PERSONAL EXPERIENCES OF A VIENNESE SOLDIER IN A SAPPERS’ DIVISION OF THE GERMAN „WEHRMACHT” DURING THE MILITARY CAMPAIGN IN & OCCUPATION OF POLAND 1940/41 (PART2)
Anton Kainz (Toni), my grandfather, was drafted to the German Wehrmacht in March 1939, a year after Hitler had incorporated Austria into the German “Third Reich”. When the 2nd World War broke out in September 1939 Toni was assigned to the “3rd Sappers’ Battalion XVII 79/B” of the German Wehrmacht as a sapper (“Bausoldat”) in February 1940 and had to complete ten weeks of training in the Vienna Arsenal. He was sent to France in June 1940 and remained there until September 1940. From September 1940 until June 1941 he was with the “2nd Sappers’ Battalion 153 /288” in Poland (the then so-called “Generalgouvernement”) until he was dismissed from the German Wehrmacht and declared “n.z.v. (“nicht zu verwenden” – not to be used) because he refused to divorce his Jewish wife, Lola, my grandmother. In this one year as a soldier he wrote 246 long letters and a few postcards to his beloved wife and daughter with detailed descriptions of the life of a common soldier, his tasks and activities, his feelings and emotions and his attempts at handling the precarious situation of his wife and daughter in Vienna from a distance. A detailed analysis of his documented experiences forms the core of this article. The historical analysis of the 246 letters which Toni wrote to his wife in this period is divided into three categories: first, information about the military campaign, where he was stationed, the military tasks and operations, and the conditions of the military service; second, in which way he tried to support his family in Vienna and how he organised important tasks at home from a distance and third, his emotional conditions on the military front line.
On 1 September 1939 the German armed forces under Adolf Hitler attacked Poland, which was the start of World War II. Germany’s invasion of Poland was characterised by the so-called “blitzkrieg” strategy; a surprise attack of extensive bombing to destroy the enemy’s air capacity, infrastructure and communication lines, followed by a massive land invasion with large numbers of troops, tanks and artillery. As soon as the Germans had set up bases of operation in Poland, they started to annihilate any opposition to their Nazi regime. Although the Polish army counted 1 million soldiers, it was badly equipped and severe strategic miscalculations contributed to the fact that the Polish forces could not be a match for the technologically much more advanced German forces. The Poles had hoped for a Soviet intervention, but Stalin had signed with Hitler the Ribbentrop-Molotov Non-Aggression Pact already in August 1939, which secretly stated that Poland would be divided up between Hitler and Stalin. Great Britain and France declared war on Germany and Great Britain responded by bombing German territory three days later. Earlier on Britain and France had acquiesced to German rearmament and the annexation of Austria, the “Anschluss” in March 1938, because they were not prepared to fight another war against Germany so soon after the end of World War I. In September 1938 they even pressured Czechoslovakia to yield to Hitler’s demand for the incorporation of the Czech border region to Germany known as the “Sudetenland” with its large German-speaking population. Although Britain and France had guaranteed the integrity of the remaining Czechoslovakia, Hitler incorporated the Czechoslovak territory in March 1939, by that violating the Munich Agreement of September 1938.
In order to justify their attack on Poland the German military together with the SS staged a phony Polish attack on a German radio station and used this action to resort to “retaliation” against Poland. German troops reached Warsaw eight days later and started a siege of the city, which suffered severe damage and had to surrender on 28 September. The Polish forces were heavily outnumbered and despite tough resistance they were defeated within a few weeks. The Soviet Union invaded Eastern Poland on 17 September 1939 and Poland was divided along the Bug River into a German- and a Soviet-occupied territory. Some Polish soldiers managed to flee across the border to Romania and the West to join the Free Polish Forces. Several of them joined the British Royal Air Force and took part in the “Battle of Britain”. On October 1939 Hitler annexed the Polish territories along the Eastern German border, such as Western Prussia, Upper Silesia and the city of Danzig (Gdansk). The rest of the German-occupied Polish territory was subjugated under a Governor General, the Nazi Hans Frank, as the “Generalgouvernement” (General Government). Toni was stationed there as a Wehrmacht soldier from September 1940 until June 1941 after having served in France (see article part 1).
