The Boy Who Went to War: The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WWII

The Boy Who Went to War: The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WWII

by Giles Milton

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A powerful and true story of warfare and human survival that exposes a side of World War II that is unknown by many— this is the story of Wolfram Aïchele, a boy whose childhood was stolen by a war in which he had no choice but to fight.

Giles Milton has been a writer and historian for many years, writing about people and places that history has forgotten. But it took his young daughter's depiction of a swastika on an imaginary family shield - the swastika representing Germany - for Giles to uncover the incredible, dark story of his own family and his father-in-law's life under Hitler's regime.

As German citizens during World War II, Wolfram and his Bohemian, artist parents survived one of the most brutal eras of history. Wolfram, who was only nine years old when Hitler came to power, lived through the rise and fall of the Third Reich, from the earliest street marches to the final defeat of the Nazi regime. Conscripted into Hitler's army, he witnessed the brutality of war - first on the Russian front and then on the Normandy beaches.

Seen through German eyes and written with remarkable sensitivity, The Boy Who Went to War is a powerful story of warfare and human survival and a reminder to us all that civilians on both sides suffered the consequences of Hitler's war.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429990585
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/11/2011
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 1,179,043
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

GILES MILTON is a writer and journalist. He has contributed articles to most of the British national newspapers as well as many foreign publications. He is the author of five previous works of non-fiction and one novel. His books have been translated into sixteen languages worldwide.

Giles Milton is the internationally bestselling author of a dozen works of narrative history, including Soldier, Sailor, Frogman, Spy, Airman, Gangster, Kill or Die: How the Allies Won on D-Day. His earlier work, Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, is being developed into a major TV series, and Nathaniel’s Nutmeg was serialized by the BBC. Milton’s works have been published in twenty-five languages. He lives in London and Burgundy.

Read an Excerpt

The Boy Who Went to War

The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WWII

By Giles Milton

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2011 Giles Milton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-9058-5


The Gathering Storm

'You mustn't join the Nazi Party.'

It is a bright spring day in 1931: Wolfram's parents, Erwin and Marie Charlotte, have just moved into their extraordinary new home. While the grown-ups busy themselves with unpacking books and paintings, the children are left to amuse themselves.

The corridors and interconnecting salons of the Eutingen villa are alive with giggling and merriment as seven-year-old Wolfram cavorts around with Gretel, his pet wild boar. Together with his brother and sister, he has made an obstacle course out of upturned boxes and half-filled crates. And they have perfected the art of persuading Gretel to pursue bowls of milk balanced precariously in the cupped palms of their hands. As the liquid splashes to the floor and Gretel emits a contented grunt, the eighty-year-old parrot glares at them with disdain, expressing his irritation by plucking out his feathers and dropping them on to the polished parquet flooring.

'Raus! Out you go!' A sharp word from the maid sends children and boar scuttling outside, where they continue their pursuit in the long grass of the lower garden. In the family menagerie, the tame wolf, deer and owls look on with bemused indifference as Wolfram, his siblings and a highly excited Gretel end up in a tangled heap of arms, legs and boar snout.

For many months, the construction of the Aïchele family's villa had been a source of curiosity to the townsfolk of nearby Pforzheim, in the Black Forest region of south-west Germany. People watched, wide-eyed, as a veritable army of masons and roofers set off for the building site each morning. Everyone in the neighbourhood was talking about the house and asking themselves who had the money to build such a place.

And with good reason. Germany was in the grip of a financial depression so catastrophic that many had seen their life's savings lost to hyperinflation. Pforzheim's prattling housewives were no less shocked by the outlandish style of the villa. Its unusual architecture owed nothing to the familiar homesteads of rural Swabia – an area of southern Germany with a particularly rich history and traditions – and the construction site soon became the goal of many a Sunday-afternoon promenade. Pforzheimers would put on their capes and boots to traipse the three miles along the muddy byways that led uphill to the little village of Eutingen in order to catch a glimpse of the stucco façade, the plate-glass windows and the grand porch built in the squat style of the Italian romanesque.

Aloof on a hilltop, as if at a physical remove from the rest of the world, Wolfram's childhood home would become a place for artistic expression and classical music, its hall and salons brilliant with freshly cut blooms from the flower garden.

