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Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front: Volume I

Title:Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front - Volume I: From the Moscow Winter Offensive to Operation Zitadelle
Writer:Rehfeldt, H.
Published:Pen & Sword
Published in:2019

The Second World War was a conflict on an enormous scale, fought by individuals with different backgrounds and stories. They all had their own thoughts, views, and experiences. In the case of soldiers, these experiences often didn’t go further than their own trench, their own army unit, and their own combat operations. The diaries of Hans Heinz Rehfeldt are an example of this. As an 18-year-old, he had joined the Panzergrenadier-Division Großdeutschland and experienced the Second World War in that military division. The Großdeutschland name is a reference to the concept of uniting all German-speaking people under one nation. The unit fought as a part of the German Wehrmacht, but also had ties with the SS. In this unit, Rehfeldt fought as a mortar gunner. He witnessed the atrocities on the Eastern Front, and he kept a diary. Later, around the year 2000, he edited his diary and adapted it for publication. The resulting book is clear and interesting because of his unique perspective on the war and his personal experiences. The translation from German into English is excellent.

What is special about the book is the described transformation the young Rehfeldt undergoes during the Second World War. Throughout the pages he becomes seasoned against the situation around him. An example of his changing perspective is how, at the start of his book, he writes about the nuisance of lice. Later lice aren’t mentioned anymore, as they have become a part of his daily reality. That the war on the Eastern Front was appallingly brutal is generally known. Rehfeldt, too, observes how the Geneva Convention was not being adhered to by either side and that excesses took place on Russian soil. Thus, Rehfeldt at one point received the order to take no prisoners. Other described acts could be disputed; for example, a Russian soldier who, after shooting a German in the stomach, is beaten to death with rifle butts by a group of German soldiers. Rehfeldt remarks several times that he is fighting against partisans and armed civilians.

What is striking is that the emphasis is put on the combat operations and not on Rehfeldt’s personal life. A description of his army training is missing, as well as of his youth at the Hitlerjugend. It therefore could be the case that unpleasant parts have been deleted through (self-)censorship or that the author never wanted to share much about the totalitarian regime that was controlling his life. Some suspicion about the book is necessary, although that always applies to ego-documents like this. The diary has been edited after the war and made available for publication. An example is how Rehfeldt himself in his preface claims to have never seen how the Commissar Order was carried out. This order said that imprisoned political officers of the Red Army had to be shot immediately. While Rehfeldt later does describe an incident in which a political officer is pointed out and dies, he doesn’t seem to make the connection with the existence of the Commissar Order.

In his preface, Marc Rikmenspoel, a researcher on the Waffen SS, seems to want to defend Rehfeldt. For instance, he describes how Rehfeldt didn’t act in a cowardly manner and had attempted to evade his duty. Nevertheless, an incident is described in the book where Rehfeldt during a retreat wears his rifle under his coat, so that he doesn’t get sent back to the front. According to Rikmenspoel, Rehfeldt would not be accountable for large-scale war crimes because of his low rank. Indeed, he cannot be held accountable for other people’s deeds, but whether he factually wasn’t involved in war crimes cannot be determined. Particular acts described in the book can be interpreted in several ways, and more scientific research is necessary to draw conclusions about this.

Important to remember is that this book is not just written by a young soldier who is capturing things as he experiences them, but that this is also the memories of an older man who is looking back at his past in a certain way. It’s interesting to read how he explains and processes his time in the army. However, in the preface and by the author himself as well, an image is described of which the representativeness can only be put into a historical perspective after further source study. In order to better understand the war in which Rehfeldt fought, it is important when reading a personal account like this one to also read scientifically substantiated literature.

Rating: Very good


Translated by:
Thijs de Veen
Article by:
Samuel de Korte
Published on:
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