The British and French commanders were still stuck in World War I strategies and were totally unprepared for the “blitzkrieg” in Poland. War was only declared three days after the invasion on 3 September 1939 because the Western Allies had hoped that Hitler would respond to their demands and end the invasion. The hoped-for French and British offensive in the west did not take place. On the contrary, on 13 September French troops were ordered to fall back behind the defensive “Maginot Line”. Germany had gained a swift victory but that was only the start of World War II because Britain and France refused Germany’s offer for peace and so Hitler’s gamble had failed. He had been confident that the invasion of Poland would be brief and victorious because the Polish army was unprepared and that Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime minister, and Edouard Daladier, the French President, would rather opt for a peace settlement than wage another war. Hitler had won a substantial revision of the Peace Treaty of Versailles of 1919, ending World War I, which was by than widely regarded as an unfair penal peace even in the West, not just in Germany. Unfortunately many believed that communism posed the greater threat to Western democracies than fascism and welcomed a strong Germany as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. That is why Hitler had enjoyed astonishingly positive press coverage in Western democracies until 1938. Germany had even been allowed to host the Olympic Games of 1936, which were turned into a propaganda event for the Nazis. The positive climate ended after the “Munich Agreement” in March 1939, but Hitler was emboldened by his earlier successes and dismissed the concerns of his generals, but demanded total loyalty instead.
The German tanks quickly devastated the Polish defence, encircled the Polish troops and annihilated them as the German attackers far outnumbered the Polish army in manpower and equipment: 3,234 German fighter planes attacked 842 Polish ones. In this attack on Poland the German Wehrmacht lost 3,234 soldiers and 30,222 were wounded, whereas 123,000 Polish soldiers died and 133,700 were wounded and 694,000 were taken prisoner by the Germans. Now the terrible walk through hell started for Poland: the nearly complete extinction of the Polish Jews, the terrible suppression of the Polish people by the NS regime and the mass internment of Poles in slave labour camps. The Polish soldiers who had fought bravely to defend their country had had no chance in this unequal battle and many ended up in German and Soviet labour camps. Hate begot hate, which resulted in aggression against the German-speaking minority in Poland and in excessive anti-Semitic attacks against Jews by Poles. The Jews had to flee the German Nazis and their Polish compatriots. Nevertheless, those Poles who helped the Jewish population despite death threats by the Nazis should never be forgotten.
In August 1939 a secret additional protocol to the so-called “Hitler-Stalin-Pact” already stipulated the separation of north-eastern and south-eastern Europe into “spheres of interest” of Germany and the Soviet Union and by that the partition of Poland along the rivers Narew, Weichsel and San. From the 17 September on Soviet troops occupied the eastern part of Poland. But Hitler’s plan had just been to incorporate Poland without any disturbance of the Soviets and to gain an ideal starting position for his already planned attack on the Soviet Union. The rest of the world assumed that this pact would secure peace in Europe because they were unaware of the secret supplementary protocol. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 he incorporated the Soviet-occupied Polish territories, too. The NS propaganda machine indoctrinated the German soldiers and the German public creating the image of “slawischer Untermensch” (Slavic subhuman being) and many of the German soldiers succumbed to this prejudice and believed they dealt with a “primitive people” when they were on Polish territory in the so-called “Generalgouvernement”. Yet most German soldiers acknowledged the bravery of the Polish soldiers, but had virtually no contact to the Polish population. What can be seen from the original documents is that Toni and his friends were different; they did build up friendly relationships with the local population.
The command of field marshal von Reichenau, commander of the 6th German Army, on 6 October 1941 constituted a defiance of the international law of war and put the Wehrmacht per definitionem at the same level as the SS, which was then responsible for genocide behind the front lines just as the SS and other NS organisations z.b.V. (“zur besonderen Verwendung”= for special use). Unfortunately, anti-Semitism was deeply rooted in the Polish population, too, and attacks against Jews were largely supported by the local population. In war diaries of German officers one can find many hints to their aggressive anti-Semitism, for example they wrote about “ugly and dirty Jews” and that “no one wants to be stationed in a city like Tarnow, which is a virtual Jew city”. But one can also find comments of ordinary privates who showed mercy and compassion towards the Polish Jews. The Viennese private Alfred Pietsch was shocked about the destitution of the inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto and the squalor there when he had to deliver some furniture to the ghetto in 1942. The German soldiers knew about concentration camps, but the privates had no idea what was really going on there. All knew about the abuse and the mistreatment of the Jewish population, but it was virtually impossible to act against military orders. Nevertheless there was a small number of “silent heroes” who defied the holocaust and tried to rescue Jews. Helping Jews was more dangerous than allowing partisans to escape because it was always punished by immediate execution. In the memorial of Yad Vashem in Israel 83 Austrians are listed among the “Righteous among the Nations“, 45 of them were members of the German Wehrmacht.
