Book Review: Gottlob Bidermann, In Deadly Combat: A German Soldier’s Memoir of the Eastern Front (Kansas: University of Kansas, 2000)

Reading the marketing blurb on the flap copy for this book, it appeared to promise little more than a Sven Hassle action novel. The first paragraph tells that ‘in the hell that was World War II, the Eastern Front was its heart of fire and ice. Gottlob Herbert Bidermann served in that lethal theater from 1941 to 1945, and his memoir of those years recaptures the sights, sounds, and smells of the war as it vividly portrays an army marching on the road to ruin’ [sic]. Furthermore, the account was ‘riveting and reflective’ and is ‘revealing new information [the] concerning day-to-day operations and German army life’. Faced with these hackneyed clichés, the account did look promising, but, as the old proverb goes, ‘do not judge a book by its cover [flap]’.

132th Infantry Division (Wehrmacht) symbol

Biderman served with the German 132nd Infantry Division on the Eastern Front for the duration of the war. He fought with Army Group South from 1941 to 1943, and then with Army Group North around Leningrad for the remainder of the war. At the surrender in May 1945, he was with the trapped German forces in the Courland pocket in Lithuania. He initially served with the PanzerJager [anti-tank] battalion in the Division, working on a 37mm anti-tank gun, but in 1943 he was commissioned and transferred to an infantry regiment in the Division. After the war, he spent three years as a Soviet POW.

His account was published in 1964 as Krim-Kurland mit der 132 Infanterie-Division 1941-1945 for the survivors of the Division.[1] Biderman portrays his unit’s fighting record as one of honour and correct behaviour; the blame for any war crimes committed during the conflict was the responsibility of the Nazi party. In many ways, this follows a standard formula that dominated the perception of the Wehrmacht in the 1950s and 1960s.[2]

For Biderman, the Division’s commanders were ‘veterans and participants of World War 1, who conducted and fought the war with the undeniable fairness instilled in the officer’s corps of the Kaiser’s army’. Furthermore, he ‘never experienced a single incident when Russian soldiers who surrendered were not correctly handled, or when captured enemy wounded were not medically treated exactly as our own.’[3]

However, he concedes that ‘unfortunately, the brutal measures of the Soviets could be compared with the conduct of the German occupiers in the rear areas, far behind the frontline. Through the excesses that took place against the Russian people, the German soldier became, to the simple Russian, a fighter and supporter for a despised, murderous political institution. Because of this doctrine, established and mandated in far-away Berlin, countless atrocities were in turn committed on soldiers in the front lines, even though we front soldiers were unaware of the murder of thousands of innocent people through the Sonderkommandos of the system or the excesses practised for the “pacification” of captured areas by our Golden Pheasants of the National Socialist Party.’[4]

Since the 1990s historians have demonstrated that many Wehrmacht units on the Eastern Front participated in the holocaust, mistreatment of prisoners and committed war crimes against civilians.[5] The extent, participation and involvement of the 132nd Division in such actions is outside the scope of this review but the assurances given by Biderman need to be treated with caution. 

Nevertheless, Biderman’s narrative is interesting as he gives some useful perspectives on soldier motivation, field/staff relationships and inter-divisional rivalry.  The primary motivator for soldiers to fight and keep fighting was the camaraderie with their comrades. He recalled in late 1945 that the ‘few survivors within our old circle of friends had become insuperable, only wounds or death could break the bonds of comradeship. It must be said that this remained the only positive aspect that we experienced during our “total war”.’[7] He also talks about the regimental soldiers dislike for staff officers in the rear and how they fussed about appearance and turn out when all frontline soldiers wanted was sleep and food.[8] Finally, Bideman talks about disputes between divisions. He writes about how one unit lost some territory the 132nd Division had taken and the unit that lost the ground was known as the ‘“tango division” – one step forward, two steps back’. The incident generated such enmity between the officers of both divisions that ‘one our oberleutnants and an officer from Saxony were almost drawn into a duel’.[9]

 

Notes: 

[1] Gottlob Bidermann, In Deadly Combat: A German Soldier’s Memoir of the Eastern Front (Kansas: University of Kansas, 2000), p.x.

[2] Uwe Timm, My Brother’s Shadow (London: Bloomsbury, 2005), pp.13, 54.

[3]  Bidermann, In Deadly Combat, p.43.

[4] Ibid., p.43.

[5] See Hannes Heer and Klaus Naumann (eds.), Vernichtungskrieg: Verbrechen der Wehrmacht, 1941-1944 (Hamburg: Hamburger Editions, 1995).

[7] Bidermann, In Deadly Combat, p.242.

[8] Ibid., p.224.

[9] Ibid., p.63.