“Our quarters were wrecked, and there were corpses littered about everywhere. We covered the German dead with tarpaulins; with the Cossacks we took off their felt boots and caps, as well as their pants and underpants, and put them on. We now moved closer together in the few houses still standing. One soldier had been unable to find any felt boots, which were an excellent protection against the cold. The next day he found a Red Army corpse frozen stiff. He tugged at his legs, but in vain. He grabbed an ax and took the man off at the thighs. Fragments of flesh flew everywhere. He bundled the two stumps together under his arm and set them down in the oven, next to our lunch. By the time the potatoes were done, the legs were thawed out, and he pulled on the bloody felt boots. Having the dead meat next to our food bothered us as little as if someone had wrapped his frostbite between meals or cracked lice.”
– Willy Peter Reese, A Stranger to Myself: The Inhumanity of War: Russia, 1941–1944, pages 55-56.
This passage from A Stranger to Myself is harrowing as a description of the descent into indifference to suffering and inhumanity that characterized the Eastern Front in World War II. Written by Willy Peter Reese, a young German soldier who longed to be a writer and poet but instead was drafted into the Wehrmacht, it vividly portrays the realities of the German war in Soviet Russia at the end of 1941.
In describing this scene from the fighting he experienced at Dubrovka, Reese vividly communicates how the cold winter conditions affected soldiers fighting in those conditions without explicitly talking about the weather. The muted emotional response of Reese and his fellow soldiers to the gruesome effort necessary for the soldier to claim the boots only underlines their mutual, unspoken understanding that none of them are willing to judge another’s actions where survival was concerned. And this muted reaction also underscores the reality that such scenes were not unusual to these men; as Reese conveys later on the page, their reality was monotonous—virtually every day passed in this manner.
One page after the above excerpt, Reese sums up the impact of his situation on the Russian front in late 1941: “I wanted to forget, to forget everything, merely in order to remain human. In that spirit I wrote everything down in my diaries, in order to slough it off and shed it for good. It didn’t work.” It is here that students of history today find the wellspring of Willy Peter Reese’s words of war, what prompted him to record his thoughts and experiences, to serve as a witness in some of the most brutal warfare ever fought, and perhaps even gain some understanding of the internal struggles that Reese and veterans around the world underwent in the dehumanizing vortex of World War II. In early 1944, Reese went home to Germany on leave and typed a 140-page manuscript. He then returned to the war in Russia, where he was killed at age 23.
His mother and then his cousin Hannelore preserved the manuscript for nearly 60 years until a fateful review by a journalist in December 2002 resulted in Reese’s words being brought to the public. Its last line concludes: “I loved life.”
Note: The is the second of two related posts. Read the first post here.
“A place can evoke the history that occurred there, but through words our minds truly gain perspectives and understanding of what it was like to know, feel, experience, hope, fail, triumph, and live through events from which we ourselves were absent. The written word is our most intricate map to retrace and reconstruct what we think happened, and ultimately brings us back to ourselves.”
– Keith Huxen, PhD, Senior Director of Research and History, The National WWII Museum
Keith is the former Senior Director of Research and History in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum.