What were German snipers wearing during World War II

The second World War

Dr. habil. Jörg Echternkamp

Dr. habil. Jörg Echternkamp

Dr. habil. Jörg Echternkamp, ​​born in 1963, is a private lecturer in modern and contemporary history at the Historical Institute of the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg and project division manager at the Center for Military History and Social Sciences of the Bundeswehr (ZMSBw), formerly the Military History Research Office (MGFA), in Potsdam. He had numerous teaching posts at universities in Germany and abroad; In 2012/13 he held the Alfred Grosser visiting professorship at the Institut d'Études Politiques (Sciences Po) in Paris. Echternkamp researches and teaches on German and European history from the 18th to the 21st century; The main focus is currently on the history of society and memory of the world wars, the Nazi era and German post-war history. His publications include: (Ed.) The German Reich and the Second World War, Vol. 9 / 1-2: The German War Society 1939-1945 (Munich 2004/2005; Oxford 2008/2014), The 101 Most Important Questions: The Second World War, Munich 2010, Military in Germany and France 1870-2010, Paderborn 2011 (ed. With S. Martens), Munich 2012; Experience and Memory. The Second World War in Europe, Oxford 2010/2013 (ed. With S. Martens); (Ed.), Ways out of the war in the 19th and 20th centuries, Freiburg 2012; The Federal Republic of Germany 1945 / 49-1969, Paderborn 2013; Commemoration of the fallen in a global comparison (ed. With M. Hettling), Munich 2013; Soldiers in the post-war 1945-1955, Munich 2014.

Between boredom and disinhibition

The experiences they put on paper are as varied as the soldiers' missions and locations. Nevertheless, one can speak of typical experiences or general phenomena. Boredom and disinhibition can be used to describe two extremes between which everyday military life moved.

Fought out: German soldiers taking a break from the fight after the Allied landing in Normandy in June 1944. (& copy Bundesarchiv)

War is struggle: At least that is what the pictures of National Socialist propaganda give us to this day. We see infantrymen charging forward, hear grenade impacts and literally smell the smoke. But not everyone who volunteered for the Wehrmacht or was drafted spent the war in whole or in part in the frontline area. (The terms "front" and "front line" easily obscure the fact that this is an area of ​​different depths.) Hundreds of thousands of soldiers served far away from the battle zone and, as it was known since the First World War, the main battle line (HKL) on which the main battles raged. Instead, they waited in replacement battalions for their deployment or were deployed for so-called rear duty in the supply room behind the front, in the "stage". Called "stage stallions" in soldiers' jargon, they took care of supplies, administrative matters or repair work, for example. In fact, only a minority of the Navy soldiers were involved in the fighting at the front.

Still others were on vacation or on a hospital stay in the Reich. Finally, the mobility of the troops should not be underestimated. Countless Wehrmacht members were on business trips every day:
Cavalry squadron of reconnaissance department 157: March break in front of Rudki, northern Poland 1939. (& copy Federal Archives)
They were on their way home, on the march back to their unit or were relocated to a new section of the front, for example from the eastern to the western front. When the first Wehrmacht members fell into the hands of the enemy, another area of ​​experience was added: camp life as a prisoner of war in the custody of the Allies, be it in Great Britain, the USA and Canada, be it in the Soviet Union. After all, every experience in turn was dependent on the individual's respective priorities, namely his or her age and origin. All of this changed considerably in the course of the war. No wonder that the diaries, letters from the field post and also the memoirs of the soldiers reflect these different experiences.

