Participating in Hitler Youth started the preparation of the soldier. Training camp completed the process. Demands were heavy and continuous. Often there would be 36 hour exercises followed by 8 hours rest and then another 36 hours of training. The motto was “sweat saves blood”. Live ammunition was readily used to simulate combat. Few misbehaved as punishment in the “dog house” involved, after a 36 hour training exercise, being chained horizontally to a wood beam.
The Landser amidst the constant death and destruction of the Eastern Front were fatalistic. On the front lines they constantly witnessed and meted out savage death. With emotions dulled they cared little about the executions of prisoners, the murder of civilians and the systemtic slaughter of Jews. Killing was their life. Few saw the Russians as people. Nazi propaganda had worked to dehumanize the Slavs. There were far different attitudes when on the Western Front.
Every soldier has a breaking point. While there were Landser who fled the battle most endured. The yells of leaders, the call of the bugle, the lure of medals, the celebration of holidays (singing Silent Night in the snow) kept the men fighting.
They had a high level of confidence in their officers and NCO’s.
There was savage discipline for those who did not follow orders. Over 20,000 soldiers were executed during the war. Many more were assigned to penal battalions where few survived. All feared the field police whose arbitrary authority could condemn a soldier.
Combat was often infrequent but battling the weather was constant. Choking dust in the summer, quagmire rains in spring and fall and the dread winter. For a resident of Western Canada the Russian winter is comparable to our own. It left many of the ill prepared Landser numbed and barely functioning.
The vast vistas of Russia did inspire awe but mainly the Landser felt dread facing a never ending land. Where I love the space of Western Canada they usually saw empty desolate country.
It is the first book I have read to state the dominant emotion on the frontlines was fear. They went into battle afraid but found ways to keep fighting. The long periods of waiting and slow hours of night caused fear to accumulate within them. They realized there was no understanding the capriciousness of who lived and died when under bombardment.
Several expressed a savage joy in fighting to survive. Life was never more intensely lived than when death was possible at any moment.
The Wehrmacht emphasized comradeship. To promote that feeling units were usually composed of men from the same community or region. Efforts were made to draw replacements from the same sources. Replacements would arrive with an officer from the division or a returning wounded man. (That process avoided the ostracization of the replacements so evident in Band of Brothers.) The Nazi armies allowed officers to come from all backgrounds.
Nazi philosophy was to create a new national community from the front community. Comradeship was fundamental to achieving that goal.
Nothing was more important than the 10 men rifle squad and, to an extent, the company. Camraderie built security and support for each other. One man described a soldier’s life as the only life bringing men together “on terms of absolute sincerity”. The sharing of hardship and facing the risk of death built camraderie. They needed support from each other to face fear and battle. No one wanted to be a failure to his comrades. There was pride, especially in the East, in their fighting prowess whatever the odds. No civilian relationship could be as special.
To lose a comrade was equally intense. So much had been faced together. Abit of a man died with the death of a comrade. No matter the weather comrades were buried. Their spirits remained with the living.
While not called love the depth of the loyalty to each other meant most Landsers wounded or on leave found they ardently desired to return to their units. Life was empty away from their unit.
The book is not convincing when it tries to explain they fought on the ideological basis of the new industrial man.
There was ideological motivation. Political officers and committed Nazi regular officers influenced the thinking of large numbers of soldiers. Many Landsers were convinced there was a Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy against Germany that forced Germany to invade Russia to prevent the Soviets from invading and destroying the Fatherland. A percentage of the Landser saw the Jews as a plague to be eradicated. Russians were described as animals. Many believed National Socialism was creating a new egalitarian society based on community. They were fighting for a new future. They were living for the cause. They were going to “change the face of the world”.
Most had an absolute loyalty to Hitler. He would lead this new society. Even as defeats mounted their faith was firm in the Fuhrer. There were no mutinies in the Wehrmacht. Many resented the assassination attempt of 1944.
The average soldier had little, if any concern, that Jews would have been eliminated from this new society and Slavs dispossessed of their lands.
There is no discussion of Obrigkeit (authority or hierarchy that prevents freedom of thought and action) ingrained in German nature as described by Gitta Sereny in The Healing Wound (297).
Landser considered themselves decent honourable men. After the war it was very difficult to accept that many of the things done, which entailed vast personal sacrifices of the lives of millions of comrades, were in the service of evil. Some with insight realized that personal responsibility taken away by Hitler could not be avoided.
Some understood that Germany had been arrogant embarking on a war of conquest pursuant to the “brutal philosophy that might makes right”. In facing the existence of the death camps they could accept that Hitler could not have exterminated millions of people without them but they would not acknowledge individual responsibility as they had no personal knowledge.
Reflecting back those who lived wondered at their luck surviving and resented having lost years of their youth. I thought about Toni who was saved from the destruction of his unit in Russia in late 1941 because he was evacuated to Warsaw for treatment of an ear infection.
I am skeptical of the contention there was a higher level of comradeship in the German army over the Allied armies.
The Landser were certainly made more effective by the flexibility extended to small units in battle.
Well organized, well trained, well motivated and well led the Landser were a formidable fighting force.
The eloquence and vividness of the Landser writings are remarkable. It was depressing to read how often a writer died. I longed to hear more had survived the war.
It is a powerful work on how men bond and fight. (Dec. 22/09) (Third Best of 2009 non-fiction)