It was assumed by everyone that the mysterious new owners must belong to the town's snooty bourgeoisie, which could hardly have been further from the truth. The Aïcheles were neither snooty nor bourgeois – in fact, they were so idiosyncratic and unconventional that it was well nigh impossible to pin any one label on them. Nor were they rich. Their new home was a luxury they could ill afford, requiring Erwin to work long hours in order to pay the builders.

Wolfram's mother could not have been more different from the archetypal German hausfrau with her smart blouse and sensible footwear. Marie Charlotte had holes in her stockings and cardigans. Although extremely cultivated, of that there was no question, it did not stop her from walking around the house in her gardening boots.

The rigid formality adhered to by so many middle-class German families was wholly absent in the Aïchele household. Wolfram's parents had taken the decision to to bring up their children in an environment that was devoid of all the norms and conventions of 1930s bourgeois Germany. There were no strictures from starched aunts in outmoded crinolines, and no sense that children should be seen and not heard.

Wolfram's mother liked to break with conventions. Luncheon in the Aïchele household was always served at 1 p.m. and not at noon, in marked contrast to their neighbours. It was a subtle way of letting it be known that they were cultured and open to outside influences.

Wolfram's father Erwin, a distinguished animal artist, was so preoccupied with paying off the debts incurred by the new house that he kept only a cursory eye on the newspapers in these difficult economic times. Yet it did not pass unnoticed that, in the wider world beyond Eutingen, good news seemed to be constantly outweighed by bad. Erwin was delighted when the octogenarian war hero, General Paul von Hindenburg, beat the young Adolf Hitler to the presidency in the elections of spring 1932. Nevertheless, in the nationwide ballot that followed in July, he was disquieted to learn that the Nazis had scored an unprecedented 37 per cent of the vote. People were already beginning to say that Hitler was the only man who could save Germany from disaster.

For the children, the political chicanery in Berlin belonged to another world. Here in Eutingen, the youngsters were healthy and the family had a steady income. Summer was a time for bicycle rides, country walks, and picking plums and cherries. The fears and troubles that lay at the back of everyone's minds did not yet impinge on the private domain of the Aïcheles.

Wolfram was an inquisitive child, even at an early age. On Sunday afternoons, when his father was busy painting in his garden atelier, he would creep to the landing at the very top of the house. This was his own place of enchantment, a little corner where his imagination could run riot. His father had an old wooden secretaire – his personal cabinet of curiosities – that had dozens of keys, handles and secret drawers. Each one contained a relic, a feather or a piece of fur or an unhatched bird's egg. Erwin kept such things as reminders of all the animals he had nurtured in the family menagerie.

Here, too, were his freemasonry magazines. When Wolfram had tired of exploring the secret drawers, he would hide himself away with these journals and read stories of adventure from the outside world. There were articles about faraway countries, of the exotic Orient and the Dark Continent, as well as stories of films and artists from around the globe. Wolfram would enter another world, unimaginably distant from rural Swabia, and he was spellbound.

Alas, his reveries would never last for long. A shout from the hall would send him scuttling downstairs: it was his father, once again calling him to help in his atelier. For the next two hours, Wolfram would sit there, holding one of the dogs that Erwin was painting. It was an irksome task. He and his brother continually complained of it to their mother, but she would brush off their moaning with a joke, saying, 'I'd sooner he painted dogs than naked women.'

Wolfram's father belonged to a generation of Germans with firsthand experience of the brutality of war. Like so many of his contemporaries, he had volunteered for service in the First World War, but he was untauglich – unsuitable – for he had a weak constitution and was turned down by the army. After much persistence he finally got accepted as a war artist, producing vivid sketches of artillery battles, bomb-damaged churches and villages that had been destroyed by war.

His work carried him to the front line and he was gravely wounded in the slaughter-fields of Picardy in northern France. Hit by shrapnel – his shoulder was shattered into fragments – he slipped into a deep coma. He awoke many days later to find himself in a military hospital in Pomerania, some 800 miles from the battlefront.

