Reluctant Accomplice – A Wehrmacht Soldier’s Letters from the Eastern Front
Edited by Konrad H. Jarausch
Princeton University Press – £24.95
This remarkable compilation of wartime letters is nothing short of one of the most humbling and insightful reads you’re likely to come across this year. Humbling, because the entire book is laced with humility, and insightful, because it shows how a German soldier could still behave like a human being within the vile confines of Hitler’s Nazi regime.
Edited by the esteemed historian Konrad H. Jarausch, Reluctant Accomplice – A Wehrmacht Soldier’s Letters from the Eastern Front is an emotive collection of letters written by his father, who served as a soldier during the Second World War and died in Russia in 1942. As a whole, the book is essentially grounded in the gradual progression of Dr. Jarausch’s initial support for Hitler, into a man that becomes so horrified by the grim reality of the German war making machine – which, as is well known, involved multiple war crimes and genocide throughout Eastern Europe and Russia – he ultimately loses faith in almost everything he ever believed in.
The possibility that this might eventually take place becomes apparent quite early on in the book (which is broken into three parts), where, in the initial section ‘Dealing With The Legacy Of Nazi Complicity,’ Jarausch touches on his father’s profound anxiety: ‘’In the midst of the hell of Dulag 203 he realized shortly before his death: ‘’Genuine humanity between peoples and races is necessary if a better world is to arise from the excess of blood and destruction.’’ This hard-won insight that people across all differences share a basic human dignity, which needs to be respected whatever the circumstances, remains an important lesson for later generations.’’
It’s not often one comes across such insightful questioning – particularly of Hitler’s war policy of annihilation – by a German soldier so early on in the war. Admittedly, following the turning point of Stalingrad, it was just such questioning that eventually evolved into an avalanche of discontent; which in and of itself, accounts for this book’s poignancy and power: ‘’But the whole thing is already more murder than war.’’
In Part Three ‘War Of Annihilation In Russia,’ many of the letters show sympathy of and empathy towards Russian victims and POWs, the manifestation of which resulted in a shared bond that transcended nationalism, race and the enmity of war: ‘’[…[ as a master sergeant, he was directly involved in the mass death of Russian POWs because he was unable to provide them with the necessary food in spite of his efforts to mitigate their suffering. Stemming from chaotic circumstances, racial prejudice, and political design, this killing behind the battlefield was the result of a new kind of Verrnichtungskrieg (war of extermination) that broke the norms of modern civilized warfare. Jarausch’s experience suggests that neither the apologetic ‘’myth of the clean Wehrmacht’’ nor the critical accusation of the Holocaust culpability of the entire army are quite correct. Instead, his fate demonstrates how annihilationist warfare could turn doing one’s duty into becoming an accomplice of crime.’’
That Dr. Jarausch was led by the courage of his conviction(s) if not ultimately his own conscience, raises the behavioural bar unto a place that must surely have been harrowing beyond contemplation: ‘’Konrad Jarausch’s correspondence from the Soviet front therefore raises troubling moral questions about which values should predominate in wartime – a sense of national obligation or a commitment to transnational humanity […[. The stark evidence of Nazi brutality in the mass death of Russian POWs sharpened this conflict of conscience between his wish to belong to a national and military community and his feeling of compassion for the many victims of Hitler’s hegemonic dreams.’’
Suffice to say most of the above, if not most of the book itself, really is brought to bear in its actual title Reluctant Accomplice – as that’s exactly what Dr. Konrad Jarausch fundamentaly was. Which, if you think about it, must have been an absolute living nightmare. Although the historical trajectory of his belief and his experience has stood him, as well as his son, and to a certain degree, Germany itself, in good stead.