Erich Klein

Erich Klein was born into the family of a railroad official in Arnswalde (today in Poland) in 1919. After graduating from the gymnasium in 1937 he was called up for military service. In September 1939 he enlisted as a professional soldier and career officer in the field, and fought with the 60th Infantry Division in France, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union. During the Battle of Stalingrad, the division held the northern outskirts of the city against heavy Soviet attacks from the North.

In early November 1942 Klein received two weeks leave from the front. Upon his return he found the 6th Army surrounded. He was assigned to a panzer army which unsuccessfully tried to break through to the encircled Germans. In January 1945, Battalion Commander Klein (awarded with the German Gold Cross) was taken prisoner by the Red Army in Budapest.  He worked for four years in the coalmines of the Don basin.

Accusing him of war crimes, a Soviet military tribunal sentenced him to a 25 year prison term in 1949. Klein was paroled in 1953. He returned to Germany hardly able to walk. In 1959 he married Eva Querner, a pharmacist from Braunschweig, with whom he had two children. In 1962 Klein joined the German Federal Army as major of the reserve. After retiring he became a passionate hobby painter. Klein’s wife died in 1997. His only brother was killed on the Eastern Front.

When we met with Erich Klein, first in Limburg and then at his home in Essen, he walked with great difficulty, using a cane. The disability had been with him since his release from the Soviet camps. Klein spoke with a quiet and measured voice, and he sat upright through several hours of interviewing. The long years in captivity, he explained, had taught him how to survive by clinging to “vivid thoughts.” Klein is a passionate hobby painter, and before we left, he showed us the brightly colored paintings and sketches that adorn several rooms of his small rowhouse.

Now the war became different, totally different… It had nothing to do with humanity.

When I graduated from secondary school in 1937 I intended to study in Breslau and Danzig and reconstruct the port of Stettin. That was my vision. I wanted to complete my military service before that, so that I could finish my university courses without interruption. During my military service, during those two years, with all these things that were happening, I stumbled into a military career at the express wish of my commander. He said, “Dear Klein, the officer corps thinks you will make a suitable professional officer.” When I stared at him, flabbergasted, he said, “We need your signature as well as your father’s signature.” You see, youths younger than age 21 didn’t have the right to decide alone.  … And so I began an active officer’s career. At age 20 I became a lieutenant, at 22 a first lieutenant, and at 24 a major and battalion commander.

All of a sudden we were deployed against Russia. Now the war became different, totally different… It was more aggressive. It had nothing to do with humanity. From the start we saw that there were men whose genitals were cut off, the head cut off, the eyes cut out – such things did not happen in the West.

You saw this with your own eyes?

Yes, with my own eyes, and I saw female soldiers, who dug themselves into the earth, they did not surrender, they shot until the last bullet. Totally fanatical, unbelievable. And these were women! This didn’t exist on the Western front. Women in combat – that did not exist. Well, and later on there were the partisan activities. People walking around in disguise and suddenly shooting at you. Female figures, and what have you.  But that was only in the middle section of the war, in 1943/1944. And it was so cruel that we said, “Back here one does not know who is an armed enemy and who is coming along for the ride. That was very difficult.” (Long pause)

Whom did you see on the other side? Were they Bolsheviks? 

They were the enemy for us. I did not see this politically, for me they were enemies for whom there was no pardon… because they were treacherous, because they were under military pressure. There was no turning back: they had to stay put, or push on, taking no prisoners, no sir.

The only hope was that the Western Front would cease to exist…

Klein describes his feelings when the attempt of the 6th Panzer Army to break up the encirclement of Stalingrad failed. He realized that he would not be able to reunite with his fellow soldiers of the 60th Infantry Division:

The disappointment was huge… It meant we were practically cut off from our military home. We no longer had an anchor, you know?

In 1944 one had the feeling that something political needed to happen; that we would need to team up with the Western powers and stop the Soviet Union with their Bolshevism. The only hope was that the Western Front would cease to exist and we would form a common cause, along the lines of: none of us want Bolshevism. Europe must remain free from that brutality. Well, that didn’t work. And that was the end of everything.

What was this Bolshevism, against which you fought? 

Bolshevism said: we want to free the world from capitalism. The road is hard, but we must travel this hard road. Ultimately a golden age will dawn. That was Stalin’s viewpoint. And on that road, everything had to be destroyed that stood in the way, especially among the people…

Now we witnessed the propaganda that was let loose, and how people worked over there, and how they lived. Let’s say, a man becomes a father. If it’s a girl – abort. A pity! A boy will work, fulfill his quota, but a daughter can’t do that. This downgrading – simply putting someone aside! This is only a small example.  Or, when people worked in a mine, bringing up coal: at the top stood the nachalniks [Russian: “bosses”], and the political forces would say, for example: “X years ago was the battle of Stalingrad, and that is why today is a high performance day. Not 100%, but 150% of the quota has to be fulfilled. Davai, davai [Russian: “Hurry up”], see that you make the 150%. If you don’t achieve them, you are against the development of Communism via Bolshevism.”

In December 1949 Klein and a group of other German POWs were sentenced by a Soviet Military Tribunal.

Twenty-five years – that was of course so shocking for us we were practically speechless… Everything taken away, our hair cut…we were different people – we were no longer human beings.

Comradeship in captivity, that was the source that gave us new courage and kept us going. It was not the work we had to do, the food we got, and not what we got from outside – a small parcel or mail, or whatever – those were only crumbs – it was our comradeship that kept us going.

