Michael Kitzelmann had been a loyal soldier of the Wehrmacht. He was company commander at twenty-four, was awarded as the Iron Cross Second Class for bravery in battle, and the Wound Badge in Gold for seven stays in field hospitals. But he was also a Catholic with an independent turn of mind. The campaign in Russia forced him to examine his conscience. His letters home became increasingly critical of the Nazi regime and the conduct of troops in Russia.
It seems that in the Spring of 1942 he was witness to some particular atrocities in Russia, either the work of the Einzatgruppen against the Jews or indiscriminate action against civilians suspected of being ‘partisans’. He became openly critical of the Nazis and outspoken in front of his fellow officers. It was a fatal mistake:
On 11 April 1942, I walked into the military prison of the fortress of Orel. The fortress, a huge squat building, distempered pink, with massive round turrets at each corner, lies to the north of the town on the steep banks of the river Oka. There is a dark stone passage on the upper floor where the air is dank and chill; and here I was handed over to the prison guards.
‘My cell is in the north-east turret and is about 14 feet wide and the same height. It has a wooden floor and a vaulted brick ceiling. To the west an arched window pierces the wall, which is over three feet thick, and across the window there are strong iron bars, let into the wall. In the evening and then only, a few golden sunrays briefly penetrate to my dreary solitude. A massive oak door, reinforced by heavy iron-work, shuts out the world.
Darkness and terror paralyse my being. The stillness is unbearable. Helpless and abandoned I am left to myself, alone, sentenced to death. . .!
Now I know the full fury of these Military Laws. Overnight I was branded as a criminal just for making a few derogatory remarks about the government. And for that apparently I must lose my life, my honour, my friends and my place in human society. How could all this happen? I had a good enough reputation up to now, and so far as I know I was regarded as a decent man with a normal sense of duty. What are right and justice in this world? Haven’t I served my country honourably for four years? I was at the front for two years, took part in three campaigns and proved my loyalty often enough. Is this the thanks I get from my country?
On 11 June 1942, at 5 p.m., I was told that my petition for mercy had been rejected and that the sentence would be carried out on 12 June 1942 at 7 a.m. Lord, Thy will be done. In the evening I knew great joy. Dear, good Pastor Schmitter has come back and wants to stay with me during my last hours on earth. He was here till after midnight. I told him my final wishes, asked him to give my love to my people at home and talked over with him what would happen at the end. He has promised to return punctually at 6 a.m. Then I will confess once more, for my whole life. We shall celebrate Mass and take Communion together. . . .
God has granted me great joy, for the hour of my death is a merciful one
See Annedore Leber: Conscience in Revolt: Sixty-four Stories of Resistance in Germany, 1933-45
Michael Kitzelmann was far from unusual, apart from the fact that many of his letters and diary entries survived. The Nazi state had always cracked down on any form of dissent. Speaking out in civilian life usually meant a spell in a concentration camp at the very least. Within the ranks of the Wehrmacht it could not be tolerated. In the eyes of the Nazis it was a capital crime not to be wholly loyal to their cause. In the First World War fewer than 200 men had been executed for desertion from the German armed forces. In the Second World War over 15,000 men were executed by the Wehrmacht for desertion, dissent or lack of commitment.
For a review of the way the Wehrmacht maintained discipline and loyalty to the regime see Omer Bartov: Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich.