Military history


Bounden Duty (I)

In 1935 Adolf Hitler, the new head of the German state, abrogated the article of the Versailles Treaty of 1919 that forbade Germany to have an army larger than 100,000 men and introduced general conscription. All fit young Germans at once became liable for military training. One who volunteered was Alexander Stahlberg, son of a rich industrial family with wide connections in the German aristocracy, though the family was not technically ‘noble’ itself. He was posted to one of the army’s last horsed cavalry regiments, Reiterregiment 6, and began to learn the duties of a trooper. His account is of the greatest interest, both as a description of an historic way of military life, shortly to disappear for ever, and of the processes by which Adolf Hitler sought to turn the new German army into a body bound to him by an oath of personal loyalty.

Stahlberg would later be commissioned as a reserve officer and serve most of the war as aide-de-camp (ADC) to Field Marshal von Manstein, the Wehrmacht’s leading commander of armoured troops.


In the 6th (Prussian)Cavalry Regiment

It was the summer of 1935 and in the newly-built barracks area of the 6th (Prussian) Cavalry Regiment (RR6) in Schwedt, the first recruits were arriving in long lines at their squadron quarters after the re-introduction of general conscription (March 1935). Sixty to seventy young men had been allocated to each of the six squadrons, all still in civilian clothes and each with a box beside him in which to send them home.

The commander of the 3rd Squadron, Captain von Lewinski, and his three lieutenants looked over the new faces. For the modern cavalry, the military district headquarters was looking for short young men, but an outsider had obviously wandered into the 3rd Squadron by mistake: over six feet three inches tall.

The captain spoke a few words of welcome and explained that from now on we were no longer Mr So-and-So, but ‘Troopers’. Then he started with the tall man on the right and asked him to give his name loudly and clearly. So Trooper Stahlberg began and the sergeant-major entered the name in his thick book, which was kept ready to hand between his second and fifth uniform buttons. No one else was allowed to leave a button undone.

‘Hands up anyone who has completed their school education. Elementary school first, then secondary school, and university entrance last.’ Result: one — he wore abnormally thick glasses — had not finished his elementary schooling, no secondary school pupils, one university entrant.

Then came the ages: all the recruits were under twenty, only the tall one at the end was almost twenty-three. He was asked how he had arrived in this squadron. ‘I don’t know, Sir!’ ‘Ah, are you the volunteer?’ ‘Yes, Sir.’ The sergeant-major made a note. Then the captain asked: ‘Shouldn’t Stahlberg have been in the 1st Squadron with the other volunteers?’ Sergeant-major’s answer: ‘It’s probably because he’s not noble, Sir.’ Pause.

Next order: ‘Hands up who can ride!’ Six hands flew up. ‘One step forward, those six. Enter them.’

Of course I could ride, otherwise I would not have enlisted in the cavalry. I had sat horses from childhood, in Kieckow, in Paetzig, I had ridden across the fields with my uncle, had gone on horseback to bathe and to visit the Tresckows in Wartenberg, and with Uncle Ewald von Kleist in Schmenzin, and even in Berlin, when one of my many uncles came visiting and paid for me to ride from Tattersall Beermann by the Zoo Station across the Tiergarten to the Brandenburg Gate.

Then we were divided up, six to a room. The man with thick glasses was in my room. On the top floor was the Quartermaster’s store, where we collected the first items of our uniform: underwear, footcloths (instead of socks), breeches and boots, overalls, our coarsely-woven working uniform. Then the young soldier learned to stuff his pallet with fresh straw. Even the things that one’s mother did at home had now to be learned by every recruit ‘according to regulations’, including sewing on a button!

The three hundred metres from our quarters to the stables were not walked but marched, generally singing. The tall fellow had to give the note, he seemed to know something about music.

Then we were assigned to groups, or ‘patrols’, and acquired our ‘instructors’, a sergeant and a lance-corporal, known as ‘twelvers’ because they had signed on for twelve years in the old Reichswehr [predecessor to the Wehrmacht].

There were over a hundred horses in each squadron. I was given a chestnut gelding called ‘Heldensang’, because he was the biggest horse in the squadron, an eleven-year-old crib-biter, hard-mouthed and still harder-jowled, as would soon appear, but hardest of all in the trot. But he ‘covered’ me, so that in silhouette my heels were scarcely visible, a veritable ‘monument of a horse’!

