November 6, 2017

1945. "First-Hand Report on the German Soldier"

German Army Prisoners Speak to Allied Interrogators
A Canadian soldier guards a captured German officer at Caen station, July 18, 1944 (Photo by Ken Bellsource)
This article is part of a series of posts on how The New York Times covered the rise and fall of fascism in Europe. In February 1945, Times correspondent Harold Denny wrote about what German prisoners of war were saying to interrogators after being taken into custody by Allied forces on the Western Front.

From The New York Times, February 18, 1945, pp. 5, 47-49:
First-Hand Report on the German Soldier
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Here are the observations of a correspondent who questioned prisoners fresh from the front
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By HAROLD DENNY

WESTERN FRONT — The German Army is staggering toward a debacle which we now know is inevitable and which we hope may come quickly.

The Wehrmacht at last is being squeezed to death in the vise of that all-out two-front war which its generals always knew would be fatal. Its strategic reserves have been spent and it has had to draft boys, old men and the sick into its depleted divisions. Its air force is almost gone. Its transport is addled. Its gasoline supplies are running low.

It is tired—desperately tired—from five years of a war which it had expected to win in one year. And behind it is a country half wrecked, cold and hungry. Its roads choked with refugees.

Yet the German Army continues to fight—skillfully, obstinately and often bravely. We do not know how long it can keep it up. It may struggle on for months. It may give up tomorrow. For when the Germans collapse they collapse suddenly and completely—one day fighting tooth and nail, the next in abject disintegration. But as this is written we can see no signs of the break-up which some day must come.

Why is this? How can that army go on in the face of a defeat which even its most fanatical members must now see is inescapable, and with every added day of war increasing the devastation and suffering of the Reich?

The answer, I think, is in the character of the German soldier, which in turn is a distillation of the character of the German people.

The German people, for all their dark complexities and their mental and moral limitations, are tough and courageous—until affairs go too badly. So is the German soldier. But with their toughness the Germans are obedient to the point of docility and crave a master, even (or especially) one who beats them. I have seen much of Germans in peacetime in their own country and in the front lines of two wars, and it is my conviction that this docility is the key to the understanding of many of the strange things that they do.

•      •      •

It is perhaps the bitterest irony of history that this trait which in civilized eyes is a mark of inferiority is the very one which has let the Germans be led by cruel and unscrupulous leaders in an attempt to master the world on the ground that they are a superior race. In the German soldier that trait has been accentuated by military training and the discipline which is over him every moment.

But before theorizing any more let us look at the German soldier in the flesh. It is not hard to do this here. Just a few hours and a jeep ride.

You cannot well study the German soldier in the front line, though you do learn that sometimes he fights well and sometimes badly or not at all, and that usually he knows his job and can be very dangerous.

The only place where you can safely see the German soldier close up and talk with him is in prison cages and camps. It might be argued that prisoners are not a fair sampling—that they are the weaklings who gave up. This is true only within limits. In the kind of war we are fighting now, with ambushes, traps and encirclements, many brave men are captured willy-nilly along with others who are looking for a chance to give themselves up. At any rate, they are the only ones we can see, so let us go see them.

Here is a prison enclosure in a wrecked German village just behind the front lines. It is in the walled courtyard of what once was a pretentious mansion. There are guards at the gate and at strategic points inside. Up forward our attack is progressing well. Our troops have driven in behind the enemy positions and are mopping up isolated detachments hiding in foxholes, cellars and ruined buildings. They are coming back to this "cage" now in returning ammunition trucks.

•      •      •

These men are at the lowest point in any soldier's life—that bewildered, shocked hour or two just after capture—and are just beginning to grasp with relief the fact that they have got out alive. Most of them are still trembling from that awful artillery fire which broke their defenses. They are wet to the skin and trembling with cold, too. Their clothes are sodden and mudcaked. The men themselves are dirty and many of them have several days' beard.

