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Frontsoldaten: The German Soldier in World War II

Stephen G. Fritz
Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    " Alois Dwenger, writing from the front in May of 1942, complained that people forgot "the actions of simple soldiers….I believe that true heroism lies in bearing this dreadful everyday life." In exploring the reality of the Landser, the average German soldier in World War II, through letters, diaries, memoirs, and oral histories, Stephen G. Fritz provides the definitive account of the everyday war of the German front soldier. The personal documents of these soldiers, most from the Russian front, where the majority of German infantrymen saw service, paint a richly textured portrait of the Landser that illustrates the complexity and paradox of his daily life. Although clinging to a self-image as a decent fellow, the German soldier nonetheless committed terrible crimes in the name of National Socialism. When the war was finally over, and his country lay in ruins, the Landser faced a bitter truth: all his exertions and sacrifices had been in the name of a deplorable regime that had committed unprecedented crimes. With chapters on training, images of combat, living conditions, combat stress, the personal sensations of war, the bonds of comradeship, and ideology and motivation, Fritz offers a sense of immediacy and intimacy, revealing war through the eyes of these self-styled "little men." A fascinating look at the day-to-day life of German soldiers, this is a book not about war but about men. It will be vitally important for anyone interested in World War II, German history, or the experiences of common soldiers throughout the world.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-2781-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. 1. The View From Below
    (pp. 1-10)

    Burrowed deep into the snowbound desolation of the late Russian winter, shaken and exhausted by the horrors of the “ghostly weeks of defensive battles” that had just passed, Günter von Scheven in March 1942 nonetheless exalted the GermanLandser(foot soldier or infantryman). “I don’t believe that today in Germany any artistic feat can equal the performance of a simple soldier, who holds his position under a heavy barrage in a hopeless situation,” he wrote in a heartfelt letter to his father. “This unknown soldier cries again in nameless greatness over the battlefield. . . . Anonymous, seen by only...

  5. 2. Sweat Saves Blood
    (pp. 11-30)

    July 18, 1942. I arrive at the Chemnitz barracks, a huge oval building, entirely white. I am much impressed, with a mixture of admiration and fear.” So Guy Sajer began his chronicle of life in theWehrmacht, life at war. “We live with an intensity I have never before experienced,” he continued. “I have a brand-new uniform . . . [and] am very proud of my appearance. . . . I learn some military songs, which I warble with an atrocious French accent. The other soldiers laugh. They are destined to be my first comrades in this place. . ....

  6. 3. Living on Borrowed Time
    (pp. 31-68)

    Today, as I went over unprotected slopes and came under the fire of a . . . Russian heavy machine gun,” wrote Harry Mielert to his wife in April 1943, “I involuntarily had to think about your observation that in war shots are fired in order to kill people. . . . Then I also had to think: the man over there . . . was after my blood and without doubt would have been happy if he had bumped me off.” This amazing observation from aLandserwho had been at the front for almost two years illustrates that...

  7. 4. Withstanding the Strain
    (pp. 69-103)

    Amid the savage fighting and appalling misery of the German retreat from Russia in the autumn of 1943, Harry Mielert was struck by the personal anger he felt, a rage based on fear, the pervasive death and destruction, and a sense of anomie. “All connections are broken,” he despaired. “Where is man? Anger roars through all the cracks in the world.” Mielert’s fury expressed well the complex emotions produced by combat and life at the front. An army’s first and most important function is, of course, to fight; but it is individual human beings, not some impersonal machine, who do...

  8. 5. The Seasons of War
    (pp. 104-134)

    Despite the perception of World War II as a mechanizedBlitzkrieg, Landsersgenerally marched on foot into Poland, France, the Balkans, Russia, and most other arenas of battle. Hence, factors normally of secondary concern to historians forced themselves into the forefront of a soldier’s everyday world: matters such as climate, terrain, disease, filth, and lack of shelter or privacy. Even though combat and the fear of combat loomed constantly in every soldier’s consciousness, actual battle could be surprisingly infrequent, but noLandsercould escape the unpleasant business of living rough, of coping with a harsh environment under conditions of extreme...

  9. 6. The Many Faces of War
    (pp. 135-155)

    Through long hours of boredom and loneliness, deprivation and hardship, horror and agony, theLandsersoon became familiar with many of the myriad faces of war. Still, as Günter von Scheven observed, “This endless, sinister war brings the deepest layers of our being into turmoil.” Conscious of “an enormous . . . change,” Scheven wrote that “individual fates evaporated in the limitless expanses [of Russia].” But this, he added pensively, was both “a painful and yet a pleasant experience.” For the anonymous soldier, the real war was intensely personal, tragic yet ironic, agonizing but also magnificent, a frightful harvest of...

  10. 7. The bonds of Comradeship
    (pp. 156-186)

    Writing just a month after the invasion of the Soviet Union, Gerhard Meyer had already been reduced to near hopelessness by the savage fighting taking place along the Dnieper: “To believe that the rotten smell of dead bodies is the beginning and end of life and the final purpose and meaning of our existence is unbearable to me.” Just a few days later, however, he spoke of a sense of renewal: “I have been directly at the front for five days and nights, and at night, despite the nearness of the enemy, have rejuvenated my soldier’s heart by roasting chickens...

  11. 8. Trying to Change the World
    (pp. 187-218)

    Observing the scene in Berlin upon the outbreak of hostilities with Poland, Joseph Harsch, the correspondent for theChristian Science Monitor, claimed with only a trace of exaggeration that “the German people were nearer to real panic on 1 September 1939 than the people of any other European country. No people wanted that war, but the German people exhibited more real fear of it than the others. They faced it in something approaching abject terror.” Indeed, as Adolf Hitler motored through the streets of Berlin to the Kroll Opera House, where theReichstagmet, to deliver a speech at ten...

  12. 9. The Lost Years
    (pp. 219-232)

    Writing in his diary from the eastern front in early May 1942, Helmut Pabst reflected on the personal impact of the war: “The soul . . . becomes still harder and more serious, further removed from petty things. A harsh judgment molds you, which can leave you badly marked.” Still, in an attempt to give a positive sense to what otherwise might seem lost years, Pabst insisted:

    But in front of the bleak ground of our existence . . . the beauty of our lost youth appears in a gleaming radiance. . . . All of us have cut ourself...

  13. 10. A Bitter Truth
    (pp. 233-242)

    The gnawing sense of waste—of lives squandered, youth lost, days and years never to be recovered—that tormented mostLandsersin the immediate aftermath of the war heightened the difficulty for many in coming to terms with the past. So too did their ambivalent feelings about the nature of war. Most, of course, were simply happy to have survived; only later, as they began to detect the influence of their war experiences on their lives and characters, did the ambiguity, the complexity of emotion, emerge. Most of these men, confronted with the overwhelming devastation and unprecedented atrocities committed in...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 243-270)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 271-290)
  16. Index
    (pp. 291-299)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 300-300)