I recently read Blood Red Snow: The Memoirs of a German Soldier, by Günter Koschorrek, which focuses mainly on combat on the Eastern Front between the Germans and Soviets during World War II. As Dan White has noted, military history sometimes degenerates into war porn – exciting tales of derring-do that save the day and end in citations and medals. Real war isn’t like that. Real war is horror, a horror that Koschorrek quickly came to know as a very young man.
Writing about his first weeks of combat, Koschorrek notes “how impatiently we waited for the opportunity to fight at the front! Now, after exactly three weeks in combat, no one talks of heroism or enthusiasm any more. On the contrary, the only wish is to get out of this death trap alive.”
Koschorrek’s first wound in combat is a minor one, which does not qualify him for evacuation from the front. He writes:
I feel the disappointment—a hope has been dashed. And then I think how quickly human feelings and attitudes can change. It is only a matter of weeks since I was dreaming of glory and heroism and was so full of élan that I was almost bursting. Now I long for a Heimatschuss—because it appears to me to be the only way that I can, with any sort of honor, say goodbye to this soul-destroying environment …
Koschorrek, a machine-gunner, quickly became a hardened veteran of the war. When he sees friends killed in combat, he writes of a “sort of madness” that came over him, the desire for “bloody revenge.” He writes:
Revenge and retaliation! That inflammatory clarion call for revenge! That’s the way all war leaders want their soldiers to be. Remorseless, and with hatred and retaliation in their hearts, men can win battles, and quite ordinary soldiers can be converted into celebrities. Fear is converted into hatred, anger and calls for retribution. In this way you are motivated to fight on—even decorated with medals as a hero.
As the war drags on and Nazi Germany begins to lose, Koschorrek writes of “deserters and dissenters” within the ranks. “They are called traitors to the fatherland,” he notes, but Koschorrek concludes with an important insight: “Nobody can be himself during a war—we all belong to the people and the state.”
War witnesses the death of individuality in the name of a collective: the people, the state. More frightening is the death of individual conscience, as even the worst war crimes are excused in the name of “defending” the state.
As the Soviets close in and begin to invade Germany proper, Koschorrek encounters the aftermath of horrific reprisals committed by the Soviet invaders on the German people. In one case, he notes how ordinary German villagers “were surprised in their sleep by the Soviets and couldn’t escape. The [Nazi] party bigwigs, however, were all able to get away in time.”
When the war is finally over, Koschorrek was able to evade capture by the Soviets and transportation to Siberia as a POW. He writes of trading his war medals (such as the Iron Cross) and ribbons for cigarettes, noting how American soldiers lusted after German war memorabilia. Koschorrek’s medals and ribbons—marks of valor he wanted so keenly at war’s start—became by war’s end nothing but barter for smokes.
His last words reflect the hard-won wisdom of a man who fought as part of a war of annihilation on the Eastern Front:
when will people realize that it is possible for any of us to be manipulated by domineering and power-crazed individuals who know how to motivate the masses in order to misuse them for their own ends? While they keep well out of the way [of war], in safety, they have no hesitation in brutally sacrificing their people in the name of patriotism. Will mankind ever stand together against them?
Koschorrek, a frontline combat soldier, can be faulted for not being more critical of Nazi ideology and its megalomaniacal designs. He has little to say about Nazi war atrocities. His account is focused on combat and comrades, in the thick of the fighting, where the desire to stay alive is all-consuming.
It’s a book to be read carefully by anyone who thinks war is glorious.