As each truck arrives its cargo is lined up against the building wall and sometimes they look frightened at this, for they have been told that Americans shoot prisoners, especially SS men. They cheer up when they learn that this isn't so. Guards go over each man, having him empty his pockets, searching for weapons. Each German soldier piles his personal belongings on the ground in front of him. His toilet kit and other harmless articles are returned. Knives, razors and anything with which he might do harm are kept. Rations are distributed among the prisoners and, either before or after that, depending on convenience, interrogations begin.

•      •      •

Prisoners are taken off to one side singly or in small groups and questioned by American officers and soldiers who speak German. Military information is sought, of course. But these interrogations often produce much other interesting data, especially on the Germans' thinking processes. Each prisoner presents an individual case history and in the aggregate they are building into a museum of psychology—or psychopathology.

Here is no such thing, of course, as an average or typical German soldier. There are all types in the German Army, and especially now, when Hitler has scraped the bottom of his manpower barrel and dragged in even the most unlikely specimens for cannon fodder.

Here, facing one interrogator, stands a better-than-average soldier who was a high-school student before he was drafted into the SS as a panzer grenadier last fall. He has been morosely watching our troops and equipment rolling forward—truckloads of our strong, well-fed soldiers, trucks loaded with ammunition and with gasoline in five-gallon containers; tanks, bulldozers and field guns—and overhead our planes flying as serenely as in peacetime. He finally breaks down to an interrogator.

"All we can see is defeat—in the east, in the west, in the south, in the southeast; the front is everywhere. This material superiority of yours—we simply cannot believe it. We can see that there is too much opposing us. We cannot carry on any more. We cannot win now. What do we have to win with?"

•      •      •

Over there is another panzer grenadier, less reconciled to the situation. He was a young waiter who volunteered for the SS in 1941 one day when he was half drunk. He is pro-Nazi though not a party member. "The war must be won, now that everything is destroyed," he is insisting to his interrogator. "We can get what we need for reconstruction only from our own State, not from any foreign country. That is why people are sticking to their guns. Many bombed-out people think they will have their homes replaced only if Germany wins."

And here is a man whose mother never raised him to be a soldier, and he admits it. He is a middle-aged farmer with a wife and two children and is sour on the whole Hitler business. He got "lost from his unit" and was picked up by our troops as he had hoped. "Going on with this war is senseless," he exclaims. "The Nazi party just wants to make history. Hitler wants us to have more children and then send them to war. They tell us to fight so that our children can have a better life. But they should let us also have a good life, then our children's lives would be good too."
Yes, he had been pro-Nazi in the beginning, he said, and he voted for Hitler in 1933.

"We wanted to see what would happen," he explained. They are certainly finding out.

Sitting on the ground in a corner, his shoulders hunched, and breathing chagrin and hatred, is the cream of the crop. He is a 25-year-old SS sergeant who has been captured trying to evacuate five wounded men from a house which our troops had surrounded. He had got ten out earlier, but we caught him this time. He is a brave man. He is also a fanatical Nazi and proclaims it, whereas most Nazis try to deny it or explain that they had to join the party to get a good job.

This young man also had a few months at a university before he joined the army, and he prides himself on being a "philosopher."

"Only the independent thinkers in Germany are true Nazis," he is saying to the interrogator. "True idealists will save victory for Germany against all odds."

He went into an encomium on the idealism of Hitler and Goebbels, and then revealed his belief in the Nazi principle that might makes right.

"Two worlds are locked in battle to decide whose idea is stronger," he said sententiously. "If you win, then yours is the better one. But our idea is stronger because we have withstood this war for five years."

Pressed a little further for his philosophical views, this "independent thinker" soared off on a recital of every one of Goebbels' clichés, word by word.

•      •      •

One more prisoner here deserves a close-up, for there are many like him in the German Army—foreigners who have been impressed into military service. This man, also an SS, was a young farmer of German stock on the Volga in the Ukraine when the German hordes swept over his region earlier in the war. His family were moved away, heaven knows where. When the Germans had to retreat they took this man and thousands of others with them, and last July they put him into the SS as they did others like him from conquered or satellite countries.

