I’m reading a book titled Eastern Inferno. The books consists of three journals that were privately kept by a corporal in the German Army in WW2 during Germany’s invasion of Russia.
The man’s name is Hans Roth. Roth is in his early 30’s, married to Rosel and has a five-year-old daughter named Erika. He serves in the 299th ID (infantry division) in a panzerjaeger (tank hunter) unit. His division was part of Army Group South and their early objective was the city of Kiev in the Ukraine.
I’ve read much on the German invasion of Russia and have a pretty good understanding of the big picture and how despite a highly successful initial campaign the Germans basically lost the entire war because they underestimated their enemy and the weather. What I do not have is many narratives written from the point of view of the common soldier. Roth’s journals do much to give us the common soldier’s view of what it was like to be involved in the largest land campaign of all time.
Roth kept his journal private. In other words he did not put into his letters to Rosel what he put into his journal. Roth knew that the censors would edit out anything that might make Germany look bad or compromise security should his letters fall into Russian hands. For this reason there are not many journals or diaries that have survived that were written at the time in which the events occurred. Most war memoirs were written well after the war and the fact that Roth’s was written at the time it occurred make it unique.
The result of Roth keeping his journals to himself (he planned to show them to Rosel after the war) is an amazing record of Roth’s insights of the hell known as the Eastern Front as well as his clear longing for home and then his astonishment of learning that the einsatzkommandos (SS execution squads that murdered suspected communists and Jews and anyone else they had a mind to) had wiped out thousands of people once Roth’s ID (and others) had taken the Ukrainian Capitol of Kiev.
In Roth’s journal he speaks of a conversation he had with a 19-year-old SS man who was bragging about the murders of thousands of people. Roth records the SS man’s words of how the SS “efficiently” killed men, women and children filling one mass grave after the other with their machine-gunned bodies. Roth does not believe the man but later sees for himself exactly what the death squads did. His reaction is that he is astonished.
From what I’ve read thus far Roth believes in the “German cause” or what he perceives it to be. Roth seems to believe that the war against Russia is a just war in that Germany was protecting the west against communism and what he calls the barbarism in the east. There is more of a nationalistic tone in Roth’s words than there is a “Nazi tone” when Roth hints at why he fights. What also is noticeable is Roth’s loyalty to his unit and his comrades. I once heard a quote where someone said that soldiers really do not die for their countries but rather for their fellow soldiers and for their unit. This concept comes through with Roth as he laments the losses his unit experiences in some of the most vicious fighting of WW2.
The above example with the SS man is not the first time Roth is astonished. Earlier in the book Roth is witness to evidence that the Russian NKVD (political soldiers with some similarities to the SS) massacred thousands of Ukrainians on their own. He states in one place that during an attack on German positions the NKVD commissars took the residents of mental hospitals and prisons and marched them across the German minefields in order to clear the mines for the attacking Red Army soldiers. Roth is as astonished by this as he is to learn his own side is massacring thousands of people for no other reason than they are Jewish.
Roth’s reaction to the atrocities he witnesses are astonishment with an admixture of disgust for those perpetrating them. There are hints that Roth’s conscience bothers him (Rom. 2:15-16). He views the Ukrainian people his unit comes across as primitive, but hardy and he shows compassion for them for their lives under Soviet domination. (Before the war the Soviets starved millions of Ukrainians to death which is why many joined the invading Germans.)
Roth wrote three journals before he disappeared in action in what is known as the Destruction of Army Group Center (July, 1944). I’ve just entered into the second journal and am anxious to see if Roth further questions “the righteousness” of what he believed to be the German cause.
This covers in summary form what I’ve read so far but I plan to write a review on each of Roth’s journals.
Here’s a link to a more thorough book review I enjoyed.