The Enemy as Vermin

Russian soldiers saw nothing evil in leaving the bodies of Germans and Austrians on the battlefield to rot.

On the eastern front, a Russian commander calls the roll. (George H. Mewes/National Geographic Society/Corbis)

The Russian peasant soldier regards the enemy as vermin that must be destroyed. He has no doubt that he is clearing away something ugly and full of evil. He is fighting something pestilential, like the cholera or the plague.

The bodies of the Germans and the Austrians lay rotting on the fields of Poland this autumn and early winter, and infecting the air with odors. It was with difficulty that the Russian soldiers could be persuaded to bury them.

“Bury these corpses,” said a general to one of his servant soldiers.

“No, your excellency,” said the latter, “let them lie there like dogs; they are not fit to be buried in the good earth” …

War to the Russian soldier is a great religious experience. “He liveth best who is always ready to die,” says a holy proverb of the Russians. And readiness to die is the religious side of war. The Russian soldier kills his enemy without religious qualm, yet without hate. He does not feel that to shoot at a fellow man, to charge at him with a bayonet, is doing an evil thing to him. The great reality that confronts him is not that he may kill others, but that he himself may suffer terrible pain or may lose the familiar and pleasant thing called life.

Originally titled “The Russians and the War”