Book review – Konrad Jarausch (ed), Reluctant Accomplice [the letters of Konrad Jarausch] (Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011)

This book is an edited collection of around 350 letters sent by German NCO Konrad Jarausch during his active service. They cover the time from 1939 until his death of typhoid fever in Russia on 27 January 1942.[1]

In September 1939, Jarausch was mobilised from the reserves to serve with the V/XI battalion of the Landesschutzen [territorial defence forces].[2] This unit was engaged in security duties in the newly conquered Poland such as guarding POW camps.

In March 1940, Jarausch’s unit was transformed into a training unit to instruct new recruits, based in Bernberg, Germany.[3]

Finally, from August 1941, Jarausch’s final posting was to Dulag 203, a transit camp for Russian POWs. This facility was based initially in Kochanowo, Poland, but then moved to Kritschew, Belarus.[4] During this time, he was attached to the 286th (Security) Division.[5]

Jarausch was born in December 1900. He saw service in the Great War but did not see combat. In the inter-war period, he obtained a PhD on Icelandic Sagas and in 1935, became the director of religious education at a Protestant teacher training college in Magdeburg. He also pursued academic studies, publishing on Protestant pedagogy and co-editing the scholarly journal, Schule und Evangelium (School and Gospel).[6]

Jarausch had sympathy with the National Socialists who came to power in 1933 but began to have reservations about the policies towards the church and reducing or ending religious education in schools.[7]

In 1935, he married Charlotte and, in September 1941, they had a son, also called Konrad.[8] Konrad Junior went onto be a historian and published this collection of letters.

Most of the letters are written to his wife Lotte and they present Jarausch as a complex and contradictory man who struggles with life in uniform.

He was an intellectual and found it hard to develop relationships with his less academically gifted comrades. Jarausch complained in a letter on 22 September 1939 that ‘the gossip [of his comrades] is endless…I can barely stand to listen to all the mindless chatter’.[9]

By November, he wrote that he ‘kept up my attempts to carve out my own personal space – even in the face of barbs from my comrades and their inability to understand me.’[10] As a consequence, he was often lonely.[11]

Despite this, Jarausch was diligent in his duty, was promoted and put himself forward as an officer cadet.[12][13] However, his constitution was weak and his poor health made it hard for him to endure the physical aspects of active service.

Three things helped Jarausch survive life in the army. Firstly, he found solace in his intellectual pursuits. He learnt Polish and Russian from POWs and planned the book he intended to publish after the war on religious pedagogy as ‘it keeps me connected to home and distracts me from my worries and sorrows here’.[14] However, his intellectual activities are disliked by his comrades as they felt it was ‘’“disturbing” the Volksgemeinschaft [national community].’ ‘Reading’, he reflected, ‘is something that sets one apart’.[15]

The second area was his strong Christian faith; he read the Bible daily and ‘took much pleasure in it’.[16]

The third area was Jarausch’s letters and connections with home. Replying to his wife on 1 January 1940, he wrote ‘I received your two Christmas letters…They were very moving. So much love and a sense of home spoke from them’.[17] To deal with the stress of Dulag 203, he told his wife ‘my greatest pleasure lies in what you have to tell me about our child. Please tell me everything.’[18]

The remarkable element of Jarausch’s letters is his reporting of German war crimes and the holocaust and his reaction to both. Jarausch believed in the military action taken by Germany against Poland. He saw the invasion as the ‘the creation of the new order in the East’ that was to create ‘Lebensraum [living space], for generations to come…’[19] He knew that large scale atrocities were going on; on 7 November 1941 he said that ‘Bolshevism is being ruthlessly stamped out, wherever we encounter it. The same thing goes for the Jewish element.’[20] During his time in Poland in 1939/40, he saw the Jews who ‘filled the scene with their miserable seediness. How squalid and pathetic. How sordid they are in their wretched humanity’.[21]

However, once he arrives at Dulag 203, his perspective starts to change. In the transit camp, Jarausch is responsible for feeding Russian captives that held temporarily in the camp before being they were moved to other facilities further west. He does not have enough food or accommodation to house and feed the prisoners being moved through the camp. On 1 September 1941, he wrote to his wife that ‘we had 12,300 prisoners in our camp in the last few days…One is constantly surrounded by the stench and the cries, beset by incessant pleading. To keep things going overall, one sometimes has to be hard-nosed towards individuals. Then there is the friction with our superiors…above all there is the constant pressure to economise. We can’t satisfy the prisoners’ hunger…They want warmth, work, bread – and we can’t give it to them.’[22]

By November 1941, Jarausch tells his wife that ‘twenty-five prisoners die…daily. In the larger camps farther west, in which tens of thousands are being held, the numbers of dead are correspondingly in the hundreds. One tries to help. When they come to get their food and are frozen stiff from the cold, they…expire right at our feet. We discovered another case of cannibalism today…the whole thing is already more murder than war’.[23]

His experience prompts a change of perspective on the Russians. He wrote to his wife in August 1941, just after he arrived in the camp, that ‘in reality, not all Russians are “swines” or “beasts”. Of course, we knew that before, but it’s good to have that impression confirmed by first-hand experience’.[24] By mid-November, Jarausch said that ‘but after all that I’ve seen, I cannot sport a single enemy amid the millions of Russians’.[25]

He tries to ensure prisoners are fed; he writes to his wife that ‘luckily the older officers still have human qualities of the traditional sort, so that I have some support and can make things happen (like having two meals a day) against the will of the “bureaucrats”…There is some room for humanity here.’[26]

He is also reflective that ‘we are living at the expense of these people and are sucking them dry. What should we expect, other than bitterness and an abiding desire to overthrow this foreign rule?’[27]

Shortly before his death, Jarausch wrote that ‘genuine humanity between people and races is necessary if a better world is to arise from the excess of blood and destruction’.[28]

As Jarausch’s son puts it in the introduction to the book, the letters of Konrad Jarausch give us a picture of a complex person. On the one hand, Jarausch senior’s support for the war and complicity in war crimes is abhorrent, even if he was not ‘pulling the trigger’. On the other hand, did try to do ‘good’ in the face of evil by doing what he could for the Russians under his care. Jarausch junior believes that we should look at his father as a multifaceted man who tried to do his best and we should avoid ‘well-meant wholesale commendation’ but engage with the complexity of the moral dilemmas that Jarausch senior in his situation. [29]



[1] Konrad H. Jarausch (Ed), Reluctant Accomplice [the letters of Konrad Jarausch] (Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011), p.365.

[2] Ibid., p.47.

[3] Ibid., p.141.

[4] Ibid., p.240.

[5] Ibid., p.239.

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

[7] Ibid., pp.16-21.

[8] Ibid., pp.14, 278.

[9] Ibid., p.66.

[10] Ibid., p.104.

[11] Ibid., p.68.

[12] Ibid, p.131.

[13] Ibid., p.154.

[14] Ibid., p.149.

[15] Ibid., p.99.

[16] Ibid., p.27.

[17] Ibid., p.126.

[18] Ibid., p.288.

[19] Ibid., pp.127, 136.

[20] Ibid., p.319.

[21] Ibid., p.74.

[22] Ibid., p.274.

[23] Ibid., pp.324-325.

[24] Ibid., p.257.

[25] Ibid., p.333.

[26] Ibid. pp.310-311.

[27] Ibid., p.288.

[28] Ibid., p.43.

[29] Ibid., p.44.