THE EXPERIENCES OF Kurt Alfred Herrmann during his short life (1922-43) were in some ways not unusual for a German of his generation. In 1940, aged eighteen, he was conscripted into the national Arbeitsdienst (Labour Corps), and a year later into the Wehrmacht. His application to serve as a medical orderly was accepted (his father was a chemist in Berlin, and he had a good knowledge of pharmacy), and in February 1942, after a few months of basic training, his medical unit was ordered to the East to support 'Operation Barbarossa', the German invasion of the Soviet Union. His unit was part of Army Group South, which drove rapidly through the Ukraine and round the Black Sea. When this force was divided in two in the summer of 1942, he was fortunate not to become part of the army under General Paulus, which was sent eastwards to capture Stalingrad, and which had to surrender, after suffering horrific losses, early in 1943. Instead his unit became part of the army whose mission was to push southwards, through the town of Rostov at the mouth of the River Don, and to capture the oil-wells of the Caucasus Mountains, between the Black Sea and the Caspian. By August 1942 the Caucasus had been reached, and, as the flag of the Reich was hoisted over Mount Ebrust, Europe's highest mountain, Kurt Herrmann's unit was resting (and repairing its worn-out vehicles) in the nearby spa of Piatigorsk.
In mid-winter the tide turned and for the first half of 1943 the young soldier was part of an arduous and hard-fought German retreat back towards the Reich. By June he was in a military hospital to the east of Berlin and then, two months later, came a final tragedy, which was not without a cruel irony. After surviving over a year of savage warfare on the Eastern Front, he was at last granted his first and long-awaited period of leave at home in Berlin, and it was here on the night of August 23rd/24th that Kurt Herrmann, together with his mother, perished in an Allied air-raid.
In many ways, then, this was a life-story like that of many young Germans of that time. About 17 million men served in Hitler's armed forces, and many of them died as young as Kurt Herrmann did. However, there was one thing that was quite unusual about this young soldier, who loyally did his duty to Germany and who wrote to his parents that he thought he deserved the Iron Cross for his courage in rescuing the wounded on the field of battle. Kurt Herrmann had a Jewish grandparent, which made him one-quarter Jewish--in the terminology of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 he was a 'second degree Mischling' or 'mongrel' (half-Jews were classified as 'first degree Mischlinge)--and therefore, by definition, an enemy of the German Reich, a member of a race which the regime was committed to destroying.
This was highly paradoxical. How could Hitler's armed forces recruit men who belonged, even partially, to the hated Jewish race? And how could such men, in their turn, agree (willingly, as many of them did) to become soldiers of this virulently anti-semitic regime?
It has always been known that some individuals of Jewish origin served in Hitler's armed forces. The best-known cases include the half-Jewish Field Marshall Erhard Milch, the head of the Luftwaffe (a protege of Goering), and the future Federal Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who was a Lieutenant in the Wehrmacht despite having a Jewish grandparent. However, detailed research carried out since the 1990s has revealed that these prominent individuals represented only the tip of a huge iceberg: the seminal study Hitler's Jewish Soldiers by Bryan Mark Rigg (University Press of Kansas, 2002) concludes that the armed forces of the Reich contained at least 150,000 Jews, half-Jews and quarter-Jews, including a number of generals and admirals.
The policy of the Nazi state, which produced this situation, was the confused result of conflicting doctrines and conflicting centres of power. …