Konrad H. Jarausch, named after his father, was twelve years old when he first heard about the letters. There were 350 of them. His mother, Charlotte, was trying to sell them to publishers, but nobody wanted another book about the war. “Not in 1952,” Jarausch says. “Not in Germany, anyway.”

Click to read photo caption. Courtesy of Konrad Jarausch

Jarausch never met his father and never wanted to hear about him or the war. But Jarausch’s mother insisted, encouraging the boy to be like his father—read the classics, study religion, be proud to be German. But the son couldn’t respect his father. “I didn’t like his conservative-nationalist politics,” Jarausch says. His father was no Nazi—he had refused to join Hitler’s National Socialist Party—but as a drafted reservist he became a cog in the Nazi war machine.

Jarausch rebelled, leaving Germany at age eighteen. “I wanted to get as far away as possible,” he says. “So I came to the United States and studied American history at the University of Wyoming.”

When his mother died in 1965, Jarausch gave away all her possessions except a few paintings, some photographs, and a brown briefcase full of letters. “I held onto them because they were the only link to my childhood, a way of keeping my mother’s memory alive,” he says. “And I suspected that if I wanted to meet my father later, I might be able to do so through these letters.”

Click to read photo caption. Courtesy of Konrad Jarausch

Jarausch became a scholar like his father, arriving at Carolina as a history professor in 1983, but still he had no interest in his father’s letters. Not until sixty years after the war did Jarausch have a look. He knew that a debate lingered between German scholars and veterans about the role of ordinary Wehrmacht army units in atrocities such as political executions, reprisals, and the killing of Jewish civilians and Russian POWs. Jarausch wondered whether his father had been involved and whether his father’s letters contained any evidence about the Wehrmacht’s culpability. “And I thought that I finally had to face up to the fact that this was part of my legacy,” he says.

In 2005, sitting in the study of his Berlin home, Jarausch dusted off the brown briefcase, opened it, and began reading.

GLAZNOW, Poland, October 7, 1939—Dear Lotte, We’ve had many quiet days. Life is as regular as in peacetime… We listened to the Führer’s speech yesterday. We were disappointed that there was no news of a decision. But it did leave open the possibility of a peaceful future…

For centuries, parts of what is now Poland had been under German rule. After Germany lost World War I, some ethnic German areas became Polish territory, leading many Germans to support Hitler’s war there. Jarausch’s father was a supporter. “This Polish state had to be destroyed,” he wrote. But he did not foresee Hitler’s grand scheme. At thirty-nine years of age, he questioned the need for his service and pined for his former life.

ZGIERZ, Poland, October 21, 1939—Dear Lotte, I had a lovely experience recently right before falling asleep. Do you know how when you close your eyes you sometimes see shimmering? This time I saw a wonderful, bright blue. Suddenly the blue turned into a beautiful field of forget-me-nots… Then you were there in a bright summer dress and a large straw hat, and you were picking the flowers. Your white dress and hat were shining in between the blues. I couldn’t see your face… Then everything disappeared. Only the blue shimmered in my dreams. I want to hold onto that forget-me-not, even if it was only a dream.

“This letter struck me like a painting, expressing a longing to return to a peaceful world,” Jarausch says. “This is one of the few places where I sense a real emotional bond to my mother, since my father’s style was intellectually open but emotionally reserved.”

The next letter was very different. Jarausch’s father had entered the Jewish quarter in the Polish city of Lodz.

October 22, 1939—We won’t so easily forget what we saw there. How pitiful and sordid these people are in appearance… The masses pushed their way past us on the narrow sidewalks… In the alleyways they group together. Among them one finds single, small faces with burning expressions of intelligence. Every now and then one sees some elegance. But overall, there’s just poverty and misery… Our throats seized up with the smells that came out of doorways… As night fell, the fog rising from the ugly, uneven facades took on something of the grotesque.