As during the war, when comradeship was also very important?

Exactly. To be there for each other. And when one sits together as we do here, and says, tomorrow we’ll go there or there, nobody knows who will survive. To live in such an atmosphere, that’s like being in fire, you know.

Telegram addressed to “Returnee Erich Klein, Camp Friedland”: “Most heartfelt wishes. Let us know departure date. Awaiting you – Werner and family” (1953)

Telegram addressed to “Returnee Erich Klein, Camp Friedland”: “Most heartfelt wishes. Let us know departure date. Awaiting you – Werner and family” (1953)

After returning from captivity, I was asked the same questions that you have just asked me. I would say a few things, but I would then notice that the others would become silent or say something like “poor fellow.” I didn’t want that. So I would mention only a few things and change the subject immediately.

This is an armoire from 1801… we started our lives from scratch here. When I returned from captivity, I had nothing at all. Not even a document proving that I was Erich Klein. Everything had to be collected bit by bit.

For me military life was finished with the end of the war. And then came captivity. The idea that I should become a soldier again, perhaps a mercenary, never occurred to me.

Later in the Federal Army I said: nice that there is an officer corps again which is presentable, and that preserves the traditions that we maintained in the Wehrmacht, the good traditions, that is. I accepted all of that. But the Bundeswehr [German Federal Army] no longer had the position and status that the army had before the war, the status it had even before Hitler’s time. One could say that, from the time of the introduction of military service in the early 19th century, the soldierly profession had ranked at the top of society.

  • Document certifying Erich Klein’s severe war disabilities (1956)

    Document certifying Erich Klein’s severe war disabilities (1956)

To endure this all you must cling to vivid thoughts.

Are you haunted by pictures of the war or captivity?

Yes, occasionally. But I try to get out of there as soon as possible. I concentrate on something else; I don’t want to get bogged down here, because otherwise, these thoughts they just get out of control. I noticed this with some comrades who couldn’t get away from this. They just perished. They said, I am living, but it depresses me so much and I can’t come out of it – I seem to be still over there, as it all happened; I can’t handle it. They then give up. And whoever gives up is lost. This is what I experienced, no matter where, … I have all these blows that everyone has. It’s like a little wheel in the head that let’s us recall things, and so on. But I have then always tried very hard to turn the screw back, to close the door.

These experiences, including the many tragic experiences that one has, they form a foundation, there is no doubt about it. Otherwise one could not be so steadfast. For me, the experiences I had in war, in captivity, and after the war… well, I have to say: Life is action, life is doing something with purpose, not losing time. Captivity is a loss of time, for you personally. This is not your world, you are a prisoner, here you are not yourself, you have to fulfill a quota, nothing else. To endure this all you must cling to vivid thoughts. There were many who did not make it. (Pause) And you couldn’t help them.

Were your children curious to find out what happened to you? 

No! The children can’t put themselves into that position at all. They know my biography, but they don’t pose any questions, they don’t ask about my individual experience in the war or in the prison camp. That is too hard for them to digest, to understand. They know that I had difficult experiences. But they don’t suffer because of them, and I don’t want them to.

In April 1992, Erich Klein wrote to the Military Prosecutor of the Russian Federation, asking for his rehabilitation. The application form which he received from the Russian embassy contained a line, “Article on which the sentence was based.” Klein wrote: “Without accusation and without defense”. Two and-a-half years later the Russian Prosecutor General informed Klein that he was rehabilitated.

In 2002 Klein received his prison file from the Russian Military Historical Archive. The 13-page document contains the wording of the sentence as pronounced by the military tribunal in December 1949. It states that Klein was captain of the 60th Infantry Division, and that in 1943 the division was renamed “SA-Division Feldherrnhalle” because of special merits at the front. The division fought in the area of the cities of Lvov, Zhitomir, Stalingrad, Vitebsk, and others. “On their retreat, the soldiers of the division burnt the temporarily occupied areas of the Soviet Union, the villages and cities which they left behind. Klein was therefore complicit in the destruction of villages and cities by the German troops.” The military tribunal declared Klein guilty of crimes in accordance with article 17 of the Penal Code of the RSFSR and paragraph 1 of the April 19, 1943 Ukaz of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR.

The file notes that Кlein protested against the sentence, emphasizing that he had committed no crimes. Yet the sentence was confirmed on August 5, 1950. In June 1953, a few months after Stalin’s death, Klein was paroled.

Klein filed the photocopy of his prison documents along with an autobiographical sketch which he penned for his family in the same year, 2002.

“I don’t want to rehash my fate”, the sketch begins, “I want to enjoy the present, the past should remain the past. But it is difficult to shake off 8 ½ years as prisoner in Soviet captivity.”
The report ends with “Final Remarks”: “As a late-returnee in the year 1953, I declare my gratitude for belonging to a generation of Wehrmacht soldiers that proved to the whole world military conduct in accordance with international law. What tickles me are the disastrous notions held in parts of our society with regard to the soldiers who were in the Wehrmacht. We have to be careful to give the right messages. Everything is a gift of God. What remains important is remembering, reflecting and admonishing with joy, love and hope for good things to come.”

[signature:] E. Klein

2017 © Facing Stalingrad. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise stated, all text by Jochen Hellbeck, photos by Emma Dodge Hanson.
Site by Playfields