Source text

From the diary of Wilm Hosenfeld (Warsaw)

Wilm Hosenfeld (1895-1952) was deployed as a reserve officer at the Oberfeldkommandantur in Warsaw. He probably saved the lives of 12 Poles and Polish Jews.
He later became known through the film "The Pianist", in which Roman Polański filmed Władysław Szpilman's autobiography (The Pianist - My Wonderful Survival). Against the background of the encirclement of the 6th Army near Stalingrad and the withdrawal of the Africa Corps, he noted the following on January 25, 1943:

"[Warsaw], January 25, 1943

In view of this bad news, it is incomprehensible that the outrages against the Polish population are increasing. Unbelievable events are reported here. In the Lublin area and near Zamosc near Kraków, the peasants are driven from their villages, men and women are sent to camps, the old people are shot and the children are transported somewhere on transport trains. [1] They are abducted at the age of 2-14 years. Such a train passed through Warsaw these days. The cars were opened at Praga station. A large part of them had starved to death and frozen to death. The civilian population stormed the wagons and wanted to save the children and take them home. But that was forbidden, the wagons were closed, and the train continued with the unhappy children without the dead being taken out. He is supposed to be kidnapped somewhere in Germany. One wonders if the people who command this are insane. True manhunts are held in Warsaw, on the streets, even in churches and private apartments, the police penetrate and arrest whoever falls into their hands at random. Nobody knows what will happen to the victims. Whether you think we are losing your war and want to keep the civilian population hostage, or, as one comrade thinks, the gulf and hatred are supposed to increase through these atrocities, so that there is no turning back for us but the fight of annihilation until last man. "

Source: Thomas Vogel: "I try to save everyone". The life of a German officer in letters and diaries, Munich 2004

  1. In fact, the SS and police leader of the Lublin district, Odilo Globocnik, had more than 100,000 farmers forcibly relocated on Himmler's orders to make room for the settlement of German colonists. The company eventually failed due to growing Polish resistance. The peasants were murdered in Auschwitz and Majdanek or deported to Germany for forced labor; the children came to Germany for "Germanization".



Source text

Field post letter from a soldier from Gotenhafen (Gdynia) to his wife and son in the spring of 1945. The letter was no longer delivered.

"Gotenhafen, March 23, 1945

My dear Marie and Georg!

I want to send you a letter again today. I'm always healthy, which I hope from my loved ones too. The weather here is nice today, you can sunbathe right away. I sit alone in the room and have a telephone watch, so I have time to write. The sun shines very warm on your back, and you should wage war there - [that] is bad for you. You know, now the beautiful spring is beginning again and I am far away in the dark, that makes me homesick all the more. And at home everything is full of work, where [sic!] I should take care of you. Last year I was able to sow everything and this year you have to do it yourself, and there is more to sow. You know, would like to go back to my gardens, there would certainly be a lot to judge. But I have to leave everything to you.

We still have enough to eat, I still give out to the poor civilian population. You know, you have to watch how so many had to leave their house and farm and where they had enough to live on [sic!], And now they have no more bread. The war is great misery and the suffering it brings to families. Which family is spared?

Sunday is Palm Sunday again, and last year you were at home during this time. The little one will be really looking forward to the Easter bunny. I would have liked to send him something too, but no parcels go away. I saved two boxes of chocolate cola and can't send them away. Have now given away a box to small children, know how they were happy. I just want to see my darling again, he would definitely have a lot of fun and not leave his papa anymore and completely if he is allowed to go to his Liesel and ride. So children grow up without their father, [it] is a bad time. The neighbor B. died too. Father wrote it to me the other day, so one after the other goes.

[…] Our Ivan his attack aircraft are heavily active again today, wave after wave arrives and unpack your things. Hopefully you don't have so much alarm that you can only sleep peacefully at night when you are outside all day. Or do they come to you during the day too?

My dear Marie, I wish you a very happy and blessed Easter holiday. In the last letter I enclosed 2 pictures from Kurland and I am enclosing them again today, I hope you will get them so that [you] have a souvenir of me. Have photographed us again recently [sic!], But cannot have it developed at the moment.

I want to close for today and I hope that my letter finds you all safe and sound as it leaves me.
Be, my dear Marie and Georg, greeted and kissed a thousand times from the heart by your faithful Georg and father.


Source: Jörg Echternkamp, ​​theater of war Germany 1945. Living in fear - hope for peace. Field post from home and from the front, ed. from the Military History Research Office, Paderborn 2006, p. 174f.



