Part of Hitler’s appeal to the German people was his ability to flatter them. According to him, Germans were Ubermensch (superhuman) and therefore had the right to dominate and eliminate others. Believing him, people strove to prove him right; with some spectacular results.
Among them was Fritz Christen who was born on June 29, 1921, in Wredenhagen, Germany. Due to the hardships that followed Germany’s loss in WWI and the effects of the Great Depression, his family suffered.
Things began to change in 1933 when the National Socialist German Workers’ Party achieved power. In time, they shortened their name to National Socialism. Everyone else called them “Nazis” as Germans pronounce “national” as NAH-tsee-yo-NAL.
As Germany’s economy improved, his family reaped the benefits and, their humiliation forgotten, they fell in love with Nazism. Determined to do his part, Christen joined the Hitler Youth before it became mandatory to do so.
After high school, he joined the Waffen-Schutzstaffel (Armed SS); the military wing of the Nazi Party. Christen qualified for the 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf. They were a fighting force chosen from the SS-Totenkopfverbände who worked as concentration camp guards.
Then on June 22, 1941, Operation Barbarossa began; the invasion of the Soviet Union.
Three million German soldiers, supported by about 650,000 troops from Finland and Romania, crossed the Soviet border in 134 divisions on three fronts. Italy, Croatia, Slovakia, and Hungary also sent forces in an assault that stretched from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south.
Although the Soviets had been expecting an invasion, they were taken by surprise. By mid-September, Christen’s unit was in the Demyansk District in Novgorod, Oblast, Russia. Almost 300 miles northwest of Moscow.
On September 21, German intelligence advised that a major Soviet offensive was headed their way. Soviet forces had been probing the Totenkopf with tentative attacks that were becoming more vicious. Christen’s unit dug themselves into the woods outside the village of Lushno, preparing for their turn.
It came on the morning of September 24. Christen was in charge of a 50mm anti-tank gun set on the forest’s edge to the north of Lushno, guarding a clearing to the east. He later claimed the cold worried the soldiers more than the advancing Soviets did, and they were confident of a quick win.
As dawn broke, their confidence fell as they saw the approaching Russian forces. A line of Soviet medium T-34-85 tanks was rolling their way. Behind them followed a large infantry force to pick off what the tanks did not.
Before the sun had fully risen, the Soviet tanks began their barrage. With only trees and dugouts to protect them, Christen’s group were sitting ducks. What the tanks did not pulverize, the infantry did.
Christen fired with his anti-tank gun as men fell around him. He had destroyed five or six tanks when there was a lull in the fighting. However, the Soviets were not retreating; they were regrouping.
Christen called out soldiers’ names, but there was no response. Everyone else was either dead or severely wounded. He was the only one left to fight.
As the Soviets were not attacking him, the lone German began desperately digging a trench around his anti-tank weapon. He vaguely wondered why no one took potshots at him.
When evening fell, the attack resumed. Trees shattered around him. Wood and metal fragments tore into the flesh of his injured comrades. Christen hugged the ground. When the firing finally stopped, he heaved a sigh of relief. Then he heard the sound of many boots heading his way. It was the Soviet infantry.
The former Hitler youth opened fire. To his surprise, they retreated – probably thinking he was not alone. When darkness fell, he expected another attack, but none came. He used the time to hunt around for ammo and gathered it in his trench.
He looked for food and water but could not find any. He tried to sleep but sporadic fire throughout the night forced him to shoot back.
Before dawn, the Soviets attacked with a barrage from several tanks. He responded by destroying seven tanks, forcing the others to retreat. Left alone for the rest of the day, he again looked for food or water but to no avail.
The firing began again that evening. Christen ran back and forth across his line manning different weapons. At one point, he partially dismantled his anti-tank gun, dragged it several meters, propped it up with a log, and then fired at incoming tanks. He kept it up throughout the next day, despite his hunger and thirst, made worse by the cold.
On September 27, Christen knew he could not hold out. His ammo was finished. All he had left was a pistol taken from his officer’s corpse. The morning stretched on, but there was no attack. That changed at noon.
A much larger force was headed his way, so Christen prepared. He wondered if he should save the last bullet for himself. Then he heard the soldiers speak. They were German! Despite having no food and water for almost three days, he had killed over 100 soldiers and destroyed 13 tanks on his own.
Hitler was so impressed he awarded Christen the Iron Cross; Germany’s highest military award on October 21. He was the first and youngest Waffen-SS to receive one.