- “The Diaries of Fritzes and the Letters of Gretchens”Personal Writings from the German–Soviet War and Their Readers
On 12 June 1941, ten days before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Vitalii Stekol´shchikov, a 19-year-old graduate of the Riazan´ artillery school, was deployed from Riazan´ to western Ukraine. In letters to his girlfriend Anna (“Ania, “An´ka,” “Annushka”) Panfilova, he reported on his trip, which took him through the capital (“Hello, my snub-nose! Ardent lieutenant greetings from Moscow!” [12 June]) and Kiev (“We are sitting in a restaurant, having a little beer. With nothing to do, we are remembering Riazan´, and I’m all with you, my dear” [14 June]) to Zhitomir, from where he reported on 18 June that “everyone” was “ready for action.” Yet, “where, for what purpose, and for how long” they were being mobilized, was not clear to him at all. Vitalii also wrote to Anna that he was carrying all her letters to him (presumably from the time of his studies at the artillery school): “I know them almost entirely by heart.” His next, undated letter to her found him in the midst of the horrors of the German invasion that started on 22 June, annihilating entire Red Army divisions and forcing others into retreat: “Along the way we were followed all the time by enemy tanks, and the bandits were firing at us. Somehow we were still able to get away, and we saved the colors of the regiment. Several times I was within a hair’s-breadth of death. But I managed to survive somehow. Yet all my belongings, which were in two suitcases, I had to leave them behind, including all the photos and the kerchiefs that you had given to me as presents.” The lieutenant’s description of the losses borne by his unit was terse: “Many commanders and soldiers are gone. All in all, we got roughed up quite a bit.” Vitalii kept writing to Anna, even though he did not hear back from her (“This is already the fourth month that I have had no [End Page 571] letters from you”). Only in his 11th letter to her did he report hearing his first news from her.1
On a basic level, letters from the front of the Soviet–German war reveal the catastrophic impact of the war as it cut into civilian life, tore family members and lovers apart, and sent millions of soldiers and civilians into contexts of extreme violence and destruction. Even the disclaimer that Vitalii, along with countless other correspondents from the front, kept rehearsing in his letters—“I am alive, healthy, and safe”—bespoke the ubiquitous presence of death in this soldier’s life. In later letters he would modulate the phrase in telling ways: “I am still alive, healthy.”2 Yet these same letters also testify to the self-expressive dynamic induced by the war.
On both sides of the front, the war—which Germans referred to as the “War in the East,” while Soviet leaders were quick to call it the “Great Patriotic War,” in analogy to the Patriotic War of 1812 that ended with the rout of Napoleon’s Grande Armée—induced a massive urge to communicate in writing, and it made both regimes invest heavily in the deployment of communication services. An estimated 40 billion pieces of mail circulated between the front and the rear in Germany and German-occupied territory between 1939 and 1945. In 1942, when the flow of mail reached its peak, the German military courier (Feldpost) services shipped an average of 25 million letters, postcards, and parcels per day.3 For the Soviet Union, the numbers are more difficult to ascertain—they appear to be significantly lower, especially in view of its much larger population, but they are striking nonetheless.4
In Germany, the Feldpost system formally came into being on 2 September 1939, the day after Germany invaded Poland. In the Soviet Union, the military did not assume institutional patronage of postal services until 1943. During the first months of the war in particular, when the rapidly advancing Germans forced the Red Army into a...