Germany’s Heroic Victims

The Cinematic Redemption of the Wehrmacht Soldier on the Eastern Front
  • Brian E. Crim


The nineteenth-century German nursery rhyme “Little Hans” (“Hänschen Klein”) is the story of a little boy who sets off on his own to explore a strange and expansive world only to return completely changed by the experience. Even Little Hans’s own mother does not recognize him after he returns from foreign lands. American director Sam Peckinpah chose this song to accompany the opening montage of his 1977 film Cross of Iron set during the Wehrmacht’s 1943 summer retreat in southern Russia. Peckinpah intersperses footage of happy and frolicking Nazi leaders with grisly scenes from the Eastern Front, specifically harrowing images of the shattered remnants of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad. While Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun repose in Berchtesgaden,1 German soldiers perish in a frozen wasteland to a chorus of children singing about the loss of innocence. It is telling that an American director crafted an admittedly flawed antiwar film around a platoon of Wehrmacht soldiers deep inside of the Soviet Union. According to Stephen Prince (2006), Peckinpah communicates the idea that soldiers—no matter the uniform—are inherently victims of their capricious and criminally negligent leadership.2 German filmmakers portray the Wehrmacht in a similar manner for complex reasons. The metaphor of Little Hans is understandably appealing to many Germans who, as Robert Moeller notes, “are seeking ways to lay their dead to rest and find a place in their history for the devastation that World War II brought to Germany.”3 Few Germans resent accepting responsibility for the Holocaust and commemorating its victims, but what place is there for Germany’s non-Jewish victims? Does such a category exist? Can it?


American Historical Review German Soldier American Popular Culture Eastern Front German Troop 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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  1. Cross of Iron. Directed by Sam Peckinpah. USA, 1977.Google Scholar
  2. Platoon. Directed by Oliver Stone. USA, 1986.Google Scholar
  3. Stalingrad: Dogs, Do You Want to Live Forever (Hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben). Directed by Frank Wisbar. West Germany, 1959.Google Scholar
  4. Stalingrad. Directed by Joseph Vilsmaier. Germany, 1993.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Karen A. Ritzenhoff and Jakub Kazecki 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Brian E. Crim

There are no affiliations available

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