We learned grooming and everything else connected with our horses’ well-being. Even as a country child, I had never dreamed how much pampering is meted out to the horses of the Prussian cavalry. ‘Horse first, weapons next, man last!’

The first riding lesson came on the third day. The shining horse, without blanket and saddle, was led out of his stall on the snaffle. More than sixty recruits stood with their horses at the end of the barrack square, ranged in one line down the middle of the jumping ground. The oldest of the lieutenants, who was in command of riding training, ordered: ‘The six who can already ride, three paces forward.’ Then came the next order: ‘Trooper Stahlberg, three more paces forward. Mount!’ I had learned that in Kieckow as a child. I leaped and sat on the horse’s back. The lieutenant’s next order was: ‘Scissors about face!’ A sergeant stepped up to my horse, to hold him if necessary, but Heldensang knew it all and stood as if rooted to the spot. So now I was sitting backwards on the gelding’s shining back, facing his tail, awaiting the lieutenant’s next order. When it came it was not what I expected: ‘One round of the jumping ground, gallop!’ I looked down at my lieutenant in astonishment. ‘Didn’t you understand the order?’

I heard the sergeant whisper: ‘Not possible, let yourself fall on the jump and keep relaxed.’ So I gave Heldensang my knees and slapped him on the buttock. The sergeant, with his hand on the snaffle, ran a few paces in the direction of the first obstacle, Heldensang jumped, and I was rolling in the sand. Heldensang, the old trooper, stopped immediately after the jump and waited until I was up again.

The remaining five who, like me, ‘could ride already’ went through the same manoeuvre. None of us was seriously injured, and yet I found the exercise a macabre joke. Probably it was meant to be like crossing the equator for the cavalry.

Of course a cavalryman’s training calls for hardness: in order to have his horse under his control later on in every conceivable situation, the rider must first sit deep in the saddle. But the military saddle in those days was hard and the recruits had to take the saddle they were given, including some that were poorly suited to the shape and size of their own bodies. After a few weeks, the young soldiers were sitting their horses so well that the squadron could go to the parade ground in closed ranks and the instructors could begin with the first simple dressage exercises.

Inevitably, we had to take the oath, to the person of Adolf Hitler, as the regulation stood since the death of Reich President Hindenburg [Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, who had commanded the Kaiser’s armies, 1916 — 18] on 2 August of the previous year. The officers had to prepare the recruits over a good many hours of instruction, of which the one before the oath was taken was conducted by the squadron commander himself. I looked forward to it in some suspense.

Today, Lewinski began, he would talk through the words of our oath with us. He said that the oath had been changed the year before, the former Reichswehr had sworn a different oath from the one we would be taking tomorrow. I put up my hand to ask a question: would he recite the former oath to us for purposes of comparison, so that we could hear the difference? The captain looked at me in some astonishment. ‘Well, why not,’ he said eventually. He still knew it by heart, and we could certainly hear it:

‘I swear by God this sacred oath, that I will always serve my people and
faithfully and honestly and be prepared as a brave soldier to risk my life for
this oath
at any time.’

The new oath that we were to swear tomorrow ran otherwise:
‘I swear by God this sacred oath, that I shall be unreservedly obedient to the
leader of
the GermanReich and people, Adolf Hitler, Supreme Commander of the
and prepared as a brave soldier to risk, my life for this oath at any time.’

The chief then said we need not learn the oath by heart; at the ceremony next day he would recite passages aloud and we had only to repeat them. That was the end of our lesson.

Each evening, as darkness fell, we heard the duty trumpeter at the barrack gates sounding the Last Post. Then the duty sergeant went through the rooms to make sure all the recruits were in bed and to put out the lights. That night I started a conversation in the darkness with my five room-mates - all of them came from Silesia. ‘What do you think of the oath we’re going to take tomorrow?’ I asked. A long silence. ‘Are you all asleep?’ I asked. All five said ‘No’ almost simultaneously. But what were we meant to think, said one, orders were orders. Then I heard our little fellow, the one with the thick glasses: ‘At home we do something that makes the oath invalid.’

I had never heard of this and asked him to tell us about it. ‘Right then, listen,’ he began. ‘You raise your right hand to swear and at the same time you make a fist with your left. That way you can swear what you like but the oath is no good. Only afterwards — or that’s the way we do it - you have to confess it to your minister.’

