The Eyewitness Account of a German Officer Candidate
on the Eastern Front 1943-1944,
by Will-Feodor von Neumann von Schmiedeberg von Winckler
and Dieter Stenger.
Available in printed format $25.00
Introduction: Historians will find it very difficult to place themselves sixty years into the past of a German Führerstaat (dictatorial state). At the same time, for individuals who have been raised in a democracy, it is equally as difficult to imagine that people who questioned and resisted the general consensus did not go unpunished. Within free states, it is not necessary to master the art of deceit or learn how to lie. The Zeitzeugen (witness of time) can assist historians in order to avoid making false accusations, and at the same time re-examine incorrect verdicts from the past. But even the witnesses of time are not exempt from making mistakes. For most veterans, almost sixty years have passed since the experiences unfolded before them, and many of the memories have since become blurred, or even changed, based on their current state of mind. Additionally, veterans play only a small role in history, based on their own experiences, within the larger framework in the theater of humanity that replays the lives and tribulations of so many contemporaries.
Surprisingly, I was lucky enough to survive the war. I never understood why, when considering the number of comrades that ended up becoming fatalities. I was left to live, but for what reason? Perhaps, as a witness of time and after fifty-five years, to articulate my thoughts and feelings of what it meant to be a soldier of the German Wehrmacht.
The suppression of Germany, by way of the cruel referendum of Versailles , the results of the global economic crisis, the dire straits of the begging unemployed, the disappearance of far too many political parties, the anxiety over a Bolshevik revolution within Germany and especially near us in Schlesien, east of the Oder (river), the fear of a preemptive Polish attack into Germany against a greatly outnumbered "one-hundred-thousand-man German Army," overshadowed my beautiful childhood on the Rittergut (titled estate or manor), high in the Katzengebirge (mountainous range) in the district of Breslau.
After Hitler's succession to power, these troubles seemed to be superfluous as a result of general prosperity and order. Germany had achieved a new image, and this was particularly noticeable during the 1936 Olympic games held in Berlin.
The Nazi party's pursuit against the church and the Jews, the murders of the 1934 Röhm-Putsch , the establishment of concentration camps, the killing of the mentally retarded, the imprisonment of the Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller and the burning synagogue of 9 November 1938 in Breslau, and Hitler's obvious break in his promise when the German troops marched on the Czechoslovakian city of Prague, our family did not show one bit of enthusiasm for the new regime. I read Hitler's book, Mein Kampf, but never considered that such wild fantasies would be transformed into reality. When Hitler came to Breslau for the Reichssängerfest and Reichssportfest (singing and sporting festival), the 39 kilometers were too far for us to travel, and the time too precious, to get a glimpse of Hitler. Instead, we were introduced to the Gestapo (the secret state police) that searched through our house.
Since 1995, a traveling exhibit entitled, Crimes of the German Army , has traveled throughout many German cities. The Polish scholar and historical researcher, Bogdan Musial, has proved that many of the photos were captioned erroneously. At the same time, however, he explained that crimes were not only committed by SS and SD units, but also by soldiers and units that belonged to the Wehrmacht. After all this has been published since the end of the war, I must agree with the Polish historian. During the Soviet troop withdrawal into the depth of Russia in 1941, a "scorched earth" was left behind after they had burned the villages to deny the German Army food or shelter. Once the German Army was forced from their occupation after 1942, they too subscribed to a "scorched earth" policy in order to slow the Soviet advance. Whenever villages were burned, the inhabitants were often burned as well.
Both the German and Soviet units that were located closest to the front were extremely busy with battle assignments and missions. Every soldier was happy to survive when he was given the opportunity to remove himself from the threat at the front-line. Prisoners were captured and they were sent to the rear. What happened to the prisoners, nobody is exactly sure. It is possible, along the way from the front, that a sentry may have shot their prisoners during their attempts to escape. These occurrences have been labeled as crimes. As Hilfswillige or "Hiwis" (Soviet prisoners who became helpers for the German Army) with troop units or anti-aircraft cannons in Germany, the prisoners received the normal care and were treated with courtesy. In the prisoner camps, however, they were often left to starve.
