Book Review – Felix Römer, Comrades: The Wehrmacht from Within (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019)

This publication is a useful addition to the literature on World War II, the Third Reich and the Wehrmacht. Originally written in 2012, the English translation, published in 2019 by Oxford University Press, offers a unique and valuable perspective on the minds and motivations of ordinary Wehrmacht soldiers during World War II.

Römer’s research is based on recently rediscovered intelligence records from the American interrogation camp Fort Hunt near Washington, where German prisoners of war were secretly listened in on and interogated. This treasure trove of information provides fresh insights into the thinking and worldviews of rank-and-file members of the German armed forces.

The book’s primary source material consists of approximately 102,000 pages of interrogation reports, questionnaires, transcriptions of eavesdropped conversations and other documents involving around 3,000 German prisoners of war temporarily (if illegally) held at Fort Hunt, Virginia. These records cover all three branches of the German military as well as the SS, offering detailed information about the prisoners’ backgrounds, including their names, ages, hometowns, pre-service occupations, ranks, duty positions and more. What makes this material so valuable is that it presents a demographic cross-section of the Wehrmacht, offering insights into the thoughts and experiences of a diverse group of individuals.

Römer’s book is organised into an introduction and conclusion, along with eight core chapters that delve into various aspects of the Wehrmacht soldiers’ lives and mentalities. These chapters cover topics such as captivity, ideology, soldierly ethos, comradeship, fighting spirit, troop leaders, fighting and killing, and war crimes. Throughout the book, Römer combines subjective accounts, quotes, and anecdotes with a pretty objective analysis based on the frequency of certain topics and words mentioned during interrogations. The inclusion of US Army Signal Corps images alongside the narratives adds a haunting personal dimension to the stories of these soldiers.

The book begins with a personal anecdote from the author, highlighting his own family’s connection to the war. Römer’s grandfather, who survived most of World War II, was tragically killed in the waning days of the conflict. This personal background fuels Römer’s exploration of the Wehrmacht soldiers’ motivations and experiences. Many of the POWs in Fort Hunt were captured during the later stages of the war, as the tide turned against Germany. Despite the difficult circumstances, they continued to fight, and Römer explores why this was the case.

One key point the book makes is that the Wehrmacht was not a monolithic entity, and its members had diverse motivations and backgrounds. The books analysis of why German servicemen fought was the interesting part of the study. While Nazi political indoctrination and systemic anti-Semitism played a role, the soldiers’ willingness to fight and their reasons for doing so were multifaceted. Duty, tradition, patriotism, peer and societal pressure and nationalism all played a part in motivating them. However, what sets these soldiers apart is their unwavering commitment to continue fighting even when the war appeared lost. This resilience is attributed to their focus on the present, emphasizing the quality of their unit leaders, the performance of their front-line sectors and the conditions they faced.

While Comrades is an essential contribution to the understanding of the Wehrmacht and its soldiers, it is not without its minor flaws. Some anecdotes and quotes are occasionally repeated, and there are minor issues with terminology and editing. However, these minor drawbacks do not detract significantly from the book’s overall value.