Eastern Inferno

Eastern inferno

Hans Roth was a member of the anti-tank (Panzerj√§ger) battalion, 299th Infantry Division, attached to Sixth Army, as the invasion of Russia began. Writing as events transpired, he recorded the mystery and tension as the Germans deployed on the Soviet frontier in 1941. Then a firestorm broke loose as the Wehrmacht broke across the front. During the Kiev encirclement, Roth’s unit was under constant attack as the Soviets desperately tried to break through the German ring. At one point, a friend serving with the SS led him to a site where he witnessed civilians being massacred (which may well have been Babi Yar). After suffering through a horrible winter against apparently endless Russian reserves, his division went on the offensive again, this time on the northern wing of ‘Case Gelb’, the German drive toward Stalingrad.

In these journals, attacks and counterattacks are described in ‘you are there’ detail, as if to keep himself sane, knowing that his honest accounts of the horrors in the East could never pass through Wehrmacht censors. When the Soviet counteroffensive of winter 1942 commences, his unit is stationed alongside the Italian 8th Army, and his observations of its collapse, as opposed to the reaction of the German troops sent to stiffen its front, are of special fascination.

These journals, including original maps, some of which Roth himself helped compose, were recently discovered by his descendants, who arranged for the translation of their long-lost grandfather s journals. Roth was able to bring three of them back to his wife during the war, and after she emigrated to America she kept them but never spoke of them. Roth never brought back a fourth journal, as his fate after the summer of 1943 in Russia is still unknown. What he did leave behind, now finally revealed, is an incredible first-hand account of the horrific war the Germans waged in Russia.


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Lex Alexander March 12, 2013 at 3:32 pm

I’m hardly an unbiased observer, inasmuch as Christine Alexander is my brother’s wife (and Mason Kunze is her brother). But I also have been a student of World War II for more than 40 years, and Hans Roth’s narrative, unearthed and edited by his grandchildren, is just incredibly gripping, a grunt’s-eye view of perhaps the most savage fighting in history’s most savage war.

Roth’s journals show him to be as morally nuanced as he was loyal to the Reich; he has no compunction about killing — and even about denouncing the Soviets for marching their own mental patients through minefields to spare the lives of healthy soldiers — but at the same time, although he did not take part, he is able to feel guilt and empathy about the captured Soviet partisans whose relatives were being held hostage by Party agents:

If they didn’t attempt to kill Germans, their relatives would be killed, and if they did return alive from those raids, their relatives would be killed. The Germans executed them, even the teens, knowing that to let them live would be to risk, literally, a knife in the neck but also that that innocent civilians would die as a result.

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