Hitler's 'Jewish Soldier': Hitler's Armed Forces Included Many Thousands of Men of Jewish Origin. How Did This Come about, and What Were Their Military Experiences like? Josie Dunn and Roger Morgan Have Studied the Letters Sent Home to Germany by Medical Orderly Kurt Herrmann, Who Was One of These Men, an Unusual and Reluctant Young Soldier Who Was a Part of the Army That Invaded Russia

By Dunn, Josie; Morgan, Roger | History Today, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Hitler's 'Jewish Soldier': Hitler's Armed Forces Included Many Thousands of Men of Jewish Origin. How Did This Come about, and What Were Their Military Experiences like? Josie Dunn and Roger Morgan Have Studied the Letters Sent Home to Germany by Medical Orderly Kurt Herrmann, Who Was One of These Men, an Unusual and Reluctant Young Soldier Who Was a Part of the Army That Invaded Russia


Dunn, Josie, Morgan, Roger, History Today


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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.

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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.

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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. From the 1930s onwards Hitler and the Nazi Party authorities had laid down strict rules, decreeing in principle that Jews (at least men of fully Jewish blood) were ineligible to serve in the forces, but half-Jews and quarter-Jews continued to be called up for military service like other Germans. There was always a tension between the Wehrmacht, which was reluctant to lose or to do without good soldiers, and the Party authorities, committed to the pure Nazi racial doctrine. The fate of Jewish servicemen also depended on the progress of the war. In the euphoria following Germany's defeat of France in 1940, several thousand half-Jewish officers and men were dismissed on grounds of race, but by 1943, as the fighting in Russia and North Africa took its toll, the authorities, from Hitler downwards, became more lenient.

Hitler took a strong personal interest in the problem, and issued several thousand 'approvals' certifying that individual non-Aryan soldiers were 'of German blood', when they had distinguished themselves in battle, or were backed by members of the Fuhrer's entourage. It is significant that Hitler found the time, throughout the war, to study the photographs of candidates submitted to him for 'Aryanization', to ensure that they looked suitable for membership of the German master-race. The combination of administrative confusion, military necessity, and arbitrary decision-making at the highest level explains why Germany's armed forces continued, throughout the war, to include so many men of Jewish or partly-Jewish origin. Many of them were also eligible, once they had reached a certain rank, to be promoted or decorated according to normal military criteria, without any further reference to the Fuhrer. The motivation of these men themselves--when they served voluntarily in the forces, which of course was not always the case--was also complex and varied. In some cases, including men whose Jewish forbears had fought with distinction in earlier German wars, there was the simple motive of patriotism: despite everything, they felt more German than Jewish, and wanted to show their loyalty to the fatherland. One of them, the tank-commander Major Richard Borchardt, decorated with the prestigious Knight's Cross for outstanding bravery, explained:

   I wanted to prove Hitler's racial nonsense wrong ... to show that
   people of Jewish descent were indeed brave and courageous soldiers.

For others, the hope (often misplaced) was that by loyal military service they could shield their Jewish relatives from Nazi persecution. For others, again, there was the obvious point that they themselves might well be safer at the Front than at home in Nazi Germany. For instance Lieutenant Paul-Ludwig Hirschfeld, who cut off all links with his Jewish family and succeeded in passing for an Aryan, later said:

   Service in the Wehrmacht was my salvation ... my brother, sister,
   family all died in the Holocaust.

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For the great majority of the Wehrmacht's part-Jewish soldiers, however, there was no choice. They were called up, as Kurt Herrmann was (his sister--two years younger than Kurt, and the co-author of this article--had been sent to England just before the war, but he had chosen to stay with his parents), and they had no option but to serve. For most of them, moreover, this meant serving in a very lowly rank. Their Jewish background, firmly recorded in their military files, made promotion beyond the rank of 'acting corporal' impossible. In Nazi doctrine, it was unthinkable for a non-Aryan to give orders to Aryans, so that promotion was normally only possible for those who could disguise their Jewish background, or whose high-level Nazi contacts allowed them to get through the dubious procedure of Aryanization. This, of course, was not the case for Kurt Herrmann, the chemist's son from Berlin.

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It is time to look more closely at this young man's background and early life, at the reasons why it meant so much to him to write letters home to his family, and at the light his copious correspondence sheds on the experiences of a sensitive and articulate quarter-Jew in the Wehrmacht. Born in 1922 in southwest Germany, Kurt and his sister Josephine moved with their parents to Breslau (now Wroclaw, in Poland) in 1933, and to Berlin in 1937. One of their father's reasons for moving to the capital was its greater anonymity, which gave some protection against anti-semitic harassment by the authorities. Kurt's maternal grandfather was Jewish, so that his mother was half-Jewish, and he and his sister were quarter-Jewish. This non-Aryan background brought great difficulties for the pharmacist father, who was put under political pressure to divorce his wife, expelled from his professional organization, and obliged to trade as a less specialized 'druggist' and no longer as a qualified pharmacist.

