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.
Elsi was curious, but she knew she had a big mouth and she did not want to offend the Germans. “I am prepared to answer all your questions openly and honestly,” the SS captain reassured her. She asked about the SS. Known for bravery and sacrifice, it represented “the core of the new Germany,” he told her. “We consider fear to be our biggest enemy.” The captain went on to tell Elsi about his two daughters, who “did not know fear.” “They should grow up to be whole, free, and go-getting people, who are armed against anything,” although he regretted that his wife was so frightened that she would not go down to the “dark cellar alone.”
Then Elsi allowed herself to ask about the “horror stories” bouncing back and forth around Switzerland. “He fell into an unbelievable rage,” when she got to Lebensborn, or “fountain of life,” the program that took care of and even encouraged the birth of illegitimate “Aryan” children. “No other people reveres women as the Germans do,” he insisted. It was all lies, “Jewish propaganda.” Thankfully, he added, “the Jews were now being driven away.” The figure of the Jew was persistently on the tip of the German tongue. The captain tried to explain more fully. He assured Elsi that “the German cannot hate,” even if he is not always a “diplomat.” Here the language showed a trace of shame. He was mulling over the subject, an example of how German encounters with the Swiss drew out explanation. The captain tried again: the Jews were bent only on revenge—“‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’ say the Jews.”
And what about the gassing of crippled soldiers in hospital trains as they passed through tunnels, which the Soviet news agency, TASS, had recently reported? “That’s also a big huge lie,” retorted the SS man, although he conceded that “we’ve cleared out the mental asylums, in a humane way, obviously. . . . [W]e release mental cripples from their useless and agonizing existence, but war cripples are holy.”
For their part, the Germans were also curious about their Swiss “cousins.” As Elsi sat at the edge of his bed, a wounded soldier from the Rhineland asked her what “Swiss gals” were like. “Hmm, how should I answer that,” Elsi pondered: “peevish, sanguine, melancholy, dispassionate, harmonious . . . a little bit of everything, as it goes.” “And what does Switzerland say about us?” Elsi fielded the question frankly, acknowledging the bravery of Germany’s soldiers but admitting the “unbelievable risk” Germany had taken in invading Russia and wondering by what “right” it dared to do so. “As if stung by a wasp,” the soldier and his comrades provided a chorus of heated objections to the idea that the Germans were wild, barbaric aggressors: “They would have attacked us,” “plans were found,” “How was Germany even to survive after Versailles?” The boy from Heilbronn even took out a book with appropriate quotations from Hitler to support the case of German victimhood. But once the soldiers mentioned “the cannons” that had been directed at Switzerland the previous fall, Elsi kicked apart the line of argument: “Did the German Supreme Command also find Switzerland’s invasion plans?” She had lost her patience. These “men who year after year had been hammered with propaganda” could not conceive of how “wrong” and “inhumane” their ideas were. A little chastened, the soldiers moved on to admire Elsi’s pullover and shoes, but they rallied again when they showed her photographs of “Russians who were dangling from trees.” “Deterrence,” they said—the photographs were taken to publicize the fury of the Germans. “We cannot let ourselves go soft,” explained the Rhinelander, who hoped to return to the front soon. “Convalescence makes you soft, sister.”
The Swiss volunteers repeatedly encountered Germans’ sense of duty and their efforts to cultivate the hardness it required. Elsi’s colleague Dr. Bucher had no luck comforting a soldier whose hands and feet had been amputated due to frostbite the day before. “I am in tears,” the seventeen-year-old SS recruit explained, “because I promised my mother I would fly with the Führer to England.” “It is really unbelievable,” Dr. Bucher shook his head in dismay. “Ice creeps into the limbs, but the poison deceiving their hearts sits even deeper!”
While the Swiss were quick to bring up democracy and humanitarianism, the Germans spoke up—at least in the Swiss transcripts—with stock phrases and Führer quotations. The Germans’ words astonished the Swiss, who found intolerable what they regarded as the Germans’ “totalitarian” mind-set, which shuttled between the profane and the sacred, between “mental cripples” and “war cripples,” between extreme violence and complete faith. “Everything else,” that is, anything that did not have to do with Germany, “had no reason to exist, was just nonsense.” By contrast, the Germans found the violence they meted out acceptable, even appropriate, even as they ably detailed the suffering they had endured after World War I. The Germans whom the Swiss encountered were completely absorbed in their own national drama. Indeed, the narcissism they displayed was instrumental to their use of extreme force.
Peter Fritzsche is the W. D. & Sarah E. Trowbridge Professor of History at the University of Illinois. The author of nine books, including the award-winning Life and Death in the Third Reich, he lives in Urbana, Illinois.
Image: Nazi troops on parade in Paris. Wikimedia Commons / Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-L05487 / CC-BY-SA 3.0