The soldiers speak for themselves

This book is based on actual WW2 letters from German soldiers which paint a deep and vivid portrait of the life of Germans during the war.

Excerpt from the Dedication

Please note that this book is written from the German point of view. This approach is dictated by the nature of the material I am dealing with: personal letters from German soldiers. It is not intended in any way to defend or justify National Socialism. It is designed to give voice to those who can no longer speak for themselves. The history of the war in Europe is extremely complex. Axis and Allied propagandists created simplified black-and-white versions of history to suit their own agendas, but, in reality, history is multifaceted.

This book tells the story of a generation of German men, women, and children, many of whom were conscripted and forced to go to war and who, once in that war, had to fight to the end to try to save their families from the wrath of both Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. When the war was over, the lucky few managed to come home; the others spent years, and, in some cases, decades in Soviet forced labor camps. Most of these men and boys died without ever seeing Germany again. The wartime stories of several German veterans (who are all U.S. citizens now) were the primary motivation behind the writing of this book.

One individual, however, was not only inspirational but also necessary for the success of the project, for he translated many of the letters in this volume. His name is Wilhelm Gehlen (see his photo to the left). Wilhelm was born in 1933 in Viersen, Germany. He was 12 years old when the war ended. At the time, he and his boyhood friends were "serving" in the Luftwaffe, manning a 20 mm quad anti-aircraft gun in his hometown. Despite what one might think, these boys were not just playing army; U.S. planes attacking them were firing real rounds, as were the boys defending the town. In the month and a half that Wilhelm served in the German military, the boys managed to shoot down six U.S. and one British aircraft. Fortunately, Viersen was captured by the Americans. The story would have had a very different ending if the city had fallen to the Red Army. Wilhelm was released after a very brief captivity that amounted to a photo opportunity for U.S. GIs. This book is dedicated to Wilhelm and the rest of his forgotten comrades who manned the guns at Viersen.

Maps and Photos

Documents and Letters

Why use Letters to Tell the Story of the War?

Certainly much has been published on the subject of the Third Reich, almost always based on the analysis of official histories, documents, interviews and recently, secret recordings of German prisoners of war made during the conflict. Documents and official histories by their very nature are likely to be used as vehicles of official propaganda, and post-war interviews don't necessarily reflect the true feelings of the people being interviewed. In addition, secretly taped conversations are suspect as well, especially those that were facilitated with the use of an Allied agent to direct the conversation. This is the case because soldiers in that situation would frequently brag and exaggerate about both good things and bad.

Whereas all of this information is certainly valuable and to a greater or lesser degree accurate, I believe that letters, personal letters, although not perfect, are a more accurate source of information about the war. They capture a moment in time. They are far more likely to present an accurate account of what life during the Second World War was like for the typical German family, what they thought at the time and how they coped. For many years, because of the nature of the war and its aftermath, the topic has been taboo and to a degree still is. It is, however, impossible to understand the war and its importance if you continue to dismiss the perspective of half of the participants. Research into German war letters is necessary to fully appreciate the nature of the common soldier's participation in the conflict.

Unfortunately, there are now only an estimated 120,000 to 150,000 surviving letters out of the approximately 30 to 40 billion that were mailed during the War. One of the most important aspects of this book is the fact that all of the letters and most of the documents are previously unpublished primary sources. The total number of letters included in this study collection stands at 544 which will permanently preserve a little under .5% of the estimated total. Facsimile images of all original letters and documents presented in the text are available to the reader. The large number of pages (just over 2000) in the corpus mitigates against the use of a traditional appendix. All correspondence and documents are numbered consecutively to match their appearance in the text. To maintain a statistically valid, unbiased sample, the contents of the letters were translated after they were selected for use in the study. The selection of the letters for inclusion was based solely on the unit identification of the individuals who wrote the letters, all of which were written between 1937and 1945. It is imperative that all primary sources be randomly selected. Otherwise, the result of the research will be predetermined by the selected letters and subject to manipulation. In an ideal world, it would also be helpful to have the same number of letters from each individual represented in the corpus. This approach is problematic; because of the relatively small number of surviving German World War II letters it could only be achieved by randomly selecting far fewer letters and in so doing eliminate relevant and important references to wartime events.

Letter Scans

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Chapter 2: The Heller Family

Chapter 3: Heinrich Bredemeier

Chapter 4: The Ketschau Family