In this atmosphere of anti-semitic discrimination, Kurt's education at the local 'Gymnasium' or grammar school also ran into difficulties. He was banned from membership of the Hitler Youth (instead of camping, sports, and other group activities, he and other Jewish boys had to spend Saturdays attending indoctrination classes in National Socialism), and at the age of seventeen was expelled from school as a non-Aryan. This not only ended his prospects of studying medicine--his dearest wish--but also forced him into a state of isolation from the society around him. Already an introvert and regarded as a bookworm, he withdrew further into his private pursuits of reading, listening to classical music (of which he developed a great knowledge) and photography.

Above all, the circumstances of life in Nazi Germany meant that Kurt, like many Germans of Jewish background, found his social life perforce limited to his family and to a small circle of trusted friends. This habit of intense but limited communication must help to explain why he wrote so very frequently and fully to his parents, and to his two aunts in Frankfurt. after he was conscripted into the army (where, as he complained, he felt more isolated and friendless than ever). He was certainly an eager and prolific letter-writer. The bundle of correspondence which came into the hands of his sister some decades after the war (having survived in the attic of their aunts' house in Frankfurt) consisted of nearly 150 letters, all dating from the period, just over eighteen months, between October 1941 and June 1943. Occasionally letters to Berlin and to Frankfurt give the same news, but normally the assumption was that each letter would be passed between the two households, so there is little overlap in content. The letters that were sent to Kurt from Germany have not survived, but their contents are often indicated by what he wrote in reply.

What picture do Kurt's letters give of his life in the Wehrmacht, and particularly of the significance of what he often referred to as 'my situation', namely his Jewish background? Many of his letters make it very clear that this affected his position as a soldier in several ways. At a day-to-day-level, there were evidently times when it could be an open secret. In his very first letter after his call-up, written on October 16th, 1941, from a recruitment barracks in suburban Berlin, he writes:

[ILLUSTRATIONS OMITTED]

   I'm very happy with my comrades. Although they have learned about
   'my situation', they are just as nice as they were before.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Most of the time, however, Kurt's 'situation' was a delicate matter which both he and his military superiors wanted to keep secret. This is clear from letters like the one he wrote from somewhere in the Ukraine on July 30th, 1942, telling his parents what happened when he reported for duty to a new unit, and thus had to sign 'the famous declaration' (a statement on his ethnic status, required on every new posting):

   The only ones who know about it are the chief, the sergeant-major
   and the corporal on the desk, who also promised me the matter would
   be dealt with in strict confidence. He was very kind, and told me
   that ... (in the unit) ... at least one other case of this kind
   exists, and possibly more. He didn't want to tell me who it was. He
   spoke with me at some length, and showed a lot of understanding.
   But unfortunately he also had to tell me that, according to a
   recently-issued regulation, I cannot be in any position to give
   orders, which means I can only be promoted at the most to acting
   corporal (Obergefreiter). That's nice to know, isn't it?

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

There are references at this stage to the sergeant-major and some of the corporals of the unit showing a tendency to victimize the young medical orderly. 'The sergeant-major, who is on the whole very decent, had information from headquarters about me, and looks at me a bit suspiciously' (July 11th, 1942), or 'the sergeant-major has it in for me, and looks out for opportunities to get at me' (September 3rd, 1942). As for the corporals, 'none of whom think much of me, there is one who takes every possible chance to try and get at me' (July 10th, 1949).

Perhaps this low-level discrimination occurred because those responsible for it knew about Kurt's ethnic status (the sergeant-major certainly did). A much more serious consequence of this status, however, was the fact that it placed grave if not insuperable obstacles in the path of promotion to any higher rank. This question concerned the young recruit from the moment he joined up. In two very early letters (January, 17th and 23rd, 1942) he urged his parents to go to the District Military Command in Berlin and enquire about 'my prospects of promotion', but there is no trace of any reply, and Kurt remained preoccupied by the problem--one reason for this probably being the thought that promotion might open the way to his chances of one day being allowed to study medicine. Even though he was informed in July 1942 of the strict limits on any promotion for partly-Jewish soldiers, he continued to hope. He may or may not have been aware of the fact that many soldiers of Jewish extraction had found ways of obtaining promotion and even official re-classification as Aryans. Kurt certainly felt, by the time he had spent a full year at the front (without any leave), that some of his brave actions in tending the wounded on the field of battle should have earned him promotion. On March 10th, 1943, he wrote 'I do hope that I shall at long last be promoted to lance-corporal (Gefreiter) in the near future. It really is high time'. But this was not to be.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Kurt's copious correspondence is full of shrewd and observant comments on the places he saw and the people he encountered in the course of his travels across the Soviet Union. One of the striking features of his letters is the outspoken way in which he expressed his views on army life, and discussed fairly freely the shortcomings of some German military operations. This raises the question of how far soldiers in his position needed to fear that their letters might be censored, or at least read by a censor. Kurt's letters occasionally refer to this question. In one passage in a loose page (undated) he mentions what were evidently unguarded remarks in a letter home from another soldier:

   I'm surprised about Erich B that he can write something like that.
   It was just like that here but I would never write about it. That
   would be too risky.