How was the Austrian army integrated into the German Wehrmacht after the “Anschluss” in March 1938? During the First Republic the Austrian army was underfunded and little appreciated by the population. Contrary to the former k.&k. Habsburg Army, it was now a “politicised” army: from 1921 on the Austrian soldiers more or less had to be members of the Christian-Socialist “Wehrbund” and the army had to act as an obedient tool of the Christian-Socialist government, which became visible in the role the army took in the suppression of the Socialist protests in February 1934. After the ban of the Social Democratic Party, the Austro-Fascist regime relied in its defence on Mussolini’s Fascist Italy. Only when it became clear that Mussolini and Hitler were forging a pact, did the Austrian government decide to re-arm the Austrian Army. By introducing compulsory military service and re-introducing a general staff they violated the St. Germain peace treaty of 1919. Field marshal Alfred Jansa developed a defence plan in case of a German aggression, which was expected for the year 1939, but this “Jansa Plan” was so secret that even many divisional commanders were not informed. The Austrian High Command was anyway convinced that resistance was futile because the Austrian army was clearly inferior. Under the Austro-Fascist regime all soldiers and officers were supposed to be members of the Austro-Fascist “Vaterländische Front”, but the illegal National Socialist “NS-Soldatenring” was highly active inside the Austrian army and the climate therefore was characterised by mistrust and anonymous denunciation. On 11 March 1938 the partial mobilisation was announced and a marching order was issued to protect the border to Germany. Yet the officers were not informed by the government and the abdication speech of the Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg caught them by surprise while they were having dinner. In the morning of 12 March they learned about the invasion of the German Wehrmacht and received the order to retreat into the barracks at 9.30. The enthusiasm of the Austrian population which welcomed Hitler and had already decorated official buildings, barracks and public transport with swastika flags surprised even many soldiers and overwhelmed them. Yet some officers were annoyed about the government’s decision not to show any resistance. Already on 14 March all Austrian officers and soldiers were sworn in to Adolf Hitler; only few dodged the ceremony which was not noticed in the existing turmoil, but those who officially refused to take the oath, were immediately dismissed and persecuted. Around 30 Austrian officers were imprisoned or deported into concentration camps, six of which died there. Furthermore, 123 “non-Aryans” (officers of Jewish descent) were dismissed from the army on the spot. The orders of the German High Command (von Bock and von Brauchitsch) of 14 March 1938 already marked the end of the Austrian army and the complete absorption into the German Wehrmacht, although the Austrian soldiers and officers were not aware of this fact at that point in time. The pompous military parade along the Viennese Ringstrasse on 15 March covered up the tragic side of the end of the Austrian army: 67 Austrian officers were dismissed and 50 officers who had had to leave the Austrian army before because of illegal membership in the NSDAP were reinstated. Just to mention two of the tragic destinies: the student at the military academy and son of the Austrian vice-chancellor, Herbert Fey, committed suicide after learning that his parents had taken their lives and the field marshal Johann Friedländer was dismissed as a Jew, lost his flat and was deported to the KZs Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, where he was murdered in 1945.
Most Austrian officers and soldiers were originally no National Socialists, but many were attracted by the prospect of a career in the Wehrmacht and the National Socialists in the Austrian army even dreamed of an Austrian independence within the German “Third Reich”. Yet Hitler did not accept any special status of the Austrians and was only interested in an increase in the number of soldiers for the Wehrmacht. Immediately compulsory military service was extended from one to two years and the Austrian soldiers were completely integrated in the German Wehrmacht. In a second wave of “cleansing” further 440 officers were dismissed, mostly on the basis of political attitude or because they had Jewish wives, like my grandfather Toni. The hopes for rewards and promotions of members of the formerly illegal “NS Soldatenring” were quickly dashed because the German Wehrmacht was basically apolitical and not too many close ties existed at that time between the NSDAP and the Wehrmacht.
On the other side of the front line around 10,000 Austrians fought together with the Allied Forces against Hitler. They were emigrants, persecuted Jews, Habsburg monarchists, Communists or Socialists who volunteered to fight in the alliance against Fascism; others deserted from the Wehrmacht and joined foreign armies. A family relative who was renamed John Collins in the UK, had fled from Vienna to Great Britain and joined the British Forces against Hitler. I got to know him as a child when visiting my great-aunt and great-uncle, Agi and Norbert Katz, in London and he was presented to me as a war hero – behind his back, of course. These Austrian soldiers were not always warmly welcomed, but treated with utmost mistrust. The President of the United States Roosevelt was in favour of establishing an “Austrian battalion” because that would support the idea of a future independent state of Austria. Yet many of the Austrian volunteers rejected the attempt of Otto von Habsburg, son of the last Habsburg emperor, of leading the Austrian battalion. In 1943 the “Infantry battalion 101” was dissolved without ever having reached the required manpower. Nevertheless thousands of Austrian and German volunteers were integrated in the US Army with the prospect of receiving US citizenship. Famous Austrians in the US Army who after the war played an important role in the cultural reconstruction of Austria were Ernst Haeussermann, director of the Vienna Burgtheater, Marcel Prawy, opera expert, Georg Kreisler, cabaret artist and Hans Habe, journalist. The Austrians and Germans were trained in the camps Ritchie and Sharp since the summer of 1942. Around 20,000 soldiers were trained in map reading, interrogation techniques, creating flyers and radio reports and most of all, in the set-up and working of the German Wehrmacht. Later in Europe they were called the “Ritchi and Sharp boys”. Approximately 10 per cent of the 7,000 Austrians who fought in the US army were trained there. They were used to procure secret information from the enemy, help interrogate German prisoners-of-war and destroy German morale by distributing millions of flyers over enemy territory and creating radio reports in Allied radio stations. In this way they tried to induce the civilian population and soldiers in Germany to surrender. After the war they assisted the Allies in identifying Nazis in occupied Austria, published the first newspapers and acted as cultural messengers. They were also among the first to set foot in the liberated Nazi concentration camps, they talked to the survivors and documented the holocaust.
1,500 Austrians served in the French “Légion étrangère”. After the “Fall of France” 1940 most of them fled abroad and some joined the British troops in North Africa. In this way five British sappers’ companies were formed consisting of Austrian and German emigrants. In 1944 an Austrian battalion of more than 500 men was established under French command and was sent in September 1945 to assist the French troops in the occupation of Austria. All in all approximately 4,000 Austrians served in the French army.
The only army where Austrians set up a separate fighting unit was in the Yugoslav army. In 1944 Austrians, mostly former fighters in the Spanish civil war, Communist emigrants and prisoners-of-war who wanted to escape interment in Soviet POW camps formed five Austrian battalions which were trained by the Soviets. All of them arrived in Vienna in the spring of 1945 and took over defence and security tasks in the eastern part of Austria.
Last but not least, 3,000 to 5,000 Austrians served in the British Army during World War II. At the beginning of the war they were integrated in the “Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps” (AMPC), which was not armed. Until March 1940 five divisions were formed, which consisted exclusively of Austrian and German Jews; the Austrians constituted 26 per cent (628 soldiers). These volunteers were not automatically awarded British citizenship and were usually not armed, but used for construction works and the clearing of bomb debris. In 1940 four corps were despatched to France. All of them were evacuated from France across the British Channel. Between October 1940 and January 1941 ten more sappers’ corps were formed with 458 Austrian volunteers from British internment camps. So, all in all around 4,500 Austrian and German soldiers were active in 15 sappers’ divisions on the side of the British. In 1942 emigrants had access to officers’ training courses for the first time and in the spring of 1943 they were allowed to volunteer in all military services of the British forces. Many sappers now left these least appreciated corps and entered other British military services. This meant that additionally to the 1,400 Austrian sappers, further 1,600 Austrian soldiers actively fought in the British forces at nearly all front-lines. For their personal security in case of imprisonment by the German Wehrmacht they were given new names and a new identity. Few underwent special training and then acted as agents behind the enemy front lines. 60 of these Austrian agents in the service of the British were uncovered and executed. Several Austrians in British uniform were stationed in Austria after 1945 and helped with administering the occupied territories and acted as interpreters. A special Austrian battalion was never set up in the British forces, as its establishment had failed in the USA, although this was mentioned in the Moscow Declaration of 1943 as a condition and symbolic contribution to the liberation of Austria as an independent state. All attempts were unsuccessful due to the discord among the organisations of Austrians in exile. What was the destiny of German and Austrian Jews who ended up as prisoners-of-war of the German Wehrmacht? The German army soon found out who they were, especially if they were caught in an all emigrants sappers’ corps, but they constituted a problem for the Wehrmacht, which would not treat them as they handled all other Jews. So mostly they ended up in prisoner-of-war camps and were condemned to hard labour.
