Book Review Christine Alexander & Mason Kunze, Eastern Inferno, The Journals of a German Panzerjager on the Eastern Front, 1941-1943 [Hans Roth] (Oxford: Casement, 2010)

Hans Roth was a private and corporal in the anti-tank battalion of the 299th Division and served with them from the start of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 to his death in June 1944. During his service, he fought with Sixth Army that was part of Army Group South and took part in operations to take Kiev and the drive to capture Stalingrad. The journals cover his time from June 1941 to mid-1943 and were probably given to his wife on leave in 1943. It is likely he kept another journal for 1943-44 but this was lost on Roth’s death..

 

Very little is known about Roth. At the time of the war, he was in his mid-30s and the the owner of a successful graphic design business in Frankfurt. He was probably drafted into the army in 1939 and probably saw service in France and Belgium in 1940/41 as he makes references to both countries. He was also married to Rosel and had a daughter Erika, aged one or two.

 

Roth’s diary is an amazing document. It reveals him as a complex, thinking and reflective individual. He subscribed to Nazi ideas of race, describing the Russians as ‘Asian tundra scum’.[1] Nevertheless, his account shows that he was a devoted family man and long to return home to his wife and child.[2] He fully supports the war against Russia and on the opening day of the campaign (22 June 1941) he writes ‘how wonderful it is that we are able to exterminate these murderous beasts. How good it is that we have pre-empted them; for in the coming weeks these bloodhounds might have been standing on German soil.’[3] In the frontline, he is motivated by the close cohesion with his comrades and the belief that they fight for those at home. For example, in February 1942 he wrote ‘here on the front, we who proudly bear the name “Frontschweine” [frontline pigs] have become an inseparable brotherhood of men who have been hardened, who have been welded together by death and blood into a close community. And all that guys, full of dirt and lice, have to hold on to in order to preserve one thing; love – the depth of which nobody at home can ever imaging…Each and every one of us would gladly sacrifice his life for you at home.’[4]

 

After the war, Roth’s daughter Erika emigrated to the USA. She took with her the journals and passed them on to her children, Christine Alexander and Mason Kunze, who published them in English in 2010. Erika has not read the diaries as doing so means ‘meeting the father she never had met and reviving all the grief and pain of his absence.’[5] The journals are a truly amazing document for three reasons. Firstly, they were contemporaneous detailed diaries written on active service. Most veteran testimony from the German forces during the Second World War are memoirs, often shaped to give a certain portrayal of the Wehrmacht and self-censored to meet the cultural and political climate in post-war West Germany. Secondly, the diaries were unedited and presented as written. Finally, they are detailed and graphic, giving an insight into the life, experience and world view of a German soldier. Very few diaries and accounts like Roth have survived. To date, this is the best account of the Eastern Front that I have read.

 

Notes 

[1] Christine Alexander & Mason Kunze, Eastern Inferno, The Journals of a German Panzerjager on the Eastern Front, 1941-1943 [Hans Roth] (Oxford: Casement, 2010), p.133.

[2] Ibid., p.86.

[3] Ibid., p.27.

[4] Ibid., pp.166-167.

[5] Ibid., p.10.