Frontsoldaten: The German Soldier in World War II, by Stephen G. Fritz, University of KentuckyPress, Lexington, Ky., 1995, $29.95.
To the German soldiers crouched in their trenches and bunkers on the Russian Front in 1942, it seemed as if all hell had broken loose. Soviet artillery shells ripped the frozen landscape. Although they had made tremendous gains, the German infantrymen, or Landsers, were still in awe of the ferocious Russian counterattacks. “With a cry of despair and a prayer for mercy, we dived to the bottom of our hole, trembling as the earth shook and the intensity of our fear grew,” wrote one Landser from his dugout along the Dnieper River. “In that moment, so close to death, I was seized by a rush of terror so powerful that I felt my mind was cracking.”
Adolf Hitler’s vaunted Wehrmacht had already rumbled over Poland, France and the Low Countries. Understandably, a myth concerning the mentality and strength of the German fighting man gradually developed. Countless books and motion pictures portray Landsers as little more that automatons reacting to orders and a strict military code. Able to endure acute pain and fatigue, they seemed virtually invincible. But like millions of soldiers the world over, German Landsers were affected by the strain of war–experiencing the violence and bloodshed while reflecting on personal losses. In his groundbreaking study, author Stephen Fritz examines the day-to-day lives, thoughts and feelings of Landsers in the midst of battle.
By the time Germany attacked Poland in September 1939, the average German combat soldier had plenty of experience garnered through association with the Hitler Youth or the National Labor Service. Intense physical training and military-style drill were basic tenets of both groups. Sharing the punishing labor helped develop a strong sense of camaraderie. “You get accustomed to it, especially the companionship with the comrades, which helps you get over much,” recalled one Landser.
As the war continued, the Landsers were subjected to the enormous strain of combat. The early days of blitzkrieg had devolved into hand-to-hand fighting in the streets. “This was a war not of open combat,” suggests Fritz, “but of waiting, hiding, creeping, brawling–a contest between small groups of men, each group trying to kill the other before they in turn were killed.” Soldiers from certain regions were often regimented together to provide a sense of belonging. As the soldiers fought together, they learned what they could expect from themselves and from their buddies in the ranks. Landsers who were wounded in combat often experienced a period of guilt and dissatisfaction alleviated only by returning to the front lines and their friends.
Likewise, many Landsers shared political motivations based on the preachings of Adolf Hitler and his propaganda machinery. Nazism proclaimed that fighting men knew no social barriers, that promotion was gained through action rather than status.
Stephen Fritz, a professor of history at East Tennessee State University, has combed through hundreds of letters, diaries and recollections to create his detailed account of the Landsers. Many letters poignantly reflect on the deaths of comrades and a sense of impending doom. Privations and suffering were commonplace. Even simple tasks, such as eating during the vicious Russian winters, were vividly captured by the combatants in their writings.
While the author includes selections from soldiers fighting in France, Italy and North Africa, most of his material is based on the experiences of Landsers on the Russian Front. “Nothing could have prepared us for the mental depression brought on by this realization of the utter physical vastness of Russia,” noted one infantryman.
Kenneth P. Czech