Primo Levi’s hundredth birthday

31st July 1919 – 31st July 2019

By Gianluca Cinelli

Primo Levi (Turin, 1919-1987) was a writer known to the world for his works of testimony on deportation to Auschwitz. He was born from a Jewish family and he graduated in chemistry in 1941, despite the restrictions imposed by racial laws to Jewish students. He received from chemistry a first fundamental lesson of life: that in the struggle with matter, humans get a hint of what their own limits and strengths are. Levi realised that imperfection and asymmetry are fundamental aspects of reality, which is not dominated by the Spirit (as the fascist school, marked by distinction between humanistic culture and technical culture, taught). At the same time, chemistry was for Levi a school of rigor and precision, of patience, and of rejection of approximation. It was an apprenticeship that consolidated a background of culture acquired by young Primo not only through his broad literary readings (Rabelais, Melville, Conrad and many others) but also scientific and philosophical knowledge, attained thanks to the books that his father collected. In an age of cultural provincialism, such a complex, rich and pragmatic formation moulded the mind of young Primo, opening it to curiosity and above all to the belief that there are no separate cultures (humanism vs science), but only one single culture, for knowledge is made of the blending of its diverse parts. And since the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts, such a culture promised to be far more fruitful than the stagnating idealism that dominated Italian cultural environment in the 1930s. The idea of a unitary culture went back to Aristotle, Dante Alighieri, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton. For these thinkers, science, technology, philosophy, art, ethics, mathematics, physics, biology made one single and uninterrupted horizon of knowledge.

Primo Levi in the late 1930s

Then, on 8th September 1943, everything changed. Fascism had already been overthrown on 25th July of the same year. Italy had lost the war and now the Germans, who had been allies until the day before, became enemies and occupiers. For Italian Jews the situation quickly collapsed because while the military and political alliance between Italy and Hitler’s Germany had protected them (albeit in segregation), now the SS could deport them along with the other Jews of Europe. Primo left Turin and, urged by a generous albeit vague will to fighting, reached the partisans in the mountains. He was captured almost immediately and to save himself from a death sentence, he declared not to be a partisan but rather a Jew.

In February, after a period of internment in a concentration camp near Fossoli, he was deported to Auschwitz, where he worked as a forced labourer in the synthetic rubber factory (run by the large industrial group IG-Farben), annexed to camp 11 Buna-Monowitz. He remained there until the liberation on 27th January 1945. After his youthful and adventurous apprenticeship under the sign of chemistry, this new experience completed his education and human training to the point that Levi declared in the 1970s that Auschwitz had been his university. Surviving in an extermination Lager was no minor feat that prompted the young man to recount his adventures as soon as he returned to Italy in 1945. However, it was not a question of narrating facts in the fashion of romantic adventures, because the matter was too serious and incredible. Levi told his story through an original lens of lucid and almost detached, scientific observation, as if Auschwitz had been a huge laboratory in which the Nazis had conducted a horrible social and biological experiment. Described as a primordial struggle for survival, captivity is told in Se questo è un uomo (1947) as a journey to self-discovery by fathoming the human capacity to reach unexpected depths of abjection. Hence the question, at the end of the journey, whether the survivor is still a human creature.

Primo Levi after WW2

But Primo Levi was not only an Auschwitz-witness, although he dedicated to this theme numerous books after Se questo è un uomo (La tregua, Lilìt e altri racconti, and I sommersi e i salvati, as well as a number of essays and articles). In the 1960s his multifaceted interest in science and technology prompted him to reflect on the problems of modernity through a form that was underdeveloped in Italian literature of those years, i.e. science fiction. He published two volumes of short stories, Storie naturali in 1966 (under the pseudonym of Damiano Malabaila) and Vizio di forma in 1971, exploring many an aspect of modernity and translating into “fantabiological” contexts (the expression was forged by Italo Calvino) the discourse about the Lager. With these stories, he reflected on the risks of electing technique to absolute paradigm of organization of life and human progress, and incorporating in his writing non-literary models borrowed from science.

And above all there was chemistry that since the end of the war had constituted the main job of Primo Levi. Not theoretical chemistry but rather industrial chemistry that is made with the five senses, with hands, by struggling to tame matter, yet without forgetting the immeasurable force of nature that never yields to human will. In 1975 Levi published Il Sistema periodico, a kind of autobiography in which he retraced the stages of his own human and cultural development by choosing chemistry as a criterion (and metaphor) to organise the book. After the mortifying experience of the Lager, where work was designed to murder the forced-labourers, Levi now recounted the uplifting experience of vocational work that makes life worthwhile and makes individuals aware of their own strengths and limits.

