An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler

Nazi troops on parade in Paris. Wikimedia Commons / Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-L05487 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

An excerpt from Peter Fritzsche's new book. 

Editor’s Note: The following was reprinted from An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler by Peter Fritzsche. Copyright © 2016. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

The Germans made a point of displaying the hardness they had learned and their willingness to use and even exult in violence all along the mission’s journey to Smolensk. In response, the Swiss diarists recorded unsettling revelations about the central role of killing in German conduct in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union. The talk between cousins was much more open than the more guarded and infrequent references to the deaths of Jews, partisans, and other civilians in soldiers’ letters or in the secretly taped discussions among Germans held prisoner by the Allies. The showmanship of death began in Minsk and never let up, ending only on the return journey after several Swiss nurses and doctors had toured the Warsaw Ghetto and boarded the train back to Berlin and home. Albert Oeri, the editor of the Basler Nachrichten, was not wrong to refer to the Swiss venture as a “swastika mission.”

As the train sat in Minsk, one Wehrmacht soldier was brutally frank about the murder of Jews. “The Jews,” Elsi was told, “they are fast dis­appearing. We already bumped off 1,600. There are just thirty left, mostly shoemakers and handymen. For now they have to work for us, then it will be their turn. They are rounded up, have to dig deep ditches, and then ‘piff-paff.’ And all of them, the elderly and children.” The German soldier explained that “we have had more than enough of that lot.” The violence was both self-evident (“piff-paff”) and spectacular (“bumped off 1,600”).

Out for a walk after they had finally arrived in Smolensk, two Swiss doctors, Bucher and Weber, came across a detail of six Jews, some wear­ing high heels and fur coats, hacking at the frozen ground with “scarred hands.” The Swiss “allowed themselves” to engage the “annoyed” guard in conversation. Looking around cautiously, the German confided to the doctors: “You know, these poor devils—the whole thing disgusts me. As far as I am concerned, they can live, but I don’t call the shots around here.” But when confronted with the doctor’s plea to “throw the musket away!” the guard replied: “You can lick my . . . I’d get shot myself.” In this case, the equation came down to “you” or “me.” A few days later, Bucher passed by the spot again and saw disturbed earth covering what he believed were shallow graves.

In Smolensk corpses lay openly on the street. As she went out to go shopping, Elsi suddenly nudged the Swiss doctor who was talking shop with his German colleague and slowed her step. In front of her was a “blood-covered Ruskie, staring at her with dead eyes.” Two more bodies were lying next to him. “What was that?” she asked. “Rebels, reprisals,” the German doctor dryly replied. Elsi thought that this sort of “deter­rence” was actually “incentive.” “Where will all this slaughter lead?” she wondered to herself. Dead bodies were a daily sight in Smolensk, as else­where in German-occupied Russia; men, women, and children were shot simply for violating harsh curfew regimes. “Every night at least four or five people are shot around here,” the chief nurse, a German, had warned her Swiss charges on arrival.

Throughout October and November, the Germans marched huge columns of prisoners through Smolesnk. The long, slow-moving lines of starving, unwashed soldiers sometimes took an hour to pass. Left behind on the streets were the dead who had collapsed and been shot. Ernst Ger­ber guessed that half the prisoners he saw would not survive the march to the railhead in Orscha. He was not far off in his estimation; two of every three Soviet soldiers taken prisoner would not survive the end of the year, two million men in all. In Roslawl, where he was later stationed, Gerber was able to save twenty “European looking types,” whom he selected from among the prisoners to work as helpers in the field hospitals.

As a female nurse, Elsi Eichenberger fell into long conversations with convalescing German soldiers, and her diary contains the longest tran­scriptions of wartime talk. Both violence and faith were central to the way the patients represented themselves to Elsi. One evening a captain named Erich Funke stepped into the hall: “Sister, do you know what the SS is?” He explained to Elsi that “our Führer’s elite” had already done so much for Germany. A history lesson followed. Before Hitler, “the life of every German had been at risk,” and Erich retailed (true) stories about commu­nist revolutionaries shooting hostages in Munich in April 1919. He even knew the names of the victims (“the Countess Westarp and the Prince of Thurn and Taxis”) and the place (Munich’s Luitpold High School). Erich was attentive to the details when it came to German life and death. And he was prepared to die for his Führer and the new Germany: “Death is the father of life,” he declared.

As for the war, Erich knew that answer, too. “The Jews started this war,” he explained to Elsi; they “suck the last drop of blood.” But Germany had woken up in time and was prepared to fulfill its mission. “Germany has to fight and bleed on behalf of the whole world on account of this plague,” as he told her. “Poor Germany, but you will tri­umph, you have to triumph!” Erich promised Elsi that the German ex­terminators would “eradicate” Switzerland’s Jews as well. With that his “torrent of political propaganda” dried up, and he took his leave, but not before giving Elsi a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf.