Great Authors on World War II:
Stephen G. Fritz
This is Part III 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. Read Part I here. Read Part II 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.
Ostkrieg: Hitler's War of Extermination in the East

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

On June 22, 1941, Germany launched the greatest land assault in history on the Soviet Union.. As the key theater of the war for the Germans, the eastern front consumed enormous levels of resources and accounted for 75 percent of all German casualties.

In Ostkrieg: Hitler's War of Extermination in the East, Stephen G. Fritz incorporates historical research from the last several decades into an accessible, comprehensive, and coherent narrative. This in-depth account of the Russo-German War from a German perspective covers all aspects of the eastern front, demonstrating the interrelation of military events, economic policy, resource exploitation, and racial policy that first motivated the invasion.

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

The notion of Volksgemeinschaft (national community), that seductive idea of a harmonious society which would eliminate class conflict and integrate the individual into the life of the community, holds the key to unlocking the attraction National Socialism asserted for many Landser. Although the importance of the ideal of Volksgemeinschaft as an agent of social integration within the Third Reich has long been overlooked, denied, or downplayed, it contributed greatly to Nazi success in creating a sense that a new society was in the offing. Among the young, especially, the belief in this national community represented the vital principle around which a new German society was to be organized.

In order to understand the motivational power of Volksgemeinschaft for the German soldier in World War II, one must again go back to World War I, at least in its mythical dimension. The outbreak of the Great War illustrated the intoxicating power of the idea of Volksgemeinschaft. With the so-called Burgfrieden of 1914, Germany seemed to have overcome class division and internal disunity, as people from every segment of society came together in a profound wave of national enthusiasm. This promise of unity dazzled many Germans, for whom the war seemed the birth pangs of, as Thomas Mann put it, a “spiritual revolution.”

Writing to the Svenska Dagbladet in May 1915, Mann neatly encapsulated this notion: “Why did Germany recognize and welcome [the war] when it broke upon us because she recognized in it the herald of her Third Reich. -What is her Third Reich then? -It is the synthesis of might and mind, of might and spirit-it is her dream and her demand, her highest war aim.”

In August 1914, many Germans believed they had achieved just such a synthesis, as a wave of national unity gripped Germany in a euphoric millenarian outpouring of emotion. “A god at last,” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke in the heady first week of war, later referring to the magical feeling of unity and idealism as “a new creature invigorated by death.” Similarly, Stefan Zweig noted that “thousands and thousands felt what they should have felt in peacetime-that they belonged together.” The war, for many Germans, merged personal duty with communal demands to create a powerful sense of shared destiny.

This mood deeply affected Adolf Hitler, the ultimate outsider to this point in his life, for he claimed later that World War I made “the greatest of all impressions,” as he discovered that “individual interest could be subordinated to the common interest.” The trenches of the Great War thus proved a breeding ground for a new idea, the notion that the front experience had forged a community of men in which all social and material distinctions disappeared. The memory of this unity, especially in its mythical dimensions, ensured that the spirit of 1914, when a new society beckoned, would remain a potent political force in Germany.

How disillusioning the postwar period must have been for those Germans imbued with the spirit of 1914, with its political fragmentation, economic conflict, interest group squabbling, and national humiliation.

What once had been tangible, the great accomplishment of the war, now appeared lost. A mood of crisis was palpable. The postwar years kindled in Germans a restlessness, a desire for a restored sense of community to replace the lost unity of 1914. “It is not freedom [Germans] are out to find,” Hugo von Hofmannstahl claimed in 1927, “but communal bonds.” The secret of Nazi popularity lay in understanding this, of reviving the passions of 1914. National Socialism, as an organizing idea, owed its very existence to the war, to the model of “trench socialism” held so dear by Hitler.

As Walter von Brauchitsch, the commander in chief of the army, noted in 1938, Hitler simply “recast the great lessons of the front-line soldier in the form of National Socialist philosophy. Above and beyond all classes, a new unique fellowship of the nation has been created.” The Nazis promised a new beginning, a national community that would restore the lost feeling of camaraderie. In this respect, Nazism was idealistic, a call to the national spirit, a promise of salvation and national renewal on many levels. Purpose, belonging, and meaning would thus be restored to a life based on values.

