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Book Review 280: Eastern Inferno

June 8, 2013 - Harry Eagar
EASTERN INFERNO: The Journals of a German Panzerjager on the Eastern Front, 1941-43, edited by Christine Alexander and Mason Kunze. 240 pages, illustrated. Casemate, $32.95

I have read a number of memoirs by German soldiers who fought in Russia and found them all revealing, sometimes unintentionally so; but none so much as the posthumous journals of Hans Roth.

The editors are his grandchildren.

Such journals as always suspect of selective editing, but I see no suggestion of that here.

For those interested in the big picture, some early entries are revealing. As early as July 12, 1941, when the invasion was barely three weeks along, Roth writes, “We have been humbled during these dreadful days.” The Red Army, contrary to the expectations of the high command, was fighting back.

A month later, Roth writes, “My group has dramatically shrunk in size . . . we cannot get replacements.”

Germany was already losing the war. By September, we now know, it had lost. It was too small to prevail over a huge Soviet Union that was prepared to resist.

On Sept. 26, Roth, in a pause in the battle, goes out to see the sights, and the sight he sees is a mass murder of Jews. This may have been the famous execution ground of Babi Yar.

The sight loosens his bowels, but not with pity for the Jews. No, he worries about the callousness of the 19-year-old executioner he meets. “What will happen when these people return to the homeland, back to their brides and women?”

Here the notorious self-pity of the German superman is displayed as starkly as it ever has been.

Just three days after witnessing the mass murder of perhaps 30,000 helpless people, Roth finds himself ruminating on the evils of Bolshevism, “which has consciously destroyed everything soulful, everything individual and private that also makes up the character and value of a human being.”

He does not say – or if he did, the editors left it out – that Jews are not humans, but we must suppose that was how he thought. The whole passage (pages 112-113) is amazingly close to the famous secret speech Himmler gave to his SS officers on their duty to “be hard.”

Roth, however, was an ordinary enlisted man. We see here how pervasive the Nazi ideology was throughout the German people.

The three surviving notebooks that were given to Roth's wife do not display a person who was, in his own mind, depraved. But they do show how smoothly the little cogs worked in the big engine of evil.

In the whole diary, there is only one statement that can be considered a moral reflection on what Roth was doing. In February 1942, when the German army was being pressed hard, Roth writes, “We know that all of this is asked of us because the greater purpose of the war demands it of us.”

What this greater purpose was, Roth never says. Cleanse the world of Bolshevism? Of Jews? Defend Germany? All of those?

One of his last surviving entries, when his desperate unit was trying to break out of a Red Army encirclement, provides a foretaste of what the rest of the war was going to be like for the landser (grunt): “Nobody helps you any more; everyone is on his own.”

Roth fought another 17 months. His grandchildren are certain that he was carrying a fourth volume of his diary when he disappeared somewhere in the maelstrom of Operation Bagration. But the three volumes we still have are enough.

 
 

Article Comments

(13)

HarryEagar

Jun-09-13 8:23 PM

I say the decision came in Sept 41, when the German army started to weaken.

Russia probably would have lost if Britain had not stayed in the fight and if the Yugoslavian monarchists had not rebelled.

Doubtful Allies could have taken both Berlin and Prague. The Red Army also withdrew from many areas it had taken: Finland, Austria, Persia, parts of Germany.

It made sure to keep a buffer of the fascist states. I suspect it would have fought the Allies to do so, if challenged.

Anakela

Jun-09-13 5:09 PM

Aloha OneAikea.

Mahalo for the tip friend and you are correct it is an existing trackpad problem in need of attention. Aloha.

Anakela

Jun-09-13 5:00 PM

Aloha Harry. The Allies could have taken both Berlin and Prague between March and May 1945 but were hampered by the Yalta Agreement of which you eloquently write. Areas which the Allies had taken control and in some instances shed their blood was Saxony up to the Elbe river, parts of Brandenburg-Prussia, West and Southern Bohemia, the Baltic State of Mecklenburg, and the germanic State of Thuringia, all lost at the Yalta Conference.

Whilst the D-day landings were commemorated recently this operation could not have occurred successfully had Hitler's forces not been engaged on the Eastern Front, a quick tally of how many divisions were employed their as opposed to the Western Front is insightful. It took the Allies 11 months to subdue the Reich yet in 1940 inferior German forces conquered the same territory in about 6 weeks.

Barbarossa was a plan without a conclusion, as an opinion the turning point came not at Stalingrad but at Kursk in 1943 thereafter the Soviets had control.

OneAikea

Jun-09-13 3:33 PM

Anakela, you may want to change your mouse. If it is over one year or more your computer mouse tends to stick and create duplicate comments. I changed mine since it was doing so.

OneAikea

Jun-09-13 3:31 PM

Russia, China, Japan and the Middle East have thousand years of history and fighting. Most wars are fought to gain natural resources and with that comes power and wealth from other countries.

History is little known on why things are done. Russia may have a biczar way of accomplishing things.

I don't think many books are accurate. Like the Bible which has changed so many times in meaning and being rewritten. I guess I have to have faith.