The Soviets never recognized the Geneva Convention. Anyone who was taken prisoner could expect to be shot in the back of the head, especially if one were lying wounded along the side of a road. Russians felt the same way when they were taken into German captivity. The character of individual soldiers most often determined the way both sides acted. Those who blindly followed their leaders, whether Hitler or Stalin, were more prone to commit inhumane crimes as opposed to the soldier who was imbued with Christian values and led by standards of decency and fairness. As with all armies, the German Army had its share of criminals. Based on my personal experiences, the leadership at the front ignored Hitler's orders that were aimed at destroying certain peoples that he despised. One such example was the Commissar order that prescribed that any political commissar captured was to be shot at once.
In the rear areas of the baggage-trains, approximately ten kilometers behind the front, life was completely different. This life-style was of constant festivities where I only made a short visit. The security divisions that operated in the rear areas and tasked with fighting the partisans witnessed many of the most horrifying acts of inhumanity against their comrades and often lost their nerve. They were forced to repress their inner feelings and it is possible that in these areas crimes were committed. I was never witness to any crimes on the Eastern Front. I thank my savior that I was never involved in any crimes against humanity and that I was never ordered to a firing squad. The war on the Russian Front was not fought in a gentleman's manner, as we were accustomed to in France, Italy, and North Africa.
My Polish friend, Tytus Czartoryski, who lives today in my native town, told me an interesting story from after the war. As a taxi driver, he met a woman who at the end of January 1945, was looking around in the three-story baroque castle of the Countess Dankelmann in Groß Peterwitz. She explained, "I heard a noisy clatter in the stair well. Immediately thereafter, a Russian soldier on horseback appeared before me on the third floor and cried out in a drunken state of victory, "We have won! On to Berlin! And then to London!" A French proverb by Emil Zola says, "La vérité est en marche." It translates to, "The truth is unstoppable and on the march." Now it is clear that Stalin's greater objectives for the Soviet Union were to conquer all of Western Europe through a "world revolution." The fact that the Soviets never made it to London is partially due to the rapid advance of Anglo-American armies across Western Europe. More importantly, thanks should be extended to the sacrifices of the German Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front during the preemptive attack of 22 June 1941.
Throughout the war I served with the 6. Panzer Division west of Kirowograd up to Buczacz on the Strypa (River). As a Gefreiter (Lance-Corporal) and crew chief for a 2-cm Flak gun, I participated in the pocket battle of Kamenez-Podolsk, as part of the Heeresflak Abteilung (Army anti-aircraft detachment) 298, Panzer Division 6. . Due to shortages of fuel within the pocket, I was transferred to the Panzerartillerie ( tank artillery) Regiment 76, where I was able to shoot down a Russian fighter aircraft type IL-2. I was wounded one day before the breakout of the Kamenez-Podolsk pocket. After I was wounded and released as a Non-Commissioned Officer from the field hospital Drohobycz near Stanislau, I returned to the Troop Replacement Unit in Prag. There I was transferred to the [Erd]- Artillerie (Ground Artillery). After Christmas 1944, I was back in training and ordered to report for Fahnenjunker artillery training in Groß Born, then artillery training in Amberg, 1st class Oberfähnrichs (Ensigns) training in Nürnberg, and finally at the Truppenübungsplatz (Troop Training Area) Hammelburg. I was commissioned as a Reserve Lieutenant and Vorgeschobener Beobachter (Forward Observer) and Ordnance Officer for Battery 16., Volksartilleriekorps 401. I ended the war on the Western Front as a POW and was released from the American POW camp Rheinberg on 15 August 1945, after having endured a more taxing hardship as a POW than on the Russian Front. I am grateful to God for sparring my life and for the ability to help those people who are now in need.