|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Memoirs of a Wehrmacht private
Through Hell for Hitler
By Henry Metelmann
Spellmount Publishers, 2003, £12-99
"ON WAKING up I had difficulty in remembering where I was… The temperature in the bunker was still cosy though the fire and the candle had gone out and it was pitched dark… I did not know it but I had just participated in a great historic event. I had been caught right in the middle of the breakthrough of Marshal Rokossovski’s armies which… trapped Paulus’ 6th Army and consequently led to its annihilation at Stalingrad".
In TV programmes on World War II, German soldiers usually feature as sinister, field-grey figures behind spitting machine-guns. But what was the average German soldier like? And how did millions of workers, part of the most powerful labour movement in Europe, become units in Hitler’s military machine? Metelmann’s book, the memoirs of a Wehrmacht private, helps to answer those questions.
Henry Metelmann was eleven when Hitler came to power in 1933. His father was a railwayman, a trade unionist and a socialist. His mother was a committed Christian. At seven, Henry had joined the Jungschar, a Church Scout movement. After Hitler, a law incorporated it into the Hitler Youth. Henry was swept up in the excitement of uniforms and marches: "Where before we seldom had a decent football to play with, the Hitler Youth now provided us with decent sports equipment… gymnasiums, swimming pools and even stadiums". His father tried to open his eyes to the reality of Hitler’s rule, but when war came Henry proudly enrolled in the Panzer Corps. Despairing, his father died in 1940. His last words to his son were, "your real enemy is not the English Tommy, but the monocled figure in beautiful uniform and polished jackboots standing in front of you on the parade ground… above all he is the one who is standing with his bulging wallet behind your pathetic Führer".
Henry’s war started in the Crimea. He had learned some Russian and could talk a little with Russian peasants on whom they were billeted. By summer 1942 his unit had lost 50% of its soldiers. It was withdrawn, rebuilt and attached to the Sixth Army driving towards Stalingrad.
Like the footsloggers in any army, Henry never got a chance to see the war in terms wider than the next hill or the next village to attack or defend. But even from the beginning, he started to wonder at the horrors they had seen: villagers shot down, children blown apart and at the same time a huge gulf between the officer class who wanted for nothing, and the ordinary soldiers, badly fed and clothed. In his own unit the privates argued among themselves about the war, about capitalism and about communism. Again and again Henry came across Russians who asked him ‘Who are you fighting for? The rich and the businessmen. We are fighting for our country which we own. What do you own?’ Once he spent a night guarding Boris, a Red Army officer to be executed the next day. The Russian lectured him about the world revolution and how the workers would overthrow capitalism in the end.
Henry was lucky. His unit was not trapped in Stalingrad. He was part of the retreat, attached to one ad hoc unit after another, fighting their way back westwards. His retreat ended in Austria, captured by US soldiers. At 23 his war was over.
With thousands of other German prisoners, Henry Metelmann was shipped to prison camps in the USA and used as slave labour, even though the war was over. In early 1947 he was shipped to England to work on farms in Kent. Finally released in 1948, he settled in England. He spent his working life as a railwayman like his father, and like his father he became a socialist. Long nights in the signal box gave him the chance to write his story down, as he says, "not because I consider myself important, but because I have got a tale to tell the world and a warning not to let things slide into a situation where the same horror could happen all over again".
This warning is timely. The atrocities he describes against Russian civilians by ordinary German troops are not so far different from the US assault on Iraq, where they didn’t even bother to count the civilians killed. When it comes down to it, the message of the book is in the words of Boris the Red Army officer: "People in their masses will one day understand that it is the power of capital over them which not only oppresses and robs them but stifles their human potential…"