Announcement: Research project “Upgrading history”

The Research project Upgrading History. Diaries from the War Front by Dr Saverio Vita is about to be presented officially at the University of Bologna

Photo credits: https://www.europeana.eu/portal/it/record/2020601/contributions_17136_attachments_179895

Upgrading History. Diaries from the War Front is one of the three new projects funded by Europeana Foundation in 2018. The project is hold by Saverio Vita, fellow researcher at the University of Bologna, and hosted by DH.ARC (Digital Humanities Advanced Center).

The aim of the project is to share research that focuses on the diaries of European soldiers who fought the First World War with a larger audience. Europeana Collections includes a good amount of soldiers’ writings (especially in Italian, French and English) and paintings, as well as a collection of letters from the trenches by Isaac Rosenberg. By now, Rosenberg’s letters and eight diaries in Italian and French were processed.

The materials are arranged on the StoryMaps platform, highlighting the different itineraries travelled by a single soldier. Each journey track is enriched by the text itself and other media, such as photographs, selected newspaper pages, and videos from the Collections. Having the chance to follow the soldier’s itinerary is the best way to read a war diary. This project aims to preserve historical memory and to reactivate old personal stories, to renew them.

For the skilled user who wants to deepen knowledge of the diaries and to read a technical analysis of the text, the project offers digital editions based on EVT, with full transcriptions, historical and linguistic comments.

The project represents a sort of pilot, open to further updates. The Map becomes the promotional container of other research on similar topics, from FICLIT and other departments in Italy and other countries. The goal is to create a great open map, available to the largest possible number of users, detailing one of the most important periods in European History. The dissemination of this kind of project is especially valuable today, as Europe and its Institutions are living in a critical time. A project about WWI is a project about our shared past and History.

Announcement: Experiencing War at the Library of Congress

For the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Library of Congress published a webpage titled Experiencing War. Researchers and anyone who is interested can access 12 collections with diaries, photos and oral histories of men and women who experienced that event.

The page can be accessed at this link: https://www.loc.gov/vets/stories/ex-war-dday75.html

The materials are part of one of the Library of Congress’ special projects: the Veterans History Project (VHP), part of the American Folklife Center, which collects personal accounts of American war veterans with the aim to preserve the memories of war and conflicts in which the United States took part, from the First World War up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VHP’s materials provide a wealth of sources for researchers who work on experiences of war, and many of those can be accessed remotely through their website: https://www.loc.gov/vets/

Announcement: Shadow Agents of War Workshop

A fascinating event is taking place next week on 4th June at the University of Edinburgh: a one day workshop titled “Shadow Agents of War”, which will focus on the role in war of certain players who are largely overlooked by scholars of war and conflict, such as refugees, convicts, commoners and even animals. The workshop also promises to tackle methodological issues and point to relevant sources. The workshop is co-organised by Stephen Bowd, who is currently working on a project on gender and early modern warfare, Sarah Cockram, who focuses on the early modern period, too, and is interested in historical animal studies, and John Gagné whose current book project is on transcultural war in the early sixteenth century.

The workshop will have three sessions: The Unwilling Agents of War; The Organisers of War; The Suppliers of War.

The full programme can be accessed by following this link: https://research.shca.ed.ac.uk/shadow-agents-of-war/

New article: “Das Bild des italienischen Soldaten im deutschsprachigen Diskurs über die Vergangenheitsverwaltung”

Das Bild des italienischen Soldaten im deutschsprachigen Diskurs über die Vergangenheitsverwaltung, in Aufgeschlossene Beziehungen. Deutschland und Italien im transkulturellen Dialog. Literatur, Film, Medien, ed. by Tabea Meineke, Anne-Rose Meyer-Eisenhut, Stephanie Neu-Wendel and Eugenio Spedicato, Würzburg, Verlag Königshausen & Neumann, 2019, 67-80

Among the contributions appeared in the book Aufgeschlossene Beziehungen (Open-minded Relationships), devoted to the exploration of the way in which the Italian and German cultures have built their transcultural dialogue since WW2, one chapter by Gianluca Cinelli investigates how German post-war narratives, both literary and historical, represented the Italian soldiers in a very negative way, thus paving the way to the consolidation of an old anti-Italian prejudice spread all over Germany. The German combatants came across the Italians during WW2 as allies between 1940 and September 8, 1943, when Italy surrendered to the Allies. What emerges from this contribution is that little attention has been paid in Germany to this topic. Nonetheless, Italian soldiers were represented as lazy and unfit for war, unworthy in battle and unreliable as allies, cowardly and too soft to endure the hardship of modern warfare. And even worse, they were depicted as traitors following Italy’s withdrawal from the conflict in 1943, after which a remarkable number of Italians began to fight against the Germans as partisans.

The chapter builds on historical and literary sources, by combining the testimonies of former German cambatants (from privates of the Afrikakorp to memoirs of such Whermacht higher officers as Rommel or Kesselring) with historic evidence collected by mainly German scholars (from Hammerman to Klinkhammer and Schlemmer). The main thesis of the chapter consists in claiming that the anti-Italian prejudice largely depended on the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda and on the circulation of a number of testimonies that depicted the Italians as inferiors not only as for their military virtues but also on a racial basis. In the end, only the massive integration of Italian immigrants starting from the 1950s began to challenge the dominant stereotype and to rehabilitate the memory of the former allies-and-enemies as human beings and fellow citizens.

