80 Years + 2 Days Ago

They are all probably long gone now. It is funny, as a 23 year old stationed in Germany, I considered them at the time, old. And now I am far older – by at least 20 years – than them.

When I wasn’t under the ground in the NATO bunker in Germany, I was more often than not in the photo lab by my barracks. The man who ran it, Willi Schubert, became a friend. Besides teaching me the art of developing and printing my film – and Agfa 8×10 paper was $2! – we talked a lot. If you look at my post Europe in B & W, that was just a small portion of those 8 x 10 prints.

As I have mentioned before, in my travels I remember the people I have met along the way as much as the sights.

Willi was drafted in 1939, and talked of his days of marching into Paris in 1940. Then he was sent to Norway, at Narvik up in the extreme north.  

His 3rd station was a move that radically altered his life.

He was a diesel mechanic, and that job ultimately saved his life.

He was sent to the Soviet Union.

I never did hear where, but I suspect Stalingrad. He didn’t say much about his experiences there (or in any part of the theater for that matter), but he was in a Soviet Gulag for 10 years.

He did say that the only reason he came out alive was for the fact that as a diesel mechanic, he was of some use to the Soviets. Most of the rest died from starvation and disease.

Of the over 100,000 taken prisoner after Stalingrad, about 6,000 returned to Germany by 1955.

The following couple I met on a train. They were a couple from Augsburg, about 50 km from Munich in Bavaria. The man has on a typical suit that is unmistakably Bavarian. We talked for probably an hour or so on life in Nazi Germany and the war.

The couple from Augsburg, circa 1973

I don’t remember most of the conversation, but I never forgot this portion, even 48 years later. I asked them what they thought of Hitler, and they said that until Stalingrad, they thought he was great. After Stalingrad, not so much.

Two days ago was the 80th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. In the early morning hours of June 22, 1941, Operation Barbarossa commenced. It was the largest invasion force the world had ever seen, or will likely ever see again.

Barbarossa was the largest military operation of all time. 3,500,000 men, over 3,500 aircraft, 3,500 tanks, 20,000 artillery barrels, and 600,000 vehicles (most of them horse-drawn and used for supply as well as dragging the artillery) of every kind. The total number of trains that deployed these forces stood at 17,000; that of railway wagons, at about 850,000. Initially the front was 1,500 miles long. Later it extended over 2,500 or so. Nothing like it had been seen before. Thanks to the introduction and spread of nuclear weapons, capable of taking out entire armies and cities almost instantaneously, nothing like it is likely to be seen again…

Another memorable conversation I had with a German was closer to home in the early 80s. He was middle-aged at the time, and ran a small shop specializing in Volkswagens. He was in the Battle of Kursk. He said to imagine a battlefield with 1000s of tanks along a front that was 400 miles long *.

Another intriguing thing this military historian said was that without Operation Barbarossa, Stalin and the communist system probably would have eventually collapsed.

…the German attack almost certainly saved Stalin and the Communist system. Ever since it was founded, the Soviet Union had always been held together in large part by terror. Barbarossa, by bringing the system to verge of destruction and threatening much of the Soviet people with extermination, provided a much-needed boost for that terror. Had it not been for the legacy of the war, the Soviet Union might have collapsed much earlier than it did—and, I suspect, amidst much greater bloodshed too…

The German invaders were initially treated as friends who finally threw off the shackles of Communism. Only after they spread their own terror and murder did the Soviet people coalesce around Stalin and the Red Army.  

Some of the more cynical historians ask who killed more Russians – Hitler or Stalin?

If Stalin and communism had collapsed on their own, would there have been a Cold War without the Nazis invading the Soviet Union? However the other side of that coin might be more chilling than the Cold War – a Nazi Germany still intact and dominating Europe.

The British Historian Max Hastings wrote an excellent account of the Eastern Front in the closing months. I can remember his writing that the Soviets on the Eastern Front faced 2/3rds of the Wehrmacht. The eastern front is not really in our consciousness, but in my trip to Russia in the early 90s, I saw war memorials everywhere. There is a cemetery in St Petersburg alone that is a mass grave for 100s of thousands of Russians who starved to death from the Nazi siege.

It is a good read on Barbarossa.  

08-09-21 On a recent video from YouTube on the battle of Kursk, it was said that the front was “only” 200 miles wide. The old soldier told me years ago it was 400 miles. At about 8,000 total number of tanks involved, it was big regardless.



Filed under History

5 responses to “80 Years + 2 Days Ago

  1. Not sure how much I would have enjoyed being around Germans had I been stationed there. My Dad became skilled at killing Germans during his time in the ETO- some Germans caused Dad to have fewer body parts than he had when he got to Germany. Not major body parts, but still. I have zero use for Germans that thought Hitler was just fine until Hitler started losing.

    • The statement shocked me too. I think the dirty little secret there were still a lot of ex Nazis and Nazi sympathizer‘s

      Then there were a few like Willi just caught up in the whirlwind.

      A Netflix program I want to watch again, The Accountant of Auschwitz, had a powerful statement.

      A prosecutor at Nuremburg had a list of 3,000 Nazis he could charge – but only charged 22.

      There were 22 dockets in the courtroom.

  2. Yes, I agree that there were a lot of people like Willi, caught up in terrible circumstances that they had no control over. As to that couple, when I read about them I had a vision of the elderly German woman that was living in a luxurious house. She was a wife (widow) of a senior SS officer and was forced to help bury the Concentration Camp dead (in Band of Brothers TV Series).

    I think that the Nuremburg trials were to make a point, not really to bring all of the guilty to justice.

    • Well the main Nazis were certainly brought to justice. My parents had Friends of many years, Carl and Bernice Noecker. Carl came over with his family in the early 30s from Germany but by 1938 or so his parents thought he should have a proper German education and sent him back over there.

      Once Hitler invaded Poland he closed all of the borders to the west and Carl was looking at being drafted into the German army.

      He decided to take the railroads east and went all the way across on the Trans-Siberian railway.

      Of course this was before operation Barbarossa and the Soviet union was an “ally“ of Germany.

      All he had to barter with was a case of vodka that he bought early on and that’s how he ate.

      He was able to get to Vladivostok and take a freighter home as I recall the story

      He became a very successful designer for restaurant interiors in America.

      Think without that initiative how his life would have changed. Probably would’ve ended very soon.

      Then you had the German Americans who felt that they should go back to Germany and support the “mother land“. That scene in band of Brothers with the Normandy invasion was always memorable. Among the prisoners was a perfect American English speaking German soldier who came back to Germany from the states.

      I think they were few and far between though.

      Always amazing to me with the way the Japanese Americans were treated that the German Americans pretty much got off Roosevelt suspicion list.

      Although in World War I a lot of German Americans Anglicized their names for all the German hatred

    • Last night I really watched the Netflix documentary the accountant of Auschwitz.

      And I learned some interesting things.

      So many Nazis were not prosecuted in west Germany during the 60s because so many of the judges were X Nazis.

      To elaborate on the statement I made earlier the prosecutor at Nuremberg responsible for prosecuting the Einsatzgruppen, those band of SS who would follow the army and round up and murder people, most were not prosecuted. He had a list of 3000 of these people many of whom were responsible for the deaths of thousands.

      And there were seats for 22 defendants in the court room. So he picked 22.

      Through the 60s there was also tremendous resentment among the German public for more prosecutions.

      And they prosecuted Oscar Gröning in the 90s on a different principal.

      Although he had no direct hand in the actual killings, he was an accessory to murder.

      And I think you are right in that the Nuremberg trials were set as a president and example.

      Of course how could you let people like Herman Goering just go?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s