Portrait of the artist under the Reich

Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War

Roger Moorhouse delights in a Second World War family memoir that stands out from the crowd.

Author: Giles Milton
Publisher: Sceptre
Reviewed by: Roger Moorhouse
Price (RRP): £20
It would be easy to make the assumption that Giles Milton’s new book is little more than a vanity project. It is, after all, the story of his own father-in-law and of his experiences growing up in the Weimar Republic and as a soldier in the Second World War.

Yet, such an assumption would be wholly misplaced. Rather than one of the countless wartime memoirs that provide little of any historical or literary worth, Milton’s book offers much of value to the reader.

Wolfram was born in 1924 and spent his formative years under the shadow of the Third Reich, growing up near the town of Pforzheim in the Black Forest. Coming from a rather bohemian, free-thinking background (his father was an artist, and he too would become an artist of some renown), he was little impressed by Hitler and the Nazis.

But the Third Reich swiftly made its presence felt in his life; particularly when he was transported to the eastern front as part of a labour battalion, and then when he was sent to Normandy as a conscript.
Wolfram is an engaging character. Thoughtful and circumspect, he occasionally comes across as an aesthete journeying through the Hades of wartime; savouring what little spiritual nourishment he could find; a beautiful landscape or the mournful chanting of an Orthodox funeral, before being wrenched back to the living death of war.

Of course, aside from such esoteric flourishes, Wolfram’s experiences – and those of his family on the home front – were scarcely extraordinary for Germans of the wartime generation.
Yet, the beauty of Milton’s book is the way that he has woven those experiences not only into a wider narrative, but also into the narratives of those that were close to Wolfram; childhood friends and family members.

The result is a book which deftly juggles the micro and the macro, ably contextualising Wolfram’s life and incorporating it into the broader story. Importantly, Milton’s use of the first-hand material that he has had access to – diaries, letters and interviews – is exemplary. In contrast to some books of this type, one never feels that the raw material is being stretched too thin, and neither does one sense that it is overused, presented clumsily, without sufficient explanation or context.

Milton’s writing, too, is first-rate. Engaging, poignant and vivid, he wrings just the right amount of pathos from his story, and shifts seamlessly between the varying ‘voices’ of his narrative.
Therefore for all its apparently homespun origins, this is a very valid and interesting book, which offers an illuminating insight into the experience of ‘ordinary’ Germans living in ‘small-town’ Germany.

Roger Moorhouse is the author of Berlin at War (The Bodley Head, 2010)

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Volkssturm Casualties

For a variety of reasons, German personnel losses are hard to determine with any precision. Few of these cobbled-together units kept any records of losses, German graves registration had largely ceased to exist, and sympathetic civilians buried some of those killed. To gain a sense of the intensity of the fighting in the Endphase (final stage), though, it is worth noting the latest calculations of German military deaths by Rüdiger Overmans. Through his careful and exhaustive research, Overmans has concluded that approximately 1.23 million German military personnel (including Volkssturm men, who suffered more than 50 percent of the entire losses) died in the final four months of the war. This average of roughly three hundred thousand killed monthly (compared with “only” one hundred thousand per month on the eastern front in 1944) represented the highest such German losses in the entire war. Even if one accepts his further estimate that two-thirds of the casualties in the Endphase occurred on the eastern front, that still leaves over four hundred thousand deaths during the hard fighting in the west. In the triangle of terror and destruction marked by Aschaffenburg, Ansbach, and Heilbronn, estimates of civilian deaths alone number over two thousand, with an equal number of soldiers sent to their deaths just in the region bounded by the Main and Neckar Rivers.

By throwing a mixed bag of men into battle, many with little training and all with insufficient weapons, supplies, and equipment, German commanders had sent their troops to the slaughter, in a futile attempt to offset iron with blood. No rationality or military purpose attended to this decision, for Germany was going to lose the war in any case. Rather, it illustrated the destructive will of Nazi political and military leaders, both against the enemy and their own population. In directing terror at all, Nazi authorities took little notice of the military situation and betrayed no regard for the well-being of the local civilian population. All villages and hamlets were to be used as obstacles and defensive positions, with the result that many heretofore untouched by war fell victim to the wave of destruction unleashed in the last days of the conflict. To the average citizen this meant only unnecessary and pointless terror and devastation. But to the Nazi leadership, having created a system that reveled in terror and unwilling to bring the destruction to an end, there existed another goal, yet realizable. For Hitler, the end of the Nazi regime and the end of the German people and nation were to be synonymous.