This book was followed in 1978 by La chiave a stella, anther work devoted to the theme of work that ironically bridged between the “chemical” and “literary” aspects of professional achievement. The result is a reflection on work as a fundamental experience for human happiness, coupled with a new kind of reflection that would occupy Levi more and more in the following years: the awareness of being now a full-time writer (Levi retired from his chemist job at the end of the decade). The “two souls” – the chemist and the writer – coexisted (Levi called himself a “centaur”) as the two faces of one single, complex personality capable of creating and manipulating reality with chemical and verbal processes. No matter if he combined molecules or words, the effect remained the same: life is an endless exploration of reality with the tools that we possess, the senses, the body, the mind and knowledge that over thousands of years of cultural evolution has permitted us to undertake the daily struggle for life.

The 1980s marked a return to the past. As Levi increasingly wrote in newspapers about literature and reviewed books of other writers, he was invited by his publisher to edit an anthology of readings of special importance for his intellectual education, a kind of autobiography through readings (La ricerca delle radici 1981). Nonetheless, his focus remained fixed on the Lager experience. Revisionism spread over Europe, Faurisson’s thesis received consensus and a growing number of people were inclined to deny that Lagers, crematoriums, and even the great Nazi massacre had ever occurred. The memory of the “unhealable offence” faltered, partly under the blows of the negationists, and partly because of its own physiological decadence. Years passed by, memories changed or faded, witnesses disappeared. In the same year Levi published Lilìt e altri racconti, a collection of stories about the Lager combined with science-fiction tales. Then, in 1983, he translated Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess, a demanding endeavour that brought Levi back to struggle with the nightmare of deportation and senseless persecution. It was the beginning of the depression, against which Levi fought over the last years of his life. In 1982 he published his only novel, Se non ora, quando?, a story inspired by real facts and centred on the adventures of a group of Russian Jewish partisans: as if to say that not all Jews passively succumbed to the massacre, that there was also those who, although in absolute minority, fought back.

But the most important work that fermented in those years was I sommersi e i salvati, the last essay that Levi published in 1986, one year before committing suicide. The title had already appeared in a chapter of Se questo è un uomo, but this work was new and rather different. This book largely consisted of memory and therefore must be defended from memory itself, because recollections change over the years and end up replacing the original “raw” ones. In the end – Levi claimed – the survivors of the Nazi extermination, both the perpetrators and the victims (yet on opposite principles and with different aims), produce “prosthetic memories” by which they can rework their past experiences in a way that makes them bearable. The true integral witnesses of the Lager, Levi says in one of the most controversial passages of the work, are those who died there, for they “saw the bottom”. One year later, like other survivors such as Paul Celan or Jean Amery, Levi committed suicide without providing any explanation.

Primo Levi was one of the most “multifaceted” Italian intellectuals of the twentieth century. Able to explore the literary field ranging from ancient classics to foreign literature, including distant genres and little-known authors, Levi was able to interpret his role as an intellectual without forgetting his work as a scientist and technician. His scientific culture was comparable to that of Renaissance intellectuals, for whom it was natural to integrate poetry, mathematics, music, physics, metaphysics, etc. into one single, broad cultural horizon. Twentieth-century Italian culture experienced rare moments of similar integration of the humanistic and technical cultures, thanks to such intellectuals as Carlo Emilio Gadda, Italo Calvino, Mario Rigoni Stern and a few others, who were able to cross disciplinary boundaries and to understand the world as complexity.

What impresses Levi’s readers is the expressive clarity, the lucidity with which he tackles serious themes without indulging in psychologism or morbid aestheticization of graphic details. With the scientist’s detached gaze, Levi struggled to understand what happens when a sophisticated and deeply articulated form of life like the human being is placed in conditions of extreme danger, suffering, or severe stress. Under the dire circumstance of rationally programmed extermination – as that carried out in Nazi Lagers – the magnificent and progressive fortunes of humanity invoked by the Enlightenment are shaken to the foundations and what remains is the Pascalian image of a hybrid creature, half angel and half beast, unable to turn itself into the former or the latter, but dangerously tending downwards, towards its dark side, from which it must keep away through a constant moral and rational effort.

