The companies commanded by Bach and Lenard settled into the cool, spacious basement of a large building. The broken windows let in light and fresh air. The soldiers diligently carried down pieces of furniture from apartments not damaged by fire. The basement looked more like a warehouse than an army bivouac.

Each soldier had his own bed, covered with a quilt or blanket. They also carried down little tables, armchairs with fine, ornately carved legs and even a three-leaved mirror.

In one corner of the basement Stumpfe, the battalion’s senior soldier and a general favourite, created a kind of model bedroom. He brought down a double bed from a top-floor apartment, spread a pale blue blanket over it and placed two pillows in embroidered pillowcases by the headboard. He stood bedside tables, covered with small towels, on each side of the bed, and laid a carpet on the stone floor. Then he found two chamber pots and two pairs of old-people’s fur-trimmed slippers. And he hung ten framed family photographs, taken from different apartments, on the walls.

The photographs he chose were all rather comic. One was of an old man and an old woman, probably working class, dressed up for some important occasion. The old man wore a jacket and tie; seeming ill at ease, he was frowning severely. The old woman wore a black dress with large white buttons. She had a knitted shawl draped over her shoulders and she was sitting with her hands folded in her lap, looking meekly down at the ground.

Another, much older photograph was of the same couple (the experts were all in agreement) on the day of their wedding. She was wearing a white veil, with small bunches of wax orange blossom; pretty but sad, she looked as if she were preparing for difficult years to come. The groom stood beside her, resting one elbow on the back of a tall black chair; he was wearing patent-leather boots and a black three-piece suit, with a watch chain attached to the waistcoat.

The third photograph showed a wooden coffin lined with lace paper. Inside the coffin lay a little girl in a white dress; standing around it, their hands on the coffin’s sides, were various strange-looking people: an old man in a long calico shirt with no belt; a boy with his mouth open; a man with a beard and several old women in kerchiefs, their faces fixed and solemn.

Without taking his boots off or removing the sub-machine gun hanging from his neck, Stumpfe collapsed onto the bed. His legs trembling, he called out in a high-pitched, affected voice, as if imitating a Russian woman, ‘Lieber Ivan, komm zu mir!1 The entire company roared with laughter.

Then he and Corporal Ledeke sat down on the chamber pots and improvised comic dialogues: first, ‘Ivan and His Mother’; then, ‘Rabbi Israel and His Wife Sarah’.

Very soon, soldiers from other regiments were coming to attend repeat performances. Preifi appeared too, somewhat tipsy, along with Bach and Lenard.

Stumpfe and Ledeke went through the whole programme from beginning to end. Preifi laughed more loudly than anyone, helplessly rubbing his hands against his huge chest and saying, ‘Stop, stop! You’re killing me!’

In the evening the soldiers hung blankets and shawls over the windows, lit the large pink- and green-shaded oil lamps, filled with a mixture of petrol and salt, and sat down around a large table.

Only six of them had served throughout the Russian campaign. The others were from divisions previously stationed in Germany, Poland and France. Two had been in Rommel’s Africa Corps.

The company had its aristocrats and its pariahs. The Germans made fun of the Austrians, but they also often made vicious fun of one another. Those born in East Prussia were considered ignorant hawbucks. The Bavarians laughed at the Berliners, saying that Berlin was a Jewish city, a melting pot for riff-raff from Italy, Romania, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Mexico, Brazil and any number of other countries, and that it was impossible to find a single true German there. The Prussians, the Bavarians and the Berliners all despised the Alsatians, calling them foreign swine. Men repatriated from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were referred to as ‘quarter-German’; all the miserable weaknesses of the Slav East were thought to have entered their blood. As for Volksdeutsche from Central and Eastern Europe, they were not considered German at all; there were official instructions to keep an eye on them and not to entrust them with any tasks of importance.

The company’s aristocrats were Stumpfe and Vogel, both former members of the SS. They were among the many thousands of SS who, on the Führer’s orders, had been transferred to the Wehrmacht to boost morale.

Stumpfe was generally seen as the company’s life and soul, as its moral backbone. He was tall and – unlike most corporals and rank-and-file soldiers – round and plump in the face. He was bold, smart and lucky, and he had an unrivalled ability to go round a half-destroyed Russian village and conjure up enough good foodstuffs for a parcel to send back home. He only had to look at an ‘Easterner’ for honey and fatback to appear. All this, naturally, impressed and delighted his fellow soldiers.