As war had assumed a life of its own, independent of the will of the people, many Germans ironically saw their own soldiers as a greater danger than the Americans. While Nazi propaganda continued to portray Volk and army, citizen and soldier, forged together and fighting side by side, civilians for the most part just wanted the war to end, while Landers numbly fought on, exhausted from their exertions, ground down by overwhelming enemy superiority, and suffering from lack of supplies. The hesitancy of the American advance, in a further paradox, ensured that more Germans, both soldiers and civilians, would be killed—by both sides—and more villages destroyed. For the civilian population, threatened by brutal Nazi measures at the end of war, trust in the regime finally came to an end. People could now see with their own eyes the senselessness of continuation of the war, for there no longer existed any possibility of winning or even defending against the enemy. At the end of this war most Germans wanted only to preserve and salvage what could be preserved and salvaged. They had already begun thinking of the future and of the task of reconstruction. An advertisement in the Windsheimer Zeitung for a local bank put it succinctly, “save in war, build in peace!”

Growing up in Nazi Germany…

Melita Maschmann was a member of the BDM (League of German Girls). Her autobiography, Fazit: Kein Rechtfertigungsversuch (1963), is a controversial account of her Nazi past. This article shows how, through frameworks of racialised and gendered victimhood, concepts of nationhood are embroiled not only within persistent, competing Nazi ideologies but also within international ideological constellations of the Cold War. It situates Fazit within contemporary debates about victimhood and the responsibility of women for their actions in the Holocaust.

Film: Cadets (1939)

“Cadets” is a German film made during World War Two, so of course it advances the propaganda of the Reich. But this is actually a well-made and entertaining movie, in spite of its political agenda. The Nazis devoted a substantial amount of resources (often including slave labour) to well-made, elaborate movies, often in historical settings (most notably the epic “Kolberg”) … leaving me to wonder if history might have taken a different course if Germany had devoted all those resources to winning Hitler’s war.

“Cadets” takes place during the Seven Years’ War of 1756-1763, a conflict which I consider the first true world war. (American history books identify this conflict as the French and Indian War, often omitting to mention that much of the fighting took place in Europe, and nearly every European nation was involved.) The Seven Years’ War and World War Two had a major factor in common: in both cases, Russia changed sides during the war.

The heroes of “Cadets” are a group of plucky Prussian boys, ages nine through twelve, who are attached to a battle regiment. (Did the Prussian army actually muster boys this young? And were those boys ever in the line of fire? I confess that I don’t know. I’ll describe the movie accurately, but I don’t know if the movie is historically accurate.) The boys are captured by Russian troops. Of course they escape. After many adventures and hardships, they heroically rejoin their unit.

This film being Nazi agitprop, naturally all the Prussian boys (surrogate Germans) are a bunch of little Tintins, brave and resourceful and good-looking. The Russians are coarse, filthy vulgarians with no sense of honour nor valour. Most nations have resorted to similar stereotypes in their wartime films.

“Cadets” seems to be aimed at both adult and youth audiences in Germany and Austria. On several levels, this is an entertaining “Boys’ Own”-style adventure film, about as realistic as “Emil and the Detectives”. In hindsight, though, we know that the Nazi war effort was preparing boys of the Hitler Youth to go into combat, and that many boys as young as the cadets in this film were eventually in the front lines of the Wehrmacht and the Volkssturm, blindly and patriotically dying for their nation while adult Nazis were frantically rushing westward, hoping to surrender to American or British forces before the Red Army arrived. Those brave boys were decoys so that cowardly men could survive the war.

For those who can look past its political agenda, “Cadets” is an enjoyable film with plenty of action. The period detail is, as usual for German movies before and during the Reich, impeccable. The production values are more than adequate, and the exterior locations are impressive. The boy cadets sing a rousing song, “I Like a Fight with the Enemy in the Field”, and Lydia Li is attractive as a Russian singer. Fully aware of its political context, I’ll rate “Cadets” 7 out of 10.