HarryEagar

Jun-09-13 2:54 PM

I was interested to find out whether, in light of more recent discoveries, the opinion I had formed in the '70s was correct -- that Russia beat Germany on its own, before the US took part.

I am persuaded that is correct.

Thus, the narrative of Cold War I was raised on is largely bogus. There was no Yalta sellout, because the Yalta agreement meant nothing. Russia was justified in occupying the fascist states of eastern Europe for self-protection.

Etc.

That doesn't somehow turn the Russian Bolsheviks into nice people, but it helps explain why they acted as they did.

HarryEagar

Jun-09-13 2:50 PM

The 20th c. was the century of industrialized slaughter. Slaughter is slaughter, but humans got better at it

That's worth trying to understand.

As I tried to explain earlier, I am not much interested in the Russo-German war for its own sake. We know ho it came out. (to continue)

HarryEagar

Jun-09-13 2:47 PM

I don't go in much for atrocity mongering. In the case of Hawaii, the Hawaiians had their own imperial visions. Doesn't excuse any others.

However, the German behavior was something new, or almost new. (to continue)

Anakela

Jun-09-13 10:49 AM

-(4). .... applicable in instance of such an inferno.

Please Note: The earlier figure given as 41,000 women raped by American GI's in Western Europe between 1942-1945 should read 14,000 (no *edit* facility available on this thread for error clarification). In France 152 American soldiers were tried for rape, of whom 29 were hanged. Rape is a methodology by which one Nation signifies that it now has dominance over another, a hula mele was composed some years ago on how Lorrin Thurston a conspirator in the illegal 1893 overthrow raped Hawai'i the land which gave Aloha to him and to all. By comprehending the mistakes of our forefathers in ritual, territoriality, hostility to outsiders, fervent nationalism, etc. we can now make this World a safer place for the keiki of the future. In the words of former U.S. marine Kenneth O'Keefe: "If the World does turn for the better Hawai'i will be a key link in the chain of Peace." Aloha.

Anakela

Jun-09-13 10:25 AM

-(3). Arguably today the American public have little interest in the Ostfront yet the ease in which millions were then entangled in dominance hierarchies and submission to leaders should serve as a dire warning from history.

Few today realize that in Hawai'i 63% of voters never even voted in the fraudulent 1959 so-called "Statehood" plebiscite whereby there was no U.N. supervision and no Independence or Commonwealth option on the ballot. Who realizes that the U.S. Government violated International Law by transferring portions of it's civilian population from the occupier's territory (the U.S.) into the occupied territory (the Nation of Hawai'i)? Hitler's racist concept of the inferiority of the Slavic people's was little different from the American manifest destiny doctrine applied to Hawai'i which endured its own holocaust with the loss of over 90% of its populace from Western contact back in 1778. If the U.S. had lost 90% of it's population selective editing would not be

Anakela

Jun-09-13 9:01 AM

-(2). Apologies the first comment was erroneously printed twice. Continued: ... prisoners died in American custody in camps where the media were prevented from visiting including representatives of the Red Cross a clear violation of the Geneva Convention.

Locally in Hawai'i we should not forget U.S. Secretary of War W. Becknap sent American spies to the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1873 two decades before the unlawful 1893 overthrow. They were B.S. Alexander and J. Schofield who arrived on the pretext of a vacation in violation of Peace and Friendship Treaties entered into by the U.S. Government with the Hawaiian Kingdom. Aloha.

Anakela

Jun-09-13 8:50 AM

Aloha. There is much wisdom to be ascertained from comprehension of the Ostfront during WW2, the Chinese maxim holds true: "If you can understand one problem you can understand eight." The entire scenario is so vast that some specialize in specific arenas, take Kursk as one example, George Nipe debunked much of the statistical mythology in "Blood, Steel, and Myth" 2011. Compare Nipe's armor figures with those of say Mark Healy in "Zitadelle" 2008 to this end a new book is coming out shortly "Thunder at Prochorawka" which should add further controversy to the fray. The U.S. Government did not wear white gloves either, Professor M. L. Roberts of the University of Wisconsin has just published a book "What Soldier's Do" in which the rape of 41,000 women by American GI's in Western Europe between 1941 and 1945 is catalogued. Alternatively the 1989 book by James Bacque "Other Losses" exhibits how hundreds of thousands of German PO

Anakela

Jun-09-13 8:49 AM

Aloha. There is much wisdom to be ascertained from comprehension of the Ostfront during WW2, the Chinese maxim holds true: "If you can understand one problem you can understand eight."

The entire scenario is so vast that some specialize in specific arenas, take Kursk as one example, George Nipe debunked much of the statistical mythology in "Blood, Steel, and Myth" 2011. Compare Nipe's armor figures with those of say Mark Healy in "Zitadelle" 2008 to this end a new book is coming out shortly "Thunder at Prochorawka" which should add further controversy to the fray.

The U.S. Government did not wear white gloves either, Professor M. L. Roberts of the University of Wisconsin has just published a book "What Soldier's Do" in which the rape of 41,000 women by American GI's in Western Europe between 1941 and 1945 is catalogued.

Alternatively the 1989 book by James Bacque "Other Losses" exhibits how hundreds of thousands of German

 
 

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