer knew them, remained extremely strong,” he admitted in a significant change from his earlier position that the savage fighting destroyed all such connections. “At the core of this loyalty to other members of the unit was a sentiment of moral obligation.” And what did this sense of obligation encompass?

“The new sense of existential comradeship extended also far beyond the purely military circle to encompass first the soldier’s family and friends in the rear, and ultimately the Reich as a whole, if not, indeed, what the propagandists of the period referred to as ‘German culture’ and ‘European civilization,’ “Bartov asserted. “Both the worsening situation at the front and the growing impact of the war on the rear convinced increasing numbers of soldiers that they were in fact fighting for the bare existence of everything they knew and cherished.”

The extraordinary resilience of the German soldier thus also demanded the celebration of a positive ideal. But where Bartov referred to home, family, and country as the rather generic ideals for which they fought, many Landser, in fact, demonstrated a very acute sense of defending another ideal, that new society, under construction in the 1930s, for which so many had yearned after World War I, a society that would redeem Germany socially, economically, and nationally.