Interview with SS-Unterscharführer Kurt Söhrmann, radio operator in SS Panzer Regiment 3, 'Totenkopf', Ulrichsberg, 1989.

[Above: Kurt Söhrmann.]

Thanks for speaking with me, can I ask you why you chose the Waffen-SS as the branch to enlist into?

Kurt: Yes indeed, I was a member of the HJ [Hitler Youth] and from a young age it is put into your mind to be an upright person, citizen, and soldier. It was common that all boys would serve 2 years as a soldier, then move on to a career. I liked mechanics so I first thought of working on engines. My HJ group had a school where we could go to learn about how things work. When it came time for my service, my family encouraged me to serve in an organization that was related to the NSDAP. I came from a family that had roots in the beginnings of the NSDAP, so I had a certain level of respect for the points and ideals of the party. It is not good to speak of this now, so I'm careful with what I say, but back in my time it was not a bad thing to be with the party, or Hitler. Of course today we must forget all that and play the games now required. I chose to enlist in the branch that was more loyal to the Führer, not many will say that to you I bet. You know what I mean I am sure, as we know the same people. To me it was a simple choice that I have never regretted. For me the Waffen-SS was the embodiment of the ideal German soldier.

How did you end up in the Panzer arm of the Waffen-SS?

Kurt: Well, at first one had to go through basic training to be a soldier. During this time you had chances to go into specialist fields that met your aptitude and interests. I was good with tinkering with things, and it was said I should learn communications, so I went on to radio school. We started in Nuremberg, which I understand you know well, it was a big barracks made for the early rallies. From there I was drawn to the Panzer arm, and had a friend who had gone to the Panzers and loved it. I made the choice to do this as well. I had to attend Panzer school to learn about the workings of a Panzer, we had to know a little about each job one has. I received training with the radios, and we had to practice often with keeping contact, relaying and giving orders, and enemy intercepts.

This training went on for awhile it seemed, and many of us were itching to get to the front. I was assigned to Totenkopf which was made up of some very early regiments. I have to say it was a proud moment for me to be awarded the cuff title. We all wore the black wrapper so that dirt would not show on the uniform. We Panzer men stayed dirty all the time, and often times never wore the uniform unless behind the front. We usually wore coveralls or just shirts, the movies showing Panzer men in the black wrap are for show mostly. I remember always being dirty and smelly, there was nothing like spilling fuel and then having to smell it on your clothes.

You served on the East Front, what stands out to you about the war in the east?

Kurt: Well I will tell you it was the people. You see in the HJ there were small talks given about Bolshevism and why it is a bad idea. We learned of the Jewish roots to it all, how the Jews took over in Russia, and how they terrorized the Christian Russians. I had in my mind that Russia would be desolate and barren, but it was not. The east is very open and beautiful, the Ukraine once used to be the bread basket of Europe until the Bolsheviks took it over. The people I saw were poor, dirty, and scared, but tough. I can tell you they welcomed us as liberators and many of them sided directly with us to fight. They did not fit the mold of what I had formed in my mind, they seemed polite and grateful. In my time in the east I never saw anyone act against us, in fact they went out of their way to be nice. In every hamlet, city, or town German forces went the people gave shelter, warmth, and many times vodka. They were very proud of their homemade vodka. Some batches were so strong we mixed some with fuel when we were low.

There were times when we were in static lines in quiet areas, and the mothers would bake us bread and bring it to us. Of course our cooks would give them some stew or bacon if we had any. It was very common to trade with the people, I received a very warm pair of socks in 1944 I remember. I had an extra chocolate bar so I offered it. It was always nice when we could park our Panzers in a hamlet and the people would welcome us. Of course if action was possible we had to be careful not to put them at risk. I know sometimes they were forced to go behind the lines to other towns until there was no danger. Some men even found love behind the lines, I had a comrade who had a beautiful girl from Odessa and he always flashed her photo to us. He had met her in 1942 during a training course with our allies. One comrade had a very large woman who always wanted to come see him but our commander had to forbid it. I remember him saying to us all that we do not want be seen as plundering the women, so we had to watch it. We were very good-looking soldiers back then, young man, the women always came to us for attention and flirting. No matter if it was in the Reich, France, or the East. That black uniform was a good look on us back then.

[Above: An unknown crew member of the SS Panzer Regiment 3, 'Totenkopf' next to his Panzer V: Panther tank. The iconic 'death's head' of the SS represented several different ideas, one being a reminder of death, and another being a defiance of it.]

I have been taught that in the East the war was very brutal and Russia claims the Germans raped and killed much of the civilian population. May I ask your opinion of this?

Kurt: Yes, yes, it is said here as well, this is the version of our history taught to our children and grandchildren. I was there and I saw nothing of the sort. It is true the war was brutal, but only due to the amount of men fighting and weapons used. From what I saw, even among the Bolshevik soldiers there was a certain level of decency, they treated wounded prisoners when taken. I have read accounts in the East German press where they made wild claims about us, saying we rounded civilians up to kill them. I say why in the world would we do that? We needed their support not anger. The truth is we went out of the way to be kind to them, our doctors testified to that but were ignored. We had strict orders to treat prisoners and civilians well. The partisans already put out masses of propaganda that we were killing little old grandmothers and children. This is false and was meant to stir the ignorant people against us. They would go into a hamlet where no Germans had been, convince the people this was going on, and then get them to fight us. They won the propaganda war against us; all we could do is show the people kindness and hope they returned it. I fear the official version of the war is polluted, and people believe things that never took place. The Soviets have made fairy tales into reality. The war was an ideological war and they never wanted Germany to rise again.

