Franz Schieke

Franz Schieke was born in 1922 in Hecklingen, near Magdeburg. He was drafted into labor service in 1941 and sent to the Eastern Front. In 1942 he became a soldier and served as lance corporal and orderly to Captain Münchin the 71st Infantry Division. While Captain Münch was flown out of Stalingrad on January 22, 1943, his orderly fell into the hands of the Red Army a few days later. After seven years in Soviet captivity He Schieke returned to East Germany (GDR) where he joined the communist party (SED) and worked in the GDR’s Ministry of the Interior. When the Berlin Wall came down and the reformed SED agreed to the unification of Germany Schieke left the party in protest. The merging of the two Germanies enabled Schieke to search for his erstwhile commander Münch who lived in the West. Sometime in the 1990s Schieke located Münch’s phone number and rang him up.

During our meeting with Schieke in his modest apartment in Pankow, a district in Berlin’s North-East, he mainly spoke about two themes – his relationship with Münch, and the political bias with which he believes Stalingrad is remembered by West Germans to this day. Schieke emphatically presented his life history as a corrective to this bias.

Wherever he was, there I was.

After we entered Stalingrad and then stormed across the Volga [on September 14, 1942, described in detail by Gerhard Münch and Gerhard Hindenlang], only eight people survived in my company. For that reason, since I was a messenger there, I had contact with Mr. Münch, the battalion commander. And I remained in that position, basically working as his orderly, his right hand.

We then became quite close friends, due to the dangerous situation in which we were, and also because of the way he led. I mean, all sorts of things happened. He could have had us court-martialed. But he didn’t.

He turned a blind eye to things, several times. And that’s why I was so fond of him. How can a subordinate have such close contact with a superior all of a sudden? The first thing I did when I was released from captivity was to find out whether he was still alive. And to this day this closeness exists. When we met again [in the 1990s] he addressed me with the informal “Du” (thou). Well, he is a Bundeswehr [German Federal Army] General. I could also have said: idiotic. Never contact him. Two worlds, we grew up in …two separate worlds.

Wherever he was, there I was. We had, I still remember, there, in that house… We had occupied the house, that is, the entrances. But the cellar, where the leader of my company was, the Russians suddenly opened the cellar wall using explosives. And then we stood there, man against man. There were five Soviet soldiers with an officer and a female medic. We were man against man. They then surrendered. We were mentally prepared before the cellar wall exploded. But they hadn’t counted on there being anybody in the cellar.

How were you able to relax if you were constantly in terrible danger?

Well, that was the life of the soldier. It was part of the business of being in this profession. It was always about self-preservation. What happened to me was partially my own fault. The soldiers were sometimes bored. And then one of them shot in the direction of another soldier, above his head. And I then thought, hey, someone is acting foolish and needs to be admonished. And looked in the direction where the shot came from. You see that was my mistake. Because it was a Russian sniper, who had fired that shot. And that’s how I got wounded.

I had a head wound. It happened on January 15 [1943]. A bullet wound. And I can only say here that I survived thanks to him [Münch]. Medical treatment was hardly possible in the chaotic circumstances there.  But he quickly had everything seen to, so that I at least got into a car and was taken to the hospital. But the military hospital was also impossible. The Russians attacked us there as well, and we were left to our own devices. And then the catastrophe occurred. On the 16th, I waded alone for 48 hours through the snow desert. And thanks to the fact that I have a good sense of direction, I was able to find my command headquarters again, and before I got there I was also registered. I was then supposed to get a gun from the military police. And then the most difficult part came. In the 48 hours that we were traveling, I needed to stay overnight in a cellar and then someone who was trying to find a place to sleep in the darkness stepped on my wound and it started to bleed. …

And then the situation came where people sought to save lives. I was lucky that there was a Soviet lieutenant there, who could speak German. He asked someone to bring me a pot of water; I think it was two liters. I drank it in one go, and thus was able to survive the march. That was on February 1. Well, so you see that there was humanity on their side. And so I always say, why aren’t people honest? Life was hard there, but they weren’t inhuman.

I spent seven years there, I know what it was like.