Hitler proposed to transform the German Volk into a group of comrades, equal in status if not in function, under the strong leadership of the new man just back from the front. It marked a plunge into the future, but the promise of deliverance was beguiling. As Gottfried Benn confessed, “We were not all opportunists. “Just as importantly, this national socialist idea resonated all the more powerfully in that it appealed to many who believed it had already been realized in the trenches of World War I.

“The German revolution began in the August days of 1914,” exulted Robert Ley, the head of the German Labor Front in the Third Reich: “The people were reunited in the trenches. The grenades and mines did not ask whether one was high­ or low-born, if one was rich or poor, or what religion or social group one belonged to. Rather this was a great, powerful example of the meaning and spirit of community.”

Nor did Hitler hesitate, once in power, to promote both the symbol and, to a lesser extent, the substance of Volksgemeinschaft. Even before 1933 the Wehrmacht was intrigued by the notion of Volksgemeinschaft, seeing in it a way to promote a more cohesive and effective military force. Any future war was bound to be a total war that required the complete mobilization of German society, so Wehrmacht leaders pursued the Volksgemeinschaft idea as a means to create an effective national unity. Nor was this mere rhetoric.

According to David Schoenbaum, even in the army the Nazis promoted “a quiet social revolution [with the] premise of careers open to talent. The Wehrmacht officer corps was en route to becoming the least snobbish in German history [with a] general sympathy for the idea of Volksgemeinschaft.” Hitler himself welcomed and championed this process. “When you look at the promotion of our younger officers,” he said in a speech in September 1942:

the penetration of our National Socialist Volksgemeinschaft has already begun here in its full extent. There is no privilege given to a birth certificate, to a previous position in life, there is no conception of wealth, no so-called origins, there is only a sole evaluation: That is the assessment of the brave, courageous, loyal man who is suited to be the leader of our people.

An old world is truly being brought to a collapse. Out of this war will emerge a Volksgemeinschaft established through blood, much stronger even than we National Socialists through our faith could convey to the nation after the World War.

The twin pillars of this new Volksgemeinschaft would be the army and the party. “We must educate a new type of man,” Hitler proclaimed at the Nuremberg Party Rally in September 1935, and he left no doubt upon whom this task fell, proclaiming at Reichenberg in December 1938:

These young people learn nothing else but to think as Germans and to act as Germans; these young boys move from the Jungvolk to the Hitler Youth and there we keep them for another four years. And then we are even less prepared to give them back into the hands of those who create our class and status barriers. And if they have still not become real National Socialists, then they go into the Labor Service and are polished there for six or seven months. And if there are still remnants of class consciousness or pride in status, then the Wehrmacht will take over for a further treatment.

The Nazi stress on comradeship, achievement, and action produced a restless dynamic which drew many fervent followers into the circle of belief. “What I liked about the HJ [Hitler Youth] was the comradeship,” remembered one Hitler Youth leader after the war. “Here sat apprentices as school boys, the sons of workers and civil servants side by side and got to know and appreciate one another.” Indeed, remembered Gustav Koppke, a worker from a communist family in the Ruhr and himself a communist after the war, “Our worker’s suburb and the HJ were absolutely not contradictory.... The uniform was something positive in our childhood.”

This attempt to bring together Germans from differing backgrounds made a deep impression. “The creation of that Volksgemeinschaft in which the workers would be fully integrated,” appeared to Friedrich Grupe, himself a Landser, “as the embodiment, the realization of the Volksgemeinschaft.” “This community of working men,” he continued, “is something unique. From all sections of society, we come here together…no one is asked his origins or class, whether he is rich or poor...Snobbery, class consciousness, envy, and idleness are left out on the street.”

The Labor Service, along with the Hitler Youth, thus reinforced specific values important to the Nazis, notions such as camaraderie, sacrifice, loyalty, duty, endurance, courage, obedience; and perhaps as well a certain contempt for those outside the bonds of community. The “socialist” aspect of National Socialism could and did have a significant impact on Germans of Grupe’s generation. The allure of Nazism, then, lay in creating the belief that one was in service to an ideal community that promoted both social commitment and integration.

Despite the coercive nature of this Volksgemeinschaft, to many Landser the Nazis accomplished enough in the 1930s, in terms of restoration of employment, the extension of social benefits, and the pro­ motion of equality of opportunity and social mobility, to sustain their belief that Hitler was sincere about establishing a classless, integrative society.

In a study of German prisoners of war, H. L. Ansbacher discovered that large numbers of average soldiers voiced positive opinions regarding Nazi accomplishments, highlighting such things as the provision of economic security and social welfare, the elimination of class distinctions and the creation of communal feelings, concern for every Volksgenossen (national comrade), and expanded educational opportunity for poor children.

Especially prevalent was the belief that the common man and workers had benefitted most from Nazi measures, so that Hitler appeared to be “a man of the people.” Indeed, a great many POWs from working-class backgrounds claimed that the Nazi regime had achieved a number of key socialist goals. So pervasive was this sentiment that all Germans had benefitted from the Nazi revolution that half of Ansbacher’s sample of prisoners could find nothing at all wrong with National Socialism. “Hitler’s only mistake,” concluded Hermann Pfister, a miner, in a postwar interview, “was that we lost the war.”

Nor was Pfister’s an isolated opinion. Hitler’s popularity among German POWs consistently remained above the 60 percent mark, signs of disaffection appearing only in March 1945. Hitler, of course, was not unaware of this appeal. He, in fact, ended one of his last messages to the German people, on 24 February 1945, by asserting, “It is our firm will never to cease working for the true people’s community, far from any ideology of classes, firmly believing that the eternal values of a nation are its best sons and daughters, who, regardless of birth and rank, just as God gave them to us, must be educated and employed.” “It was exactly the striving for these goals,” Ansbacher concluded, which appealed to National Socialism’s followers.”

Indeed, the idea of Volksgemeinschaft became a kind of leitmotif for many soldiers. “We stand before the burning door of Europe,” exclaimed one in early September 1939, “and only a shower of faith illuminates our path.” This sense of living in intoxicating times impressed Wolfgang Doring as well, as he held “our era for revolutionary.” Reinhard Becker­Glauch agreed, sensing that “this epoch appears to be very similar to a threshold.”

And what would this revolutionary threshold portend? “This [battle] is for a new ideology, a new belief, a new life!” exclaimed a private in a not atypical burst of enthusiasm for “our National Socialist idea.” “We know for what ideals we fight,” boasted Private K. B. in April 1940, and as if finishing the thought, Hans August Vowinckel insisted in December of the same year, “Our people stands in a great struggle for its existence and for its mission. We must fight for the meaning, for the giving of meaning to this struggle. Where our people fights for its existence, that is for us destiny, simple destiny.”

An anonymous Landser insisted in late summer 1944 that he welcomed the war which had “ripped us out of our childhood and placed us in a struggle for life,” since the “battle was for our future” which “will end in a victory of our ... beliefs.” Following the German conquest of Poland, Wilhelm Priiller enthused, “It is a victory of sacred belief, a victory of National Socialism.” To Priiller, Hitler had saved Germany because he had provided a unifying ideology “which may be described as ideal: and really one which grew out of the people themselves.” “When this war ends,” Priiller concluded, “I shall return from it a much more fanatical National Socialist than I was before.”

For other Landser, too, the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft remained the ideal. “Everything small and base must be remote from us as just now it is in battle and in the face of death,” Eberhard Wendebourg exclaimed, “then the Volksgemeinschaft, a true goodness and love among all Germans, will be secured new and better even than in the years before the war.”

Friedrich Grupe recorded a speech given by Hitler to officer candidates in May 1940, in which the Fuhrer “emphasized that the German soldier should be ready for any sacrifice for the German people. To always see in our soldier’s national comrades, that is our task, always we should trust the worth and the strength of the German workers. With them he would give our world new meaning, new powers.”

A world of new content, made of new substances, better even than before the war, this notion of Volksgemeinschaft contributed both to the resiliency of the German soldier and to the harshness of the struggle for survival which many Landser felt themselves waging.