I thought this was priceless, but all my other room-mates confirmed it. At all events it would be a good idea to put your left hand in your pocket during the procedure. ‘All the same,’ I began again, ‘I wouldn’t advise this left fist tomorrow. When we’re standing in ranks anyone behind you might see you and denounce you later which would mean you’d be in a lot of trouble.’ ‘You’re right,’ he said, ‘then I shall clench my fist in my mind and I’ll still confess it, my minister will go along with that.’ I said: ‘So you don’t want to swear?’ Oh yes, he wanted to swear, but not for Adolf. He liked the old oath the chief had told us about today much better. ‘So do I,’ I said, ‘all the same I’ll be swearing for Adolf tomorrow.’ Then the questions came from all sides: ‘Aha, then you’re a Nazi?’ ‘I’ll tell you something,’ I said angrily, ‘I’m no Nazi, and I don’t care for Adolf, but I’ll do it for my Fatherland.’ Another long pause. Then I heard the little man with the thick glasses again: ‘I like that, you know. But it means a lot of care tomorrow.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘you have only to say “Adolf Hitler” and think “Fatherland”. That’s not difficult, and in any case it will be much easier for you tomorrow than for me because you were conscripted by the army district command and I am a volunteer.’

The next morning the whole cavalry regiment was drawn up in the great barrack square on foot, in square formation. For the first time I heard our excellent body of trumpeters. For the first time I saw and heard our regimental commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Arno von Lenski. As he walked along the lines, I found myself briefly eye to eye with him. He was wearing a monocle; I did not care for him. Then he made a rousing speech, speaking not of the ‘Führer, Adolf Hitler’, but of ‘our beloved Führer Adolf Hitler’. No wonder that, with all these protestations of affection, he later became a member of the notorious National Socialist People’s Court. However, it was not until the war was over that he attained his highest military honours, ending his career as a General in the National People’s Army in the German Democratic Republic.

Officer tuition generally appeared on the duty roster once a week. One day the subject was ‘Orders and Obedience’. Question: ‘What orders must the soldier carry out?’ Answer: ‘Every order must be carried out.’ Question: ‘What orders should the soldier not carry out?’ Pause: laborious thought by the recruits. Lieutenant’s answer: ‘An order should not be carried out if the soldier realizes that by carrying it out he would be committing a crime.’ Question: ‘What does the soldier do when he realizes this?’ Answer: ‘He refuses to carry out the order.’ Next question: ‘Give examples.’ Answer: ‘Murder, manslaughter, looting, rape, killing prisoners.’

In another lesson we were taught about The Hague Convention on Land Warfare of 1899 and its regulations on the distinction between civilian personnel and soldiers, the treatment of the wounded and prisoners, peace emissaries, respect for the person, honour and property of inhabitants of foreign countries in the event of war. These matters were treated with great conscientiousness in our regiment.

On another occasion we discussed the law of self-defence, because we young soldiers were now bearing arms. The relevant paragraph of the German Reich Penal Code had to be learned by heart and we were questioned on it a week later. I remember it now:

‘No punishable action has been committed if the action was necessitated by self-defence. Self-defence means the defence which is necessary in order to prevent an immediate, illegal attack on oneself or another person.’

After a number of recruits had repeated the paragraph correctly and in full, the rest of the period was spent explaining each individual word, with examples. The greatest value was attached to the words ‘illegal attack on ... another person’.

The case of self-defence became complicated if, for instance, one happened to witness a crime. Was it then better simply to look away, to avoid the disagreeable consequences one might incur by intervening, or should one act to prevent the obvious crime in time? After all, the wording actually was: ‘... defence which is necessary ...’

‘You Share the Responsibility’

Infantry training with machine-gun practice was also on the duty rota. This part of the basic training demanded extreme physical effort from the young soldier. We were young and healthy and did not mind being pushed to the limit of our capacities. I myself thought of it as intensive training in a sport.

But we had the little fellow with the thick glasses in our group. Though he sometimes astonished me with extremely intelligent remarks, I often noticed that immediately afterwards he would be dreaming away absentmindedly. In any case he was physically not up to the riding training and drill. His gait was hunched and he could not straighten himself up. When we had to march singly across the barrack square with our backs straight, he always relapsed into a kind of amble. His left hand swung forward with his left leg, the right did the same. I could not understand why he had been sent to the Army at all when he was called up. He looked to me like a case for the doctor, and probably for the psychiatrist.