Then the next stage of life – seven years in captivity. After 24 hours we were given something to eat. A piece of sugar and a slice of bread! But that is swept under the carpet. That is not mentioned. You see? What’s more, we were given more bread as prisoners than the local people. We got 600 grams of bread, the locals only got 400 grams. …

The first few weeks our lodgings were of course bad, because we were in former factories and slept on the floor. But as I said… they tried to take care of us as best as they could, given the war circumstances and they also tried to give us medical treatment. And that’s how it was up until the end of captivity. And then you read these stories that they had been maltreated. I spent seven years there, I know what it was like.

I can’t understand this, and it annoys me. I get the impression that they try to depict the Soviet people as if they were not human. And that’s not true. The march to the prison camp took 48 hours. If they [Red Army soldiers] killed soldiers during that time, it was because they weren’t able to march onwards. They couldn’t have left them in the desert. They couldn’t have left them to freeze to death. And so they had this principle: to take a gun and shoot. They couldn’t take those guys with them. And we were ourselves so weakened, that we could only propel ourselves forward. Why do people speak about these things with so much negativity?

They treated us as human beings.

Do you think that East Germans remember Stalingrad differently from West Germans?

If you speak about me, yes. I told you that the [West German] books that I read, I returned them, because I didn’t want my children reading them. Because they were not honest.

For example, I was in a camp where we worked as lumberjacks, rafting wood to be sent down the Volga, where it meets the Unsha river. We worked together with female students. You have no idea how inspiring that kind of interaction was. They even bought us toothpaste from their meager salary. Then we had a death… two of our comrades … There was a green plant on the rafts. And those two thought the plant was edible. And the guards had warned: “That is poison”. Suddenly, the two collapsed. The girls went to the market and fetched milk to bring them back to life. It did not work, but…. the commandant placed the two dead on biers and all of us prisoners of war had to pass by. He said: “Here, look at that! We do everything for you, your life must not end in such a senseless way.” Well, that life as a prisoner was not a bed of roses, for sure. But they treated us as human beings.

When you look at this photo again, you were 19 at that time. What goes through your mind when you look at this picture of yourself as a 19-year-old soldier? 

I am always interested in reflecting on things, in processing them. For whom did we go to war? That’s the alpha and omega. But there is no reflection. On the Day of Public Mourning [a German national holiday in November], one mourns the dead and does not ask why they needed to lose their lives. It’s today the same as ever. Why did we go to Afghanistan?

They should ask this question: Why did we ruin that land? But that is not happening, you see.

But what was Stalingrad for you personally? 

Well, at this moment, nothing at all. What upsets me is that one was not able to process history. That upset me as much as ever. I mean, that one got out of that prison alive is one thing, it’s one side of the story. But one has to ask oneself the question, why? I mean we, as Germans, created enough havoc in the world. I mean, the systems have to come together after all…. A man who experienced the Second World War, and his father the First World War, must have some thoughts about it. And always the question: why, for what? And that is what brings me quite close to Mr. Münch. He is also the one who said: “It will be alright in the end.” But overall, East and West are not really united.

Let’s be honest. It is not honest. If you look at it today, marked cards are used in this game. Just look at the Day of Public Mourning. What is that supposed to mean? Up to this day nobody answers this question: Why did my father fight in World War I? Why did I have to fight in World War II? It was not the Nazis. It was the system – Capitalism. When I hear this: tending German war graves in Stalingrad. What’s that? They should ask this question: Why did we ruin that land? But that is not happening, you see.

It really makes me mad. I admit, we made a mess in the GDR. But there is a basic principle, and it was necessary to change something…. Earlier we always said: we don’t want to … never again war. Adenauer said after 1945, whoever takes a gun in his hand – his hand should rot off. What has remained of that? [Schieke attributes the quotation to the First West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, while the words were in fact used by right wing politician Franz Josef Strauss during the 1949 election campaign]

Is there an episode with Mr. Münch in Stalingrad that will always remain in your memory? 

Shortly before the end, there were a few soldiers who wanted to defect. He addressed them, together with me. And they then said: “As long as you are the commander, we stay. If you lose your life, we are gone.” And on Christmas Eve, in the encirclement, he addressed everyone: It’s Christmas, Holy Night, and everyone should stop a moment and think of his family, and so on.

I can’t remember more. Captivity also gnawed at one’s memory. For him it was easier, because he got out. He could later process everything better than me, who had lost so much weight, you know. And this up and down! That also had an effect on my mind. I forgot a lot. After release from captivity, if I had been able to sit down and write about it, I could have written so much. But back then you told yourself: I am alive, and life must go on.

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