world war 2: warsaw uprising 1944

Lt. Peter Stölten: Letters to the Family.

Reprinted with a permission from Norman Davies, "Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw".

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Lt. Peter Stölten, 1924-1945, drafted in1940, fought on the Eastern Front in 2nd Panzer Group under Gen. Heinz Guderian, in Normandy, and in Poland. Letters were provided by his sister and originally published in German and Polish: Warschauer Aufstand, 1944 (Powstanie Warszawskie 1944). Editors Bernd Martin and Stanislawa Lewandowska. Deutsch-Polnischer Verlag (Wydawnictwo Polsko-Niemieckie). Warsaw, 1999.

Peter Stölten died on January 24, 1945 on the Eastern front near Olsztyn.

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From a letter to his parents, 7 September, 1944
... They've bandaged my other eye now; I have shrapnel wounds on the left side of my head, but only shallow ones. Everything's returning to normal. The previous wound has healed now ...

There was a strange repetition, which everyone considers a bad omen: our own soldiers were killed (first time six of them, second time two) and a few wounded by our own weapons. The enemy fired at us, detonating a thousand kilos of explosives just three metres from my vehicle. I don't consider myself at fault. But it makes no difference. If you bring bad luck you'll be stigmatized, as if you really were guilty. It's a curse. You can see it in everyone's faces. After the explosion, I was lying for hours, blinded, among the groaning wounded. Now I'm safe and calm. I believe that ill fortune and responsibility educate a man ...

From a letter to his parents, 16 September, 1944
... After I was wounded for the second time I stopped fighting. A colleague of mine, who was very keen, replaced me. I'm quite pleased about the arrangement because I'd had enough. But I seem to have been too pleased with myself ... I'm the commander of a base and deal with everyday company matters. Fifty per cent of my work involves furnishing flats for our officers. My boss is an interior decorator and he's very demanding. I really enjoy changing things round. I'm on my fourth flat now. From half-ruined houses we take the best stuff: sculptures, sofas, rugs, etc. – soon it will all go up in flames. Everything is being smashed to pieces. We pick our way through utensils, rubbish, broken china, and dirt. Horrifying and unimaginable desolation. That's the propagators of European culture for you. Let them steal! ...

We live near a power station. I often get to see beautiful well-built flats with elegant furniture. In Hungary tool was most impressed. It seems that small, mainly Slavonic countries are in the lead when it comes to aesthetic taste. Could it be a sign of great times to come for them? The Germans can't compete, and neither can dusty old France - I'm leaving Russia out of the picture. How long will it last? ... its present direction, leaving aside the prospect of the unpredictable 'wonder weapons' or whatever. In Warsaw you can see the real face of this war – more terrible than in our own country. I've got used to the sight of male corpses – they're a part of everyday life; but not to the remains of women's bodies, where a life of love and innocence once grew, or when I see the bodies of children, all of whom I consider innocent whatever their mother tongue and all of whom I love in these horrendous times ... – I know you will say I must not write about it ...

In a long letter to my father I mentioned a girl who was much talked about in our unit. I never saw her, but I heard a lot about her, and because I held some vivid memory of certain scenes and their background, I could easily call it the most beautiful experience (`beautiful' is dubious, I should say 'deep experience'): it was during the seizure of a bank. Bombers, anti-aircraft cannon, mortars, and explosive gases had been used to capture this particular building. When the line of machine guns drew close to the basement, most of the civilians surrendered. They came out, faces covered in dust, mute from fear. They crawled out whimpering, with cannons firing over them. Yet this girl stood there erect, with a calm and serious expression, shaking her head slightly in disbelief at this mad activity ... She stood there proudly amidst the flames, insane but in one piece ...

From a letter to his father, 5 October, 1944
... The Capitulation was undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary things you can imagine. The reality of it puts all drama, all tragedy into the shade. They came out with fully deserved honours after true heroism in battle. In truth they fought better than we did. What we can learn from it is the following: 1) that nothing sensible can come from this kind of subjugation of an entire nation. Sad but true! 2) we don't have a monopoly on fortitude, spirit, patriotism, and sacrifice (we can't take the Poles' credit away from them). 3) that a city can defend itself for months on end, with much heavier losses on the attacker's side ... and much can be learned from this by a neutral observer. 4) that although a fighting spirit and a pure and courageous approach can achieve a great deal, in the end this spirit will always succumb to material advantage.

From a letter to his mother, 16 October, 1944
... The 'Wochenschau' (newsreel) is filmed here where I am and I saw at first-hand the drama of the Polish capitulation. Let's not deceive ourselves: Warsaw fell thanks to our heavy weaponry and not to the courage of certain units, however well they fought. Our losses amounted to about half those of the September campaign (incidentally, what would have happened without our unit, of which no mention was made? If it hadn't been for us, not a single soldier could have mounted an attack). Warsaw was a well of human passion – weaknesses, aspirations, bestiality, and madness. This unprecedented and many-sided war has revealed unplumbed depths of humanity and bestiality. Nothing from the realms of poetry, reality, or soldierly lore can touch it. In spite of everything, the most heroic fighting, given the conditions, was done by the bandits themselves. And if London, which ruled on everything down to the last detail, had not ordered the capitulation, we would have found ourselves with a tough nut to chew for a lot longer. Much more blood would have flowed. The insurgents deserved to be treated like soldiers. The Poles had nothing left to hope for, after the loss of their statehood and all their means of defence. I myself wouldn't like to live under German administration. They led off General [Bor] in a column of cars, and some colonel presented his army's declaration of surrender. Then they marched by in step, four abreast, avoiding the tear-stained and pain-ridden faces of the women, dressed wherever possible in remnants of Wehrmacht or party uniform, with their weapons ready to be surrendered. All done without a sign of despair, heads held high with national pride. Exemplary!

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