A question in another letter (December 23rd, 1942) suggests that although he did not expect his post to be censored, he was not sure. 'Have you ever found out if the censor has ever worked on my letters?' We do not know whether or how his parents replied, but the prevailing tone of his whole correspondence suggests that he felt he could express distinctly critical or even subversive views without the risk of disciplinary reprisals. For instance, describing a violent military action on the Caucasus front (December 13th, 1942), he writes of how the Russians were able to mount a surprise attack on his unit: 'As far as I can judge, it can only be the fault of the Company Chief or the Battalion Commander'. There is also a strikingly critical comment on the battalion's Christmas celebrations a few days later December 26th, 1942):

   Our Commander made a very empty and banal speech, which culminated
   in his placing our Fuhrer on the same level as Christ.

[ILLUSTRATIONS OMITTED]

In Kurt's accounts of the Wehrmacht's advance to the Caucasus in 1949, and its retreat in the first half of 1943, there are many indiscreet references to sensitive issues, for instance repeated allusions to the shortage of fuel, the dilapidated state of the unit's vehicles, the mens' fatigue and low morale, and other reasons for slow progress. There are detailed accounts of geographical locations and military operations, and even allusions to strategic issues which might be thought likely to attract the notice of a censor. For instance, when Kurt's unit had reached the Caucasian River Terek, and were subject to intensive American air-raids, he reported (September 17th, 1942) that the Americans 'are only being so cheeky because they know for sure that our entire air force must be at Stalingrad'.

The letters also refer to the Wehrmacht's 'anti-partisan' actions against Russia's civilian population.

   We found ourselves in a village yesterday which hadn't completely
   surrendered. I hated the shooting, chasing women and children out
   of their homes, and several times I pretended to shoot and just
   didn't. [date uncertain]

There are some passages that take us directly back to the special position of soldiers of Jewish background, and deal with a subject that must have been of special and grave concern to someone like Kurt: the deportation and expropriation of Jewish acquaintances of himself and his family. For instance (September 30th, 1942, to Berlin):

   Are cases already known in which people like Mrs. Fl. or Mrs. B.
   have been deported? I can't believe it, Sadly, the viewpoint I
   have always held with regard to a reduction in the percentage
   [presumably the percentage of Jewish blood in those to be arrested]
   is now being confirmed in the worst possible way.

Or again (to Frankfurt, October 14th, 1942):

   It's a very sad piece of news you have given me. Do you know at all
   where they took her to, or can you find this out later, or can one
   not find out at all? What is happening to the private property?
   The family K, of all people, were very well-off, and here I'm
   thinking not least of G's books and records. Were they able to give
   at leas! some of it away, or does it perhaps all go to the state?
   That would be a terrible pity for those beautiful things. l had in
   fact hoped that, out of consideration for the state of health of
   the family, the measures in question would not be applied, but ill
   relation to people of this kind, consideration does not exist. I
   don't believe we shall see them again.

On February 10th, 1943 Kurt gave his parents a characteristically outspoken assessment of Germany's plight, after hearing the notorious Sports Palace speech by Goebbels, in which the German nation was exhorted to prepare for 'total war', with all its implications.

   Last night Dr Goebbels made a speech in the Sports Palace, which I
   was able to hear as I'm travelling in the radio car. Its impression
   on us was naturally immense. No speech of such unsparing frankness
   has so far been made. I think people at home are now hardly under
   any illusions about the extent of the danger, which we here have
   recognized. We have felt for some time that the way the situation
   was being presented was wildly optimistic. It's high time this war
   came to an end, there are now few people who don't expect the final
   outcome to be decided this year. It's taking too long! The demands
   made on both parts of our people have become too great. For you
   it's the overwork, tot us it's the enemy; threatening to overwhelm
   us. Almost every time during our recent actions, our lines were
   ridiculously thinly manned. We were lucky our opponents didn't
   realize how weak we were. How on earth do things now look to you?
   What a life you must be leading!

[ILLUSTRATIONS OMITTED]

Tragically, the twenty-year old who wrote these perceptive and sensitive lines was to die a few months later. His letters remain, as a vivid record of the wartime experiences and reflections of an unusual soldier, who was part of the bigger story of the Jews of Germany.

FOR FURTHER READING

Rigg, Bryan Mark Hitler's Jewish Soldiers (Kansas UP, 2002).

See page 71 for related articles on this subject in the History Today archive and details of special offers at www.historytoday.com

Roger Morgan is the author of several books on German history and politics, is a former Professor of Political Science at the European University Institute, Florence. Josie Dunn is a former Lecturer in Applied Social Science at Lancaster University.

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Hitler's 'Jewish Soldier': Hitler's Armed Forces Included Many Thousands of Men of Jewish Origin. How Did This Come about, and What Were Their Military Experiences like? Josie Dunn and Roger Morgan Have Studied the Letters Sent Home to Germany by Medical Orderly Kurt Herrmann, Who Was One of These Men, an Unusual and Reluctant Young Soldier Who Was a Part of the Army That Invaded Russia
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