Hans Schaufler's "Panzers on the Vistula" offers readers a look at some of the retreats the 4th Panzer Division participated in during the final few months of the Second World War on the northern section of the Eastern Front – mainly through Latvia and East Prussia. Readers can experience the chaos of this final period of the war as German losses kept mounting as a result of repeated Soviet offensive operations and German counterattacks that aimed to restore some coherence to the front but all too often proved pointless. Schaufler’s account hits many of the usual Cold War clichés about the Second World War, Eastern Front, Soviet Union, and Red Army that one would one expect from a former soldier who took part in the fighting on the Eastern Front and was regularly exposed to German propaganda. Interestingly, at the same time that the author is calling out German reports as presenting a “totally false analysis” about the fighting situation on the Eastern Front, he himself offers a skewed look at the struggle against the Red Army.
Schaufler presents the German situation in January of 1945 as disastrous and doomed while claiming the only reason for the Wehrmacht to keep fighting “was to save the innocent victims of this senseless war from the vengeance of the Red Army…” Apparently, he’s forgotten that Germany began this “senseless war.” Even though the author realizes that German defensive actions are merely prolonging the inevitable, “even the dumbest long knew the war was long,” and himself question what the correct course of action is, he nonetheless claims that the civilian population, fearing the Red Army, “all sought protection from the German troops.” This idea of German troops continuing to put up resistance to help civilians flee from the Red Army to the west – along with the idea that to surrender would be perceived as cowardly by their comrades – is a constant theme that’s repeated by the author and others from whose reminiscences and articles he quotes throughout the book. In some respects, it isn’t surprising that soldiers came up with reasons to convince themselves that they needed to keep fighting rather than simply surrender to the Red Army. The excuse that they needed to buy time for civilians fleeing the Red Army presented their ultimate actions as those of soldiers protecting future victims rather than the last defenders of a regime that began a Second World War and a genocidal campaign against the Soviet Union.
Similarly, Soviet forces are represented by a “vast superiority in numbers,” another relic of Cold War rhetoric and German propaganda. At this late point in the war German casualties are telling. One of the strengths of this book are the rare times when the author shares the desperate situation German forces found themselves in as when a battalion’s combat strength was reduced to a mere twelve men and they were responsible for a twelve-kilometer sector of the front, an impossible assignment. Another interesting incident is recounted when a self-propelled gunner discusses how Red Army troops created two fake anti-tank gun positions in order to lure him into firing and give away his position. In the midst of the author’s descriptions of Soviet propaganda urging Red Army soldiers to “Kill the Germans!” the author admits that Soviet fighting troops deserved “credit” as “the overwhelming majority of them were humane.” But there is, unfortunately, no explanation of what specific behavior constituted “humane” or “inhumane,” although the latter is easier to imagine. The final chapters of the book deal with the different fates German survivors experienced in various prisoner of war camps, including those who were interned in Sweden and eventually handed over to the Soviets. Overall, this text offers a thought-provoking look at the final months of the war but readers should be aware of the author’s biases and try to put his words and actions, along with those he quotes, into the greater context of the Second World War and the overall experiences of its participants.