Book Review – Franz Frisch, Condemned to Live (Shippensburg, PA/USA: Burd Street, 2000)

Condemned to Live is the memoir of Franz Frisch during his service in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War. He served as a private in two artillery regiments, the 109th and 557th, and saw action in Poland, France, the Soviet Union, Sicily and Italy.[1]

Frisch was born in Vienna in 1919 and conscripted into the army in 1938 and was only discharged in 1947 when he was freed from captivity.

His account provides some fascinating reflections on his service. For example, he classified officers into three broad categories:

‘Type I: The Activist. Left every day early in the morning to “inspect” the batteries. Found everything okay because he forgot that the telephone announcing his visit was much faster than his car.

Type II: The Big Mouth: Never, never left his command post or bunker. Talked permanently on the phone with is battery commanders. Knew everything they wanted to tell him. Was a Human Zero.

Type III: The Human Being. A most marvellous man. Whenever the situation got serious, he showed up, calmed the nerves down. Everybody trusted him and respected him…’[2]

Frisch’s morale and endurance on active service is kept going because of three drivers: a sense of duty, the support of colleagues and a keen desire to survive.[3]

He also suggests that there was a persuasive threat of punishment that kept men fighting with their units. Men returned to the front after leave because ‘any decision to stay home and try and hide meant that if we got caught, we were dead for certain…A German soldier went back to the front to fight simply because going forward gave him some sort of chance for survival. There was the old saying: you have to have more fear from your superior than from your enemy’.[4]

Frisch is very open about a series of incidents he participated in or witnessed, that may be regarded as criminal acts or war crimes. He makes it quite clear that he and his comrades took part in the widescale theft and appropriation of Soviet civilians’ food, property and homes.

He and his colleagues occupied peasant farms and houses for shelter as ‘it was our best means of surviving the cold, because we could not dig or construct outside shelters’. He said that, once they had occupied these houses, he and his mates were kind enough to offer the peasants ‘the so-called warmth of our house – which we had “borrowed” from some other farmers – for a while’.[5]

He also states that German soldiers ‘used bed covers, tablecloths, curtains, anything at all to provide a layer of warmth.’[6]

Food was stolen from peasants. Frisch and his mates often ‘foraged on our own – we could always find a chicken’,[7] He also added that ‘if an animal or bird was around we immediately grabbed it for food’.[8]

Historians Alex Kay and David Stahel have pointed out that this wide scale theft and looting is an overlooked aspect of German criminal behaviour on the Eastern Front. While these incidents may be considered less serious than the murder of POWs and Jews, the theft of vital winter food stocks from peasants and the destruction of their shelters led to countless Russian civilians dying from cold and starvation during the German occupation of the western Soviet Union.[9]

Frisch does not appear to regard these incidents as problematic. He states that he ‘never saw in Russia or elsewhere any human atrocities to soldiers or civilians…I did see hundreds of Polish…[and] Soviet army prisoners being set the rear, and, as I observed they were always treated properly accordingly to the rules of war.’[10]

This statement is difficult to square with the fact that Frisch saw an executed ‘partisan’ at least on one occasion. His account features a photograph he took of a man hanging from a gallows. This execution clearly had a deterrent purpose as the corpse has a sign around his neck that warns others about ‘the perils of being a Russian partisan against the Germans’.[11]   

Reading Frisch’s account it appears he does not have a problem with the harsh measures the Germans took against ‘partisans’, including massacres. He believed that partisan warfare was ‘irrational’ and that in being engaged in such a conflict you got ‘to the point where you shoot at everything that moves and ask questions later’. He defends this behaviour as ‘preventative warfare: kill him before he kills me…I want to stay alive’.[12]

He implies from his writing that killing in such circumstances was not a criminal act as he defends the actions of Lieutenant Calley, whom he argues ‘may have been crazy but wasn’t a criminal’. Captain William Laws Calley was an American Army officer court-martialled as a war criminal during the Vietnam War. Calley was convicted for the premeditated killings of Vietnamese civilians in the infamous My Lai massacre on 16 March 1968.[13] In total, over 347 unarmed people were killed by U.S. Army soldiers in the incident.[14]

Frisch’s plea to the reader is to ‘put themselves in that position’ as a German soldier fighting a partisan-style war like that fought by himself and Calley.[15] Would we behave any differently if faced with the same context and psychological pressures? Maybe not.

Michael Browning, in his book Ordinary Men, demonstrated how commonplace middle-aged working-class men in German Army Reserve Unit 101 took part in mass shootings of Polish Jews during the Holocaust. Browning argued there were few hardcore Nazis in the Unit with most men participating in the massacres because of peer pressure and their obedience to authority.[16] However, this is a weak justification of such actions. While Frisch’s plea may help us understand why people committed war crimes, the fact still remains that people like Calley, and many German units on the Eastern Front, including possibly Frisch’s, committed war crimes.

For students of the Eastern Front and the Second World War, this is an above-average veteran memoir. Frisch’s observations on different types of officer are interesting as are his comments on the way that coercion, or the threat of coercion, kept men fighting. The large number of photographs that Frisch took on active service are also informative. Finally, his attempt to justify German policy in fighting the partisan war is a useful insight into how German soldiers saw such actions.



[1] Franz Frisch, Condemned to Live (Shippensburg, PA/USA: Burd Street, 2000), p.xxxvii.

[2] Ibid., p.15.

[3] Ibid., pp.8, 19-22, 102, 125, 4.

[4] Ibid., pp.19-22.

[5] Ibid., p.94.

[6] Ibid., p.94.

[7] Ibid., p.29.

[8] Ibid., p.95.

[9] Alex J. Kay & David Stahel, ‘Crimes of the Wehrmacht: A Re-evaluation’, Journal of Perpetrator Research 3.1 (2020), pp.101-108.

[10] Frisch, p.131.

[11] Ibid., p.70.

[12] Ibid., p.129.

[13] Accessed 7 February 2021.

[14] Accessed 7 February 2021.

[15] Frisch, p.129.

[16] see Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992).