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

Encountering war in the letters from the front

By Gianluca Cinelli

The letters sent from the front during WWII constitute a broad universe which we are just partially familiar with (tens of thousands of letters out of billions). Only a very small portion of the immense corpus of letters from and to the fronts has been published, which means that such a form of testimony constitutes an important but also distorted means of encounter with war. Do therefore letters constitute a good means for encountering war? Do people at home really come across war, when they read the letters received from their loved ones at the front? The testimony provided by a letter from the front is complex and ambiguous insofar as it differs both from autobiographical texts written after the events in the form of a narrative and from diaries, which are basically private writings with an open and discontinuous narrative structure. Letters from the front imply the presence of a defined reader, normally the family, relatives, friends etc. of the combatants who write. Letters are first of all life-signals that combatants exchange with their families back home. Therefore, they also imply a sort of dialogue dislocated in space and delayed in time, which affects communication and the flow of information. Moreover, letters from the front are subject to censorship, which limits the freedom of the writers to express their minds openly. Finally, combatants tend to present themselves in their letters as individuals who struggle to balance their experience of violence and suffering with the ideas, expectations and sets of values of their relatives at home. Combatants cannot and dare not report the reality of their daily life in war directly to their relatives without applying some language-filter. Letters from the front line must first of all keep the dialogue between combatants and their society as it existed before the war alive (Letzel 1998: 30). Such a dialogue is irregular and ambiguous, though, because, on the one hand, censorship prevents it from being spontaneous and, on the other hand, self-censorship represents the psychological device by which the system of values shared with family and friends is protected from the potential harm resulting from direct representation of the war. Insofar as censorship prevents the combatants from expressing freely their own thoughts and from revealing classified or secret aspects of the war, the relationship between combatants and censorship has two faces: on the one hand the soldiers try to escape control by avoiding prohibited topics; sometimes, conversely, they use the keywords of propaganda in order to “smuggle” opinion and information which should not be put into writing. This is the reason why one often comes across letters which appear oddly propagandistic, discordant with private communication. Most of the times, such an attitude is a subtle way of “cheating” censorship, which urges the recipient to read between the lines.

In the German letters sent home from Russia in 1941, the invasion at first appears as a just war waged in self-defence against communism and the “Judaic-Bolshevik” plot. For many German soldiers, the war and the annihilation of the Red Army would impede the “red beasts” to reach Germany, thus they represented that total annihilation-war as a cause worth fighting and death. The soldiers of the Wehrmacht often considered themselves as liberators and restorers of Catholicism in Russia, which they depicted as a backward country populated by uncivilised inhabitants. Nonetheless, perplexity and fear do emerge from the letters of these combatants as long as they advanced deeper into enemy territory and witnessed a cruel war conducted relentlessly against civilians, POWs and Jews. No writer openly refers to these misdeeds, which was prohibited by censorship: they just write that the war is demanding more than mere physical effort and courage in battle: obedience, faith, endurance and determination therefore assume a secret meaning, insofar as the combatants try to tell (ambiguously and indirectly) that they are experiencing unexpected war crimes from which they cannot call themselves off. Shootings, hangings, deportation, forced labour, mass mortality from starvation and disease among the Russian POWs hardly made their way into the letters, because any admission that the conflict in the East was a criminal extermination war, would undermine the moral link between the combatants and their families, from which the former received the signal of a normal life, so they made every effort to send back a representation of their daily life as much normal, by removing all reference to violence and horror.

But the brutality of the war in Russia took its toll on the soldiers. Beside the restrain of censorship, self-censorship represented a constant attitude of the combatants to face a moral crisis, as soon as they began to recognise in their comrades a glimpse of the bandit and raider, or to understand that the series of victories was turning into defeat. The language of letters bears the scars of such internal conflict. The combatants, by writing that their condition was “beyond description” and by promising that one day they would tell everything in person at home, put a distance between themselves and the events, thus concealing their moral struggle. Silence was therefore all but mute: if blackened lines in censored letters show that the State could control and transform dissent into coerced consent, silence imposed by self-censorship was rather a blank to fill with interpretation.