Nonetheless, it is possible to generalize in a meaningful way, to speak of typical experiences in each case, or to consider overarching phenomena. Boredom and disinhibition can be used to describe two extremes between which everyday military life moved. Even if the military stands primarily for action, the routine of military action quickly triggered a feeling of boredom because the emergency did not occur for weeks, even months. The young Heinrich Böll, for example, was terribly bored as a soldier on the Western Front and in the reserve battalion before he - finally! - was moved to the Eastern Front.

Source text

From Heinrich Böll's letters to his future wife

Heinrich Böll (1917-1985), stationed in a replacement battalion in the Cologne area after a hospital stay in France, complains in letters to his future wife Annemarie Cech about the boredom of everyday life as a soldier June 1941 - from a front mission in the east.

"[Cologne-] Mülheim, November 6, 1940

Having to wait is the worst. We soldiers also find it the most terrible thing. We are always waiting for something, for transfer, assignment, vacation, for the fulfillment or denial of any rumor, and if not for one of these things, then ultimately we always wait for our release. [...] Oh, waiting for things like that, which are certain in themselves but not fixed in time, you know that this is hell on earth. If you had some kind of interesting occupation, a distraction, but could devote at least 16 of the 24 hours a day to your stupid thoughts, that shouldn't be. Neither can I do anything to find any function that at least occupies me. So I just have to wait, wait. [...] "

"Wesseling, June 29, 1941

... in the soldiery too, this absolute position attracts me tremendously, and it downright excites me; That is why my military longing is really to be always at the front ... especially now that an offensive is under way again - and it must be wonderful to advance into this vast expanse of Russia - I suffer immensely from it, so always and always the war To live only in the shade in schools and barracks and for the most part in dull and dirty rooms, like an honorable prisoner, you know ... [...] life at the front (would) be better and more bearable for me, anyway; it is more absolute in suffering and in joy, do you understand me ... "

Source: Heinrich Böll. Letters from the war 1939-1945, vol. 1, ed. by Jochen Schubert, Cologne 2001, p. 127 and p. 205.



Comradeship as a need - Interview with Sönke Neitzel (& copy 2013 Federal Agency for Civic Education)
In contrast, disinhibition was one of the military experiences of the war in Eastern and Southeastern Europe. This "brutalization" did not have a cause, but can only be explained by a bundle of motives and circumstances that scientists weight differently. The increased propensity for violence was related to the fact that the war in the east changed from a war of movement to a war of positions before it ended in a desperate war of retreat. The soldier had to fight for his survival by increasingly primitive means against an enemy equipped with modern equipment. This "demodernization" (Bartov) had driven the brutalization as well as the dissolution of group solidarity. The millions of losses destroyed the original group spirit of the so-called primary groups and left the individual soldiers lonely and desperate. The military justice threatened with draconian punishments - in the end, the regime set up flying martial arts - which killed up to 15,000 men (in the First World War there were just 58!). It is assumed that this rigid discipline was able to work because at the same time the reins of behavior towards the enemy were loosened and indiscipline was allowed, especially when fighting partisans. Interview transcripts suggest that the mixture of terror and motivation also fueled the soldiers of the Red Army who were defending their homeland near Stalingrad.

One of the experiences that drove the process of brutalization on the German side was a distorted distortion of perception influenced by Nazi ideology: In view of the misery of the people in the Soviet Union, German soldiers saw themselves confirmed in their view that it was "sub-humans" to have to do. Like a large part of the civilian population, they believed for a long time in the "Hitler myth" (see Ian Kershaw) and were certain that the Führer would save them. After all, they felt like victims, not perpetrators. But what role exactly did the Nazi ideology play in the uninhibited behavior towards civilians and prisoners of war? National Socialist interpretations and set pieces of Goebbels propaganda are seldom found in the private field post and also in the mood reports that the Nazi regime had prepared for the troops. Wherever they appeared, the question remains to what extent they went beyond lip service and actually radicalized the actions of the soldiers. Did it even need ideological justification?

