Family Secret Revealed: Your grandfather was a vicious German soldier inspired by Nazi ideology
famous Soviet war correspondent and later novelist, Vasilii Grossman (on left) at the Brandenburg Gate, 1945 with other Soviet war correspondents.
“Now we see them coming, those Red bastards, that Asian mob.”
“Now we see them coming, those Red bastards, that Asian mob. Night attacks are a particular specialty of this gang… We receive orders to retreat to our baseline positions. The entire front line must be pulled back to its original position. Damn it, it is unbelievable that we must retreat — we, the 299th Infantry Division, have to run; German soldiers have to abandon the field to those Russian schweine!”- From: Eastern Inferno: the Journals of a German Panzerjäger on the Eastern Front, 1941-1943
Imagine this: you are a grown American man living in 21st Century America. One day, out of the blue, your mother gives you a set of journals kept by her father, your grandfather, during World War Two. She never knew him. He was killed in action when she was a toddler. The above quote is taken from his first journal and the entry is dated 11 July 1941 — three weeks into the German invasion of the Soviet Union which commenced on 21 June 1941.
This is the first you have ever heard of these documents. Your mother had never mentioned them. She actually did not know about them for many years since her father’s brother had them. Eventually he gave them to her mother, who gave them to her.
You knew your mother had been born in Germany during the war, one of the kinder krieg, but of that time she knew little and said less. Now she tells you a secret. A secret she has kept from you and your sister for much of your lives. Your grandfather fought in World War Two — just like the grandfather’s of many of your friends. Only your grandfather wore feldgrau and served in the Wehrmacht. And he fought, and died, in Russia.
What has your grandfather written about in his journals? Your mother can’t tell you. Not because she is being difficult and won’t tell you. She can’t tell you because she has never read the journals. The emotional pain would be overwhelming. Unfortunately, you can’t read them either — not because reading them would overload your emotional circuits. You can’t read them because they’re in German. And neither you nor your sister can speak or read German.
From your mother and from flipping through the three journals you learn this of your grandfather: his name was Hans Roth. He served as an enlisted soldier in the 299th Infantry Division of the German Army. Until he was killed, all of his time in the army he spent on the Eastern Front. Most of that time he was in combat. Not easy duty for anyone. Especially not for a panzerjäger. A “tank hunter.”
Yet you and your sister realize these journals are a gift. They are a gift both to you and to history; for sixty years after your grandfather went missing in action in June/July of 1944, he reaches across those decades and speaks. And what he writes are those rarest of historical documents: a contemporaneous diary meant to be read only for him and perhaps one day his family. He records his thoughts raw, without censorship, never holding back.
Often he writes just after a vicious battle with the Reds. He is glad he killed a lot of them. He despises them. Yet not one of us would think differently. Why? Because he is living in a situation when human existence is at its most elemental: kill or be killed. That is the only choice you have. And since we are programmed by nature to live and survive, we kill.
That’s what your grandfather did from June of 1941 — when he crossed into the Soviet Union as part of the 299th Infantry Division of the German Army — until he went missing in late June of 1944.
Infantrie Division 299 was the first German division hit by the massive Soviet offensive which began on the night of June 21/22 1944. This offensive, which made D-Day just a few weeks before look like a skirmish, was an attack of unprecedented violence against the Germans. The battle has a name which is fully descriptive: The Destruction of Army Group Center. (Heers Gruppe Mitte).
Twenty-seven German divisions and their higher echelon commands, disappeared in five days. Over 300,000 men simply gone missing in just five days…never to be found. Hans Roth is one of them. In fact, he is still listed as missing in action as are over three million German soldiers from World War Two. Most lie in unmarked graves in the former Soviet Union as does, undoubtedly, Hans Roth.
This famous photograph of a German soldier is often used to depict a German soldat in action on the Eastern Front. His face expresses the weary hopelessness of the German landser, or common soldier. However, it is one a series of photographs taken in France in the winter of 1944 a fellow member of his SS division. The film and camera were later captured by American troops. He was probably killed in battle against the Anglo-Americans. I hope so.