Silence as refusal to speak about the war means that the encounter with war was so shocking that it had to be framed within a discourse of apparent normality. Which also means that the language of letters would deny people at home the possibility to actually encounter war and to understand what was going on at the front. In situations of extreme danger like in Stalingrad or in other great battles in 1943-1944, combatants found it very difficult to conceal reality. In the letters written under life-threatening conditions of extreme suffering and fear, the combination of censorship and self-censorship became highly problematic, because the attempt to escape through writing stood in open contradiction with experience, and this created violent swings in language. One can find, in fact, strong oppositions between expressions of hope and despair, or between appeals to calm, often dictated with a strained enthusiasm, and crude descriptions of a hopeless condition.

Silence therefore became a form of complicity. It occurred first of all as ellipsis (denial), but it could also occur as understatement and irony. There were two different types of self-censorship: the first was a rational precautionary reaction to the presence of the military censorship and to its restrictions. Silence or the displacement of information was not aimed at interrupting the communication totally; the writers wanted to be understood by their recipients but not by censors. This was the reason for the promises to speak in person at home, for cryptic symbols (e.g. a circle with a point inside, to mean the encirclement of the German 6th Army in Stalingrad) and other allusions.

The second case was that of total and impenetrable silence, when the combatants passed over entire parts of their daily life and experience in silence simply by writing about other things, until their letters conveyed an image of the war tampered with as though those aspects of violence and horror had never existed at all. Adjectives like “inconceivable”, “indescribable” and “unimaginable” represent the limit beyond which silence became total. It was no longer a matter of “I cannot say this because it is forbidden”; the war had to be radically transformed into a bearable experience that the reader at home could handle, comprehend and eventually justify in order to believe that their loved ones would eventually come back home as they once were.

The readers of letters encountered war through a thick filter of linguistic and ideological manipulation: they encountered the “soft” version of the war depicted and tampered with by the combatants themselves, who quite usually arranged their representations as a compact pack of standardised communication, in which life-signal appeared as the most important and urgent content to communicate. “I am still alive and in good shape and spirit” was likely to be in the end the most useful and consolatory thing to write and read.

But war, despite its distorted images, changes and affects the combatants for the rest of their lives and urges them to constantly arrange the story in order to make sense of it and to make it bearable and acceptable. Self-censorship in the letters is first of all a symptom of the pursue not much for a true and authentic account but rather for consent and self-acknowledgement aimed at permitting, after the war, the return of the veterans into the circle of their community as civilians. Therefore, one can see the letters from the front as a first stage of the attempt to stretch a bridge over the gap between war and those civilians who, away from it at home, can only imagine it through the official representations of propaganda and those unorthodox of letters and first-hand oral accounts made by veterans when they come home on leave. Many Germans became aware of the actual situation in the East by listening to the accounts that the veterans made in secret: crimes, extermination of the Jews, the defeat in Stalingrad, the general retreat in 1944 were taboos that the Nazi propaganda tried to keep secret. Through the letters from the front many German families encountered a war that they had never imagined, although a war still tampered with. Perhaps, only after 1945 silence in the letters began to make sense, when defeat opened the eyes of the majority, as one veteran wrote:

“In retrospect, I realized that I – and countless others like me – had helped Hitler start and fight a world war of conquest that had left tens millions of people dead and destroyed our own country. I wondered now whether I would ever question these things if we had won the war. I had to conclude that it was unlikely. This was a lesson taught by defeat, not by victory” (Knappe 1993: 298).