Jarausch’s father began to see that Poland was merely the war’s first act and that the attack on Poland had unleashed pent-up racism. Still, the letters show him as a spectator, not someone who was on the verge of acting on behalf of the Jews.

November 12, 1939—I can see a tower of fire over the city. The Jewish baths are burning, and the synagogue was burned down last night. The fires were set by the ethnic Germans who live here… And so each of us is affected by the strange tumult of our times… Our victory in Poland has just been too easy and too quick… The enormity of the task facing us in the East (not to mention in Russia) is slowly becoming apparent.

As Jarausch read the letters, he began to suspect that his father wasn’t a typical soldier. Drunkenness disgusted him. His father was religious; one Sunday morning he found himself alone at church. He read the classics in their original Greek and Latin. And he requested Polish language books. “Why would my father learn an ‘inferior language’ of a race of so-called ‘subhumans?’” Jarausch wonders. “I think he wanted to make contact.”

In 1940 Jarausch’s father still supported the war. He tried to become an officer. In 1941, though, when Jarausch’s father was called back to Germany as a drill instructor, he tried to get released from military duty. Jarausch says his father’s request was based more on a desire to return to his life than it was a repudiation of the war effort. When Hitler announced the invasion of Russia, Jarausch’s father knew where he’d be sent.

June 22, 1941—Dear Lotte, I heard a repeat broadcast of the Führer’s announcement. What solemn news… One will have to do what one is ordered to do. But don’t fear. Keep yourself free from all trouble. Pray and read the psalms so that you can prepare yourself for your coming tasks. Don’t be overcome by worry or sorrow…

Jarausch’s father left for the Eastern Front on August 9. Five days later Lotte gave birth to their only child. Jarausch’s father wouldn’t get the news until September 6, 1941. But he sensed what was going on back home and how difficult life alone must have been for his wife.

KOCHANOWO, Russia, August 15, 1941—Dear Lotte, What you are going through is too much, especially because it is ultimately not necessary. I wouldn’t say anything if I thought that my service was essential and extremely urgent. But I can’t bear this mixture of thoughtlessness and vexation; it really is just the last straw… On Monday I attempted to master my feelings so that our farewell wouldn’t be too painful.

As the German army blitzed through Russia, Jarausch’s father was never stationed far from the front, spending most of his time at Dulag 203, a transit camp where POWs were sorted before being sent farther from the front. Camps meant to imprison two thousand POWs were forced to house tens of thousands. Resources were stretched thin. In the end, more than two million Russian POWs died.

DULAG 203, Russia, August 1941—Ten thousand to twelve thousand prisoners… marched thirty to forty kilometers from the front; they were soaked; they had gone days without food… Their hunger drove them to the kitchens. Shots were fired to keep them in order. Some (not many) were killed. Others rolled around in the mud, howling from their hunger pains. The next morning several corpses were pulled out of the mud; only their legs or heads stuck up out of the mess.

Click to read photo caption. Courtesy of Konrad Jarausch

Jarausch’s father was put in charge of a field kitchen where there was never enough food, even before Wehrmacht leaders reduced POW rations to below the Geneva Conventions’ minimum requirement. He continually argued with the quartermaster to send more food and better cooking equipment. His requests denied, Jarausch’s father become disillusioned with the war in general. But because of manpower shortages, there was no way out by that point, Jarausch says.

November 14, 1941—The dull dying around us is just so terrible… twenty-five prisoners die daily… One tries to help. When they come to get their food and are frozen stiff from the cold, they stagger, fall over, and expire right at our feet. The corpses… are scrawny like late gothic figures of Christ, frozen stiff… There are civilians among the prisoners, many who are just in shirtsleeves—especially the Jews. It would really be the most merciful thing if they would be taken out into the forest and bumped off, as the experts put it. But the whole thing is already more murder than war… We’ve just been thrown into this situation, incapable of doing anything other than our limited duty.

