I’ve known my grandfather from a single photo since childhood. It used to hang next to Grandma’s bed, on the side where he slept every night until his death. Now and then, I remember that, my gaze wandered upwards, asking what and who I was looking at. “That was your grandpa Franz,” was probably the answer.
Sure there are other images. But only this one thing stands before my eyes and has value in the family: Franz at the age of 20, a trained machine fitter from the Ruhr area, only for a few months a soldier. The photo shows him with a steel helmet in Russia from the side, looking straight ahead.
Historians rarely make family an issue for good reason. There is a fine line between science and family memory. Nevertheless, I want to tell the story of this photo, on behalf of others.
The note on the back reveals: Franz was captured in Russia in October 1941. On June 22, 1941, the German Wehrmacht attacked the Soviet Union without declaring war – the code name “Operation Barbarossa”. From the beginning of October the Wehrmacht advanced on Vyazma and Bryansk, two cities halfway to Moscow that had to be taken to advance the offensive. The tanks advanced quickly. The Vyazma-Bryansk Kessel Battle raged until October 20, while parts of the German troops marched on.
More than half a million Red Army soldiers, who had resisted to the end, were taken prisoner. Most were locked up in assembly camps, brought to Germany, many died of malnutrition or were murdered.
Hitler early on thought his war of annihilation had been decided. But rain and mud heralded the first winter. Before Moscow, feet got heavier every month. What were the photographs that soldiers brought home from there? They weren’t souvenirs or just snapshots.
And then the film scene with Grandpa Franz
When going to the cinema today, you can’t avoid advertising. At that time there was no advertising block, instead the »Wochenschau«, a half-hour mixture of news and state half-truths. Dozens of cameramen from “propaganda companies” trained for the front filmed from tanks and airplanes or followed the soldiers at every turn.
One of them turned Franz, a young soldier, into a screen hero – for two or three seconds. The footage from the Eastern Front is finite. As long as World War documentaries are on television, Franz will be haunted; the last time, as far as I know, in a 1985 production.
For people who are looking for their father or grandfather, the Internet has long since replaced going to the film archive. Since the “Wochenschau” with Franz has only made it onto the Internet in fragments so far, the Federal Archives had to help in my case. Now I know where the Eastern Front portrait came from and when it could be seen.
On October 22, 1941, with a delay of about a week, the fighting for Vyazma hit Germany’s cinema screens. What the “Wochenschau” No. 581 shows: Soldiers cross a river, storm a slope and form the bridgehead so that the others can move up. Red Army soldiers surrender, German soldiers gain ground. And then Franz in his cover, Stukas in the sky, farmsteads in flames, machine guns and cartridge cases.
A touch of “Saving Private Ryan”
The background noise of machine-gun rattling, cannon thunder and high-pitched Stuka sirens was only added afterwards in Berlin. Harry Giese, known at the time as the “Greater German Spokesman” because his cutting voice underpinned every “Wochenschau”, explains at the beginning: “Advance to the Ugra, a river between Orel and Vyasma.” Otherwise Giese remains taciturn.
The “newsreel” was well thought out. Initially, Hitler inspected the latest edition before it was shown in the cinema. More than occasionally, Joseph Goebbels conducted the arrangement personally. Because the Propaganda Minister found that pictures spoke louder than many words, Spokesman Giese no longer spoke as extensively as before.
In August 1941 Goebbels wrote in his diary: This time he was not satisfied with the “Wochenschau”. Now the war has been going on longer than expected, too often the same thing is shown over and over again. From then on, special troops in the occupied territories were supposed to take more »milieu and people photos«. You can guess what that meant: more racism. The advance on Vyazma, however, was important enough for the war effort to show Franz, however ordinary his scene was.
At this point the story turns a little bit like “Saving Private Ryan”, deducting heroism and happy ending, but with a comparable content. The mother, as the family legend would have it, sees the son scurrying past in the cinema, lying in front of the main battle line – her worries can only be guessed at.