He is fed up but absolutely apathetic. He is a lone man being pushed around in a world in which he has no say-so, and he uncomplainingly obeys whoever happens to be his master at the moment. He appears to have no hatreds, no likes and little resentment. He shows no interest even in trying to trace his mother, father and sisters. He doesn't care where he is sent—any place where there's a job will do. To all questions he replies, "I cannot know anything about that. Everything's so mixed up."

He looks and acts like a man in a profound state of shock.

"We are all human beings," he finally says in his only expression of opinion. "If we had peace, if people would work together, they'd perhaps be comrades. But now——"

•      •      •

So it goes, as you walk from prisoner to prisoner with interrogators. Occasionally you meet a German who is positive, but mostly you feel you are in a congregation of intellectual zombies. To almost every question which might evoke an expression of opinion almost every man shrugs it off with:

"We could not know about that. Such things are for leaders to decide. They know much more than we do," or some equivalent utterance of futility.

Or there is this: "That was an order of the party." A man will tell you, "Orders must be obeyed or there will be chaos. It is not for us to question our leaders. They know best."

"The German soldier cannot throw away his gun," says a man when asked why he fought on after he knew that the war was lost. "The higher officers are driven on from above, and they in turn drive the soldier forward. 'From above.' That's always the way of the party." And when you ask another who concedes that he can see only further ruin in every additional day of battle, he answers: "Soldiers will not give up as long as the home front holds, and people at home will not revolt because of the old stab-in-the-back legend. Each is waiting for the other to make the first move."

After talking with many prisoners of varied types and making a liberal allowance for the probability that they are much lower in morale than the average of those who are still fighting, one reaches several conclusions. The most important of these is that a great proportion—the large majority—of German soldiers and civilians, too, want to quit, but are held in line by force, fear and that deadly German instinct of dumb obedience. Some especially among officers go on from a sense of soldierly honor, but their number is dwindling.

The decline in German morale in the past few months has been catastrophic. It had been low at the time of our march through France and Belgium, but had risen appreciably when we were unable to exploit our first nibbles into the Siegfried Line. It soared to the highest point since D-Day, however, at the opening of the German counter-offensive on Dec. 16.

•      •      •

That "battle of decision" was sold to German troops with every conceivably promise. They were to have an air strength equal to ours, and ten-to-one superiority in artillery. Actually they seldom got a plane into the air, and they were badly outgunned on the ground. After their drive opened promisingly, they were told that their forward elements had taken Liège or even Brussels and that a German army was at the gates of Paris. They thought then that it was true that they had knocked the Allies off the Continent, and, perhaps, out of the war. Then their drive gradually bogged down, whole divisions were dismembered, and finally our renewed offensive drove them back through the Siegfried Line.

The discrepancy between the promise and the actuality was so flagrant that even the Germans—the most gullible of people—saw that they had been lied to. This was at about the time also that German soldiers had come to disbelieve earlier promises that secret weapons would pull victory out of defeat. And Germans who had been told of imaginary American atrocities in occupied German towns found when they retook the towns at the beginning of their offensive that the Americans had treated German civilians better than had German soldiers.

So now a wave of disillusion and skepticism is sweeping the German Army, or so the prisoners tell us.

•      •      •

Authorities, alarmed at the number of German soldiers who desert to our lines, warned their troops that reprisals would be taken against families of deserters. This is still a powerful deterrent, but has lost some of its force, and more men are taking chances. The German people have been warned also that if their country is defeated the Wehrmacht will be scattered through Siberia as slaves, youths will be sterilized, women destroyed, children taken from their parents, Germany partitioned, the population forcibly reduced and industry destroyed. Fewer soldiers believe that now, but enough still to help keep them fighting. And some fight on because they have nothing more to lose. Their homes have been destroyed in bombings, their families are gone, the future is hopeless—why not go on and die?

Perhaps—probably—if their officers told them to revolt, they would down arms or turn on their higher leaders. But nobody has told them yet. So we have the spectacle of soldiers who believe the war is lost and many of whom no longer honor Hitler, moving like sleep-walkers to their own destruction.

"The German soldier hardly thinks any more," says one tired young patriot. "He is posted somewhere and does what he is ordered to do. He shoots as long as he can, or until he gets hit. After six years of war he doesn't know anything but to go on."