Friday, August 2, 2019

Fur Volk und Fuhrer: The Memoir of a Veteran of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler by Erwin Bartmann

There are a few different ways one can approach "Fur Volk und Fuhrer."  Memoirs are usually self-serving and self-censored.  Moreover, when written decades after the events in question, memories can change or be altered by encounters with others and by the influence of literature/media and contemporary events.  Thus readers should take what's written on these pages with a grain of salt.  However, having read dozens if not hundreds of memoirs on the Second World War, especially the Eastern Front, there's much here that I found fascinating, including Bartmann's interactions with locals (French, Soviet, and German), the animosity that existed between the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS, as well as some of his descriptions of combat operations.  However, there are also episodes that I would question in terms of authenticity.

Having said the above, Erwin Bartmann's memoirs read more like a number of separate and loosely connected vignettes of his time in the 1st Panzer SS Division Leibstandarte.  He discusses his childhood in Berlin, the street brawls he witnessed between Communists and Nazi Brown Shirts, and Hitler's eventual seizure of power.  After volunteering to serve in Hitler's Bodyguard unit, he is initially denied the chance and then receives an opportunity thanks to the timely intervention of Heinrich Himmler.  After undergoing training he is deployed to the Eastern Front where he experiences most of his time in combat.  The descriptions of combat against the Red Army resemble many other available German Army memoirs.  The Red Army is viewed as a faceless mass full of soldiers who torture and mutilate any German (including the wounded) they can get their hands on, while the author and his comrades fight a clean war as they attempt to save Europe from the Bolshevik hordes.  After an initial stint on the Eastern Front Bartmann's division is relocated to France for rest and eventually find themselves once more on the Eastern Front, first fighting in Kharkov after the encirclement of the Sixth Army in Stalingrad, and then at Kursk, where the author is wounded fighting around Prokhorovka.  That wound pretty much puts him out of action for the duration of the war as he attempts to heal and then is put in charge of training machine gunners.  By April 1945, Bartmann finds himself stationed close to Berlin and undertakes a meandering trip to escape the advancing Red Army with some of the recruits he's been training.  He eventually finds his way over the Elbe and is caught by Western Allied forces. 

In general, this is an author who looks back on the Second World War as a nostalgic time that he spent having sex with numerous women (which he discusses on multiple occasions) and forging close bonds of comradeship while fighting in the ranks of what eventually became the 1st SS Panzer Division, an elite unit with a rich history of battles throughout the Second World War.  He readily believed in Hitler's cause and by the end of the book admits that if given a second chance at life he would not change any of his actions.  While he acknowledges the genocidal regime that was Nazi Germany, to then admit that he would once more fight for a nation that started a World War and went on to kill millions of men, women, and children sounds like someone who has yet to learn from history or his own actions. 

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