Levi teaches a profound lesson in critical thinking because he, as a technician, knew the advantages and dangers of technology. As an instrument it facilitates the life and progress of the species, but as an ideology it produces a cruel and mechanical world, where the ends prevaricate the means and where the human is only one of the many tools that can be exploited to death. As to such consideration, Levi bridged between classical and contemporary paradigms. His ideology was deeply rooted in nineteenth-century positivist thought and his humanism traced perhaps even further back to the great moralistic masters of the seventeenth century, to the scientist-poets of the Renaissance. The challenges of modernity took place for Levi on the border between humans and world, where the two terms meet and collide: for humans too often fail to conceive themselves as part of the world, while the world does not yield to their will of power.

Levi’s moral lesson is invaluable because human history shows a certain tendency to repeat itself. Levi’s analyses and diagnoses, exposed with the seriousness of the doctor who has well considered the symptoms of his patient, remain exemplary and enlightening to understand and recognise dangerous human behaviours: the marginalization of minorities, manipulation, the construction of artificial myths and truths on which opinions are based, the twisting of experience into forms of false knowledge. All these aspects concern us as well because these are cognitive, evolutionary and psychological mechanisms of human life, both individual and collective.

Levi’s confidence in reason, in humanity’s ability to dwell in the light (according to a traditional metaphor dear to the writer), which is to prefer to darkness just as clarity is preferable to incomprehensibility, made of him the writer who, since his youthful and romantic struggle with Matter to his deadly fight with the Gorgon, never lost his faith in the human. And because of that – or in spite of it all –, it never ceases to surprise how deeply Levi could grasp the humorous side of life, even in the most horrible circumstances.

One hundred years after his birth there is still much to understand and learn from this multifaceted writer.

An unusual close encounter with the enemy

Nuto Revelli’s Il disperso di Marburg after 25 years. Marburg, July 18, 2019

Nuto Revelli.

Nuto Revelli (Cuneo 1919-2004) was an officer of the Italian Royal Army and fought in Russia in 1942-1943. Following the armistice of September 8, 1943 between Italy and the Allies, Revelli joined the anti-fascist partisan groups and fought as commander of the 4th GL Band (later renamed “Carlo Rosselli” Brigade) until the liberation of Italy in April 1945. The experience of war engendered deep hatred against the Germans, which Revelli had met on the Russian front as allies and then as enemies in the mountains of his region (Piedmont). For decades this hatred remained unchanged and the intensity of such feeling was captured in the first books that Revelli published in the post-war period, Mai tardi (1946 and then republished in 1967) and La guerra dei poveri (1962). In these books the Germans are represented as cruel beasts, enemies to hate and despise.

In the 1980s, while collecting oral accounts from peasants in the Alpine valleys of Piedmont, Revelli heard from a former partisan a strange war story, the legend of a German officer who rode off in the countryside and who was kind to the local inhabitants and children, a peaceful and apparently “good” man. One day of 1944 this man disappeared, possibly killed in an ambush of partisans, and since then no one knew anymore about him. This legend disturbed Revelli because it challenged his memories of war and seemed too lenient to be true. Nevertheless, it was the story of a missing-in-action soldier. The memory of soldiers missing in Russia during the retreat from the Don River had tormented Revelli since the end of the war. A missing soldier, the writer said, is the cruellest legacy of any war.

Thus, he decided to engage in the search for the identity of this missing man, and after ten years of work, oral interviews with witnesses and research in German military archives, he succeeded. He discovered that the missing man was a 23-year-old German officer, a student who had not joined the National Socialist Party, who was not enthusiastic about the war and had already lost his older brother in Russia. A young man like so many others, who had been involved into the enormity of the war and had been overwhelmed by a cruel fate.

Fifty years after the war, Revelli thus found the way to reconcile with the hated enemy through a historical quest that in the end also turned out to be an experience of friendship, as far as he befriended the German historian Christoph Schminck-Gustavus, who remained close to Revelli. And, above all, this was a story of reconciliation with the human side of the so-called enemy. The book that tells this story, Il disperso di Marburg, was published in 1994 and for the occasion Revelli visited the German town of Marburg where Rudolf Knaut, the missing officer, was born. This year, on July 18, Marburg hosted an event dedicated to Revelli and to Il disperso di Marburg to celebrate the centenary of the writer’s birth (July 21). Gianluca Cinelli gave two lectures at the Institut für romanische Philologie at Philipps-Universität Marburg and at the Technologie- und Tagungszentrum in the presence of a large audience.

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.

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.

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