Further reading

  • Buchbender, Ortwin and Reinhold Sterz, eds., Das andere Gesicht des Krieges. Deutsche Feldpostbriefe 1939-1945, München, Beck, 1982
  • Ebert, Jens, Feldpostbriefe aus Stalingrad. November 1942 bis Januar 1943, Göttingen, Wallstein, 2003
  • Golovchansky, Anatoly and others, eds., “Ich will raus aus diesem Wahnsinn”. Deutsche briefe von der Ostfront, 1941-1945, aus sowjetischen Archiven, Reinbeck, Rowholt, 1993
  • Knappe, Siegfrid and Ted Brusaw, Soldat. Reflections of a German Soldier, 1936-1949, Shrewbury, Airlife, 1993
  • Letzel, Klaus, Deutsche Soldaten – nationalsozialisticher Krieg? Kriegserlebnis – Kriegserfahrung, 1939-1945, 2nd ed., Paderborn, Schöningh, 1998
  • Schleicher, Karl-Theodor and Heinrich Walle, eds., Aus Feldpostbriefen junger Christen, 1939-1945. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der katholischen Jugend im Felde, Stuttgart, Steiner, 2005

Reading War Photographs: Who is the photographer?

By María Manuela Fernández Sánchez

Reading War Photographs: Who is the photographer?

In an interview published in the newspaper El País (April 17, 2015), José Palazón, president of the nongovernmental organization “Prodein”, and winner of the XVIII Luis Valtueña Humanitarian Photography Award, remembers a conversation that he had with a prosecutor, twenty years ago, when he was denouncing the abuses against immigrants in Melilla, the Spanish enclave on the North African coast. Palazón complained that his efforts to gain visibility were not getting anywhere, to which the prosecutor replied: “Look for evidences. Take photographs”. Since then, it seems that Palazón has learned his lesson and the photograph “Desolate landscapes”, which he submitted to the Luis Valtueña photography competition has travelled around the world.

“Desolate landscapes” is an unusual reflection of the invisibility of undocumented immigrants, and the indifference to their suffering in developed countries. The contrast between the vulnerable location of a group of immigrants, precariously perched on the high border fence dividing Spain and Morocco, and the view of the luxurious golf course where two golfers are blithely immersed in their game is doubtlessly the ironical reflection of the evident failure of Spanish government as well as of European immigration policies to face and successfully deal with the immigration crisis from Africa.

In documentary photography, the question about who is taking the photograph is one of great significance. James Curtis explains: “If we are to determine the meaning of a documentary photograph we must begin by establishing the historical context for both the image and its creator. A documentary photographer is an historical actor bent upon communicating a message to an audience. Documentary photographs are more than expressions of artistic skill; they are conscious acts of persuasion”. 

The use of photographs to tell stories has accompanied photography since its invention in the first half of the nineteenth century and has paralleled the evolution of independent journalism. Documentary photography has mirrored the desires of their audience as well as their prejudices (Curtis, ibidem). In a similar way, press photographs and propaganda images in war time ‘speak directly to the cultural concerns of the society at which they are directed, both in the subject chosen for representation and in the way those subjects are portrayed’ (Brothers 1997: 2).

In wartime, governments place great importance on graphical testimony. The control and use of the images, depending on the evolution of the conflict and the public support of the war effort are a key element in any propaganda campaign. In this sense, a high percentage of war photographs show carefully prepared scenes in which the participants posed for propaganda purposes. If the field of military history is one of the most productive in terms of primary sources for the study of wars, this is basically because military activity generates a lot of documentary work.

The analysis of war photographs must thus include the consideration of many signifying elements, not the least of which is the broader process of the production and distribution of images. David Simpson (2010: 13) observes that our current wars are highly mediated. He continues by saying that sometimes a portion of what is seen is taken without question as real, other times, some items “are held up to a compulsively sceptical inquiry about what has or has not been spliced and doctored. Some things remain unseen”. 

The debate about the authenticity of war photographs has been recently in the news, though this time, in regards to allegations of criminal abuse by Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad. On January 20, 2014, CNN and The Guardian reported that a team of internationally renowned war crimes experts had found direct evidence of systematic torture and killing in Syrian prisons. The report, based on thousands of photographs of dead bodies, is the testimony of a Syrian government defector codenamed “Caesar”, who during his secret work with a Syrian opposition group, smuggled out the photographs and fled the country. The defector worked as a photographer in the military police. When the war broke out, his work consisted of taking photographs of allegedly murdered detainees. 

