Revisiting World War II Atrocities in the East

Dr. David Wildermuth picked up a book about World War II in second grade, and he’s been hooked ever since.

Being of German heritage, the assistant professor of modern languages has worked to build a better understanding of the country’s people, culture, and language. He studied abroad in Germany and completed his doctoral dissertation on “Hitler’s Eastern Ideology and Third Reich Foreign Policy 1939-1945.”

Because of his fluency in both German and Russian, Wildermuth can take a unique angle with his research on the occupation of German soldiers in the Soviet Union. This spring, a university Teaching Research and Excellence Grant allowed him to spend time in Russia researching the German occupation and interviewing locals who lived through the experience.

It’s important to give a voice to those who suffered. It empowers them in a way that they can be heard.

“Due to linguistic limitations, many scholars aren’t able to do this research,” he said. “What fascinates me as a German professor is understanding the German people and their culture, which will help us understand where the country is today.”

To lay the groundwork for his travels, Wildermuth received an undergraduate research grant with Matthew Hoffman ’15, who majored in accounting and minored in German. Hoffman developed a database of information on German soldiers convicted of crimes after the war that led Wildermuth to specific court records during his research abroad.

The grant provided an opportunity for Wildermuth to “get out there and get the lay of the land” for his research. “There’s only so much you can get from documentation. You have to understand if the accounts you read can be taken for truth.”

He said that very little has change in the Russian countryside since World War II. The land and people’s routines are still in sync with daily life nearly 100 years ago. His goal was to research at the national archives in Belarus and locate people who could share first-hand accounts during German occupation in the Soviet Union.

“It’s important to give a voice to those who suffered. It empowers them in a way that they can be heard,” he said. “History is usually written by the victors. This allows (the victims) to explain their grief and know they are not forgotten.”

The challenge is discovering and recording these stories before they are lost forever. The vast majority of those who lived through the German occupation in World War II have died. Wildermuth was able to meet several locals in their eighties and nineties who experienced it as children.

“Western scholars of the Holocaust focus their efforts more on interpretation than on empirical studies. I’m searching for new sources that shed light on how anti-Semitic the average German was.”

Wildermuth found that, as a Westerner, when he made the effort to speak the local language, people opened up to him. Even seventy years later, the horrors they experienced remain vivid, and they were willing to share their stories.

Dr. David Wildermuth traveled to Gagarin, Russia, to interview locals about their experience under German occupation during World War II.

Dr. David Wildermuth traveled to Gagarin, Russia, to interview locals about their experience under German occupation during World War II.

Dr. David Wildermuth is collecting firsthand stories of Russian who were under German occupation in World War II.

Dr. David Wildermuth is collecting firsthand stories of Russian who were under German occupation in World War II.

According to one seventy-two year old businessman who spoke with Wildermuth, the German army was very professional and didn’t seem to be racist. As a teenager at the time, he said he was treated well.

One gentleman who was younger during the occupation told Wildermuth that when the German army arrived in their town, he made the mistake of pointing a stick toward them like a gun. A German officer slapped him so hard that he stutters to this day.

Another couple Wildermuth spoke to said they were taken from their home and marched for days while the Germans let their village burn to the ground. Those who couldn’t keep up were shot or left to die. One of their younger brothers didn’t make it. In addition to marching, they were forced into labor.

Wildermuth will weave these personal tale in with his prior research and evaluate his findings in hopes of publishing a book. Previously, he traveled to Germany to speak with German soldiers who were part of the occupation in the Soviet Union. He also studied court cases of German soldiers who were charged and convicted of war crimes by Soviet courts after the war.

“I want to get the perspectives of the occupied and the occupier,” he said. “I’m using the 35th Infantry Division as a vehicle for analyzing all different aspects of war in the East.”

According to Wildermuth, three-quarters of all casualties the German army sustained were on Red soil. Those low-level soldiers convicted of various war-related crimes in court were not typically hung, but were used for their skills as doctors or engineers to help rebuild the country.

“What a great sacrifice it was, and what a great victory for them to overcome the power that enslaved them,” he said.  

“My hope is to create a better understanding of what this war of annihilation mean to all parties.”