Soldier’s WWII diary tells of guilt

22 Aug 2003

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BERLIN: A guilt-ridden account of an ordinary German soldier’s experiences in World War Two is countering a recent trend among historians to portray Germans as victims of the war.

Willy Peter Reese, an infantryman who fought on the Russian front and died in 1944 aged 23, kept a diary of how German soldiers killed scores of prisoners of war, committed rape, threw pregnant women and children out of their homes and stole food.

Stern magazine has printed excerpts of Reese’s graphic book, “Stranger to Myself”, ahead of its publication this month.

“We were without feeling for the suffering of others,” Reese wrote. “We bragged about what we had conquered and about the effect a pistol could have on a defenceless woman.”

Reese, a slight man with round spectacles who wrote poems and was keen on literature and the arts, typed the diary into a manuscript during his last leave in 1944.

His mother kept it for decades. After her death, it was passed on to his cousin who set about seeking a publisher.

“He chronicled his own degeneration, that’s what attracted us to his work,” said Claus Carlsberg, spokesman for the Ullstein-Heyne-List publishing house.

“I think this text could help break the silence between the generations. Almost everyone has a relative who was a soldier, and the soldiers tend to be reluctant to talk about it.”

Reese’s account shows how the Nazi war machine corrupted ordinary people. It gives an insight into how a cultured, educated nation obediently followed Hitler into a war of conquest and destruction.

SETTING RECORD STRAIGHT: The book also contrasts with a recent focus that, according to historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler, has been threatening to obscure the country’s view of its past.

Books, magazine articles and TV documentaries have in the past two years shifted the historical debate to the suffering of Germans in Allied bombing raids and their mass eviction from eastern territories after the war.

Wehler, a historian at Bielefeld University, said: “We mustn’t forget it was Germany that launched total war, that the British with their bombings were reacting to the German Blitz.

“We have to prevent history getting totally distorted. I find this view sinister if it isn’t embedded in the right context.”

Reese, the son of a tax accountant, was a 20-year-old trainee bank clerk in the western city of Duisburg when he was called up in February 1941.

He was transferred to the eastern front in late 1941, and fought in the 95th Infrantry Division in Ukraine, Belarus, west of Moscow and in southern Russia.

With brutal honesty, Reese describes being part of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the most ruthless, bloody and gigantic military assault in history.

“The dead piled up and the desperate fought on behind the walls of their corpses. My comrades fell, blown to pieces by direct hits, wounded or with nervous breakdowns,” he wrote.

His diaries tell of cruelty and rape by ordinary German soldiers, and track their decline into a numb, alcoholic stupor as “an inferno of fire, steel and blood” raged around them.

“We danced in the railway carriages and fired into the air, made a captured Russian woman dance naked for us and smeared her with boot polish, we made her as drunk as we were,” wrote Reese.

Germans had long clung to the notion that it was only Hitler’s SS troops, and not ordinary soldiers — their fathers, grandfathers, brothers and uncles — who killed Jews, Soviet prisoners of war and civilians.

But since the 1990s, a controversial touring exhibition on the Wehrmacht’s war against the Soviet Union, with photographs, documents and eyewitness accounts, has disproved that view.

Reese hated the Nazis but had a simple explanation for his obedience. “We didn’t want this. But we preferred to submit ourselves to the fate of battle...than to the certain death through the courts.”

Wounded several times, Reese volunteered to return to the front. He wrote that his soul had “rotted” and that he was “lost”. The last words in his manuscript are “I loved life.”

Reese went missing in June 1944 near the Belarus town of Witebsk, some 500 km west of Moscow, as the Germany army struggled to slow the Soviet advance towards Berlin.

Twenty-five years later, the Red Cross informed his mother that he was probably killed in action.—Reuters