Source text

"... cheerful experiences from the campaigns of this war"

The special publication of the Völkischer Beobachter from 1943, edited by its editor Wilhelm Utermann in 1943, was based on a competition organized by the VB. "We were looking for cheerful experiences from the campaigns of this war.
With a circulation of 2.6 million copies, the volume was a bestseller in the "Third Reich".
Jokes from comrades who, in a dangerous or serious situation, brought the mood back up with their humor. ", It said in the introduction.

"He knows what to do!

38 degrees cold on the defensive front in the east. The oven in the fire position donated soothing warmth. The forward observer radioed: "Fire command! - Enemy tanks! - Hurry!"

Everything goes to the guns and the ammunition ready. And then everything waits, trampling and knocking hands, and cursing because of the icy wind. Five minutes go by, ten minutes go by. Without a command, without a shot. Five minutes pass. "Ceasefire!" - Terribly angry and cursing, the hooded gunners camouflage the guns again and move back to the bunker. They growl from nonsense, nonsense and harassment. Everything growls. Only Schmidt-Sandbank vom Rhein says: "The tank would have 'a wheel spreader'. Should we bring an air pump?

Everyone laughs heartily and the mood has regained its balance.

Wm. [Sergeant] Teipel "

"Miss number!

February 1942. A regiment of the Waffen-SS [OK Sigrune], who has held the iron ring around Leningrad for months, gives a colorful afternoon. [...] The sleek Regimentskappel plays the opening march, and then the announcer steps onto the ramp. He greets the hall overcrowded with soldiers, most of whom have only been relieved from the front lines for a few days.In his address he mentions that all performances are given by soldiers for soldiers. With great effort, however, he managed to hire some female workers. With a glance to the left he calls out "Miss Käthe!". Several hundred pairs of eyes peek promisingly to where a doorway covered with paper is visible. And already a fairy, equipped with all feminine charms, enters the ramp. Miss number. With graceful movements she steps over the ramp to the other side. Suddenly from the ranks of the soldiers who had recovered most quickly from the unfamiliar sight of a scantily clad woman, a voice sounds: "Miss Käthe, this evening 8 o'clock at the entrance!" Fräulein Nummer replies sleepily in a deep bass voice: "Niet panemeio." (I do not understand.)

The laughter and applause from everyone, including the general, took on a hurricane-like form. The terrible struggles and hardships, as well as the murderous cold of the Russian winter, could not take away the humor of the soldier. "

Ogefr. [Obergefreiter] Rudi Bakenecker "

VG-Feldpost (ed.), I still laugh about that today - soldiers tell cheerful experiences, Berlin 1943, quotations p. 10 (Teipel), 45f. (Bakenecker)



However, in 1944/45 more and more younger men were sent to the front who had gone through all the educational institutions of the Nazi regime. They believed in their "leader" and felt obliged to him. It was clear to them that a collapse like the one in 1918 could not be repeated. A collective biography of the crews and NCOs of the 253rd Infantry Division who were deployed on the Eastern Front during the Eastern campaign has shown, for example, that the 18 to 28-year-old men who were called up in 1939 had a National Socialist image of the war in their heads when they received their marching orders. Racist images of the enemy and völkisch ideas of conquering living space worked at least in the background, even if other factors motivated the concrete action and interpretation in the particular situation. The extent to which some soldiers identified with the Nazi regime was evident not least in the prisoner-of-war camps abroad, where dubious comrades were put under pressure by convicts.

Soldiers processed their impressions in the specific operational area on the basis of their previous cultural knowledge, which was not specifically National Socialist. On the one hand, this included the idea of ​​"comradeship" as an ideal soldierly. This performance was so successful because it did not see the various experiences, attitudes and worldviews of the individual soldier as separating factors, but integrated them. The camaraderie concept was based on a deeply anchored tradition. After 1918, the nationalist war clubs in particular cultivated the image of an egalitarian community of comrades that was founded in the "war experience" of the First World War. Comradeship gave a meaning to the soldier's death without speaking of one's own active killing. As comrades, soldiers primarily formed a community of suffering in which the Christian motive of suffering played an important role for the community. Care and comfort were part of this military culture, as was complicity and secrecy in the face of the crimes of war.