“I am giving here much of my best strength, both physical and emotional,” Gunter von Scheven remarked of the first summer in Russia, noting later, “The war is becoming a decisive fate for me, the deepest incision. What strengthens me is the insight that each individual sacrifice is necessary, because it is connected with the necessity of the whole.”

And Scheven left no doubt that the necessity of the whole was linked to the Volksgemeinschaft. “One doesn’t need to stand in a hail of grenades to experience the change in our era,” he claimed: “Your attitude at home has the same consequences as ours at the front. I see the whole nation in a recasting process, in a stream of suffering and blood, that will enable it to win new heights.” In his last letter, written on the day he died, Scheven reflected, “All of our hopes are concentrated on the homeland, the only soil with the authentic people for our creation. It is important that the holy fire is not extinguished. We are internally armed.”

Other Landsers, too, had a clear view of the new creation centered on the homeland. “Can a vision, strong in faith, be born into a new world?” mused an anonymous soldier in a letter to his wife in August 1944. “The social order rooted in National Socialism cannot be delayed forever.” “The primary thing,” claimed Sebastian Mendelssohn­Bartholdy in October 1944, “is the necessity of a new social order in the world to overcome the present contrast between acquired and inherited property, between manual and intellectual labor, between followers and leaders.” The “greatness” of the German soldier, claimed Heinz Kuchler, lay precisely in going “unbowed [as] a sacrifice to a [new] world order.” This was, he argued, “a new struggle for the better future.”

The average Landser often embraced this notion of community with a startling passion, seeing in it the justification for his own sacrifices. Trapped in Stalingrad, SonderFuhrer H. greeted the new year of 1943 by asserting, “I do not begrudge the fate that has placed me here. The harsh difficulty is to us merely a requirement of a higher fulfillment of duty, a lofty service to the community.” “I suddenly feel a great strength,” declared Lieutenant H. H., also ensnared in the Stalingrad cauldron. “In times of distress there is only one commandment. What is the individual, when the life of the nation is at stake?”

Others found meaning in this notion of community as well. The cause, the devotion to Volksgemeinschaft, led Karl Fuchs to exclaim to his wife:

With loyalty and a sense of duty we must fight for our principles and endure to the end. Our Fuhrer represents our united German Fatherland. What we do for him, we do for all of you; what we sacrifice in foreign lands, we sacrifice for all of you. We believe in the future of our people and our Fatherland. It is our most holy duty and our most beautiful assignment to fight and struggle for this future. It is worthy of every sacrifice we can make.

For many, this faith seemed a daily reality. Retreating in the winter of 1943, bereft of supplies and hungry, Guy Sajer nonetheless marveled at “the unity of the Wehrmacht. The sense of order which was part of National Socialism was still very much alive among the troops who were fighting for it.” In late 1944 Sajer still wondered that he and his comrades “could live only for the cause and despite all the difficulties and disappointments I had endured, I still felt closely linked to it.”

Many Landsers saw their mission as one of creating a new world. Harry Mielert, in November 1941, spoke of a “fervent seeking after new forms,” while a month later Friedebald Kruse emphasized the fierce “desires and requirements being placed on the new.” “We held to this one final idea (a new society) which would justify our sufferings,” Sajer claimed, while recalling an officer saying, “Think of yourselves as the trailblazers of the European revolution.” In June 1942 Friedrich Grupe praised one of his fellow soldiers as being “the best comrade.” And why? Because he was “open, without arrogance, and very brave, full of sympathy and understanding for his men. He was a faithful harbinger of a new Germany.”

A harbinger of a new Germany; an anonymous Landser rejoiced in like fashion in August 1941 that “never has a vision, the soul, an idea, the superiority of a thought ... so triumphed as today.” Indeed, con­ firmed another Landser, “We know for what the Fuhrer is fighting and we don’t want to stand in the rear, but rather to be faithful followers! And should fate also demand sacrifice of blood and property from us, then we will grit our teeth and with determined brow, defiance on our tongue, say: I’ll do it. Long live the Fuhrer and his great work!” Harry Mielert noted in July 1943, “We live in high morale. Many comrades have fallen. But they live immortally in that spirit which shapes a common spirit of the nation.”

