It is barely summer– mere years ago in Germany, the early days of July meant holidays by the lake and hikes through the forest; the levity of these activities compounded by the fresh summer breeze. Back then, Friedrich Hirsche revelled in his youth and in the company of his friends. But now, the carefree naivety of youth is but a muddled whisper in his memory, and Wehrmacht mates have taken the place of childhood friends. He is Leutnant Hirsche now; and is one of the tireless millions who march into Russia.
As promised, the advance has been swift and even easy, but to Friedrich at least, command was wrong about one thing. It came like the shock of a sneeze, and he was very much surprised; but Soviet citizens are nothing like the depraved, intellectually deficient beasts he was warned about. All through the golden fields and time-worn villages of the Ukraine, he and his fellows were greeted with songs and laughter, food and drink, and general hospitality. The locals were simple, perhaps, but not sub-human. Even here in Russia, where the people are less welcoming, they are still not disagreeable. Friedrich can’t be sure what traits make a race sub-human, but he’s becoming quite convinced that these traits aren’t found in the Slavs. Wherever Goebbels got his information from, he ought to double check his sources.
Of course, in some locals, the sentiment grows from guarded ambiguity to distrust and even hostility. Understandably, too– Friedrich knows that it’s Russian territory the Wehrmacht is marching into. For the past few days, his unit has been plagued by partisan attacks which are disturbingly well-coordinated and efficient. There may be only shreds of the Red Army left, but there are plenty of healthy and enthusiastic partisans willing to rise against the advance. Only yesterday, Friedrich’s best machine-gunner and two riflemen were killed by partisans– the trio was blasted to bits by explosives strapped to a bridge. In the dusty and bloody aftermath, most of the partisans slipped away, but about twenty were captured by a neighbouring platoon; and today has been designated a day for revenge.
Friedrich walks with his mates to the site of the execution. This is war, and he has seen death, so he is complacent about the situation; noticing the gently waving grass and multicoloured flora along the firing line before he even looks at the condemned. He is reminded of Bavaria, with its dandelion-lined paths and green meadows dotted with poppies. But eventually he looks, and at once all feelings of calm and nostalgia evaporate from his mind. A dozen of the partisans are children– one is short and spindly and can’t be more than ten. Children, beings who should be taught and protected; yet here they are, being blindfolded and lined up for execution. Nostalgia returns, and Friedrich thinks of his infant son back in Ingolstadt. He was lucky to have seen him before he left– little Erich was born three days before he was deployed. What kind of a world is in store for Erich, if children cannot be immune from the heartlessness of war and the craving for vengeance?
The Hauptmann is shouting out his orders, and Friedrich is handed a rifle and one bullet. He hangs back as his mates rush forward, thirsty for their revenge.
“What’s the matter, Leutnant?” Asks the Hauptmann. “Step forward and do your part for the Führer and for your dead fellows!”
“Nein,” Friedrich answers, digging the butt of his rifle into the dry soil. His mind is made up. “I will not, if it means I must kill children.”
“Fine.” The Hauptmann is unfazed. “Line him up with the rest of them.”
“This is wrong,” Friedrich cries. “Think of your own children! Think of your childhood! Shouldn’t every person have at least a few years of happiness before they are thrown into the misery of the world?”
But his cause is as doomed as his bitter existence. In a second, men whom Friedrich formerly counted as friends and honourable men grab him and hustle him to the line of partisans.
“What are you, a secret Bolshevik?”
“Shame on you!”
Their jeers sting, but they don’t cut as deep as the quavering tears of the pitiful ten-year old beside him. Friedrich remembers Erich’s first tears, and wonders how his son will cope without him in the face of such cruelty. A blindfold is produced, blocking out the bright and hazy surroundings. Now Friedrich’s mind grasps at all audible sounds– the tears, the heavy, eager footsteps, the soft whispering of the grass, and his own anxious breathing. Twenty closing rifle-bolts snap like the shoes of the horse he used to ride across the meadows of Bavaria. What happened to those blissful days, when he was young and free and without worry? What happened to the world of his youth, which seemed so fascinating and full of hope? And what of the right to childhood of the children beside him? They were forced to war by greed and misplaced patriotism, and are now forced by cruelty to an unjust death.
The Hauptmann roars the order to aim. Friedrich imagines the beautiful, scenic expanses of the Germany he used to know, but the memory has grown as hazy as the Russian summer sun. From farther down the line, a child makes a plaintive wail– may Erich never experience such despair. The inevitable shots ring out, and the doomed line crumples. A dozen young lives are cut short, confined now to the blurry memories of those who loved them.
Image from http://www.ushmm.org. Courtesy of Muzej Revolucije Narodnosti Jugoslavije
The grim photograph seen above inspired this story, which speaks of the Wehrmacht’s particularly malicious attitude to Slavic partisans. Many people know, for example, of the Waffen SS’s many massacres in France, such as the atrocity at Oradour-sur-Glane. But less well-known are stories from the Eastern Front, where much of the Wehrmacht held Slavic people in contempt. This contempt and feeling of racial superiority contributed to the horrible treatment of partisans captured by the Wehrmacht- partisans, regardless of their age or gender, were usually interrogated, tortured, and then publicly hanged and displayed as a warning to other potential partisans.
The above photograph is of sixteen Yugoslav partisan youth, who were apparently executed along with a lone German soldier who refused to take part in the execution. These children would not have received any sort of trial, and were simply executed because they were trying to defend their country and their families. Such an occurrence is terrible, yet these things happened with disturbing frequency on the Eastern Front. No mercy was given to partisans.
I was inspired to write this story because (as always) I wanted to draw attention to the Eastern Front; but also because the thought of the lone German soldier’s objection appealed to me. The idea that every Wehrmacht soldier was prejudiced and evil is unfair and inaccurate, and I enjoyed the chance to imagine a similar objecting soldier’s mood and plight. It was also satisfying for a nostalgic person like myself to write such a nostalgic, disenchanted narrative, especially in the setting of World War II. I hope that this story has some sort of effect on those who read it, as the inspiring photograph did on me.