To do this it is important to make us out to be criminals who terrorized all of Europe and killed millions in a dark quest for superiority. Of course this is just not true, we fought for a better time, not just for Germans, but for all Europeans. There was no hate against anyone except for the enemy, who was trying to kill us. I do not know of any comrade who viewed the Russians as some type of inferior people. It is true that we saw our culture had made more bounds than theirs, especially when compared to the Soviet state, but we still respected them. They were a nation of mostly poor farmers and unskilled workers. Many were hired to come to work for us and receive training. Today they say we forced them to, but what else would they say when threatened with having to face judgment? I have been told that many of the civilians were killed by a vengeful Stalin who was angry so many helped us.

It is true that some partisans were hung or executed, and we showed these to the people to halt any further acts. In hindsight this was not a good thing to do as it played into the enemy's propaganda. It just so happened that many of the partisans were Jews, which did not look good for us. It was not good that war involved civilians for the first time in modern times. I fear it will not be the last, look at the missiles you have here now. If the Allies would have listened to us these would not be necessary.

Can I ask what the fighting was like at war's end?

Kurt: At the very end or just the final months? The final months were brutal. You see we had very weak strength then, by the end we only had two Panthers left. We had been forced to retreat for 2 years, and we ended up in Hungary, and then the Reich. There was an offensive to free Budapest, which was partly successful at first but ended when overwhelming armor beat us back. The Allies controlled the skies then, and it was hard to move in the day. I remember I was in a Panther and I was part of the crew of [SS-Sturmbannführer Hubert-Erwin] Meierdrees who wore the Knight's Cross with the Oak Leaves. I was the radio operator and we had success often, the gun on the Panther was very good. It was a good Panzer to be in, somewhat comfortable due to the ride suspension; it had less jolting than the others. We also had to rush from area to area wherever the going was hard, like firefighters.

Even though we had very good Panzers, they could still be knocked out, we were far from invincible. The day we were hit we had orders to protect a river crossing and to hold enemy armor back. The Panther was hit, killing Meierdrees [January 2, 1945] and 2 other comrades. Only [SS-Mann Sepp] Hirsch and I made it out. The enemy got us good; they had very good Pak guns [anti-tank guns] and the new Stalin tank with a high velocity gun. They could even take down the King Tiger. They outnumbered us by so much that even brave stands meant nothing as they just poured more men and equipment into the fight. These scenes were repeated over and over that winter, we fought with the little we had, but we could not stop the Bolsheviks from taking Hungary. I remember seeing the long columns of refugees and thinking how will they fare in the cold? We had nothing to give those who asked for food or clothes. The worst was seeing young mothers with children in snow storms with nowhere to go.

We always gave rides to as many as we could, but sometimes this was bad as planes would shoot at us, killing them. I remember a lady gave me a heavy sweater from her husband's suitcase as I must have looked cold. It was very brutal during January and February. For anyone sick or wounded, it could spell death. We had to march up into the Reich and make small stands against the enemy to try to buy a few hours or days. For Totenkopf the war ended on May 8, it was a forced surrender and then into Bolshevik hands where they murdered many outright. Totenkopf had been singled out because of the insignia we wore, they assumed it meant we were killers and so they accused us of all the deaths. I never saw many of my comrades again, they did not survive captivity.

[Above: (left photo) SS-Sturmbannführer Hubert-Erwin Meierdrees and (right photo) Sepp Hirsch (left) and Kurt Söhrmann.]

I know you told me you were wounded, receiving the Silver Wound Badge. What was it like being in a wartime hospital?

Kurt: Yes I was wounded a few times. When a shell hits a Panzer it blows shrapnel inside and it is easy to pick up some. We also were used as infantry at times where we had to scout and fight on foot, we were soldiers after all. A couple of my wounds were not serious and I stayed with my comrades. For wounds serious enough they would send us further back to a main hospital far from any fighting. If the wound was really bad, a trip back to the Reich was ordered and a long stay in a comfy bed. I was in the Reich, and although being wounded is never fun, it was a nice break, but I did want to return to my comrades as they were my family. One wounding sent me for NCO training, so I was away for quite some time. This was common when coming off leave or being wounded; one could go to further training, or leadership courses.

One myth is that one could find love during one of these stays, but in truth the nurses were either taken or had orders to not get involved romantically. Of course some did not obey and gave in to a lucky soldier. This was quite rare, as all the pretty ones already had someone. Hospitals did not always have Germans in them either, for the SS we had men from all over and their women would come with them also. It was not uncommon to hear someone speaking French, Nordic, or Slavic languages. I even had a Swedish nurse care for me for a few days. We could not understand each other much as her German was bad, but I just let her do her job. I remember we could go to the cinema, bars, and parks. You had no real duty while in the hospital other than get well and rest. Some would play cards all day long or read. I liked going into town and seeing what everyone was doing, I even helped the Blockleiter [an NSDAP political rank responsible for the supervision of a neighborhood] work on his friend's wood-fired car.

These were odd contraptions, since fuel was rationed, if you had to drive a lot you could convert an engine to run off wood combustion called producer gas [a fuel gas that is manufactured by blowing a coke or coal with air and steam simultaneously]. It had big tanks on the back and I had experience with this, it was common here in Germany. You had to be careful as a leaky pipe could kill you. I will tell you my cousin was in the east and investigated a bus using this, with a leaky pipe, it was carrying children of war wounded and some died as a result. I recently saw in a propaganda show that they claim these were made just to kill Jews. They really think people are dumb, and sadly we can not speak out.

[Above: A car with a wood gasifier in Berlin in 1946.]

[Above: Kurt Söhrmann looking cool as ever in his camouflage.]

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