Conference announcement: “Giellismo e Azionismo. Cantieri aperti”

15th edition, Turin, Istoreto, 17-18 May 2019

The Istituto Piemontese per la Storia della Resistenza e della Società Contemporanea “Giorgio Agosti” will host the 15th edition of the research seminar “Giellismo e azionismo – cantieri aperti” on the 17th and 18th of May 2019.

The complete program of the seminar can be downloaded at:

http://www.istoreto.it/ricerca/giellismo-e-azionismo-cantieri-aperti/#

New open-access book

Lo sguardo lontano. L’Italia della Seconda guerra mondiale nella memoria dei prigionieri di guerra

For those who are interested in Italian history and the memories of prisoners of war (and for those who can read the Italian language), we are pleased to announce the publication of a new open-access book:Lo sguardo lontano. L’Italia della Seconda guerra mondiale nella memoria dei prigionieri di guerra, by Erika Lorenzon (Edizioni Ca’ Foscari Digital Publishing).

The book can be downloaded at http://edizionicafoscari.unive.it/it/edizioni/libri/978-88-6969-268-0/

Issue n. 1 of the Close Encounters in War Journal is online

Issue n. 1: “Close Encounters in Irregular and Asymmetric War” (2018)

We are delighted to announce that the first issue of the Close Encounters in War Journal has been published online. This issue marks the real start of our project and is devoted to a topic that seemed relevant to us both for its historical meaning and its topicality. In fact, the issue hosts five contributions by authors who consider the theme of close encounters in irregular and asymmetric war from a great variety of angles and in different disciplines.

The Issue and individual articles can be downloaded at:

Issue n. 1 (2018): Close encounters in irregular and asymmetric war

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What today is referred to as “irregular warfare” is one of the most ancient types of conflict, as opposed to “conventional warfare”, which is a relatively more recent development. The combat strategies and tactics used by tribal warriors, modern guerrillas, resistance fighters and terrorists have been attracting the attention of military historians, strategists and intelligence experts, focusing on resistance, insurgency, counter-insurgency and more recently terrorism. Beside its practical efficacy on the battlefield, irregular war has always stirred popular imagination. But how do human beings experience this particular type of warfare? Does it seem more threatening and scary because it can involve civilians more deeply? Does it blur the traditional idea of war as open confrontation with a recognisable enemy?

The multidisciplinary collection of articles presented in this issue invites a reflection on irregular and asymmetric warfare that goes beyond military strategy and tactical effectiveness, and aims to examine this subject through the lens of “close encounters” in order to explore its impact on human experience. In this perspective, a few recurring elements emerge in all the seven articles: irregular warfare involves an unequal fight between unequal enemies. There is no balance of power and this asymmetry between adversaries means that lines get blurred, for example between combatants and non combatants, or between regular and irregular forces. Irregular and asymmetric warfare blurs the lines and rules of conflict, but it also resurfaces the agency of those who are invisible in war.

The first three articles in the collection are more factual and they explore the blurred identities and often divided loyalties of those involved in irregular conflicts. According to their authors, those who fight “from below”, often the less powerful, find agency.

Brad St. Croix explores asymmetric warfare within the context of a wide conflict, focusing on the Pacific theatre of the Second World War. In Hong Kong, the British had to fight an irregular force as they faced a Japanese-inspired fifth column. The author sees this as having a deeply destabilizing power for the British, even if blurring the lines between regular and irregular forces was a tactic often used by the Japanese. However, the interesting point that emerges from this analysis is that blurred lines and changing loyalties in this context were due to the multiethnic makeup of the colony. In the Battle of Hong Kong invisibility was key for the fifth columnists, who used hiding and disguise as well as tactics such as sniping to conceal their identities and destabilize the enemy. Their invisibility still represents a challenge for historians who want determine their numbers and identity.

María Gómez-Amich offers a study based on interviews with five former conflict zone interpreters who were locally recruited by the Spanish troops deployed in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2014 as part of the NATO ISAF mission. By looking at the narratives of these interviewees in the effort to analyse their agency, his study emphasizes many lines getting blurred, such as the line between east and west, foreign and local, military and civilian, but also those, perhaps less obvious, between trust and mistrust, loyalty and neutrality, which are the key ones for professional interpreters. In this context, locally recruited interpreters are given the role of gatekeepers thanks to their cultural capital and they experience blurred loyalties because they are often seen as traitors by their own group and as outsiders by their employers. Another important point in this analysis is that irregular warfare blurs the fundamental ethical principles of interpreting, as it accentuates the tension between neutrality and agency.

In his article Gian Marco Longoni looks at another contemporary example of irregular warfare: the Houthi insurgency begun in 2004 that ousted the Yemeni government in 2015. In his effort to examine the three reasons for the outcome of this insurgency, Longoni emphasizes once again the asymmetry of the conflict and the agency of the insurgents. They find agency through the use of violence and capitalize on the weakness of the Yemeni regime. But there are also other, more cultural reasons that can explain the outcome of the revolt: the Zaydi insurgents experienced a shared identity and shared narratives which can be dubbed as their cultural identity, which were keys in the context of this conflict. It seems that when cultural identity is not conflictual in itself, but clearly defined as in this instance, loyalty does not represent an issue. Asymmetry has a double impact here because while it is true that the fight is between unequal enemies, it is the insurgents who find strength in their cultural identity, whereas the regular forces are weak, dysfunctional and incapable of adequate counterinsurgency despite being the representatives of the institutions.