By the time he was fully recovered, Germany was a different country. The war was lost and the victorious allies were determined to impose a harsh penalty on the vanquished. As Erwin made his way back to the house of his parents, he witnessed the first signs of the street violence that was to lead Germany to revolution. Radicals clashed with Nationalists, and Communists fought with soldiers returning from the front.

Many of these returning servicemen were deeply shocked by the hostility shown them. 'I shall never forget the scene,' wrote one, 'when a comrade without an arm came into the room and threw himself on his bed crying. The red rabble, which had never heard a bullet whistle, had assaulted him and torn off his insignia and medals.'

Erwin was himself a target for abuse, albeit verbal. Knowing little of the political revolution that had taken place, he arrived in Berlin still wearing the insignia of the Kaiser. It provoked a tongue-lashing from a shopkeeper, who told him to remove the monarchical colours. Erwin was deeply disturbed. Like his yeomen antecedents, he was a German Nationalist – a staunch believer in the old order, preferring Germany under the firm rule of the Kaiser. He had no time for the 'red rabble' who were attempting to sow the seeds of revolution. And he had no time for democracy.

Erwin was fortunate to have a job in the aftermath of the First World War. He had found employment as an art teacher at a jewellery school in the provincial town of Pforzheim shortly before August 1914. It was to Pforzheim that he now returned, along with the young woman who was shortly to transform his life. Marie Charlotte was bright, highly educated and physically striking.

Although not conventionally beautiful, she could turn men's heads, perhaps because she looked so unusual, with wide almond eyes and such uncommonly high cheekbones that throughout her life people would assume that she had Slav blood.

In fact, she was a thoroughbred German like Erwin, but she hailed from very different stock. She was the daughter of a distinguished military family who had first won their spurs fighting alongside Napoleon during his 1812 invasion of Russia.

The couple wedded in 1919 and Erwin resumed his job at Pforzheim's jewellery school. It was a difficult time to be starting a new life: rioting, political assassinations and running gun battles were commonplace, and there were constant clashes between rival militia and paramilitary gangs.

Amid such scenes, it was a miracle that a parliamentary democracy of sorts was born. By the summer of 1919, Germany had a constitution, a plethora of political parties and a democratically elected president. However, the constitution, drawn up in the city of Weimar, contained a defect that was to undermine the democratic process from the very outset. Article 48 allowed the president to rule by decree in times of trouble. President Friedrich Ebert was to use this prerogative on no fewer than 136 occasions – a worrying precedent for the country's fledgling democracy.

The young Aïchele couple had precious little money at this time. As Erwin was paid a pittance, he and his new wife had to live in a series of damp and inadequate rented lodgings, with no heating and many broken windows, which they had no spare money to repair. In the winter chill, Marie Charlotte was so cold that she would buy cheap, oven-hot bread buns and put them into her coat pockets to warm her hands as she walked home from the shops.

In 1921, Marie Charlotte gave birth to her first son, a plump and healthy baby named Reiner. Three years later, Wolfram was born. The extra mouths further stretched their hard-pressed finances and the family subsisted on a diet of bread and potatoes. When Erwin began to make a name for himself as an animal artist, he supplemented his income by selling his paintings to the hunting fraternity. He had soon saved enough spare cash to employ Ilse, the first in a series of increasingly bohemian maids.

The young Wolfram – he was just five years old – would clamber atop the kitchen cupboard, where an air vent provided a clandestine view into the bathroom. From this vantage point, he and his brother were able to spy on Ilse as she lay naked in the bath. Her unclothed body was not the only attraction for the young voyeurs. Ilse had arrived to take up employment at the Aïchele household accompanied by her pet snake and every time she had a bath she did so with the reptile coiled around her neck.

Wolfram decided that he was going to marry her. Her hair was cut into a fashionable bob and she always wore the latest fashions. To his discerning young eyes, the exotic Ilse seemed to be a perfect choice of wife and he was most upset to discover that his affection was not reciprocated. Ilse soon left, to be replaced by a new maid named Clara.

Pforzheim was an unusual choice of home for a young artist. The free-spirited bohemianism of Berlin was wholly absent in provincial Swabia, and the capital's jazz clubs and freewheeling subculture might have belonged to another world. Pforzheim, home to thriving jewellery and watch-making industries, was staid and deeply provincial.