In conversation with the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, Jonathan Tepperman (Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2015. Vol.94. No.2, 58-65), Bashar al-Assad called into question the irrefutable evidence of such images of terrible torture and abuse. He stated: “None of these allegations that you mentioned are concrete; all of them are allegations. You can bring photos from anyone and say this is torture. Who took the pictures? Who is he? Nobody knows. There is no verification of any of this evidence, so it’s all allegations without evidence”. 

When Jonathan Tepperman mentioned that Caesar’s photos had been looked at by independent investigators, the Syrian President replied: “No, no. It’s funded by Qatar, and they say it’s an anonymous source. So nothing is clear or proven. The pictures are not clear which person they show. They’re just pictures of a head, for example, with some skulls. Who said this is done by the government, not by the rebels? Who said this is a Syrian victim, not someone else?”   

In his political interest, it makes perfect sense for the Syrian President to repeatedly deny any responsibility for these deaths. What is more striking, however, is the way his words evoke timeless issues which are never out of the limelight, such as the usefulness of photography as primary historical evidence and the ambiguity of photographic meaning.

The argument that the source is anonymous, and consequently the images might come from anywhere else the world is not conclusive. The point is that the author of the photographs is a witness. It can be a singular individual or a group of people. The photographs were “shot for the record” (Curtis, ibidem). They show an undeniable reality, which is currently the object of inquiry by independent experts. The images are disturbing because they record something that actually happened. In fact, they show one of the harshest realities of wars, and their authority is derived from that harshness. In this respect, they can be regarded as a special kind of raw material. Consequently, the photographer had no need to adopt an aesthetic agenda. This descriptive function of photography represents the main use of the medium when it is at the service of scientific and historical investigation.

However, it would be misleading to think that images that provide evidence are easy to understand. Their content is dependent on a network of technical information and cultural knowledge. Furthermore, even the most realistic photograph can be manipulated “according to a variety of contextualizing factors, such as caption and layout, which may be outside the photographer’s control” (Ritchin 1999: 89). In this sense, the demand for verification on the part of the Syrian President is logical though extremely awkward.

The question about how an image is to be understood is also crucial in the area of our research interest, namely, the contemporary history of interpreting. When wartime interpreters are studied as photographic subjects (Fernández Sánchez, 2014), one should always bear in mind that most of the photographs were taken on commission for the government or for press agencies. In these cases, captions, dates, and information concerning the publication are vital in order to be able to correctly read the photographs. Through the photographic image, interpreters and interpreting experiences have become visible. These language intermediaries were present in historical events and in different settings, which contributes to document an important dimension of armed conflicts that often goes unnoticed. 

Today, the increasing ubiquity of images from civil wars, ethnic conflicts, and terrorism  also focus on local translators and interpreters, or “fixers”, as witnesses and victims of war. Their role, their proximity to the local population and their low occupational status in many cases deserve a closer look.


Brothers, Caroline.1997. War and Photography. A Cultural History. London and New York: Routledge.

Curtis, James. 2003. “Making Sense of Documentary Photography”, History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web,  HYPERLINK “http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/Photos/” http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/Photos/.

Fernández Sánchez, María Manuela. 2014. “Interpreters in the Field: Friends or Foes?”. In Framing the Interpreter. Towards a visual perspective, edited by Anxo Fernández-Ocampo and Michaela Wolf. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 172-180.

Ritchin, Fred. 1999. In Our Own Image. The Coming Revolution in Photography. Aperture: New York.

Simpson, David. 2010. “Seen through the Loopholes”, London Review of Books, Vol. 32, No 5, p. 13-14.

Freedom, coercion or torture? The political re-education of German POWs in Soviet concentration camps, 1941-1956

By Gianluca Cinelli

In all ages of human history, torture has represented a fear and a reality for prisoners of war. Soldiers captured in war can be the victims of the victor’s retaliation immediately after battle as well as far behind the front line, through interrogations for intelligence, forced-labour, brain-washing. In fact, torture is not only physical. George Orwell describes the perversion of psychological torture in his novel 1984 (1948) by means of the symbol of Room 101. Primo Levi, the well-known Auschwitz-witness, once wrote that “useless violence” in Nazi Lagers consisted in inflicting apparently aimless physical and psychological suffering in order to demolish the human dignity and resilience of captives.