The mystery of Hitler’s ‘spyclists’

By Sanchia Berg
Today programme

Summer 1937. What could be more fitting in the cool afternoon of an English country lane than a group of cycling tourists steadily pedalling their way from one historic site to another, stopping to camp overnight in fields along the way.

The only problem was, that summer, some of those groups of teenage boys were Hitler Youth.
In an era without satellite photography, when detailed ordnance survey maps could be hard to come by and when tension in Europe was rising, MI5 were worried that this innocent cyclo-tourism was a cover for spying.

MI5 had been told that Hitler Youth groups visiting abroad were asked to complete a detailed questionnaire, including questions on terrain, population, and political views of the population.

They were asked to take photographs, especially of industry, and to get lists of names of all those taking part in anti-German movements.

In May 1937, the British “Daily Herald” paper had printed an article about “spyclists” – based on translation of the Nazi Cycling Association’s advice to members travelling abroad.

It too asked travellers to try to note carefully the features of the countryside they visited:
“Get into your head all landmarks like steeples and towers and all fords and bridges and acquaint yourself with them in such a way that you will be able to recognise them by night”

And one of the senior figures in the Hitler Youth had moved to London at the start of the year, ostensibly to study. MI5 suspected that Joachim Benemann’s real object however was to develop the Hitler Youth in the UK.

On an earlier visit, undertaken in 1934 and 5, he had set up joint Anglo-German youth camps, one at Bryanston School, and he had tried to develop links between the Hitler Youth and the Boy Scouts, without much success.

So the head of MI5, Colonel Sir Vernon Kell, decided to try to track visiting Hitler Youth cycling groups. Chief Constables were asked to monitor them, to try to find out what their planned routes were, without questioning the leaders.

From the file, it appears they identified seven substantial groups, each of about twenty young men. These were generally the older members of the Hitler Youth: in their late teens or early twenties.
Their itineraries were usually built round visits to the great English historic sites – Oxford, Cambridge, London. Though one party was touring Scotland and another finished in Wales.

MI5 did not shadow the cyclists closely, so it is not recorded exactly where they stayed and who they met. There was some reporting in local papers though: the Boston and Spalding Free Press reported that the Spalding Rotary Club laid on a special dinner for one group, who thoroughly enjoyed their sausages and mash, and charmed the local people with their good manners.

‘Hitler salute’
The Hitler Youth who travelled to Britain had been specially selected – a number had even had been to training camps before the visit.

Some of them met or shared camps with British Boy Scout groups. The most striking was the Tamworth Scout troop – for whom this was a return visit. They had already been guests of the Hitler Youth in Hamburg earlier in the summer, thanks to their very pro-German Scoutmaster.

They had stayed at a Hitler Youth camp and even taken part in a torchlight rally. One of the boys, Les Fardon, told Radio 4’s Document Programme ten years ago: “It was like a Roman legion,” he said.

“You had these long banners and you were marching to tune… it was very stirring and frightening”
Another of his fellow Scouts remembered it as being a very exciting trip, and he recalled how even the British boys fell into doing the “Heil Hitler” salute. “They liked you to do it,” he added. Both boys made friends with some of the Germans.

When the Hitler Youth came to visit them, it proved controversial, and prompted intense debate in the pages of the local paper, the Birmingham Post. The head of MI5 asked to see the letters. The most pro-German was R. Charles Lines who wrote about the farewell supper for the Hitler Youth:
“Many remarks passed to me by Tamworth residents showed very plainly what a wonderful impression these boys have made during their stay. There is no doubt that Tamworth has thoroughly enjoyed entertaining them and I know how splendidly local people have risen to the occasion”

Which prompted a tart response from another correspondent, “WFA”, who wrote: “Is it not easily understandable that when one has first hand information of the persecution and cruelty meted out by youthful Nazis at home, one is suspicious of their perfect behaviour abroad. One is bound to ask oneself “is it a confidence trick?”