The second set of articles is more focused on meaning and representation. The concept of irregular and asymmetric warfare is interpreted in different ways, but both articles agree on one point: asymmetric conflict has the power to transform the individual, affecting the spheres of imagination, self-perception, and cultural reception. What these articles suggest is that asymmetric war almost always implies disequilibrium of forces and a polarisation of conflict as a struggle between “stronger” and “weaker” opponents, in particular women and children. By no accident, in fact, these articles explore the issue of close encounters in asymmetric war from the standpoint of its cultural interpretation and representation.

In her analysis of the rape scene in Elsa Morante’s novel La storia, Stefania Porcelli talks about a literary encounter with war. The author interprets the concept of asymmetry as lack of balance between the adversaries, who are fragile actors who never win against stronger enemies. In this analysis the lines between victim and oppressor, innocence and evil, become blurred, as the author stresses how Morante insists on the concept of power, and of how the powerful (represented by Gunther, stronger but doomed to succumb to history), become themselves victims. Fear, sometimes terror, is at the core of this particular asymmetric conflict, in which the victim is stripped of agency because rape “is an act of violence against a woman wholly bereft of agency” (Porcelli, p. 89). But here it also represents the loss of innocence that bears a transformative power.

Benjamin Nickl sees asymmetric conflict through the eyes of child warriors in popular fiction. In his analysis of the representation of children in arms Nickl wonders whether they are a way to represent and give meaning to the trauma of war. Child characters invite a shift in the point of view on war, which can lead to a more genuine approach, as “audiences seem willing to suspend their disbelief readily” (Nickl, p. 104) when the narrator is a child. Nickl interprets the concept of irregular and asymmetric warfare very widely, including fictional conflicts against terrible monsters or evil warlords, but what these all have in common is that they all involve a shift in the point of view and the transformational loss of innocence as consequences of the trauma caused by war.

The selected articles range over a number of wars, different from one another in time, space, scale, and context; and their authors consider the topic of “close encounters in irregular and asymmetric war” from the standpoints of different disciplines and methodological approaches, among which, for example, cultural and military history, literary studies, gender studies, oral history, translation studies, and postcolonial studies. This variety reflects the multidisciplinary project of Close Encounters in War journal and will hopefully fuel further interest in the cultural and collateral aspects of war as a fundamental aspect of human evolution and cultural specificity. Irregular and asymmetric warfare blurs the lines and rules of conflict, but it also resurfaces the agency of those who are invisible in war.

A fatal encounter in war. A case of impact of PTSD on civilians in Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk”

by Gianluca Cinelli

Dunkirk (2017) as a war movie seems to direct itself toward a new way of representing war on the screen. No gore, no mangled bodies are to be seen. It seems as though the director meant to say that horror in war does not only depend on the amount of terrifying visions of slaughter, but rather on the psychological perception of fear as an overwhelming emotion that constantly drives the combatant to choose between two basic actions: fighting or fleeing.

Dunkirk tells a story of flight rather than fight. Between the end of May and the early days of June 1940 about 400.000 encircled British and French soldiers were evacuated in a few days from the beaches of Dunkerque, in northern France. Every available ship was employed for the rescue, including a number of private yachts and fishing boats. In the movie the crew of one of these private yachts play a major role, and their story suggests these few lines of reflection about a case of lethal encounter between combatants and civilians.

The small boat rescues a British soldier who has remained stranded at sea for some time, his boat having been sunken. This young soldier is affected by a serious form of PTSD. Fear has taken hold of his mind and he categorically refuses to be taken back to the coast of Dunkirk, insofar as this is the route and task of the small boat. He struggles with the captain and eventually with one of the two young boys who are sailing on the yacht from England to Dunkirk to rescue the stranded troops. In the fight the young boy, a captain’s family friend, falls and is concussed. It is an ugly accident from which he will eventually die.

The British soldier will never grow conscious of the tragic aftermath of his revolt. He acted out of utter fear and his strong desire to escape the madness of being encircled, trapped between the German troops and the sea, bombed and chased like a sitting-duck. He meant no harm, but his action was violent enough to easily overcome the young boy. He does not acknowledge the death of the boy and will eventually leave the boat, after they reach the English shore, without being fully aware of the gruesome effect that war has been having on him.

In fact, in order to save himself he involuntarily kills one of those fellow citizens, to defend whom he had gone to war: a young brave man who put his own life at stake to save him and his comrades from peril and death. How does it come to be? How does war change the mind and even the personality of those who are involved in it? Does war make people more courageous, morally stronger or ethically wiser? Such questions the movie raises that are worth answering.

And finally, how should we judge such a character as this young soldier? Is he vile? Is he a felon? Is he to blame?

In the end, the captain’s son does not reveal to the soldier that his young unlucky friend died. He just says to comfort the traumatised soldier that his friend will be all right, and then he lets the castaway go to join his comrades. It seems a profoundly human action, full of piety and understanding. One could wonder whether some disguised rhetorical claim is embedded here. I do not believe it. Dunkirk is more than just a war movie, rather a work that chooses war to represent the wonder of human ethical response (in its broad variety) to a basically moral quest: what should one do, when the moment demands that everyone be involved into great and dangerous events, which the vast majority is not ready or willing to take part into? Although someone else is supposed to go abroad to fight and die, we could be called up to back those who are over there, because their failure could mean our doom as well. Being brave is not necessarily a matter of exquisite heroism. It could just have to do with taking up one’s own responsibility, to the very end no matter what.

Land of mine: an Ethical Example of Wisdom and Empathic Rationality

By Patrizia Piredda

The Oresteia by Aeschylus, like every Greek tragic trilogy, represents a series of catastrophes and grieves provoked by the violent feeling of revenge that prevents reason from evaluating the best actions to take. Orestes is hunted and tormented by the Erinyes because he killed his mother, who assassinated her husband, who originally sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia, Orestes’ sister.   

In the last tragedy of the trilogy, however, a fundamental event happens: Athena, goddess of reason and justice, enters the scene as the judge of a regular process, during which a jury composed by twelve Athenians and the goddess herself has to judge whether to condemn or to absolve Orestes and therefore whether to stop the Erinyes hunting him. Orestes is eventually absolved and the long chain of sufferings and grieves is broken: the Erinyes are transmuted into Eumenides and Orestes, the last descendant of Agamemnon’s dynasty, finds peace.

The importance of this myth lies on the fact that it represents the passage from the habit of perpetuating the state of conflict throughout the violent reaction of revenge, which derives from the incapacity to limit the feeling of hatred, to the habit of mitigating the natural emotional reactions of hatred, violence, and resentment throughout rational thinking.

The myth of Orestes brings us to reflect on a number of fundamental aspects of the human character and on the building of our social habits, based on the capacity of feeling emotions and empathy in a balanced way, always in combination with the critical thinking of reason.

What can one do in the case of suffering from violence, or of having witnessed or perpetrated violent actions? In the ancient Greek society, violence (bia) was known as the mother of tyranny and defeat, while on the opposite end there was democracy, viz. a society based on free discussion and exchange of opinions. However, the statement according to which violence brings violence is only partially true. Any violent act begets revenge when the agent believes that only by means of punishment grounded on the principle of an eye for an eye it is possible to act by justice and to restore peace. These ethical reflections on the Greek myth are once more expressed in Land of Mine, a historical movie from 2015, directed by Martin Zandvliet and nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in 2017.

After the surrender of Nazi Germany, the disposal of over two million anti-personnel mines all along the Danish beaches immediately started. German POWs were used for this dangerous work, many of whom were just boys, the same ones that the Nazi regime had sent to war after the Wehrmacht’s decimation.

At the beginning of the movie, Sergeant Rasmussen savagely beats up one German prisoner who is strongly holding the Danish flag, probably stolen and kept as an ironic trophy. In order to understand this emotional reaction, it is necessary to take into account the fact that at the end of every war, the most common feelings toward the enemy army, guilty of horrible crimes and atrocities, are hatred, resentment and the desire of revenge. These feelings prevent empathy, compassions and sympathy for prisoners to raise and consequently hinder the possibility to attribute some value to their lives. At the beginning of the story, Sergeant Rasmussen, appointed to lead a team of prisoners for clearing an area of Danish beaches, is entirely dominated by these feelings as well as Lieutenant Ebbe, who manifests a strong rancour and a firm will to take revenge. However, being in daily contact with young prisoners, Rasmussen notices that his team is formed by boys who call their own mother when they feel pain and fear. Slowly, as Rasmussen grows aware of the situation, his feelings change and his hatred, under the control of critical reflection, turns into compassion. This allows him to act wisely and prevents him from committing injustices in turn. Rasmussen, insofar as Lieutenant Ebbe told him, promises his boys that once the clearing is finished they will go home. Without asking for authorisation, because his prisoners had not been eating for days, he personally brings them some food taken from the military depot and decides to relieve them from work on a Sunday so they can enjoy a football game. The peak of this empathic feeling is reached when Rasmussen provides moral support to one of his boys, who has just lost his twin because of an explosion. It is undeniable that many Nazi soldiers that many Nazi soldiers never had similar behaviours and that they almost never developed a thought based on mercy and empathy, which permits us to see ourselves mirrored in the others. The irrational and uncritical acceptance of the false beliefs promulgated by Nazi propaganda (like every uncritical acceptance of populist discourses) originated from the fear that impels to look for strong certainties that might protect the individual (or at least give an illusion of protection) as a part of a group, even if this happens to the detriment of freedom of thought and agency.

The characters of the movie, moreover, are very young boys educated under Nazism. Forged according to the principles of hatred, anti-Semitism, violence and the crazy myths of the purity and supremacy of the Arian race, the generations of the 1920s and 1930s developed their own image of the world founded on the emotion of fear and on the feeling of hatred against diversity: a concept of identity, in other words, which contemplates alterity as something potentially dangerous, since the other, being a stranger, is considered as a potential threat.

 Hatred generates hatred. There are two possible behavioural solutions for Rasmussen: to take revenge on his prisoners for the evil produced by the Nazi ideology that had been feeding them since they were born; or to listen to his own feelings and reason, and to show them a different way of life, built on humanity and wisdom. Rasmussen’s wisdom becomes evident during the football game, when his dog gets killed by a missed hidden mine which had remained undisposed. Suffering from the pain for the death of his dog, after his first reaction of fury – the same he felt when he beat up a prisoner at the beginning of the movie – Rasmussen is able to understand that the prisoners had not premeditated to let mines hidden in the sand and that it was just a human mistake. Therefore, he can regain control over his own emotions and eventually bring his duty to completion, viz. he grants the safety of the beach: he decides that the prisoners will check the safety of the ground by walking in a row all over the beach, but he does not take revenge or punish them. He does not allow hatred to take over reason and justice.

Rasmussen chooses, therefore, the second solution and thanks to his empathic and rational behaviour he manages to provide the young prisoners with a new perspective over life because he donates them an example of something they have not yet experienced: the feeling of justice that paves the way to democracy. In fact, as opposed to the violence of dictatorship, democracy expects the existence of disputes, insofar as without diversity there would never be changes or evolution. Democracy does not mean simply putting the city government in the hands of the population: this is, indeed, extremely problematic because the judgment of the individual – who is part of a group – is influenced by rhetoric. The propagandistic use of rhetoric is aimed at enhancing the passions in the audience as to convey the general opinion toward a precise direction; it is also aimed at diminishing the presence of a rational reflection through which it is possible to see the errors of argumentation and to eradicate prejudices, false beliefs and erroneous opinions.  That who does not develop such critical capacity risks having his-her emotions manipulated and, therefore, emitting erroneous judgments. When one is not aware of the importance and dangerousness of passions, it is possible that one easily listens to and accepts the absurd argumentations of propaganda, by approving and backing dictatorship and consequently by renouncing freedom. By thinking on the power of propaganda, Jaspers writes that the conflict of information, the prohibition of free public discussion and finally the repetition of falsehood might turn a community into an unresponsive dull mass (Karl Jaspers, Vernunft und Widervernunft in unserer Zeit, München, Piper, 1950). When the human being does not act like a thinking individual, he falls in the trap of sophists whom Jaspers calls the sorcerers, the enchanters that create illusion by promising knowledge and by claiming to act for the good of the others (Jaspers).

Such “sorcerers” fight reason with the weapon of “anti-reason”, which requires the enchanter’s and the enchanted audience’s cooperation: the mediocre and undecided people who legitimate anti-reason by believing in its absurdity and by adopting the rhetoric of scientific objectivity (Jaspers).

 Democracy, then, means that everyone should develop critical capacity to have a balanced interaction with their emotions, which are necessary for judgment, without letting them prevail over reason. In this way, it is possible within a group to compare different opinions based on knowledge and on rational and critical evaluation, which time after time permits to make decisions for the sake of social equilibrium.

This is what Rasmussen does. Even if he is blinded by hatred and pain, he is able to find an emotional balance between the feeling of grudge against the prisoners and that of compassion towards the young men. Eventually, reason prevails: it is right to punish those who are guilty of the evil they have perpetrated, but that it would be wrong to take revenge: this rational behaviour permits to break the same closed circle that reproduces the violence in the Oresteia.

Against the will of Lieutenant Ebbe, who instead of sending the young prisoners home, after the clearing is finished, assigns them to clear another beach, a much more dangerous one, therefore condemning them to death. Rasmussen decides to keep to his promise; he goes and picks them up with a truck and drives them a few metres away from the border with Germany, where he sets them free. By doing so, he prevents the perpetuation of the chain of hatred, which characterises Orestes’s myth according to which the victims sooner or later become oppressors, and prevents his own feeling of hatred from causing him to act unfairly.

The movie shows that the ethical sentiment depends on the individual and does not concern complying with laws and rules; these are fundamental for organising societies but, being made by human beings, can be unjust or wrong. Therefore, one must develop critical thought, which enables to judge and act well. The only possibility for the young prisoners to develop this feeling, in order to be rescued from an unjust system, is to develop the maturity to understand that they were educated to hate and to obey blindly. In other words, only by letting them modify and improve the consciousness of themselves and others, to develop a better conception of life through the experience of diversity and, above all, of justice, the young prisoners have a possibility to direct their lives toward wisdom.

Encountering violence and crimes in autobiographical narratives of Operation “Barbarossa”

By Gianluca Cinelli

On 22nd June 1941, the German armies overcame the Russian resistance on the river Bug and started to penetrate in depth in Russia in a drunken state of exaltation. It was the triumph of the Blitzkrieg which many generals considered the only true form of military art, according to the legacy of Clausewitz and Schlieffen: the dimension of the attack was such that the commanders ignored what other units were doing, and the common motto was “forward, no matter what the others do”, in order to annihilate the enemy before this could strike back. For many a soldier this unstoppable advance was just a leap into the void, because after leaving the last villages of the Reich they found themselves alone in the vastness of an unknown land. Erich Kern remembers that people in Silesia greeted the marching troops in frenzy: old veterans of the Great War advised about the way to annihilate Cossacks and Russian infantry, women threw flowers and the girls kissed the soldiers and gave cigarettes and food. Nonetheless, smoke on the horizon and the feeble thunder of guns began to shake the hearts.

The encounter with war was, according to published memoirs that account for those events, first of all an exploration of an unknown, hostile land. The soldier’s life in the very first weeks of the campaign was reduced to a handful of actions mechanically repeated: advancing, resting, fighting, again and again, without knowledge of the final destination. Passing from a victory to another, German soldiers advanced in a state of exaltation and self-confidence. Thus, the narratives concerning the first stage of the Operation “Barbarossa” present several characteristics of romance: “we were advancing into the gliding day – wrote Erich kern – we kept going on and on along the road that stretched through a scary land” (Kern, p. 55). These warriors believed to bear a new order. The “gliding day” was the time of conquest and self-affirmation, and such an expression corresponds to that symbolism which Northrop Frye called “apocalyptic”, typical of high-mimetic romance that narrates the adventures of heroes and expresses the force of desire through the archetypes of the journey into a land of foes and dangers, of the fight with chaos and finally of the apotheosis in victory and triumph. The exaltation of the hero is one of the main characteristics of the memoirs of the early stage of the Operation “Barbarossa”, although many a witness remembers that the endeavour was also fearful and deadly.

The protagonists of these narratives struggle with the enemy and with the elements, dust and heath in summer, cold wind and snowstorms in winter. Operation “Barbarossa” is depicted as a quest for conquer and domination, as the victory on a bestial enemy and as the liberation of the world from the deadly Communist menace. The conquerors often looked at the vanquished with feelings of superiority and pride, and one of them remembers that the exaltation and the disgust were the most common emotions in those days, when “one could see everything as if half-asleep” (Pabst, p. 20). The march into enemy land also brought the German soldiers to an unexpected encounter with misery and violence: devastated villages full of dead bodies, churches converted into hospitals and piles of rotting corpses were the daily “images of horror and madness” (Pater-Mater, p. 391).

On the other hand, the steppe is represented as a mysterious and mythical land: like the sea, it is immense and prompt to suddenly change itself into a deadly and inhospitable place. The advance into this land is also an ethnographic and geographical exploration of outer borders between Europe and Asia, a barbaric and ancestral world of extreme contradictions, from the unlimited plains to the highest peaks of Caucasus; from the most advanced industrial area of Donetsk to the deep poverty of rural population. Eastward of Lemberg, “the last city of Europe” (Bauer, p. 34), Russia shows a “barbaric beauty” (p. 78) that almost makes the soldiers forget what they are there for. But war is inside the landscape, it is its “abuse” (p. 86): every hut and country house conceals a bunker and although the peaceful peasants look harmless they are instead partisans and soldiers ready to fight. For some authors such as Bamm, the penetration into Russia was also a voyage into myth: when he arrived in the Caucasus, he found out that the most humble hut of peasants was probably the same as Adam’s nest (Bamm, p. 93). Thus, when he went back to Germany in leave, he described that journey as Ulysses’ voyage to Ithaca. So far, the German war in Russia appears as a juvenile and heroic adventure, as the epic of the German people’s struggle for the conquest of its “vital space”.

Nazi myths and mythologies, such as the defence of the Arian race and Western civilization from the Asiatic hordes or the anti-Bolshevik crusade, permeate these narratives. Some witnesses depict Russia and its people from the point of view of the fanatical conqueror: the huts with the straw on the roofs are compared with dogs-lairs and their inhabitants are described as ragged, dirty beasts (Prüller, p. 84):

The passive Slav acceptance was annoying to the more agile and questioning Teuton mind and the ordinary soldiers could not comprehend how human beings could be so lacking in human dignity or spirit that they could accept to live in the primitive conditions which were encountered throughout the conquered regions. In letters, diaries and reports the German word Sauberkeit (cleanliness) was the most frequently recurring one when the writer dealt with the living conditions of the Russian peasant. (Lucas, p. 17)

Also in the letters from the front the invasion was initially presented as a just war waged in self-defence against communism and the “Judaic-Bolshevik” plot (Buchbender, p. 72). An NCO wrote on 10th July 1941: “the German people owes a great debt to our Führer, because if these beasts that here are our enemy only reached Germany, we would have such a slaughter like the world has never before experienced” (p. 74). Propaganda imprints letters with its racist arguments: Russians are called “Reds” and “Judaic-Bolshevik gang”; Russia is depicted as a miserable, backward land, and the soldiers portrait themselves as liberators and bearers of civilization (Golovchansky, pp. 18-19). Soon enough, though, the war became brutal: “dogs” and “beasts” were among the most common epithets for the enemy, the metaphor of hunting began to form the core of a new way of self-representation of the German soldiers, who also had to justify the daily slaughter of political commissars, POWs, Jews and civilians. The most fanatical combatants were students, above all those raised as Catholics. Their first letters describe destroyed churches, ragged young people who “bear the guilt of Communism” (Schleicher/Walle, p. 181), and crowds of Russians who greet and cheer the German liberators (p. 182). These “crusaders” glorify the death of their comrades as martyrdom, which is connected with “heroic death” (Heldentode), “loyalty” (Treue) and “sacrifice” (Opfer) (204). Nonetheless, when the Blitzkrieg failed in autumn 1941 these champions of the faith vacillate (199), and the rhetoric of the “crusade” completely disappeared from their letters by the end of December, when the Wehrmacht was defeated in front of Moscow.

Not all witness rets in this illusion of the beautiful adventure. The campaign was not like the former ones in Poland and France: the loss were high and a general crisis of the Wehrmacht was avoided only by pouring more and more replacements in the decimated ranks (Alvensleben, p. 190; Steets, p. 112). Many a veteran who had fought in the Great War noted that this new conflict was much worse (Keppler, p. 62). The first harsh impact with such horrifying nature of the war of annihilation consisted in encountering the huge mass of Soviet POWs, in a scene that recurs in many a narrative:

Without exception, they all begged for a scrap of food or a cigarette. They whined and grovelled about us to wheedle something out of us, they were like whipped dogs, and it mingled pity and disgust became too much for us and we did give them something, they would kneel and kiss our hands and babble words of thanks which must have come from their rich religious vocabulary, and then we just stood, we simply could not believe it. These were human beings in which there was no longer any trace of anything deserving the name human, they were men who really had turned into animals. We found it nauseating, utterly repellent. (Zieser, pp. 58-59)

The clash with the Red Army is mostly remembered as a struggle with enemies more similar to beasts than to humans:

Kahl geschorene Asiaten sind unsere Gegner, Menschen fast aus einer anderen Welt; vorkämpft und trotzig, die Fäuste geballt, liegen sie zahllos im Tod, furchtlose Soldaten, aber verschlagen und hinterhältig. Sie schießen noch, wenn wir schon 50 Kilometer weiter sind, aus den Kornfeldern und Wäldern. Aber man muss einmal vorn bei einem Infanteriekampf gewesen sein, um das zu kennen, was hier Kampf ist; sich gegenseitig steigernde Raserei, Gefangene werden nur selten gemacht auf beiden Seiten. (Pater-Mater, p. 388)

Witnesses mostly pass over war crimes in silence and so does the official documentation (Bartov). Similarly, “the Einsatzgruppen reporters for the most part did not simply record the killings, but felt the need to use euphemisms in their report as to cover up the act of murder. In the same way they always gave ‘reasons’ for their actions in order to justify them” (Headland, p. 72). Among commanders, General Manstein wrote in his memoirs Verlorene Siege that the “Kommissarbefehl” was “non-military” in nature, and for that reason he prescribed his officer not to carry it out (Manstein, pp. 176-177; see also Guderian, p. 138). Nonetheless, he ordered on 20th November 1941, to persecute the Jews, who were accused of being the juncture between the Red Army and the partisans (Wette, p. 188). It seems less hard to come across some criticism on war crimes in private writings such as letters (despite censorship) and diaries.

In general, the soldiers found it disturbing to show themselves in the garb of brutal and insensible killers, especially because they were fighting in a war largely justified by ideological hatred and contempt for the enemy, as well as by racial prejudice. Self-censorship in letters – but also in diaries and later on in autobiographical memoirs – was as a defensive strategy against discouragement, after reality had destroyed the false perspectives of propaganda. Therefore, shootings, hangings, deportation, forced labour, mass mortality from starvation and disease among the Russian POWs hardly make their way into the letters. When the witnesses wrote about crimes, they often regarded them as something for which “others” bear responsibility. Peter Bamm, in his memoirs, calls the SS “the Others” (die Anderen) to distinguish them from the ordinary (and honourable) German soldier of the Wehrmacht. In other witnesses, a fortunate rhetorical device consists in pointing out the “moral dilemma” of military obedience:

If our unit had been given some hardcore Nazi troops, they would have received a rough time from the other men. We were patriotic soldiers fighting for Germany, not a bunch of Nazi brown shirts fighting for Hitler. Most of the soldiers I knew did not support the Nazi Party, even if the practical result of our military effort was to maintain the Nazi regime in power. It is an irresolvable dilemma. When you want to serve your country, yet oppose its political leadership. (Lubbeck, p. 194)

Also the extermination of Jews rarely comes into the discourse (especially in the letters) (Manoscheck; Letzel, p. 203) and it is quite rare to come across explicit testimonies (Jarausch, pp. 291, 315, 316 and 341; Hartlaub, p. 73):

Vor und unter den Bastionen del Flußseite liegt ein altes Werk, das wohl einst den Dünaübergang sperrte. Und dort unten hat man fünftausend Juden eingepfercht, Männer, Frauen und Kinder, die, wie es heißt, mit Abfällen ihre Tage und, wie die Gerüchte gehen, ihre letzten Tage fristen. Wir sehen sie jeden Tag dort unten auf den Kasemattenhöfen wimmeln. Ein furchtbares Menschengerücht dringt herauf. Das also ist der Gestank der Weltgeschichte. […] Sieh dir das mit deinen Augen an: was dort unten vor sich geht, versteckt und halb unter das Erde, das ist mit anderem Gesicht, doch ebenso dumpf und verkrochen, zu allen Zeiten gesehen, sooft Macht, Gewalt und Herrlichkeit über die Erbe rasselten. Und was tust du, wacker Soldat, da oben auf dem Wall der Zitadelle von Dünaburg? Du tust, was alle braven Söldner Babylons, alle redlichen Legionäre Roms in solchen Augenblicken taten: du trittst von einem Fuß auf den andern, du greifst mit zwei Fingern hinter die Halsbinde, um dir Luft zu machen. Und schüttest nachher einen Becher Wodka hinunter. Mir steht der Wodka in diesen Tagen bis zum Hals. (Matthies, p. 19)

From Matthies’ point of view, the German soldier appears as the perpetrator of a crime against mankind: “ich schäme mich nicht meines Volkes, ich schäme mich nicht meiner Uniform, aber ich schäme mich, hinter diesem Stacheldraht der Weltgeschichte, meiner selbst bis in den Grund” (Matthies, p. 26). It is rare to come across allegations directly written in diaries or memoirs. Some witnesses refer to crimes by attributing them to the allied, namely the Rumanians (Keppler, p. 82), others recall those days by using the rhetoric of the “vagueness”:

Real poverty was evident everywhere, and it did not need scientific knowledge to realize that the harassed-looking people were starving en masse. SS, German Field Police and Polish militia were patrolling the streets, obviously working closely together and chasing people on wherever they had collected in groups. Hollow-eyed children, often in rags, came begging for bread. Not having any on us, we were of course in no position to give them any, and though we had been told in special little lectures before we were let out of our train that they were enemy children, dangerous breeds, some of us found it hard to have to shut our hearts. Some who still believed in the basics of Christ’s teaching, must have wondered what had happened. A large part of the population was Jewish who, we were told, lived together in the poorest part of the city, the ghetto. The latter was no German creation, it had been set up by the Polish authorities long ago and walking around the town, we found that the Poles hated the Jews […]. Many of us had seen the odd Jew wearing the yellow star in a German city; but this was all so different, so incomparable in scale, and seeing them walking around in their abject misery we did not know anymore whether we should hate these people or feel pity for them. […] When the train later pulled away from us and we saw the eerie, staring eyes from every one of the passing openings, many of us felt uncomfortable, if not guilty, but none of us said anything about the encounter. All of us had heard about concentration camps, but the generally accepted understanding was that only anti-social and anti-German elements, like Communists, homosexuals, gipsies and such like, were being kept in there and forced to do a decent day’s work for the first time in their lives. Though we were not far from it, I am sure that most of us at that time had ever heard the name Auschwitz. (Metelmann, pp. 30-31)

As far as war crimes represent the darkest side of the German war in Russia, the witnesses found no better way to deal with this disturbing experience than understatement: “we knew, but only to a certain extent…”, “we would have done something about that, but we could not…”, “we supposed that Lagers existed only to re-educate antisocial individuals…”, and so on. By pretending to be ignorant or by diverting their attention from an uncomfortable truth, the witnesses claimed to be innocent or at least not guilty, insofar as they claimed having fought honourably for their country and not for the Nazi cause. But one of them, recalling the image of a Russian child tore in pieces by a grenade wrote: “though trained to be arrogant and overbearing, I knew I was guilty” (Metelmann, p. 70).

For further reading

U. von Alvensleben, Lauter Abschiede. Tagebuch im Kriege, Frankfurt am Main, Propyläen, 1971

P. Bamm, Die unsichtbare Flagge. Ein Bericht, München, Kösel, 1964

O. Bartov, The Eastern Front, 1941-45. German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare, Basingstoke, Macmillan in association with St. Antony’s College, Oxford, 1985

J. M. Bauer, Die Kraniche der Nogaia. Tagebücherblätter aus dem Feldzug im Osten, München, Herbig, 1942

O. Buchbender, and R. Sterz, eds., Das andere Gesicht des Krieges. Deutsche Feldpostbriefe 1939-1945, München, Beck, 1982

W. Chales de Beaulieu, Der Vorstoß der Panzergruppe 4 auf Leningrad – 1941, Neckargemünd, Vowinckel, 1961

S. G. Fritz, “We are trying… to change the face of the world”. Ideology and motivation in the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front: The view from below, «The Journal of Military History», 60, 4 (1996)

C. Gerlach, Verbrechen deutscher Fronttruppen in Weißrussland 1941-1944. Eine Annäherung, in Wehrmacht und Vernichtungspolitik. Militär im nationalsozialistischen System, ed. by K. H. Pohl, Göttingen, Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1999

H. Geyer, Das IX. Armeekorps im Ostfeldzug 1941, Neckargemünd, Vowinckel, 1969

A. Golovchansky and others, eds., “Ich will raus aus diesem Wahnsinn”. Deutsche Briefe von der Ostfront, 1941-1945, aus sowjetischen Archiven, Reinbeck, Rowholt, 1993

H. Guderian, Erinnerungen eines Soldaten, Heidelberg, Vowinkel, 1950

F. Hartlaub, Von unten gesehen, Stuttgart, Koehler, 1950

R. Headland, Messages of Murder. A Study of the Reports of the Einsatzgruppen of the Security Police and the Security Service, 1941-1943, Rutherford, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992

K. Jarausch, and K. J. Arnold, eds., “Das stille Sterben…”. Feldpostbriefe von Konrad Jarausch aus Polen und Russland. 1939-1942, Paderborn, Schöningh, 2008

J. Keppler, Überwindungen. Tagebuch und Aufzeichnungen aus dem Kriege, Stuttgart, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1958

E. Kern, Der große Rausch. Russlandfeldzug 1941-1945, Weiblingen, Leberecht, 1950

K. Letzel, Deutsche Soldaten – nationalsozialisticher Krieg? Kriegserlebnis – Kriegserfahrung, 1939-1945, Paderborn, Schöningh, 19982

W. Lubbek and D. Hurt, At Leningrad’s gates. The story of a soldier with Army Group North, Barnsley, Pen & Sword Military, 2007

J. Lucas, War on the Eastern Front 1941-1945. The German Soldier in Russia, London, Jane’s Publishing, 1979

W. Manoscheck, The Holocaust as recounted in Wehrmacht soldiers’ letters from the front, in The discursive construction of history. Remembering the Wehrmacht’s war of annihilation, ed. by H. Heer and others, Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan, 2008, pp. 27-49

E. von Manstein, Verlorene Siege, Bonn, Athenäum, 1955

K. Matthies, Ich hörte die Lerchen singen. Ein Tagebuch aus dem Osten, 1941/45, München, Kösel, 1956

H. Metelmann, Through hell for Hitler. A dramatic first-hand account of fighting on the eastern front with the Wehrmacht, Staplehurst, Spellmount, 2003 (1990)

H. Pabst, Der Ruf der äußersten Grenze. Tagebuch eines Frontsoldaten, Tübingen, Schlichtenmayer, 1953

Pater-Mater, Heinz. Ein Menschleben im Krieg geboren – im Krieg verloren, 1915-1942, Heidelberg, Schneider, 1947

K.-T. Schleicher and H. Walle, eds., Aus Feldpostbriefen junger Christen 1939-1945. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der katholischen Jugend im Felde, Stuttgart, Steiner, 2005

H. Steets, Gebirgsjäger in der Nogaischen Steppe. Vom Dnjepr zum Asowschen Meer. August-Oktober 1941, Heidelberg, Vowinckel, 1956

W. Wette, “Rassenfeind: die rassistischen Elemente in der deutschen Propaganda gegen die Sowjetunion, in Deutsch-russische Zeitenwende. Krieg und Frieden 1941-1995, ed. by H.-A. Jakobsen and others, Baden-Baden, Nomos, 1995, pp. 175-201

B. Zieser, In their shallow graves, London, Elek Books, 1956