Unfortunately, our sergeant and lance-corporal saw things differently and took pleasure in teasing and tormenting him from the very first day. If he was given an order in arms drill he had to think before carrying it out after a fashion. So the two instructors took pleasure in making an unwilling clown of this unfortunate at every opportunity.

Today it was time for machine-gun practice. In groups, close to a toolshed, with the M G13 Dreise in our hands, we obeyed the orders: ‘Up, at the double’ — ‘Down, up, at the double — down’ — three, four, five, six times and more. Suddenly our problem child was on the ground, face down. One more pitiful effort, then — so it seemed — he passed out. Our two instructors were already standing beside him, shouting at the prostrate man, but to no effect: there he lay still, face down.

Then something extraordinary happened. The sergeant and the lance-corporal grabbed the man and set him on his feet. At first his legs would not carry him, but finally he was standing up. Then our sergeant shouted, so loudly that we could all hear him: ‘We’ll make a soldier out of you, like it or not!’ They took him between them by the arms and disappeared round the other side of the toolshed.

We stayed where we were, bewildered. After only a few moments loud screams came from behind the shed. I froze, but then I heard quite clearly: ‘Help — help!’ I ran round the shed.

There he lay, on his back now, our room-mate. Beside him stood the sergeant and lance-corporal, kicking the prostrate man in the stomach again and again. I shouted as loudly as I could: ‘Herr Unteroffizier!’ The two spun round, stared at me, and came towards me as if nothing had happened. The three of us rejoined the rest of our group, the sergeant ordered two others to bring him to our room because he was not feeling well. They did not pass us on the way to the barracks but went round the far side of the shed, supporting our fellow soldier like a wounded man.

At lunchtime we found him lying on his bed in our room. He said he was better already and did not need to report sick, he would come out and join in the afternoon duty.

My account of that day is not over. In the afternoon I was called to the telephone in the orderly room: an officer wanted to speak to me. Who could it be? This was my first telephone call as a soldier. ‘Trooper Stahlberg speaking,’ I announced. ‘Henning here,’ was the reply. It really was Henning Tresckow, who had just concluded a General Staff tour in Schwedt and told me to get two hours off and meet him at the Café Wieck on the Schlossfreiheit.

The sergeant-major, evidently impressed that one of his recruits should have a General Staff officer for a cousin, agreed but insisted that I should report to him correctly dressed. When I reappeared in his office, having changed my clothes, he stood me to attention and walked round inspecting me. So off I went to town at top speed, my heavy sword at my side.

A number of military vehicles were parked in front of the Café Wieck and I went in to the building in some excitement. Frau Wieck, well known in Schwedt as a ‘soldiers’ mother’, stopped me this time at the entrance. I could not go in, because she had reserved the house for a single party. She was all the more astonished when I said that I had been invited to that very party. ‘But then you could at least have put on a decent uniform jacket instead of those fatigues!’ she exclaimed. ‘We haven’t collected them from the stores yet,’ I excused myself — but the sergeant-major had approved my dress.

When I opened the door to the restaurant, all I could make out was that the room was filled with officers under a cloud of tobacco smoke, and that they all had a red stripe on their trousers. I closed the door behind me and, as instructed under ‘conduct in public’, stood to attention to await events.

After a brief moment Henning was before me, shaking me by the hand. The room had fallen silent and I felt all eyes on me. Henning called in a loud voice: ‘Gentlemen! May I present my nephew Stahlberg. He is serving here as a volunteer and I have asked him to come because I want to hear from him how he likes military service.’

I hung my sword, belt and cap on the clothes-stand and found myself sitting at one of the little café tables, hemmed in by General Staff officers. I was relieved that no one started questioning me immediately, so that I could devote myself exclusively to the apple pie and whipped cream that Henning had ordered for me. Only once Henning commented drily: ‘Well, how do you feel in the midst of the top brass of the German General Staff?’ I have no idea whether and how I answered and I no longer remember which of the Army’s later celebrities were sitting round me. What I do remember is that I was astonished how casually and openly they talked.

As soon as my plate was empty, Henning got up to take a short walk with me on the Schlossfreiheit. I could never have guessed how many, many ‘short walks’ he would take with me in the future.

Outside the door I was no longer nephew, but ‘cousin’ and now he positively showered me with questions. He wanted to hear my impressions, my views and my criticisms of the training for the first year of general conscription. I was to talk to him quite freely and without regard to the difference in our military rank.

