It is March 6, 1943, and two German soldiers are talking about the war. Fighter pilot Budde and Corporal Bartels were captured by the British a few weeks earlier. The war is over for them, and it’s time to share memories.
Budde: “I flew two spoiling attacks. In other words, we shelled buildings.”
Bartels: “But not destructive attacks with a specific target, like what we did?”
Budde: “No, just spoiling attacks. We encountered some of the nicest targets, like mansions on a mountain. When you flew at them from below and fired into them, you could see the windows rattling and then the roof going up in the air. There was the time we hit Ashford. There was an event on the market square, crowds of people, speeches being given. We really sprayed them! That was fun!”
Two other pilots, Bäumer and Greim, also had their share of amusing experiences, which they described in a conversation with other soldiers.
Bäumer: “We had a 2-centimeter gun installed on the front (of the aircraft). Then we flew down low over the streets, and when we saw cars coming from the other direction, we put on our headlights so that they would think another car was approaching them. Then we shot them with the gun. We had a lot of successes that way. It was great, and it was a lot of fun. We attacked trains and other stuff the same way.”
Greim: “We once flew a low-altitude attack near Eastbourne . When we got there we saw a big castle where there was apparently a ball or something like that being held. In any case, there were lots of women in nice clothes and a band. We flew past the first time, but then we attacked and really stuck it to them. Now that, my dear friend, was a lot of fun.”
It is an unfamiliar and disconcerting tone that soldiers Budde, Bartels, Bäumer and Greim use in these conversations. It has little to do with the tone one encounters in television documentaries or memoirs about the war. But it’s the way soldiers talk when they are together and chatting about their experiences.
The public discourse about war is characterized by contempt for the bloody sides of the military profession, a contempt to which soldiers themselves conform when they are asked to describe their experiences. But there is also another view of war, one in which it is not only an endless nightmare, but also a great adventure that some soldiers later remember as the best time of their life.
In World War II, 18 million men, or more than 40 percent of the male population of the German Reich, served with Germany’s military, the Wehrmacht, and the Waffen-SS. Hardly any other segment of time has been as carefully studied in academia as the six years that began with Germany’s invasion of neighboring Poland in September 1939 and ended with the total capitulation of the German Reich in May 1945.
Even historians find it difficult to keep track of the literature on the deadliest conflict in human history. The monumental “Germany and the Second World War,” which was completed three years ago by the Military History Research Institute in Potsdam near Berlin and is seen as the standard German work on the war, encompasses 10 volumes alone.
Every battle in this monstrous struggle for control over Europe has its fixed place in the historical narrative today, as does, of course, the horrible violence that left 60 million dead around the world, including the suffering of the civilian population, the murder of the Jews and the partisan war in the East.