Tracing A Soldier’s Travels
On June 22, 1941, Hans Simon strode across the border between German-occupied Poland and the Soviet Union, beginning a journey that would take him thousands of miles from his home of Mecklenburg, in northeast Germany. The twenty-one-year old who dreamed of one day becoming a secondary school teacher found himself in unexpected circumstances after being drafted into the Wehrmacht, the German military, in 1938. After taking part in the invasions of Poland and France, he was now serving as part of an anti-tank gun grew with the 12th Infantry Division, one of over three million men who took part in Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in the spring of 1941.
Simon’s unit advanced rapidly through the Baltic states, and by July Simon reported in a letter to his parents that he and his comrades had broken through the Stalin Line and passed into Russia, his family’s ancestral home. The Soviets fought fiercely, he noted, but so far the invaders were proving victorious. By late fall, Hans Simon and his comrades had taken up defensive positions near the Valdai Heights between Moscow and St. Petersburg, where they fended off Soviet counterattacks.
As winter settled over the Russian landscape, a rare stroke of luck bought Hans Simon a reprieve. His petitions to study at Rostock University were finally answered in the affirmative, and he spent the next months back in Germany, learning languages, history, and geography. By the time he returned in the spring of 1942 after a winding journey, he found that many of his former comrades had been killed or injured when the division was surrounded in Demjansk over the previous months. Now promoted to leader of a gun crew, he helped to hold the line in what had degenerated into a battle of attrition.
Following the disastrous battle of Stalingrad, the Soviet army began to turn the tide against the invaders. By the spring of 1943, Simon’s unit was on the retreat. Trapped for a time around the city of Kholm, they found themselves continually pushed back as they attempted to defend the center of the Wehrmacht’s increasingly brittle front. It was during this trek west in the fall of 1944 that Simon went missing near Byerazino, in modern-day Belarus. His commanding officer reported that he had likely been captured by Russian paratroopers during an ambush. Like that of tens of thousands of others on the Eastern Front, his ultimate fate was unknown.
Hans Simon’s story forms one small part of my dissertation project. It examines the experiences of soldiers who fought on the Eastern Front during the Second World War in order to shed light on how Hans Simon and others like him convinced themselves that they were decent men fighting for a righteous cause, despite the fact that the battle they waged amounted to nothing less than a war of extermination against populations the Nazis deemed unworthy of life, a fact now recognized by historians.
As I set to work writing, however, I soon discovered that the story I wished to tell involved an enormous number of characters (thirty soldiers, to be exact), and that keeping track of each of them was a challenge. The plot was murky as well, fragmented into discrete episodes without any connecting tissue between them. My sources—a combination of letters, diaries, and institutional documents—conveyed more a pointillist portrait than a clear sense of the trajectory of each man’s experiences. As I studied what Hans Simon had done from day to day, I frequently lost sight of what he had done before and after. I also had difficulty telling how the lives of the other soldiers in my study intersected with Simon’s, temporally as well as geographically. More than once, I discovered in the middle of a chapter that several of the men I was writing about had been stationed in the same places at similar times, and I ended up having to re-write the narrative so their experiences intertwined. All of this led me to realize that what I needed was a way to visualize where Simon and his colleagues had been, and a way to track their movements over time.
Searching for Simon
Figuring out where exactly my soldiers had been turned out to be less straightforward than I expected. In a handful of cases, Wehrmacht personnel openly disclosed their locations in their writings, or a family member had compiled a detailed list after the war. Most of the time, however, soldiers were more circumspect, partly a result of strict military secrecy laws that forbade them from disclosing such details in their letters, and partly, no doubt, a result of the fact that front-line troops were often in the dark regarding where they were actually stationed (many letters began with the abbreviation “U.O.,” which stands for Ort Unbekannt—“location unknown”). To get around the censors, servicemen sometimes provided only the first letter of a town or city, or made vague references to geography (“we are on the west bank of a large river, near the city of S.”).
Fortunately, I at least knew which unit(s) most of the men served in, and this proved to be just enough to go on. Using a combination of a research website with a catalogue of the locations of every unit in the German army and West Point’s Second World War map collection, I was able to fill in the gaps and cross-reference these sources with what Hans Simon and his comrades had written.
