Eastern Inferno: The Journals of a German Panzerjäger on the Eastern Front, 1941–43
Book Notes #18
Eastern Inferno is a recently discovered, translated, and published journal of a Wehrmacht soldier named Hans Roth. His journals recount his experiences fighting in Russia from 1941-1943, until his fourth journal was presumably destroyed, along with himself, in the events known as “the destruction of army group center” in 1944.
Hans Roth fought on perhaps what was the toughest front of WWII, in Army Group South, mostly in the Ukraine and parts of Russia. His journal records a neutral acceptance of a solider's fate, in terms of living or dying. Hans Roth viewed his role as fighting for Germany, and fighting against Bolshevism.
Hans Roth frequently remarks on how he cannot comprehend the Russian soldier. Even at the very beginning of the campaign, the acts of barbarity that occurred regularly within the ranks of the Red Army were astounding to him. (p. 36):
“The Russian solider is a very strange creature. We Germans will never understand them. On the one hand, they are an immeasurably good natured, helpful, and hospitable people. On the other, they are sadistically gruesome. A German=speaking Ukrainian once told me regarding this: “A week ago, Russian heavy artillery was being put into position in Dubno, when a small child ran in front of one of the caterpillars [raupen] and fell. The Russian operating he vehicle saved the child from being rolled over at the last minute. Tears of joy ran down the soldier’s checks for the successful rescue. He picked the little girl up into his arms, gave her some candy and took her home to her mother. When he arrived at the house, the soldier destroyed everything, raped the mother, knocked her unconscious, and cut off her breasts. As he left, he gave the little girl some more candy and a small picture of a saint as a farewell.”
That’s Russia! Who can understand what is going on here? The Russian soldier is a tough opponent who stands his ground until the last bullet. He cannot compare to the bravery of the German soldier who gladly fights for the big goat [der groß ziege].
“Comrade General put me here to shoot. This is why I stand here and shoot.” Dispassionate and in no way convinced by [Karl] Marx’s philosophy, they stand unexcited in their trenches and shoot. The political commissars in the cities and villages, however, are totally different. Like snipers, they ambush our troops marching though the cities. Good luck to the German soldier who falls into their hands. With sadistic joy hey will torture him to death and then mutilate his body beyond recognition. We have already witnessed such atrocious scenes. I pray to God that I will not be taken prisoner.”
The threat of snipers is a recurring theme in the early parts of the journal. He recounts other forms of sadism from the Soviets, such as the massacre of civilians. Several times he is saved at the last moment by reinforcements on a forced march, a counter-barrage of anti-tank artillery, and SS reinforcements when he participated in man-on-man battle where he received a bayonet wound. The presence of hand-to-hand bayonet combat several times throughout his career was surprising to read about.
During his own forced march, he speaks of the heat and the limestone dust while marching across Ukraine. Lack of sleep plagued him. He was scarcely able to sleep for weeks at a time.
After reaching the Stalin Line, he describes a German reconnaissance mission through the swamps, wearing only swimsuits, their faces painted, helmets masked with vegetation, bodies covered in clay, and mosquitos eating at them. They continued to eat at him still during his attempts to sleep. This is an interesting scene that to imagine taking place in the Second World War, seemingly taken out of a Vietnam War movie.
The few times he writes of silence, he writes suspiciously. The Germans are always suspicious of Russian attacks during times of silence. Scouts probed at one another, testing enemy positions and strength. Later on, her curses the Russians after one of his first orders of retreat. He describes the immense effort described by a Russian deserter to transform the area into an unassailable position, hidden by overgrowth, with no cover for the attackers from the removal of trees. His condition is miserable. Trench warfare also takes its toll (p. 54):
“Meanwhile, it is now noon. Brutal heat is bearing down on the trenches and swamps all around us. The blaze of the sun is driving me insane; my eyes burn from all that staring up into the sun. My head hurts as if being pricked by a thousand needles. Damn it! Do not pass out! Hannes!
It is disgusting—our clothes are sticking to our bodies. A sinking broth, a mixture of sweat and eight days of dirt are underneath my helmet and runs down my cheeks only to disappear into my collar. Damn this trench warfare, damn this stupid swamp without any shade or water to drink.”