Other Landsers as well betrayed this sense of fighting for a new Germany. Writing in April 1940, Corporal E. N. claimed that “as long as we front soldiers have Adolf Hitler, there will be loyalty, bravery, and justice for his people. I believe that the best days are just coming.” And why was this? Because, he concluded, “There will be a day on which the people will have their freedom, peace, and equality returned to them.” For many, faith like this meant that no conditions were placed on their loyalty to Hitler.

“Now, where the Fatherland has called us,” Wilhelm Rubino exclaimed in a letter to his mother, “I belong life and death to the Fuhrer, and you should not despair if the worst should happen to me.” “As with me,” Friedrich Grupe later confessed, “all Landser were deeply bound by oath, orders, obedience, and-this still counted for many-in the unshakable belief in Hitler’s final victory.”

Indeed, the July 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler seemed actually to bind more Landser to him. Wrote Private B. P. indignantly, “Thank God that Providence allowed our Fuhrer to continue his task of the salvation of Europe, and our holiest duty is now to cling to him even more strongly, in order to make good what the few criminals ...did without regard for the [welfare of] the entire nation.”

Lieutenant K. N. thought it “unspeakably tragic that the enemy nations will see symptoms of disunity, where before they perhaps supposed only a unanimous solidity.” To Corporal A. K., Adolf Hitler represented “the man who will bring a New Order to Europe.” “These bandits tried to destroy that for which millions are ready to risk their lives,” exclaimed Lieutenant H. W. M. “It is a good feeling to know that a November 1918 cannot be repeated.”

November 1918, the penultimate example to many Germans of a nation defeated because of internal disunity, a happenstance not likely to reoccur. Powerful, profound, almost mystical, to the end this sense of defending, not just Germany, but a valuable idea as well remained strong in many soldiers. Reflecting on the world situation in September 1944, Lieutenant K. asserted:

History is today showing a picture that one could term the bankruptcy of the West. What Nietzsche proclaimed a dead world is today hard reality.... What the English and Americans win with their blood passes over days later to Bolshevism. In this chaos stands Germany. It is not at all allowed to us to be weak. We are the last bastion, with us stands and falls all that German blood has created over the centuries.

Even after the war, unrepentant soldiers such as Hans Werner Woltersdorf clung to the “tried and tested nationalism of the community,” taking pride in the “National Socialist idealism [which] redeemed ourselves” after the humiliation of World War I. “We believed in a new community-free from class conflict, united in brotherhood under the self-chosen Fuhrer ..., national and socialist,” Friedrich Grupe claimed, and many people of his generation thought that Hitler, too, aimed at the realization of this ideal.

As the historian Detlev Peukert has noted, the Nazis intended to impose a new order on the unsettling complexities and social turbulence that had accompanied the upheavals of World War I and the modernization of the twenties. At bottom, their promise was to bring modernization without conflict within the context of community. As their letters illustrate, many Landser indeed wanted a life different from that they had lived before, a life based on something similar to the sense of community they felt in the army, but without the killing and fear, a life of men bound together who frankly embraced each other as equals in a common endeavor.

With modern models and mythic images borrowed from the trenches of the Great War, the Nazis set out to substitute harmony and a feeling of community for the intense upheavals produced by war and economic modernization. As Modris Eksteins has noted, their intention was to create a new man, a new social system, and a new order; in short, to change the face of the world. Hitler aimed at nothing less than a reorganization of society and the creation of a Volksgemeinschaft of social integration where class conflict had vanished.

Nor was the Nazi vision of modernization without internal conflict and a political community that provided both security and opportunity unattractive, for as Peukert observed, after the war, at least in West Germany, this promise of opportunity and social integration, stripped of the ideological overtones of the Nazi era, was now realized.

To many Germans it was, and remained, a highly potent vision of the future, to the extent that they willingly overlooked its racist ideological essence. Nazi efforts to create a new order and new man were real, and as the example of many Landser showed, could inspire a fierce loyalty and devotion. In the quest for the utopian, however, both the ideal and those average soldiers who fought to realize it were perverted by Hitler’s racism and sucked into a whirlpool of evil.