Book review: Armin Scheiderbauer, Adventures in My Youth: A German Soldier on the Eastern Front, 1941-1945 (Solihull: Helion, 2003)

Armim Scheiderbauer was born in 1924 in Styria, south-east Austria, his father being a Protestant minister. In August 1941, Scheiderbauer was drafted into the German Army and became an officer cadet. From summer 1942, he served for all his time in uniform as an infantry officer with the 252nd Infantry Division where he was a squad leader, company commander and battalion adjutant. He was captured by the Russians when he was in hospital in Danzig when it fell to the Soviets in March 1945 and released two years later.

It is not clear when the memoir was written but references in the text place it being drafted around the mid-1980s.[1][2] The introductory text refers suggests that Scheiderbauer wrote it for his daughter but it is clear that he agreed to get it published for a wider audience as she is thanked for his ‘patience and support for the book’.[3] As a memoir, it is interesting in that it gives a ‘bottom-up’ view of the Eastern Front over four years of conflict.

Scheiderbauer alludes to participating in actions that had adverse impacts on Russian civilians. He recalls in late 1943 that ‘all food, weapons and equipment were to be destroyed, under the name of ‘scorched earth’ that followed the example set by the enemy in 1941’.[4] He notes that during the autumn of 1943 ‘to warm ourselves, we hoped for burning villages. Units operating in the rear saw that the villages to be evacuated were burnt to the ground. Night after night was bright. From the glare of burning settlements we would have been able to recognise our direction of march, even if we had not ourselves possessed maps’.[5] He admits participating in the destruction of the village of Puply in October 1943 as this ‘could offer accommodation to the enemy and could affect our…field of fire’.[6] In the summer of 1944, he also took part in the round up and deportation of men in a village. It was done ‘in accordance with orders from the administration in the rear, all men in the village of military age had to assemble to be transported away. That was to prevent them being immediately enlisted into the Red Army’.[7]

However, despite being engaged in these actions against the civilian population, Schiederbauer is affected by his actions. During the destruction of Pulpy, he spares the house of ‘an old Russian’ as the man’s pleas ‘moved’ him. He reflects that it ‘was strange that intensive propaganda, and the manifold impressions of ruthlessness of the campaign, had not been able completely to suppress sheer human sensitively’.[8]

Scheiderbauer acknowledges that ‘in the East it had never been a decent war’ as compared to other theatres of war where ‘chivalry’ was still practiced. He blames the decent into barbary firmly on the Soviet ‘disregard of the Red Cross’ and ‘the news of atrocities carried out by the advancing Red Army’.[9] There is no acknowledgement or suggestion that the activities of German activities may have contributed to the way the war was conducted in the east. The only thing he does mention in regards to the war crimes is that ‘in the Third Reich we had heard by hearsay the existence of such [concentration] camps, above all Dachau. But we knew nothing of all their extent and of what their inmates had to suffer.’[10]

For Scheiderbauer, the war in the East was justified. He recalled that in 1941 ‘the Reich was in danger…there was no doubt about what the Reich Government had written, in its declaration of war, to the Soviet government. ‘The German Volk is conscious that it is called to save the whole civilised world from the deadly danger of Bolshevism, and to lay the way open for a true process of social advancement in Europe. That extract from the declaration was printed on the upper edge of many field postcards. Who among us could have doubted the truth of what was said there?’[11]

Divisional symbol of 252nd Infantry Division

On News Year’s Eve in 1944, he said that ‘hope that the war would soon be at an end was something that I did not cherish even in secret. I also did not believe that a single one of my comrades shared it because the alternative, namely what would become of Germany if the dams of the Eastern Front broke was plainly unimaginable. In that sense, and not for the same of Hitler and the Party, we had our duty to do and did it diligently, even if it was soon to be with the last strength we had’.[12]

So was Scheiderbauer an Nazi? The evidence suggests that he was not. His parents joined in 1931 but fell out with the party over its attempts to control church doctrine and his father was subject to interrogations on several occasions.[13] Though he participated in the Hitler Youth, as nearly all German children had to and he was a banner-bearer, his service never took the ‘form of ideological education, because my parents had not allowed me to go to camps’.[14]

His memoirs could have done with a fuller introduction, especially to give some context into the historiography of the debates around the ‘clean Wehrmacht’ and its participation in war crimes and the holocaust on the Eastern Front. Also, maps would have been useful given many Russian places are mentioned.

There are probably many things that Scheiderbauer omitted from his account. It is probable that as a frontline officer he saw much more brutality towards Russian prisoners and partisans as are documented in other frontline accounts.[15] He may have excluded such memories as his memoir was originally intended as a family history for his daughter. However, whatever its omissions it is a valuable memoir that demonstrates the mindset and motivation of a frontline officer fighting on the Eastern Front.

[1] Armin Scheiderbauer,  Adventures in My Youth: A German Soldier on the Eastern Front, 1941-1945 (Solihull: Helion, 2003), p.8.

[2] Ibid., p.106.

[3] Ibid., p.viii.

[4] Ibid., p.64.

[5] Ibid., p.65.

[6] Ibid., p.67.

[7] Ibid., p.102.

[8] Ibid., p.68.

[9] Ibid., p.137.

[10] Ibid., p.165.

[11] Ibid., pp.12-13.

[12] Ibid., p.122.

[13] Ibid., p.xi

[14] Ibid., p.183.

[15] See Christine Alexander & Mason Kunze, Eastern Inferno (Oxford: Casement, 2018).