My Father’s Country
By Wibke Bruhns (2008)
Decades after Nazi armies began their march of conquest and genocide, the German “children of the war” have begun to confront their parents’ pasts. The liberal journalist Wibke Bruhns did not want to have anything to do with the memory of her late father, Hans Georg Klamroth, because she had been told he was an early admirer of Hitler and an SS volunteer. When returning from an assignment in Israel, she was startled to see his picture in a TV documentary on the conspiracy among German military brass to kill Hitler. (Klamroth was among those executed.) To resolve this contradiction, Bruhns delved into family diaries and letters, where she found that her father, like some other members of the elite, had gradually developed into a critic of the Third Reich. In “My Father’s Country,” she presents German history as a stark family saga.
Last Letters From Stalingrad
Translated by Franz Schneider and Charles Gullans (1962)
This slim volume draws on letters purportedly written by soldiers of Germany’s Sixth Army from Stalingrad shortly before their surrender in 1943. The dead, wrote one, “are lying all around us—some without arms, legs or eyes. Someone ought to shoot a film of it, just to discredit the Noblest Form of Death once and for all.” Recent research has complicated matters—it now appears that the letters were edited by Nazi officials for propaganda purposes, but chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels banned their publication anyway, because they showed insufficient patriotic fervor. When the volume was published for the first time, in 1950, “Last Letters From Stalingrad” was hailed as a ”human document” of soldiers baring their feelings in the face of calamity. Today the letters must be considered in a different light, less as touching messages from the doomed than as a failed Nazi effort to endow pointless sacrifice with nationalist meaning.
A Stranger to Myself
By Willy Peter Reese (2003)
Willy Peter Reese was a 20-year-old German bank clerk with literary aspirations when he was drafted in 1939. As he recorded in his diary, Reese saw the war, during the early days of conflict, in traditional terms of duty, sacrifice and heroism. But on the Eastern Front he learned about another side of battle: atrocities committed by his fellow soldiers amid brutal fighting. The book’s mood swings from exaltation to depression—changes that reveal the progressive loss of Reese’s soul in the struggle for survival. But there is also a moment in that struggle when a single act of kindness pierces his cynicism: “Then I felt I could not hold back my tears and went outside, it was a terrible thing to be human and a soldier.” During a home leave in 1943, after his fourth tour of duty in the east, Reese adapted his diary for the memoir “A Stranger to Myself.” He was killed on his fifth deployment.
I Will Bear Witness
By Victor Klemperer (1998, 2001)
Victor Klemperer was a well-known Jewish professor of Romance literature in Dresden before the outbreak of war. He survived in Nazi Germany only because he was married to a Protestant. From the beginning of the Nazi reign to its end, Klemperer recorded the events of his daily life in dry, unadorned detail. The truth leaps from the page. He never knows what to expect: One day, a storekeeper slips the Jew some extra rations; the next, a fellow passenger on a bus heaps abuse on him. He records an early decree banning Jews from driving because it “offends the German traffic community” for Jews to use “the Reich highways built by German workers’ hands.” On Sept. 19, 1941, Klemperer writes: “Today, the Jew’s star. Frau Voss has already sewn it on, intends to turn her coat back over it.” The Allied bombing of Dresden saves him from deportation—and he keeps on taking notes, filling two volumes of wartime memoirs astounding in their immediacy and power.
A Woman in Berlin
By Anonymous (2005)
With the Red army’s victory on the Eastern Front, Germans got their own taste of war’s brutality. This anonymous work is a moving account of a Berlin woman’s attempt to survive the mass rapes committed during the first weeks of Soviet occupation. The author was a 34-year-old German journalist who spoke a bit of Russian and gained some protection by allying herself with a sympathetic Soviet officer. Having refused to disclose her identity during her lifetime, she found it impossible to win much attention for her diary. It would cause a sensation only when it was republished five decades later—when there was more interest in women’s experiences, particularly in their wartime lives. This powerful was this account of random killing, starvation and humiliation in 1945 describes those experiences that helped persuade many Germans that they could consider themselves victims of the war like everyone else.