A mass-scale case of ideological torture was the political re-education of German POWs in Soviet concentration camps during WWII. In 1941 Walter Ulbricht (1893-1973, he was President of the Democratic Republic of Germany from 1960 up to his death), in exile in Moscow, thought that German POWs could represent a useful instrument of propaganda, if they could be won to the cause of Communism. Ulbricht believed that the Red Army would eventually win the war, and he therefore saw the necessity to create a group of German Soviet agents who would trigger a socialist revolution in Germany after the end of the war. Ulbricht submitted his project to the Soviets, who recognized the potential of the proposal and decided to install the first School of Antifascism in the concentration camp of Jelabuga, where the German Captain Ernst Hadermann began to cooperate with Ulbricht and the Soviets to win the German POWs to the cause of antifascism. The breakthrough came in winter 1943, after the German debacle in Stalingrad, where the entire 6th Army was destroyed. Although only 90.000 Germans were taken prisoners, among them Feldmarschall Freidrich Paulus and his staff were also captured. For the first time hundreds of thousands of POWs were in the hands of the Red Army (over 100.000 Germans, about 74.000 Italians, and many thousands of Rumanians and Hungarians).

On 13th July 1943 in the Lager of Krasnogorsk the National Committee “Free Germany” was founded with the purpose to create the first group of military resistance against Hitler’s regime. Soon after, in September 1943, a number of officers who had refused to join “Free Germany” because it seemed too compromised with Communism, founded the Union of German Officers, which was apparently independent but actually under the thumb of Communist political activists. By the end of 1944 some tens of officers and a few hundreds of Wehrmacht soldiers had joined the antifascist movement, small figures in comparison with the 3.500.000 German POWs in Soviet hands at the end of the war.

In November 1945 “Free Germany” and the Union of German Officers were disbanded. The former members were sent back to the Soviet Zone of Occupation in Germany between 1946 and 1948 in order to build the new socialist German fatherland. Nonetheless, although political re-education of POWs was no longer in agenda, POWs remained exposed to arbitrary Soviet policies concerning intelligence and forced-labour. In 1949 a wave of political trials stormed over the thousands of concentration camps in the USSR: thousands of German POWs were accused with war crimes and sentenced to death, life imprisonment or 25 years of forced-labour. POWs were to be used to rebuild the Russian cities and infrastructures destroyed by war as well as hostages to put pressure on West Germany, which in 1950 was to be re-armed within the NATO. Political trials against POWs took place in an atmosphere of terror and menace, which can be acknowledged from the literary memoirs of witnesses.

One must distinguish between memoirs written in the Democratic Republic of Germany and those published in West Germany because they reflect different political perspectives: in fact, all Eastern authors (e.g. Paulus, Adam, Müller, Steidle and Rühle) occupied relevant roles in politics, culture and education and their memoirs depict the political re-education in Soviet concentration camps as a rejuvenating experience of self-affirmation. Political re-education, or Antifascism, certainly was not for them torture or suffering. They consider themselves as patriots who embraced the cause of a free and democratic Germany shaped on the Marxist view of history and society. They interpret Germany’s catastrophe as the necessary outcome of imperialism and militarism, to which they oppose socialism and its vocation to internationalism and peace.