He loved his wife, his children and his brother. He was constantly writing letters to them and the food parcels he sent them were as rich and nutritious as those sent by officers. His wallet was full of photographs, which he had shown more than once to everyone in the company.

There were photos of his rather thin wife – clearing a dining table piled with dishes; leaning against the fireplace, wearing pyjamas; sitting in a boat, her hands on the oars; holding a doll and smiling; and going for a walk round the village. There were also photographs of his two children: a tall boy and a pretty little six-year-old girl with blonde hair down to her shoulders.

The other soldiers sighed as they looked at these photographs. And before returning a photograph to his wallet, Stumpfe would gaze at a dear face long and intently; he could have been contemplating an icon.

He had a gift for telling stories about his children; Lenard once said to him that, with his talents, he should be performing on stage. One of his best stories, about preparing the family Christmas tree, was full of sweet, funny invented words, sudden cries and gestures, childish hypocrisy, childish cunning and childish envy of other children’s presents. The story’s effect on its audience was often unexpected. While Stumpfe was speaking, people would be laughing out loud, but when he came to the end they were often moved to tears.

But it was not only Stumpfe’s stories that were paradoxical. He himself combined qualities one might have thought irreconcilable. This lover of his wife and children was capable of extraordinary, devil-may-care violence. On the rampage, he truly did become a devil; it was impossible to restrain him.

In Kharkov, dead drunk, he once climbed out of a fourth-floor window and walked right round the building on a narrow ledge, pistol in hand, firing at anything that caught his attention.

On another occasion, he set fire to a house, got up onto the roof and, as if in charge of an orchestra, began to conduct the flames and smoke and the wails of the women and children.

Stumpfe ran amok a third time on a moonlit May night in a Ukrainian village. He threw a hand grenade into the middle of some trees in blossom. The grenade got caught in the branches and exploded four metres away from Stumpfe. Leaves and white petals rained down on him, while one piece of shrapnel ripped open the top of one of his boots and a second punctured a shoulder board. Stumpfe suffered only mild concussion, but it was two days before he recovered his hearing.

There was something about his face, about the sudden glassy glitter in the depths of his large, calm eyes, that terrified the ‘Easterners’ he so despised. When he entered a hut, sniffed disdainfully as he looked slowly around him, pointed to a stool and ordered an astonished child or dazed old woman to wipe it clean with a white towel, they understood at once that it was best to do as he said.

Stumpfe’s understanding of the psychology of Russian peasants was astonishing. After observing a woman for five minutes, he could win bets as to the quantity of honey, eggs and butter in the hut and whether or not there were treasures hidden beneath the floorboards: new boots, cloth or woollen dresses.

He was intelligent and quicker than any of his comrades to learn words of Russian. He soon knew enough to be able to organise all he needed without recourse to a phrase book or dictionary. ‘I’ve simplified the Russian language,’ he used to say. ‘In my grammar there is only one mood: the imperative.’

His fellow soldiers loved hearing him talk about his past; he had witnessed a great deal.

As a young man, he had worked in a sports shop. After losing his job, he spent two summers working on farms, in charge of a threshing machine. In 1926 he worked for three months in the Ruhr, in the Kronprinz coal mine. Then, after obtaining his licence, he became a professional driver. First, he delivered truckloads of milk, and next he worked as a chauffeur for a well-known dentist in Gelsenkirchen. A year later he became a taxi driver in Berlin. Then he worked for a year as an assistant concierge in the hotel ‘Europe’ and then as a kitchen supervisor in a small restaurant frequented by lawyers and industrialists.

He was happy to see his hands becoming soft and white and he took good care of them, wanting to erase any last trace of the harm done to his skin by some of his former jobs.

In the restaurant Stumpfe had his first real encounter with a world that had always intrigued him. On one occasion he calculated that a single deal – buying a portfolio of shares just before they shot up in value after a long slump – enabled a customer to make a profit equivalent to what he himself, in his previous job, would have earned over a period of one hundred and twenty years – or one thousand and four hundred and forty months, or forty thousand days, or three hundred thousand hours, or nineteen million minutes. The customer had made this deal between two sips of coffee, using the restaurant telephone; it had taken him less than two minutes.

Some miraculous power was at work here – and this power intrigued Stumpfe.

Breathing the atmosphere of wealth, hearing omniscient waiters talk about which of their customers had bought a new Hispano-Suiza,2 which had just built a villa and which had bought a pendant for a well-known actress – all this was a source of both pain and pleasure.

Yokosuka blue line
The Hazara