‘Notes for Those Going on Leave’

Some documents are worth quoting in their entirety.  From Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943 (and which he, in turn, found in the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defence in Podolsk), a leaflet produced by German soldiers on the Ostfront for the gallows-amusement of their fellow soldiers:

“Notes for Those Going on Leave

You must remember that you are entering a National Socialist country whose living conditions are very different to those which you have become accustomed.  You must be tactful with the inhabitants, adapting to their customs and refrain from the habits which you have come to love so much.

Food: Do not rip up the parquet or other kinds of floor, because potatoes are kept in a different place.

Curfew: If you forget your key, try to open the door with the round-shaped object.  Only in cases of extreme urgency use a grenade.

Defence against Partisans: It is not necessary to ask civilians the password and open fire on receiving an unsatisfactory answer.

Defence against Animals: Dogs with mines attached to them are a special feature of the Soviet Union.  German dogs in the worst cases bite, but they do not explode.  Shooting every dog you see, although recommended in the Soviet Union, might create a bad impression.

Relations with the Civil Population: In Germany just because somebody is wearing women’s clothes does not necessarily mean that she is a partisan.  But in spite of this, they are dangerous for anyone on leave from the front.

General: When on leave back in the Fatherland take care not to talk about the paradise existence in the Soviet Union in case everybody wants to come here and spoil our idyllic comfort.”

The exploding dogs referenced above were a Soviet innovation.  The Red Army soldiers would train a dog to look for their food under vehicles, cars, and tanks.  They would then strap anti-tank mines to the dogs’ backs and send them over to the German lines.  The dogs would go crawling under German cars searching for treats, the bottom of the car would catch the mine, and the mine would explode.

The Germans learned pretty quickly to shoot all dogs on sight, but the idea that any creature that crawled toward their camp might be a bomb terrorized and demoralized the Germans.  Apparently, even the Nazis didn’t enjoy shooting dogs.

Bad Bummer on the Ostfront

“Red Army units also shot their German captives, especially Luftwaffe pilots who had baled out.  There were few opportunities for sending them to the rear, and they did not want them to be saved by the enemy advance.” – Antony Beevor, ‘Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege

Operation Barbarossa launched on June 22nd, 1941; the German army invaded the Soviet Union in a move which surprised no one except the leaders of the Soviet Union.  In the next three weeks, the German army advanced well into the Soviet Union and over 2 million Soviet soldiers were killed.

The Ostfront is a bleak chapter of human history, with atrocities to go around.  And while apologies should never be made for the murder of prisoners of war (at which, if course, the Nazis also excelled), there is something devastating about soldiers so certain of the enemy’s advance that they execute POWs lest they find themselves fighting them again.  Imagine the desperation they must have felt as the German army advanced further and further into their country, closer and closer towards their homes and families.

Have you ever been moderately or seriously injured?  Shot, stabbed, sliced, had a bone badly or visibly broken?  The moment you realize that the boundaries of your body have been breached is a bad one.  There is a sick, sinking feeling, before anything actually hurts, when you see that the world has intruded into you and you understand that you are not OK.

I wonder whether that is at all how it felt to watch the Germans advance into your country.  One’s relationship to one’s country is obviously different, more complicated and less…implicit, than one’s relationship with one’s own body, but they might be equally vulnerable to the sense that something hostile and alien and hard has come driving into a space which was your’s and safe and has hurt it.  Two million Russian soldiers killed in three weeks – which does not include civilian deaths – a rate of killing which must have felt like national hemorrhaging.

One of the challenges in thinking about the Ostfront is finding someone to really root for.  With one genocidal regime pitched against another, it’s hard to feel good about any outcome.  But while some evils are perpetrated by evil individuals, some are perpetrated by sad, misguided, or desperate ones.  While Soviet soldiers certainly committed evil acts, they were being borne down on upon by one of the most frightening forces humans ever unleashed upon one another.  They were angry and they were scared, and we can understand that without apologizing for it.

Quotation at the top is from Antony Beevor’s book Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943.