On 5 September the train transporting Toni and the other Wehrmacht soldiers of the “2nd Sappers’ Battalion” from France to Poland stopped in Tarnow, the weather was good and the journey wonderful, Toni wrote. On 6 September 1940 Toni arrived at Sanok, the first destination of his battalion in Poland.
The Polish cities Sanok and Tarnow had been part of the Habsburg Empire’s province of Galicia after the first partition of Poland in 1772 until the end of World War I. In the course of the German assault on Poland Sanok was occupied by the Germans and was integrated into the so-called “Generalgouvernement”, just as Tarnow. Sanok was a frontier town between the German-occupied and the Soviet-occupied parts of Poland until the German attack on the Soviet Union and in 1940 the Polish underground movement established itself there. The population structure of the whole region was characterised be a large number of different minorities, such as Jews, Ukrainians, Lemkins, Boykins and Germans, several of which were forced to collaborate with the Nazis or did so voluntarily in the “Waffen-SS-Division Galicia”.
Tarnow had been one of the most important merchant towns in the Habsburg Empire. When the German Wehrmacht occupied Tarnow on 8 September 1939, many of the 25,000 Jewish inhabitants tried to flee eastwards, but on the other hand many Jewish refugees ended up in Tarnow who had been trying to escape the Nazis from occupied territories further west. It can be assumed that in 1942 30,000 Jews lived in Tarnow. But the German occupiers also harassed the Christian Poles. In June 1940 the first transport of Christian Polish prisoners to the KZ Auschwitz was organised by the GESTAPO; of these 728 prisoners only 200 survived. For the Jews the Nazis established a ghetto in Tarnow where they interned between 20,000 and 40,000 Polish Jews, who were exploited as slave labourers, most of which were finally deported to the extermination camps Belzec or Auschwitz –Birkenau and murdered there. The establishment of the Tarnow Ghetto was formally announced in March 1941. The final liquidation by the Nazis took place in August and September 1943 and in January 1945 the Soviets ended the Nazi occupation of Tarnow.
THE MILITARY CAMPAIGN
On 6 September 1940 Toni wrote to his beloved wife Lola that they were stuck in Sanok and waiting for the next transport. They were supposed to end up somewhere 40 km from Sanok in a godforsaken village. He was really desperate because this was a totally deserted area. They had just been on the banks of the river San and had looked towards Russia, which was approximately 300 km away. He thought it would be possible to purchase some things in Sanok, but everything was five to ten times more expensive than in France: 0.5 l of beer or 100 g sausage 50 Pf (Pfenninge) and a small piece of cake 30-40 Pf. Then Toni described in his letter the journey from France to Sanok, which he had enjoyed very much as there was good weather all the time: On 2 September they left Remiremont at 10.30 am and went via Luneville to Saarburg and Saargemünd, where they stayed overnight. There was an air raid at night and they could hear and see the attacks of the enemy airplanes and the responding German defence, but he had slept well in the hay on the open train carriage nevertheless. Then they were transported to Homburg – Ludwigshafen – Worms – Frankfurt – Hanau – Fulda – Hersfeld – Ronshausen – Eisenach, where he admired the many flowers, – Gotha – Erfurt – Leipzig, where they arrived on 3 September at 9 am, then to Dahlen – Riesa – Dresden – Bautzen – Greiffenberg – Hirschberg, where they crossed the “Riesengebirge”, a wonderful mountain landscape, – Gottesberg – Dittersbach, where ten furnaces were working at full capacity which turned the sky red from the glowing coal. The train then carried them to Königszelt – Breslau – Oppeln – Ratibor – Oderberg – Chybie – Auschwitz – Skawina- Krakau – Bochnia – Tarnow – Stroze Biecz – Jaslo – Sanok, where they arrived on 5 September at midnight. “You can see it was a journey across half of Europe. I would rather do without it and go home. Our kitchen was on an open carriage. So we had a good view, but also lots of wind, dirt and sun. We are dark as Negroes and dirty as pigs. Just imagine five days in the uniform without the possibility to wash properly or change clothes and very little sleep. We look like gipsies ….Today I don’t care at all: no money, nothing to smoke, nothing to drink, in one word a complete f….. I don’t need anything, just please send me writing paper, a pencil and razor blades.” The only certainty for Toni at that moment was that he would stay in the kitchen, which for him was the best option for the time being.…