Social coercion was the downside of social security in the community under the sign of camaraderie. One thing had become apparent after 1918: even if the soldiers returned home from a lost war, they could only "have a say" if they had participated in the experience at the front and had persevered. Otherwise reproachful looks threatened. Not all of them bowed to this "morality of participation" (cf. Thomas Kühne), but there were narrow limits to the outsider in this coercive community - which niche could he have fled into? Shared shame and the pressure not to attract attention strengthened a group dynamic that protected from denunciation. For the younger soldiers, the camaraderie, including the shared experience of drill and death, excessive drinking and brothel visits, also offered an opportunity to be introduced to the world of men.

Radio in repair, 1943 (& copy Federal Archives)
The sense of duty that the mass of soldiers internalized can also be understood in this context as a military value that was not linked to any ideological content. To do one's duty and to be ready to kill the defenseless as well seemed to most soldiers as legitimate, if not self-evident, as long as the complete military defeat was not obvious and any further sacrifice was pointless.

On the other hand, the values ​​"cleanliness" and "order" were part of the cultural conscience. Again and again, the soldiers' letters describe the experience with the pair of opposites of cleanliness and dirt. Their increased propensity for violence can therefore also be explained by a feeling of superiority that goes back at least to the time of the First World War: The Landser interpreted the differences that they observed between Germany and "the East" as a cultural gap confirmed by their own experiences on site again grasped it in terms of cleanliness. The enemy was seen as a dirty barbarian who threatened to "infect" the "clean", culturally superior Germans. The war confirmed and radicalized the soldiers' negative enemy images. The talk of order and cleanliness has given killing an (additional) meaning and in this respect has made crime easier. This explains the callousness with which (secretly bugged) prisoners of war talked about the killing of civilians. Certainly, notions of cleanliness and order, like the ideal of comradeship, were not the cause of participation in the war of extermination. But they belonged to those collective patterns of interpretation picked up by National Socialism that, in conjunction with personal experiences, repeatedly led to disinhibition.

Selected literature:

  • Omer Bartov, Hitler's Wehrmacht. Soldiers, fanaticism and the brutalization of war, Reinbek 1995.
  • Veit Didczuneit, Jens Ebert and Thomas Jander (eds.), Writing in War - Writing from War. Field Post in the Age of World Wars, Essen 2011.
  • Jörg Echternkamp, ​​theater of war Germany 1945. Living in fear - hope for peace. Field post from home and from the front, ed. from the Military History Research Office, Paderborn 2006.
  • Stephen G. Fritz, soldier at the front. The German soldier in World War II, Lexington / Ky 1995.
  • Jochen Hellbeck, The Stalingrad Protocols. Soviet eyewitnesses report from the battle, Frankfurt am Main 2012.
  • Michaela Kipp, "Big Cleaning in the East". Images of the enemy in German field post letters during World War II, Frankfurt am Main 2014.
  • Thomas Kühne, comradeship. The soldiers of the National Socialist War and the 20th Century, Göttingen 2006.
  • Andreas Kunz, Wehrmacht and defeat. The armed power in the final phase of National Socialist rule between summer 1944 and spring 1945, Munich 2005.
  • Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer, soldiers. Protocols of Fighting, Killing and Dying, Frankfurt am Main 2011.
  • Christoph Rass, "Human Material". German soldiers on the Eastern Front. Interior views of an infantry division 1939-1945, Paderborn 2003.
  • Rafael A. Zagovec, Talks with the Volksgemeinschaft, in: Jörg Echternkamp (ed.), The German War Society 1939-1945: Exploitation, Interpretations, Exclusion, Stuttgart 2005 (= The German Reich and the Second World War, Vol. 9/2) .
  • John Zimmermann, Duty to Doom. The German warfare in the west of the Reich 1944/45, Paderborn 2009.