Flight in the Winter.
by Jürgen Thorwald.
Pantheon. 317 pp. $3.75.
Dance of Death.
by Erich Kern.
Scribner. 256 pp. $3.00.
As in every other country, there has been in Germany a flood of books dealing with the past war. These two examples tell us much of the ways in which Germans are seeking to “reevaluate” their recent history.
Flight in the Winter, a well-written product of considerable research, offers a general picture of the German collapse in the East during the final period of the war; it narrates the military developments and describes in detail the hardships endured by the civil population fleeing before the Russian advance. The military questions do not primarily concern us here; suffice it to say that the author treats his subject in black and white: the Nazis (including the Nazi generals) are invariably bad and cowardly; the non-Nazi generals (including Guderian) are just as invariably tragic victims of their “duty.” On the sufferings of the German refugees from the East—a subject one might naturally expect to be dear to the heart of the German reader—Mr. Thorwald applies himself to harrowing the nerves of his readers, expending his greatest descriptive talents on the mass rapes of German women by Russian soldiers. It is incontestable that rape was at that time systematically practiced by a considerable proportion of the Red Army, but what concerns us here is the manner in which the author distributes his colors—as if the outrages committed upon German women were the chief atrocities of the war. Again, when Mr. Thorwald speaks of French prisoners of war, it is only to tell us of “French war prisoners who died defending German women and children,” or else were simply killed by the Russians; not a word to indicate that for the hundreds of thousands of French prisoners of war, after five years of captivity, the arrival of the Russians was a joyous signal of liberation, and little else. All through his book Mr. Thorwald attempts to convince his readers that the sufferings endured by the German population as a result of Russian barbarism during the last phase of the war remain without parallel in history; most of us will have little difficulty in thinking of a parallel—and more than a parallel —that Mr. Thorwald apparently wishes us to forget.
It remains true that Flight in the Winter supplies some interesting information on the conduct of a Russian army under certain conditions. And let me quote to the credit of the author the following reflection, which he attributes to one of his witnesses (still in connection with rape): “The reports I heard in those final days sound so incredible that most likely they will not be believed in more peaceful times. They are still human beings who do such things—who find an incomprehensible pleasure in raping the same woman over and over, dozens of times, even while other women are standing near. . . . I was in Poland in 1939, when the Russians moved in, and I did not see a single woman molested. This shows the frightful power of propaganda. [Similarly] Goebbels planted in the masses of our soldiers the notion that the Russians were Bolshevist subhumans, [and] that notion was drilled into them until many of them believed it. How else could German soldiers have stood by in 1941, while Russian prisoners of war literally died like flies, by the ten thousands!”
The dust jacket of Dance of Death informs us, with a not quite disarming candor, that Erich Kern “was and is today a loyal Nazi.” Mr. Kern’s book, a series of personal recollections of the war interspersed with comments of some philosophical pretension, exhibits in a greater degree all the elements of bias and bad faith that are to be discerned in Flight in the Winter. What Mr. Kern saw and experienced in Russia and elsewhere is undoubtedly very interesting; what he remembers and relates of these experiences can be summarized fairly accurately as follows:
- Hitler’s armies were received by the Russian people with indescribable enthusiasm, for these armies were liberating them from a detested bondage. Any exceptions whatever to this attitude must be attributed to the mysterious Russian soul: “. . . the Russians have always been subject to quite different laws from other people”; “To the Russians, everything is religion, even atheism”; “This is Russia . . . houses on fire, [but] God is more important.” This “Russian soul” is equally responsible with “Bolshevik culture” for the “inhuman atrocities” committed by the Red Army and Soviet partisans. Nevertheless, the Russian people, for all their “Russian soul,” were ready to be liberated: “. . . in the fatal year 1941 . . . Stalin faced political bankruptcy. His laboratory had been prised open and smashed and his propaganda become ineffectual and patently absurd.”
- “Yet this picture had changed, through our fault, and our fault alone,” continues the author. Elsewhere he develops this idea, speaking of the “disastrous mistakes which Germany committed in her handling of the Russian people, the mass executions, the deportations, and the oppressive administration.” Germany, by antagonizing the people of the occupied territories, “did not grasp the great opportunity that was given in the East.” Let us note that it is here no longer a matter of “inhuman atrocities,” but simply of “mistakes”; it is an inhuman atrocity to murder a German, but an error of public relations to murder a Russian. The Fuehrer himself, “despite his mistakes, which we will probably never acknowledge as our own, was actually a personification of the German people.” And finally, “these mistakes have long been paid for and overshadowed by the torture and death of millions of defenseless German men, women, and children in any territory which has come under the rule of the Red Star. . . .”
It would perhaps be of little use to concern oneself with this naive logic if there was not some danger that such a book as Mr. Kern’s might help to popularize in America a simplified view of a problem that is extremely important and extremely complex: to what degree can the Stalinist regime rely on the loyalty of the Russians? The archives of the Nazi party and the Wehrmacht captured by the Allied armies would offer a less encouraging response to this question than Mr. Kern’s; it is to be regretted that the significant information which can be drawn from those archives has for the most part not been made public. And even that information must be taken with some reservations, for it applies only to the territories actually occupied by the Germans, which is to say, mainly, the Ukraine; moreover, the German invasion came only a few years after the brutalities of the forced collectivization. Likewise, a distinction must be maintained between the reports of Nazi functionaries and those of the Wehrmacht, these latter being a good deal more reserved about the “enthusiasm” of the Russian population on the arrival of the German “liberators.” Continued misrepresentation on this whole question will only encourage very dangerous illusions.