By G. Paul Garson
War has been described as long periods of extreme boredom punctuated by brief moments of extreme terror. And, like they say, the waiting is the hardest part. The lulls in the bloodshed sometimes take on names of their own, for example, the “Sitzkrieg” or “Sitting War”—a sardonic play on Blitzkrieg, and used to describe the relatively calm interlude when the guns were silent between the end of Germany’s invasion of Poland and the invasion of France.
Combatants on all sides have always found ways to enjoy, or at least cope with, the “time out” between the roller coaster of attack/defend as well as time away from the battlefront through furloughs. For the German soldier, whether posted locally to some training center or far from the Fatherland when serving at the front, he sought out and found a means for R&R of one kind or another.
From his vast collection of rare photographs, the author has pulled together a visual essay showing German soldiers candidly enjoying their brief moments of rest, relaxation, and horseplay before being thrust back into the deadly reality of combat.
Three Luftwaffe soldiers pose in Belgorod in front of one of many large directional signs that were commonplace in Russian cities. The city was recaptured by Soviet forces in August 1943, losing some 50,000 troops, while Germany lost some 20,000 men including 6,000 Hitler Youth. A soldier has a high-end, advanced shortwave radio capable of tuning in the world, although certain stations were verboten. Nazi Germany had the densest “radio population” of any country. In great part this was spurred on by the State’s program for the mass production of low-cost “peoples’ radios.” By 1942, of some 23 million German households, 16 million had radios, making Third Reich indoctrination by radio almost all pervasive. Hitler, rumored killed in the July 20, 1944, plot, dispelled that notion by speaking by radio to the nation. The German radio system functioned to the end when it announced Hitler’s real death—the last broadcast of the Third Reich. After the 1940 invasion of Belgium, attentive German soldiers make the acquaintance of a Belgian woman in the doorway of a hotel on whose walls are posted the signs of various tourist and automobile organizations. Fraternizing with the local female population was naturally a major point of interest for young German men in uniform; however, the postwar repercussions for “collaborationist” women were often very harsh. A German NCO in Paris gets directions from a gendarme. German soldiers were ordered to be on their best behavior in Paris, the comfortable posting most sought after, especially after the war on the Eastern Front began. Many Germans had visited France prior to the Nazi era as welcomed tourists. As occupiers, they found the French, in great part, accommodating. Important occasion? Although the identity of the subject is unknown because his back is toward the viewer, this German soldier is the object of attention for a photographer and an entourage of smiling friends. The formal garden setting and the dressed-up woman suggest this might have been a wedding photo and the man is the groom. With pianos in short supply on the front line, the simple accordian—and a soldier who knew how to play it—provided musical interludes when the guns were silent and a few beers made the troops mellow and nostalgic for a “touch of home.” Although the faces of the soldiers appear less than festive, Father Christmas (standing, right) has brought his horse to a holiday dinner party, the table laden with bottles of wine, beer, and liquor, the walls decorated with the soldiers’ artwork. Preparing for war in 1939 the German military counted some 2,740,000 men in uniform, 183,000 motor vehicles, 94,000 motorcycles, and 514,000 horses. Much to the amusement of his comrades, a soldier leaps over a bonfire while another soldier (second from left) snaps his photo. Another soldier in the background appears to be holding an accordion. The headline for the day’s issue of Der Führer proclaims “The Certainty of Our Victory.” A wide spectrum of newspapers, tabloids, illustrated weeklies, and magazines were available to soldiers, millions of copies posted through the exceptionally efficient Feldpost service. During the prewar Nazi era years, German civilian consumption of beer, already one of the highest in Europe, rose by 25 percent. Beer was also a staple beverage of the German armed forces through the war years. Hitler abstained from alcohol and was known to drink distilled water. Himmler also frowned on drinking and made it a punishable offense within the ranks of the SS if taken to excess. A soldier in a rain cape and his comrades enjoy a photo op with a Daschund who might not share their enthusiasm. Mascots were often found with field units, the animals serving to bring some emotional warmth to the brutal work at hand. Appearing on the Eastern Front, a member of a traveling troupe of entertainers (the German version of the USO) performs on a makeshift, swastika-decorated stage. The performer is a male, not quite a female impersonator, but rather a staple of the humorous fare to which the troops were accustomed.
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