There was a Bismarckian solidity to the architecture of streets like Goethestrasse and Bleichstrasse that perfectly mirrored the oppressive spirit of the place. Ponderous buildings stood shoulder to shoulder like a row of well-heeled bürgermeisters. Built out of dark-russet sandstone and blackened by pollution, they were singularly lacking in frivolity.

In the late nineteenth century, the town's merchants had amassed sizeable fortunes from their jewellery businesses. With this money they built solid fin-de-siècle mansions on the leafy fringes of town, adorned with pinnacles, turrets and crenellated battlements in homage to Germany's Teutonic past. Yet there was nothing whimsical about the families that lived here, profoundly conservative and deeply conventional, in marked contrast to Wolfram's parents.

A number of the wealthiest local dynasties were Jewish. The Rothschilds and Guggenheims were among the more prominent, along with many of the town's leading doctors and lawyers.

Wolfram's father would soon socialise with many of these wealthy Jews. Like them, he was a freemason – a member of the prosperous Reuchlin lodge. Every week, he would put on his smartest suit and stroll down to the Villa Becker, the lodge's headquarters, for an evening of debate, classical music and intellectual discussion.

Wolfram's mother was always at her happiest on the evenings when he went to his Masonic meetings because beforehand he washed, shaved and put on a top hat, although she could never understand why he insisted on leaving his wet shaving bowl and razor on the piano. She would let out a weary sigh when – as always happened – she would find him asleep in the bath with the newspaper floating all around him. Having fished out the pages, she would hang them on the radiators to dry.

All would be forgiven when Erwin emerged clean-shaven and dressed in his smartest clothes, bringing back fond memories of Marie Charlotte's comfortable bourgeois childhood; her father, a general, was always impeccably turned out.

The town's Jewish bourgeois elite quickly warmed to Erwin's eccentricities and awkward mannerisms, excusing him because he was an artist. He, in turn, found them stimulating company.

The overt anti-Semitism that was so prevalent in other parts of Germany was less visible in Pforzheim. Although there were sometimes tensions between the two communities, Jews played an important role in local society and several leading members of the Chamber of Commerce were Jewish. The town's two principal department stores were also owned by Jews and when the community came to build a new synagogue in 1893, they were offered a site in the very heart of the town. Its architecture was conspicuously Western; with its stocky tower and gilded cupola, it could easily have been mistaken for a church.

There were the occasional unpleasant incidents. In 1922 a couple of the synagogue's windows were smashed, and in 1926 some tombs in the Jewish cemetery were daubed with paint. Yet these were isolated cases, swiftly dealt with by the authorities. In Pforzheim, the Jews had nothing to fear.

* * *

Wolfram was not yet born when the German economy suffered its first spectacular crash. In April 1923, exactly twelve months before his birth, it cost 24,000 Deutschmarks to buy one American dollar. By Christmas, that same dollar cost a staggering 4,200 trillion Deutschmarks. Reparation payments together with the loss of both the industrialised Lorraine and Silesia, had created an underlying instability. Inflation, soon to become hyperinflation, started to spiral out of control.

As instability led to catastrophe, the German mark was rendered worthless. Prices rose so rapidly that, when Marie Charlotte took her mother to Café Brenner in the centre of Pforzheim, she joked that she should pay for the drinks immediately lest she could not afford them by the time they had finished.

When the German economy crashed for the second time, in 1930, Wolfram was six years old and had just started his education in a state school that catered for the children of both rich and poor. While the wealthy still managed to make ends meet, the impoverished underclass suddenly found themselves reliant on canteens run by Quaker charities from America.


Excerpted from The Boy Who Went to War by Giles Milton. Copyright © 2011 Giles Milton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 The Gathering Storm,
2 Enemy of the State,
3 A Visit from the Führer,
4 Flying the Nazi Flag,
5 War of Words,
6 Deporting the Jews,
7 Training for Victory,
8 Dirty War,
9 A Matter of Life or Death,
10 Surviving the Home Front,
11 Slaughter from the Air,
12 Prisoner at Last,
13 Working with Cowboys,
14 Firestorm,
15 Counting the Cost,
16 Escape to Freedom,
Notes and Sources,
Picture Acknowledgements,

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