My judgement was predominantly positive, but finally I also told him the nasty story of that morning, including the fact that my shout to the sergeant had put a stop to the sadistic abuse. Henning stood still. ‘You undoubtedly did the right thing,’ he said, ‘but that’s not enough. You now share the responsibility of ensuring that nothing like this ever happens again in your squadron!’

‘How can I do that, as a recruit?’ I asked helplessly. Henning’s face was grave. ‘Who’s your squadron commander?’ he asked. I gave him Lewinski’s name. ‘You will go to him today and report the incident. In all probability you will have to repeat the story, the way you told it to me, before a court martial, under oath. Can you do that? In other words, will you stick to what you said?’ I drew a breath and said: ‘Yes.’

Then he gave me a friendly clap on the shoulder, said goodbye and told me to give his greetings to Captain von Lewinski.

The rest is quickly told. When I told our sergeant-major after the evening roll-call that I wished to speak to the commander on a personal matter, he wanted to know my reasons. I said that it was personal and I would only tell the captain himself. ‘Very well,’ he said, ‘you are entitled to insist, every soldier has the right to speak to his chief personally.’

Next morning I was standing before the captain. ‘I have a report to make, Sir,’ I began, ‘but before I begin there are two things I have to say. Firstly, I had two hours’ leave yesterday to meet my cousin, Major von Tresckow of the General Staff, in the town. He has been a kind of godfather to me for many years, though he is not officially my godfather. He told me yesterday to make the report that I am now making to you, Sir. He also asked me to give you his greetings.

‘Secondly, I wish to say that I am very glad to be a member of the 3rd Squadron and would like to remain so.’

Then I described the events of the day before in detail.

Lewinski was chalk-white when I finished. ‘That happened in my squadron?’ he stammered. Then he asked if none of his officers had been present at machine-gun drill. I said no, and he dismissed me with the words: ‘Thank you for your report.’ But I felt that he was struggling for self-control.

Some two weeks later I was a witness at a court martial called at regimental headquarters. My examination was brief and I did not have to take the oath because the accused had confessed. When the verdict was pronounced I was already back on stable duty, but the word soon went all round the Regiment that the two accused men had been condemned to a suspended prison sentence and demotion. They had also been transferred to another regiment. Our room-mate with the pebble glasses was released from the Army a few days later as unfit.

Never again was I to witness such an assault in the Army. The service remained hard, but correct. I was certainly ‘cut’ by some sergeants for months and treated with icy reserve, but I believe there are many advantages in a certain solidarity among NCOs. There were some sergeants in the squadron who ‘out of comradeship with the victim of recruit Stahlberg’, ‘revenged themselves’ on me. I took it in good part, and am glad to have spent a year as a cavalry recruit. You have to have ridden with a squadron to understand the fascination exerted by horses en masse, for the horse is a herd animal by nature.

Captain von Lewinski told us one day that squadron drill in closed ranks was unfortunately no longer part of cavalry training, although this was a touchstone for ability and discipline as a rider. If the cavalry had a future now, it lay exclusively in military reconnaissance and scouting in small groups, and yet one day he drew his sword and explained the old command signals with the weapon to the squadron. We tore off across the parade ground, the horses’ hooves thundering on the earth. It was like some mighty natural cataclysm. What must it have been like in the days when not only a squadron, but a whole regiment or even several brigades appeared on the horizon?

Even our regimental trumpeters practised on horseback. If a squadron had performed particularly well it might be rewarded by the mounted band waiting outside the town to station itself in front of the squadron, the drummer, with his Kaiser Wilhelm beard and white gauntlets, on his magnificent, large-framed grey, the kettle-drums decorated with yellow saddle-cloths on either side. He guided his horse with his feet, the snaffle-reins ending at his stirrups.

The music started up at the first house on the edge of town and it was like the old nursery rhyme: ‘When the soldiers come marching through the town, every maiden puts on her favourite gown ...’ Then the captain, riding at the head of his squadron, drew his sword, and at the command: ‘Draw swords!’ a hundred gleaming side-arms hissed into the air, to be propped for the parade on the right thigh, so that the blade lay on the shoulder, glittering in the sun.

And so we crossed the town, to the ‘Cavalry March of the Great Elector’ or even our regimental march, the ‘Hohenfriedberger’, which had been my father’s regimental march as well.

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