A lie to save the son
She did a lot to bring Franz to safety. One could try it with a Hitler decree of June 1940. It stated that the “withdrawal from the fighting troops” could be arranged on request – with the only or last living son and provided that the father died in a war or The consequences of the war.
The meaning of this regulation is easy to understand: the family should be prevented from bleeding to death, at least one last male provider should avoid killing. How often it was used has not been researched with certainty. In December 1942, Kurt Zeitzler, Chief of Staff of the Army, demanded that the provision must be put to the test. Once again, in the meanwhile devastating situation on the Eastern Front, more outflows than inflows were recorded. As a result, the clauses have been tightened step by step.
From the outset, they did not apply to soldier Franz, because his father was not a war victim. Her mother put her luck to the test with a lie: Her husband, she wrote, had succumbed to pulmonary tuberculosis as a result of the First World War. They bought that from her. In May 1942 I received a letter from the military district command: The son was transferred to a replacement unit.
Now you shouldn’t think of it like the soldier James Ryan, for whom the others are fighting to get him home. The story is different on the German side. In the cold of the Russian winter, Franz almost froze to death. He was taken to the hospital in Łódź, a well-known name also because of the Jewish gossip established there in 1940, the second largest in Poland in Warsaw.
Grandpa Franz said little about the war
Franz only found out in bed that he would not have to see the Eastern Front again. He could thank the mother and the frost. After months in a barracks in Koblenz, it was deployed again: to Yugoslavia, occupied by the Wehrmacht from spring 1941. There the fascist Ustaša fought bloodily for a Croatian state with the military help of the Germans. For Franz that didn’t mean the front, not the front line, but still no life insurance.
One can assume that Franz experienced crimes. The only memory he later shared with others was not about German atrocities or the Holocaust. He merely whispered that the Croatian Ustasha had raged against Serbs and Jews like berserkers. Friend and enemy were indistinguishable. The Ustaše terror alone claimed up to half a million victims. And only a few soldiers, one hears and reads, have stayed clean in the Balkans. Franz perhaps just as little as others.
In May 1944, a shrapnel splinter struck Franz through the skull to the left, but left him alive. Shortly before the end of the war, he was taken prisoner by Russia. The injuries had not healed, one leg and both arms were lame, and malnourished, he was released in autumn 1946. Until the end he suffered – technically, as it sounds – from war damage. Franz was 61 years old.
Was my grandfather a Nazi? At least none with a seal. The former party comrades can be convicted, thanks to the almost completely surviving index cards in the Federal Archives. White vests have been tarnished quite a few. If I’m already there, why not search through the around 13 million digital copies for my own family? It won’t take long. Many party comrades with my last name appear, some from home; A coarse SA man also stares at me grimly from his passport photo.
What to do with the old photo
At home I drop the names: nobody is known, nobody has ever been talked about. The disappointment that every historian knows when he searches but does not find what he is looking for is this time sibling with the relief: My grandfather did not join the NSDAP. But what do index cards, if they exist, say about people and their political attitudes? I don’t get a final certainty of how he thought or what he did.
The “Wochenschau” picture, in the same old wooden frame as before, hangs in my parents’ living room. As a central star in the middle, other photos around the outside. At some point – and I very much hope it will last – it will come to me. What to do with a picture that you still look at like the child, with more knowledge, but comparatively alienated?
Some suspect improper maintenance of tradition: That doesn’t belong on the wall, it’s out of date. What was wrong should not be passed on. That’s right. Then there are the others who have had enough of the dark chapters for a long time. They hide history in drawers, in attics, and give voice to parties.
Both sides have it easy in their own way. Not in the middle, more on the edge or in the corner, but the war portrait will still have a place. It’s not easy, but it shows Grandpa as I only knew him in one way and never in another: a young soldier from the “Wochenschau”.