Book Review – Erhard Steiniger, Radio Operator on the Eastern Front (Barnsley, Yorkshire/UK: Greenhill, 2019)

Erhard Steiniger’s account covers his early life as a member of the German community in the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia and his service in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War.

Steiniger was born in Langugest, Czechoslovakia, into the German-speaking minority known as Sudeten Germans.[1] His father was a farmer and Steiniger, after leaving school in the late 1930s, became a bookkeeper in a warehouse.[2] He recalls that Hitler was very popular amongst the Sudeten Germans  ‘not only for nationalist-racial reasons’ but also because Hitler had produced an economic miracle in Germany.[3] He also says many Sudeten Germans supported Hitler because, as a minority in Czechoslovakia, they had experienced discrimination and persecution by the Czech majority.[4] It is not surprising then that the vast majority of the Sudeten Germans welcomed the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Steiniger then became known as a Volksdeutsche, a German who lived outside the previous boundaries of the German state.[5]

On 12 October 1940, he was drafted into the Army. Training as a radio operator, Steiniger was assigned to the Regimental Signals Platoon of 151st Infantry Regiment that served with the 61st Infantry Division. His unit’s role was to ensure radio and telephone communications between regimental headquarters and subordinate formations.[6] He saw action on the Eastern Front as part of Army Group North, fighting in Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and Russia. At the end of the war, he was captured by the Soviets and finally released in 1949.

Logo of the 61st Infantry Division

Unusually, for a veteran account written within the 40 years after the war, Steiniger acknowledges German war crimes committed during the Second World War. He says that the Holocaust would ‘remain Germany’s shame’ and that he learned after the war of the ‘miserable existence which faced the greater mass of Russian prisoners in German hands’.[7]

He recounts two incidents during his service that may have been war crimes. In one episode, he and his colleagues burnt down civilian housing after evicting their residents into the depths of the winter.[8] In the other incident, he saw a group of people ‘being led…chained…around their throats’ while he was in Latvia. He claims he did not know who they were but the inference was that they were local Jews as, after witnessing this episode, he ‘understood the concerns’ of his Latvian Jewish host with whom he was residing that he, the Jew, ‘must have feared the same fate for himself’. He says no Germans were involved in the latter incident.[9]

Aside, from this, he reports no other war crimes or atrocities against POWs or civilians involving his unit. He would have been well placed to know about any such actions involving his Division or Regiment as he facilitated communications between the regimental leadership and subordinate formations. For example, he recalled one incident where he and his mates ‘tapped the regimental commander’s radio set’ for ‘entertainment’.[10] Whether Steiniger omitted any incidents his unit was involved in when writing his account, or whether his unit did not participate in such actions, it is impossible to say.

The factors that keep Steiniger going during the war are his close friendships with other signallers and his trust in the officers and NCOs that lead him.[11]

Steiniger is obtuse about his ideological commitments and support for the war. It is probable that he was reasonably supportive of Hitler as he was a Nazi party member and many Sudeten Germans were supportive of the Nazi party.[12] He believed that the war could only be won by ‘courage, fighting spirit and self-sacrifice, therefore always at the risk of our lives’.[13] By June 1944, he considered that the only option for Germany was ‘unconditional surrender’. He concluded that ‘no matter where he might stand on the political spectrum, no German would find that solution desirable’.[14]

His views on the attempted assassination of Hitler in July 1944 suggest that he opposed the actions of the conspirators. He thought that ‘most Wehrmacht men’ saw the attack with a ‘mixture of hope and revulsion’. Some felt hope ‘because there were apparently people in the officer corps prepared to save what could be saved from the lost war’.[15] On the other hand, many felt ‘revulsion’ because the attempted murder was ‘classified as high treason and a rejection of the personal oath of loyalty. Loyalty and reliability, particularly in crisis situations had always been the hallmark of the Prussian officer’.[16]

The accompanying explanatory notes by Anthony Tucker-Jones are limited but adequate. The book contains many photographs that feature a large proportion of German graves and the burial of German war dead. The vast majority of images are taken within the first year of the war but are scattered throughout the book. This means that many images in some later chapters bear no relation to the chronology of the text which is a bit irritating.

As accounts go, it follows the broad themes that dominate so many veteran memoirs written by former German combatants in the 40 years after the war. These include how he and his peers were good comrades led by brave leaders fighting a brutal and barbaric enemy in appalling weather conditions. A useful account to read but not of the quality of other memoirs such as those by Helmut Altner or John Stieber.[17]



[1] Erhard Steiniger, Radio Operator on the Eastern Front (Barnsley, Yorkshire/UK: Greenhill, 2019), p.1.

[2] Ibid., pp.3, 8.

[3] Ibid., p.7.

[4] Ibid., p.6.

[5] Ibid., p.x.

[6] Ibid., p.18.

[7] Ibid., p.280.

[8] Ibid., p.136.

[9] Ibid., p.61.

[10] Ibid., p.181.

[11] Ibid., pp.20-22, 49-52.

[12] Ibid., pp.6, 3, 15.

[13] Ibid., p.39.

[14] Ibid., pp.258-259.

[15] Ibid., pp.258-259.

[16] Ibid., pp.258-259.

[17]   See Helmut Altner, Berlin Soldier (Stroud: History Press, 2008 [1948]) and John Stieber, Against the Odds (Dublin: Poolbeg Press, 2016).