One of the central mysteries of the war is how so many educated, civilised, cultured people could be bent to the will of Hitler. Amongst the millions of German men serving on the Eastern there were plenty of reflective, sensitive souls caught up in the maelstrom.
We can only guess at how many of those men felt at the time, how many of them felt they were trapped fighting a losing battle. At the beginning of 1944 they had plenty to reflect upon, as their personal prospects of surviving the year began to look increasingly grim.
We have the account of one man – Willy Peter Reese. This is the last passage in his memoir. The only reason we have it is that he was granted leave, shortly after his sleigh ride on 12th January 1944. He went home and wrote these last thoughts, leaving them with his parents. Then, aged 23, he returned to the front for the last time. He never came home:
We moved out once more. The Russians had broken through. We could hear the sounds of a battle to the rear of us. We marched.
We wandered through the smoke and flames of Momoshino. Fires were reflected in the snow. The night gleamed bloodred. We stopped at daybreak, and in the evening we moved into position in a wood near Malo-Krassnitza. I became a runner and had more sleep and more time.
A light conifer wood. We were near its edge, under continual fire from machine guns and shells. The Russians didn’t attack, and one of our storm troops got no farther than no-man’s-land.
The winter grew severe. Hoarfrost ornamented the trees, like the soul of the twigs, suddenly made visible. I loved the wood; the snow on fir and pine in golden sun, hoarfrost on full-moon nights, and a baffling disquiet often sent me out at night. I loved life, winter, and danger. It was as though I were now bringing in the harvest of a long and productive time.
I had become an adventurer, a wandering mendicant, a vagabond. The war sent me hither and thither like chaff; there seemed no end to my wanderings. But I loved life, winter, and peril. Whatever I lost was really gain. What I saw in loneliness and grief acquired a magical meaning. Whatever I had failed to do was completed, only bigger, and whatever I beheld struck me as being my own work. I stood there calmly, the earth fell into my open hands, and God was near to me. Time and eternity rushed past me. I loved life.
Sleigh rides. I flew through the forest. The wind blew and soughed in the branches, the horses panted, and the night became a dreamy, drunken revel. Frightened travelers jumped aside; a dusting of snow flew up. The runners creaked and crunched. A bold song was on my lips. Like clouds and stars, I chased through the sleeping land, plain, solitude, ravished by youth and speed.
There was no end in sight. Yearning plunged into the distance; frost caught in my hair. Rushing passage, as on a sleigh in space. An intoxicating feeling came over me: a burgeoning sense of life, the limitless, exuberant pleasure of being in the world. The freedom of an hour in the Russian winterland. I loved life.
Years charged by, death wheeled over the earth, God and his stars perished in the West, and there was war on earth. I was a soldier in danger and in pain, a wanderer, a traveler in space. But I loved life.