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, things were different. A small group of witnesses came from the ranks of former antifascists, such as Heinrich Einsiedel (vice-president of the National Committee “Free Germany”), novelist Heinrich Gerlach, and theologian Helmut Gollwitzer. These authors had first joined Communist antifascism because they had believed in the historical necessity to take a stand against Hitler and his war. They had later gown critical toward Communism and they had been persecuted and punished for that, in concentration camps before and once they had come back to Germany after 1948. They represent the political re-education as a two-fold experience: on the one hand it was a noble and heroic assumption of responsibility that they faced as officers and human beings; on the other that experience was also a dangerous compromise with power and corruption insofar as being antifascists in Soviet concentration camps meant claiming privilege and prominence over other fellow POWs. These authors remember in their memoirs how they had to act as spies for the Communist authorities, how they had to lie and deceive in order to keep their privileges, and how they had to go through a never-ending psychological war against other prisoners in order to conquer power. These authors recall the motto of Soviet antifascism: “whoever is not with us is against us”, or “whoever does not work does not eat”, which did not sound much different than under the Nazi yoke.

The political re-education in the memoirs of lower officers and ranks, who depict it as sheer torture, appears even worse, as a school of double-thought and as a struggle for surviving, because the periodical interrogations carried out by Communist activists made the difference between being admitted to the school of antifascism (which meant more food, warm bedrooms and no hard-labour) and being sent out to Siberia for hard-labour in the woods, in mines or on cotton fields. Interrogations were subtle and dangerous, aimed at forcing prisoners into self-contradiction. When this happened, the prisoner had to choose between becoming a spy and collaborating, and ending up in punishment camps. These witnesses recall the wave of political trials of 1949 as the most fearful experience after starvation and typhus epidemics of 1943-1944: threatened to be held for years in hard-labour camps, many a prisoner chose to denounce even close friends as war-criminals, in order to be sent back to Germany, and many even mutilated themselves in order to be spared from work and sent home.

In West Germany some authors, such as former pilot and POW Assi Hahn, caught the occasion to raise a vehement polemic against Communism, which in many cases turned out to be a shameful apology of the old Nazi regime, militarism and imperialism. What is striking is that the Soviet project of conquering a huge mass of POWs, marked as a “bunch of fascists”, to the political cause of Communism eventually ended up into a large-scale failure. In fact, the strategy of attracting POWs to antifascism in exchange of privilege and power over fellow comrades in concentration camps did not produce the model of a virtuous democratic society, but rather a “grey zone” where compromise, deceit and egoism prevailed over social virtues such as solidarity, friendship and justice.

In this sense, Soviet concentration camps of POWs also represented a sort of laboratory for social experimentation. The separateness of POWs from their homeland permitted to create the condition for an artificial acceptance of the new political and social doctrine in abstract, not as a real means to manage the life of a community. Better said, there was a community, but a fragile and weak one, of starving and frightened POWs under the thumb of a powerful and intricate structure capable of inflicting suffering and death or to grant favour and privilege. Such political re-education can be seen as torture, especially if one considers that many German POWs remained in Soviet camps up to 1956.

Torture is an evil and useless instrument. Its secrecy and separateness testify to its unlawfulness as well as to the bad will of those who use it. In the past, criminals were tormented and executed in public, as Foucault pointed out, in the course of violent ceremonies aimed at restoring the authority of the State challenged by serious offences. But torture is different. It is a closed-door activity, because it is brutal and illegal, because it is aimed at overwhelming the victim’s will, in order to force out a confession beyond evidence of crime and guilt. Torture can make up evidence as magic: in order to stop suffering and fear the victim is ready to confess what the torturer wants to hear. The case of political re-education shows that torture can also be a means to force ideologies into the mind of people. Nonetheless, experience teaches that such achievements almost always remain unattained, or that they are reached at the cost of moral degradation, illegality and inhumanity.

For further reading

Bungert, Heike, Das Nationalkomitee und der Westen. Die Reaktion der Westalliierten auf das NKFD und die Freien Deutschen Bewegungen 1943-1948, Stuttgart, Steiner, 1997

Scheurig, Bodo, Freies Deutschland. Das Nationalkomitee und der Bund Deutscher Offiziere in der Sowjetunion 1943-1945, München, Nymphenburger, 1960

Schoenhals, Kai, The Free Germany Movement. A Case of Patriotism or Treason?, New York, Greenwood Press, 1989

Smith, Arthur, The War for the German Mind. Re-Educating Hitler’s Soldiers, Oxford, Berghan, 1996