According to the letters, Jarausch’s father scrounged for wood to heat stoves and organized German soldiers and POWs to cook. “Racist SS officers objected to these efforts,” Jarausch says. “And cynical nationalists told him to forget helping Slavic subhumans.” One superior told Jarausch’s father: “If you’re in this job you have to harden yourself. And what does it matter if five hundred more die?”

Click to read photo caption. Courtesy of Konrad Jarausch

Jarausch’s father referred to the camp as a tragedy. A believer in the Jesus who gave the Sermon on the Mount, he looked for help among the educated Russians, with whom he spent a lot of time. They shared stories of home. One prisoner taught him Russian. Others sketched him. One POW gave him a drawing of Lotte holding her baby. In one letter, Jarausch’s father wrote: “I haven’t felt such close human relations since I left home as the ones I now have with my Russians.”

As Jarausch’s father’s nationalistic fervor waned, his Christian ethics came to the fore.

October 23, 1941—The running of the camp has fallen in large part on me… I’m constantly reminded of Matthew 25:42-43. [“For I was hungered, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink.”] I can’t stop thinking about the passage. I’m trying to do what I can. It’s not much in the face of the worst suffering I’ve encountered in my life. But perhaps I can prevent further calamities. The Russians are helping me… I would like to be able to focus again solely on securing provisions. But at the moment the question is simply: who is your neighbor?

Jarausch says these letters from Russia raise questions about which values soldiers should cling to during wartime—a sense of national obligation or a commitment to humanity that transcends national boundaries? Jarausch’s father was leaning toward the latter, but it’s unclear what actions he would’ve taken during the last three years of the war.

Late in 1941 typhoid broke out in nearby Russian towns. Some POWs became infected. Jarausch’s father was stricken in January 1942. Lying in a field hospital bed, he wrote his final letter to his wife.

ROSLAWL, Russia, January 13, 1942—Dear Lotte, I only have time for a short note today. I thank you so much for your many letters from the last days of last year and then those from the new one. I am touched and thankful for all the heartfelt love that speaks from each of them. May God bless our wishes for the future. Everything is now in His hands. Here it’s horribly cold. But I’m well covered. Thank you so much for the wonderful presents… I’m so pleased to hear that the little one is so full of life and high spirits. Now goodbye and be well together with our child.

He died four days later. His son was six months old.

For Jarausch, the letters shatter the myth that ordinary army units were innocent. Regular soldiers, not just the SS, caused the deaths of millions of POWs, rural Russians, and Jewish civilians. “I always knew the Wehrmacht was nasty,” Jarausch says. “But to read those descriptions and to see the sense of helplessness that my father felt was something I just didn’t expect. Many of the so-called ‘good Germans’ not only knew of the Holocaust but became reluctant accomplices in it, because they kept doing their duty. They didn’t opt out.”

Had Jarausch’s father refused to be drafted or had he gone AWOL, he would’ve been court-martialed. But there’s no sign that Jarausch’s father wrestled with any of those options. Also, Jarausch says that his father didn’t pursue with enough vigor a job away from the front and the atrocities. So Jarausch doesn’t let his father off the hook. “His values led him to become an accomplice in something we have to reject,” Jarausch says.

Click to read photo caption. Courtesy of Konrad Jarausch

Still, Jarausch was moved to read his father’s remarks about the birth of the son he would never meet.

“The joy he expressed was like a hand reaching out to me,” Jarausch says. “It humanized him. He wasn’t just a stern scholar, a painting on the wall. These letters showed me who he was and that he would’ve been a loving father. And because that’s something I never had, it was something I responded to.”

Konrad Jarausch is the Lurcy Professor of European Civilization in the Department of History in the College of Arts and Sciences. His book, Reluctant Accomplice: A Wehrmacht Soldier’s Letters from the Eastern Front, was translated from German into English and co-edited by Eve Duffy, director of UNC’s Program in the Humanities and Human Values.