The charm offensive was being carried out at a far higher level too. In November 1937 Lord Baden Powell met the Chief of Staff of the Hitler Youth at the German Embassy. The elderly Chief Scout had long been an admirer of the Hitler Youth, and was keen to develop closer links.

Baden Powell was asked if he would visit Hitler personally, and did not demur, telling the Germans that he was “fully in favour of anything which would bring about a better understanding between our nations”

The British government stepped in to stop that though. A note on the file shows that Lord Cranbourne, Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, called Lord Baden Powell’s chosen successor, Lord Somers, around a fortnight later. He “strongly deprecated” close relations, runs the note.

The Egyptian Navy

A large relief shows the Egyptian navy fighting the Sea Peoples during the reign of Ramesses II.

Although boats are a common factor of everyday Egyptian life, sailing the open sea is another matter, but for the adventurous young man a career in the navy might be appealing. Egypt keeps several squadrons of speedy ships to patrol the eastern Mediterranean. The sailors, however, rarely do any fighting, which is done by land troops carried onboard—sometimes as many as 250 men.

The ships can be sailed and rowed, which gives them an advantage over most enemies, who only sail, and powerful archery wins many battles without the need for hand-to-hand combat. In most cases, however, the navy is used to transport troops to where they are needed—on the coast of Canaan or upriver to Nubia, when the boats need to be dismantled and carried up the cataracts.

The expedition to Punt Queen

Hatshepsut commissioned a trading venture to the distant, legendary Land of Punt, probably situated on the coast of Somalia, East Africa. The fleet sailed from Thebes, down the Nile almost as far as modern Suez, crossed over by canal into the Red Sea, and then undertook the long voyage southward.

The expedition’s progress was recorded in detail by scribes in a series of painted reliefs, including the tall, thin chief of Punt, Perehu, and his deformed wife Ety. These are preserved in the queen’s great funerary monument at Deir el-Bahari in Western Thebes.The expedition returned safely with its rich cargoes of ebony, ivory, gold, electrum, aromatic woods for perfume-making, cosmetics, and panther skins, not to mention apes, dogs, and natives of Punt.

Junkers Ju 52 – DEMIANSK

DEMIANSK OFFENSIVE OPERATION (MARCH 6–APRIL 9, 1942) A failed Red Army offensive conducted by Briansk Front. The conception for the ground campaign was both audacious and ferocious. It aimed at replicating the German encirclements of Red Army troops that marked the five-month battle before Moscow that began in November 1941. General Nikolai F. Vatutin enveloped a large German pocket—six divisions and nearly 100,000 troops—centered on the small town of Demiansk, south of the Toropets bulge . Joseph Stalin and the Stavka decided to crush it totally. To accomplish this, three brigades of airborne were dropped inside the 35-mile wide pocket while Soviet ski troops infiltrated its perimeter. Their orders were to attack the Demiansk encirclement from inside, while Red Army main forces hammered at the outer German lines. The Ostheer and Luftwaffe determined to fight for the pocket, rather than fight out of it. Luftwaffe transports flew in supplies and Wehrmacht armor and infantry drove a road into the Demiansk Pocket in early March. Over 7,000 Soviet airborne died in the botched operation at Demiansk. Fighting continued in the area until a second, smaller German pocket at Kholm was also relieved on May 1.

