EASTERN INFERNO: The Journals of a German Panzerjager on the Eastern Front, 1941-43, edited by Christine Alexander and Mason Kunze. 240 pages, illustrated. Casemate, $32.95
I have read a number of memoirs by German soldiers who fought in Russia and found them all revealing, sometimes unintentionally so; but none so much as the posthumous journals of Hans Roth.
The editors are his grandchildren.
Such journals as always suspect of selective editing, but I see no suggestion of that here.
For those interested in the big picture, some early entries are revealing. As early as July 12, 1941, when the invasion was barely three weeks along, Roth writes, “We have been humbled during these dreadful days.” The Red Army, contrary to the expectations of the high command, was fighting back.
A month later, Roth writes, “My group has dramatically shrunk in size . . . we cannot get replacements.”
Germany was already losing the war. By September, we now know, it had lost. It was too small to prevail over a huge Soviet Union that was prepared to resist.
On Sept. 26, Roth, in a pause in the battle, goes out to see the sights, and the sight he sees is a mass murder of Jews. This may have been the famous execution ground of Babi Yar.
The sight loosens his bowels, but not with pity for the Jews. No, he worries about the callousness of the 19-year-old executioner he meets. “What will happen when these people return to the homeland, back to their brides and women?”
Here the notorious self-pity of the German superman is displayed as starkly as it ever has been.
Just three days after witnessing the mass murder of perhaps 30,000 helpless people, Roth finds himself ruminating on the evils of Bolshevism, “which has consciously destroyed everything soulful, everything individual and private that also makes up the character and value of a human being.”
He does not say – or if he did, the editors left it out – that Jews are not humans, but we must suppose that was how he thought. The whole passage (pages 112-113) is amazingly close to the famous secret speech Himmler gave to his SS officers on their duty to “be hard.”
Roth, however, was an ordinary enlisted man. We see here how pervasive the Nazi ideology was throughout the German people.
The three surviving notebooks that were given to Roth's wife do not display a person who was, in his own mind, depraved. But they do show how smoothly the little cogs worked in the big engine of evil.
In the whole diary, there is only one statement that can be considered a moral reflection on what Roth was doing. In February 1942, when the German army was being pressed hard, Roth writes, “We know that all of this is asked of us because the greater purpose of the war demands it of us.”
What this greater purpose was, Roth never says. Cleanse the world of Bolshevism? Of Jews? Defend Germany? All of those?
One of his last surviving entries, when his desperate unit was trying to break out of a Red Army encirclement, provides a foretaste of what the rest of the war was going to be like for the landser (grunt): “Nobody helps you any more; everyone is on his own.”
Roth fought another 17 months. His grandchildren are certain that he was carrying a fourth volume of his diary when he disappeared somewhere in the maelstrom of Operation Bagration. But the three volumes we still have are enough.