Another hurdle was the naming problem. Most of my sources used German spellings, and in many cases German transliterations, of Russia, Ukrainian, or Polish names for villages, towns, and cities. Welish, for example, turned out to be (in its Anglicized form) the city of Velizh. Numerous places had changed their name since the war. Others had simply ceased to exist, a testament to the fact that the Wehrmacht wiped out an estimated 70,000 of them during the war. I spent time looking up the latest place names and did my best to determine the location of places that no longer appear on today’s maps.
As my location information was coming together, I turned for answers to my mapping questions to the Digital Humanities Research Group, which I had been attending to learn how to incorporate digital tools into my dissertation. At the suggestion of one of the members, I tried Google’s Map Maker—an easy-to-use utility that seemed to offer the simplest solution.
The results, visible below, showed potential but were less than satisfactory. The symbols and lines were crude and frequently overlapped. There was a limit to how many layers could be created, so I had to make several maps instead of the single one I had planned for. Worst of all, there was no way of effectively representing the passage of time. I decided that I needed a program that was interactive, one that could allow me to select a date and quickly determine where each soldier was at that time. My inspiration was a little-known Russian digital history project that showed the shifting of the front lines and let the viewer start and stop the action whenever they desired. For the moment, this kind of approach seemed to be out of reach, and I set the mapping aside as I focused on churning out more chapters.
Mapping War Stories
I had shelved the mapping portion of my project for months when I received some new inspiration, in the form of attending a lecture by Anne Kelly Knowles, a historical geographer at the University of Maine. She spoke about her research using ESRI ArcGIS, one of the advanced mapping programs frequently used by geography departments. I had not heard of the program before, but a little research showed that it overcame the limitations I had run into to that point and also had the capability I was looking for the most—the ability to map locations over the course of time.
Transferring my existing Google Maps data to ArcGIS proved much more of a challenge than I expected. I had to re-geocode most of my locations, create an excel spreadsheet for each soldier, and then begin the process of introducing my data to the ArcMap program. The staff of UW’s Cartography Lab patiently gave me a crash course. This time, I included information for how long a soldier had stayed in each location. Then I used one of ArcMap’s newer features to create a time slider that allowed me to set the date and instantly see where each soldier was. As with Google Map Maker, I could make each soldier visible or invisible, allowing me to track only the soldiers I was studying at the moment.
By the time I finished, I realized that I had created an interactive map of the Eastern Front, one that gave a good approximation not only of the paths of individual soldiers but the movements of the German Army on a macro scale, from its early victories to its retreat across the Russian steppes. The narratives I told became richer and more compelling. Whenever I needed to refer to an individual soldier, I could instantly track his location and tell what he had been doing before and after the events I was describing. When I discussed Hans Simon’s experiences in the spring of 1942, for example, I knew that he had just returned to the front after his time on leave at Rostock University, a fact that helped explain why his mood was much more positive than that of most of his fellow troops. I was also able to quickly determine if several soldiers had operated in the same area at the same time and to link their stories together into a more easy-to-follow narrative, rather than jumping from one soldier to another on opposite ends of the front.
Beyond helping me to understand individual and small-group narratives, digital mapping opened up big-picture insights I had previously missed. One was that by 1943, about a third of the soldiers I studied were either dead or missing, a frightening indication of the rates of attrition experienced by German armies on the Eastern Front. Another was recognizing just how far and how often the Wehrmacht’s men traveled; many of them fought in several different sectors, spent time training or recovering from wounds across Germany and Eastern Europe, and covered thousands of miles in the space of a few years. I also realized that while the Wehrmacht had advanced with lightning speed in the first months of the war, it spent most of the next years either in relatively static positions or on the retreat, with the exception of the southern front. With the help of digital mapping, I could finally trace these larger developments; I could finally see both the forest and the trees.
The video above illustrates the movement of all thirty soldiers (each represented by a small dot) in my dissertation over the course of four years, from the invasion’s commencement in June, 1941, to the German Army’s ultimate collapse in 1945. Video by the author.
Featured Image: This map traces Hans Albring’s path on the Eastern Front during World War II. Data comes from the Museumsstiftung Post und Telekommunikation. Image by the author.
David Harrisville defended his dissertation in May, 2016 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is now teaching a lecture course on the Second World War. From 2012-2014, he conducted research as a fellow at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Free University in Berlin. His research interests include the social, cultural, and intellectual history of modern Europe, mentalities and everyday life in the Third Reich, Europe in the era of the world wars, and the history of morality. Contact.