GSA 32nd Annual Conference, St. Paul, October 2-5, 2008

Panel 140: Perpetrators or Victims? Letters from German Soldiers at the Eastern Front, 1939-1945

Moderator: Gerhard Weinberg, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“Lieutenant Peter Stoelten’s Letters: Loyal and not a Nazi”

Astrid Irrgang, Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes

“Through My Father’s Eyes: From Accomplice to Victim”

Konrad H. Jarausch, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“Wehrmacht Soldiers’ Choices: Between Enthusiasm and Reluctance”

Klaus Jochen Arnold, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung

Commentator and reporter: Dirk Bönker, Duke University

This well-attended panel featured three thought-provoking papers that focused on the deeds, experiences, and agencies of Wehrmacht soldiers and their participation in the Nazi pursuit of war and racial empire. Two of the papers focused on the particular stories of two individual soldiers, based on careful analysis of large and extraordinarily rich surviving collections of personal correspondence. In contrast, the third paper offered general reflections upon the choices and complicities of the nearly 20 million male soldiers who served in the Wehrmacht.

Drawing on her monograph on the subject published in 2007, Astrid Irrgang offered a lucid study of Peter Stoelten, a young front soldier and junior officer. Born in 1922 into a protestant-bourgeois family, Stoelten joined the Wehrmacht after the completion of the Notabitur and served in army combat units on the eastern and western fronts throughout the war until he was killed in military action in the spring of 1945. Portraying Stoelten as a willing, enthusiastic soldier and engaged officer who eagerly participated and fought in the war, Irrgang argued that Stoelten kept his distance from Nazi ideology and was capable of engaging in humane behavior towards enemy soldiers that ran counter to the dictates of Nazi Vernichtungskrieg. His nationalist-protestant-statist outlook and bildungsbuergerlich aspirations combined with his sense of identification with soldiering and the military community propelled Stoelten, who remained, by and large, silent in his field postal letters on Nazi mass murder and the Holocaust in particular. Eventually, suggested Irrgang, Stoelten was ready to sacrifice himself in the face of impending defeat, consumed by despair over the course of the war and survivors’ guilt towards his fallen comrades.

Konrad Jarausch expertly explored the wartime pursuits of his own father, Konrad Jarausch, drawing on his new edition of the latter’s wartime personal correspondence. Born in 1900, Jarausch was drafted in 1939 and then spent his time in non-front units, eventually working at a camp for Soviet prisoners-of-war where he contracted typhoid fever and died in early 1942. A reluctant soldier, who attempted, for a while, to be dismissed from military service, Jarausch supported and participated in the Nazi pursuit of war after 1939 as a volkish nationalist, his historian son argued. The elder Jarausch did so even as he increasingly voiced misgivings about German brutality against civilians in German-occupied Poland and grew concerned about the prospects of ultimate German victory.

Jarausch argued that his father eventually began to undergo a process of reorientation, if not personal conversion, as he became complicit in the murderous treatment of captured Soviet soldiers in a Durchgangslager. This reorientation expressed itself in the recognition of shared humanity framed in stark Christian terms and subsequent reaching out to inmates on a personal level.

Klaus Jochen Arnold, the co-editor of the collection of Konrad Jarausch’s wartime correspondence, offered some thoughts on the agency and complicity of Wehrmacht soldiers in Nazi Vernichtungskrieg. Noting that the public and scholarly perception of the Wehrmacht has been dominated by those small groups of soldiers who either fully embraced Nazi ideology or engaged in active resistance, Arnold cast the vast majority of Wehrmacht soldiers as reluctant participants in the war who sought to fit in and avoid conflict with Nazi regime while identifying with the larger German national collective. These soldiers participated in, and knew about, Nazi mass murder to different degrees, with “tens of thousands” of Wehrmacht soldiers on the eastern front being personally involved in the Holocaust, even if often not directly as killers. According to Arnold, the average soldier lacked the information and imagination to recognize the scale and scope of Nazi genocidal and mass murder. Moreover, rank-and-file soldiers had little room to maneuver, let alone to openly counteract the regime, if they did not want to put their own well-being at risk, with some soldiers thus couching moral disagreement in strictly technocratic-utilitarian terms or engaging in small acts of resistance to protect potential victims.

These three engaging papers prompted productive debate among the panelists and the audience. The commentator, Dirk Bönker, praised the papers’ salutary emphasis on the complexities and diversity of individual experiences. He also identified three larger analytical issues that the papers drew attention to: how the Nazi pursuit of war and racial empire tapped into nationalist outlooks and desires, setting in motion continuous and open-ended processes of negotiation, convergence, and differentiations between nationalist Germans and Nazis; how the wartime history of Wehrmacht soldiers was a history of continuous individual choices and moral judgments involving the terms and meanings of the participation in the Nazi pursuit of war and mass murder, with (some) soldiers capable of acts of kindness or solidarity towards “the other” regardless of continuous participation in the Nazi machinery of war or comprehensive knowledge of the Nazi murderous pursuits; and, finally, how important it is to explore the complicity of Wehrmacht soldiers in the Nazi war and genocide in the wider contexts of military Vergemeinschaftung and the specific practices and experiences of war in the military killing zones.

Questions surrounding the use of field postal letters as sources were at the center of several contributions from the audience. Speakers from the floor asked about the importance of surveillance and self-censorship and their impact on the contents of the field postal letters. In addition, Doris Bergen, University of Toronto, asked to what extent the analysis of the letter exchanges between soldiers and their correspondents back in Germany could yield insight into the conflict-ridden relations between “front” and “home.” The nature and pervasiveness of war enthusiasm among Wehrmacht soldiers also attracted considerable attention as did the comparison to World War I and the issue of post-war memories. And, finally, Gerhard Weinberg, the chair, argued against the validity of the analytical distinction between combat units and rear units, between “Front” and “Etappe,” as a way of making sense of the varying complicity of Wehrmacht units and personnel in Nazi Vernichtungskrieg.