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One of the greatest aircraft of history, the Junkers Ju 52 was designed by Ernst Zindel. The prototype first flew in October 1930. As a civilian airliner with a capacity of 15–17 passengers, the Ju 52 sold all over the world and made up 75 percent of the large fleet of Lufthansa before World War II. The aircraft was eventually operated by twenty-eight airlines. Meanwhile the Luftwaffe, still embryonic and clandestine, was evaluating the military capabilities of the airliner. The Ju 52 entered service in the newly formed Luftwaffe in 1935 as an interim bomber with a 1,500-kg (3,307-lb) bomb load, and was employed as such during the Spanish Civil War. Soon the aircraft was discarded as a bomber and replaced by the Dornier Do 17 and Junkers Ju 86. It then started a long-lived and tremendous career as a military transport aircraft. It was a typical low-winged Junkers design with no concessions to elegance. It was operated by a crew of three; pilot and copilot/observer sat side by side and a radio operator/dorsal gunner sat on a jump seat between them. The cockpit was raised above the cabin floor height. When fitted with seats, the Ju 52 could carry up to eighteen passengers sitting in a rather spartan interior. When arranged as an ambulance, the seats were removed and the aircraft (often overpainted in white with large red crosses) could carry twelve seriously wounded on stretchers, which were fitted with harnesses used to tie them securely for rough take-off and landing. On nearly all wartime versions ( Ju 52/3m), power was provided by three 830- hp BMW 132T 9-cylinder radial engines, one in the nose, one on each wing; the wing engines faced slightly outward to reduce yaw should one of them fail. The exhaust gas was collected by annular ducts which gave the Ju 52 its trademark stains. Typical speed was 305 km/h (190 mph) and typical range was 1,300 km (808 miles). Length was 18.9 m (62 ft), span was 29.25 m (95 ft 11.5 in), height was 4.5 m (14 ft 9 in), and empty weight was 5,600 kg (12,346 lbs). The aircraft had a payload of 1,102 pounds. It could transport, for example, twelve fully equipped paratroopers, plus four weapons and ammunitions canisters, or ten oil drums of two hundred liters each. The Ju 52 was usually not armed, but in combat zones it could mount one 13-mm MG 131 manually aimed from an open dorsal hatch, and two 7.92-mm MG 15 guns manually aimed from beam windows. This distinctive and rather ugly trimotor machine had a strong fixed landing gear to cope with repeated landings on rough airfields; spats were issued to reduce drag of the wheels, but these were often dismounted due to clogging up in muddy conditions. The corrugated metal fuselage was a common feature of many Junkers design; that skin was load-bearing and the corrugation gave it considerable strength, for little weight penalty. The Ju 52 was used in all theaters in a wide variety of roles, including bomber, reconnaissance craft, troop and freight transport, ambulance, ski or floatplane, glider tug, and others. There was also a magnetic mine-buster version equipped with a magnetic ring fifteen meters in diameter, and a 12-cylinder, Mercedes- Benz-Nurburg, gasoline-driven dynamo producing a constant 300 amps current used to explode magnetic mines at sea.

The Ju 52 was at the forefront in all German airborne operations in Norway, Holland, Belgium and Crete, as well as in the three major Luftwaffe airlift operations of World War II: Demyansk, Stalingrad and Tunisia. As the war lengthened, demands on the venerable type increased as its losses rose, presenting the Luftwaffe with a major headache, as availability always fell below requirements. As a general workhorse, the Ju 52 was invaluable: it was cheap to manufacture, simple to operate, and easy to maintain on the field, it could fly with one of its three engine out of commission, had the ability to withstand crash landings with reasonable safety to occupants owing to the ruggedness of construction. It had good STOL (short take-off and landing) performance, robust construction, interchangeable wheel/ ski/float landing gear, and great reliability, but it left a good deal to be desired as a transport airplane. Deservedly famous as a German counterpart to the U.S. DC-3 Dakota, the Ju 52 was obsolete by 1939, but continued to serve on all fronts until the end of World War II. It is typical of the Nazi regime that, despite a wealth of later and more capable replacements, the obsolete Ju 52 was kept in production throughout the war. Perhaps the ubiquity and the all-purpose nature of the highly popular Tante Ju (Auntie Ju) or Iron Annie—as it was nicknamed—tended to preclude the need for replacement designs. Also, there were many of this type on hand at the beginning of the war, engines were widely available, many pilots had been trained to it, and manufacturing facilities were already set up. The Ju 52 was manufactured by Junkers, but also by the French Felix Amiot Company located at Colombes near Paris, and by the Hungarian PIRT factory at Budapest. A total of 4,845 were produced by the Germans between 1939 and 1944.

After the war, although totally old-fashioned and obsolete, production of the Ju 52 continued in France by the Amiot aircraft company, and some 400 units (known as Amiot AAC 1) served to drop paratroopers and transport freight for the French army during the early years of the Indochina War (1946–1954). The Ju 52 (designated CASA 352) was also produced for the Spanish air force as multi-role transport until 1975.