An old German proverb has it that ‘a great war leaves the country with three armies – an army of cripples, an army of mourners, and an army of thieves.’
General Field Marshal ‘Bloody Ferdinand’ Schörner, commander of Army Group Centre on the Eastern Front in World War II, was a member of the last group. Having shot dead 22 young soldiers for desertion during fighting in Czechoslovakia towards the end of the war, he then stole money from his unit’s army coffers and fled. Although later captured and imprisoned by the Soviets, he lived out a comfortable retirement in Munich until his death in 1973.
Hans Dunker was one of the many young men under Schörner’s command. His daughter Helene later came into possession of a diary, written by Hans, recounting in detail not just his military experiences but also his schooldays.
The education system in the Third Reich was complex and fragmentary, having been established early in the 1930s when different factions of the Nazi elite were still vying for overall control. (Dunker’s school, Feldafing, in Bavaria, was established by Ernst Röhm, chief victim of the Night of Long Knives.)
Much like its English counterpart, the German private-school system acted as a forcing house for the ruling class, equipping them with the necessary skills and instincts to become the future leaders of the Third Reich.
As the war began to turn against Germany, it was realised that many of these boys would be needed more urgently than anticipated. With so few adult men left available at home, Hermann Göring’s 1943 demand for 120,000 fresh troops meant in practice that the authorities had to enlist child soldiers.
Ultimately, the Nazis rounded up between 200,000 and 300,000 underage combatants during the war. At one point, an entire SS Panzer Tank Division was manned by 16- and 17-year-olds, while American forces on the Western Front recalled their horror at being confronted by children aiming weapons at them.
In the final full year of the war, Hans, still well off turning 18, was plucked out of school and sent to the Eastern Front.
The training alone was brutal and relentless. Hans took a long time to adjust to the change from a comfortable existence at Feldafing to life in a rotting, food-starved barracks, filled with hardened soldiers. He also struggled with the sheer hypocrisy of the Third Reich. His diary, which Munson quotes liberally, shows him agonising at the difference between the high-minded ideology instilled in him at school and the real-life actions of men such as Schörner.
Then, with the war in its final months, Hans sees action for real. Having been transported through the bombed-out shells of German cities like Dresden, he arrives in the Sudetenland, where he is caught up in the Soviet Union’s Moravia-Ostrava Offensive of spring 1945. There are vivid descriptions of his joy at getting to fight, his dismay at the pointless and contradictory commands, and a very close call with a terrifying ‘Stalin Organ’.
Although his war was short, Hans comes out of the ordeal permanently injured and seemingly 40 years older.
Unsurprisingly, he spoke little about his experiences after the war, instead pouring his thoughts into the diary his daughter would later forensically pick apart. Helene naturally felt some distance from him, a disconnect further amplified by her own South American upbringing. Although semi-detached from Germany and her own family history, she is nonetheless keen to understand it.
She can be an odd narrator at times, and the writing is occasionally a little stilted. But the book, essentially two in one, is a very interesting insight into what became, by the last months of Germany’s war, not an army of thieves or of mourners – but an army of children.
Review by Calum Henderson.
Boy Soldiers: a personal story of Nazi elite schooling and its legacy of trauma, Helene Munson, The History Press, hbk (£20), ISBN 978-0750997119.