FALL 2004 ** HISTORY 238: GERMANY FROM UNIFICATION TO REUNIFICATION ** Mr. Patch
Franz Schönhuber, Ich war dabei, 2nd edition, Munich: Non-Stop, 1989.
[First published in 1981; excerpts translated by William Patch.]
Late April 1945. All of humanity seems to be on the move. The roads leading westward from the Oder [River] are overcrowded. Old men drag themselves along, supported by children; women push baby carriages; they are all seeking desperately to keep in touch, not to lose each other. From the east reverberates the fire of cannon. The refugees pressing forward have all their belongings in backpacks or small suitcases. Enemy planes attack and shoot indiscriminately into the stream of refugees. Written on the faces of the people are fear and anxiety about the approaching Russian steamroller.
Our little truck jolts along the road to Neustrelitz, bouncing often, sometimes at walking speed and then a little faster, here and there crossing the fields to avoid vehicles that have been destroyed or set on fire. On board are the wounded and sick. Among them is the feverish corporal of the Waffen-SS Schönhuber, member of the Nordland Division, 21 years old, Bavarian.
Suddenly the military police stop us. A corporal orders: "Whoever can walk, get down from the wagon! Russian tanks have broken through in this area, defensive positions have been prepared. The Hitler Youth and the militia [Volkssturm, the army reserve for older men] are already there. Over there are some bazookas."
I was one of those who could walk despite the fever, so I grab a bazooka and crouch in a freshly dug foxhole. It does not take long, perhaps an hour, before they come. The whining of the tank treads grows louder. A few T 34 tanks emerge, firing wildly, and turn toward us. The first reaches a foxhole about a hundred meters left of me, stands still, turns and fills in the hole. My comrade has no chance. Another tank comes toward my hole. I fire at a distance of about 50 meters. A hit. The T 34 begins to burn. The next ones roll forward. Against all military rules, I instinctively jump out of my hole, run behind a house, and see a big crack near the road, probably opened up by a bombing raid. I jump inside. A firm foundation to my left and right. The noise becomes hellish. One tank thunders past me. I am not seen. I send a prayer up to heaven: "Lord, let me live." The noise goes away. A few tanks are burning, and the rest turn away.
The Hitler Youth are evenly divided between enthusiasm over their first action and panic. With shaky hands I light a cigarette. My heart is pounding in my throat. I am streaming with sweat. I thank God for my salvation and tell myself: "Nothing much worse than this can ever happen to you in life. And if you should get out of this hell and make your way back home more or less healthy, then you won't need to be afraid of anything for the rest of your life."
I did come home, more or less healthy, but I got scared in civilian life just like other people do, and I compromised with expediency here and there just like others too. I tried to forget the war and to repress the bad memories like those I just depicted. I climbed ever higher on the ladder of professional success, became editor-in-chief of a newspaper, chairman of the League of Bavarian Journalists, department head at the television station. The past seemed to me like a bad dream. But in December 1979 it caught up with me and became real again.
A lovely, sunny little vacation lay behind me.... And now I was riding contented in the car of someone I met on holiday, who was taking me back to Munich. He was about my age, mid-fifties, a successful businessman. First we talked about politics but then came to the war and internment thereafter as prisoners of war. He recounted his flight and difficult journey home. He belonged to the Alpine troops and boasted of the bravery of his unit, which was only matched or perhaps even exceeded by that of the Waffen-SS; but he suddenly became confused and added that this opinion did not mean that he was a Nazi. I felt uncomfortable. Keeping quiet, I thought, don't I need to say something now? I said nothing. My good mood evaporated; I clenched up inside; the feeling of being threatened was there again, the shadow of my past.
...In Munich my wife Ingrid was waiting for me. My almost neurotic sensitivity filled me with dark forebodings. I found them confirmed. The face of my wife made it obvious that something had happened. She said: "I did not want to ruin your holiday, but now I must tell you. In the last days I have been called by many acquaintances... Nasty anonymous letters are circulating about you. They deal with your time in the Waffen-SS and your postwar career..."
One thing was clear: the pamphlets had been carefully timed. In a few days I was to be confirmed as department head by the television board. Every thoughtful person who knew about my age and origins would understand the absurdity of these accusations, which stretched from one-time Communist to current leader of a conspiracy of Nazis to murderous SS officer; chronology alone made them impossible. But in such witch-hunts, when people open fire on rivals for the sake of their careers, reason is drowned out and hatred makes people blind...
...Eventually I become more calm and almost grateful to my persecutors. Now I was no longer content to reply that I had never made a secret of my membership in the Waffen-SS... No, I regarded this slanderous campaign as a gesture of fate... Did not I, who had gotten a good start in life after the war, have a duty to speak out for those former comrades, who were not and are not capable of speaking for themselves?
[Schönhuber insists that his father had lofty motives for supporting the Nazi Party as the only force capable of ending years of disastrous strife between the "Reds" and the "Blacks", i.e., between the Social Democrats and the Catholic clericalists in the Bavarian People=s Party, which was the Bavarian sister to the Center Party.]
Even though the Nazis and leftists sometimes got into fights here and there, they were united in their dislike, indeed hatred of the Blacks. My father, the master butcher Xavier Schönhuber, did not like the RedsChe reproached them for a lack of patriotismC, but he detested the Blacks from the depths of his soul. He also had no use for the trade unions. They brought confusion into his orderly artisan's world. He treated his journeymen and apprentices well, but in the shop as in the family he was the master, the patriarch. My mother was accustomed to training the servants in our home, who kept changing, to address her husband as "Master" [i.e., "der Herr," in the third person]. When my mother came to live with my family in the last years of her life, my wife and I had the greatest difficulty in persuading her to stop saying, "Ask the master what he wants." My colleagues at work still tend to attribute a somewhat patriarchal manner to me. If that is so, then the roots doubtless lie in my background.
My father struggled against the Reds with reasoned arguments, but for the Blacks he just felt resentment. He despised them, told me they were a "pack of bourgeois" and "penny-pinchers" [Bürgerpack, Krämerseelen]. He himself was located just on the lower edge of the bourgeoisie. He came from a family of basket-weavers, fishermen, bartenders, and waitresses, which had produced many well-known and original personalities, but which appeared disreputable to the bourgeoisie and not "fine" enough.
...My father was an honest and skillful butcher but a failure as an animal dealer. He was not aggressive enough for this business. He preferred conversing with the peasants for hours about the world situation or war stories instead of just getting the cows cheaply out of their stalls. But everyone esteemed him as a person. His word could be trusted, and for him a handshake was as binding as a notarized contract. Both his businesses failed to satisfy him. He would have liked to go to sea and become a ship's cook. But he had to stay home and help his mother, who was a waitress and was unmarried when he was born. Only when my father was half-grown did his father, a jolly drinker and tavern-keeper very popular with the ladies, condescend to marry the mother of his son...
My father served [in the army] already before the First World War, ...and in the war he stood four years in the field, advancing solely to the rank of "backbone of the army," that is to say, corporal. Since he was inclined to extremes, he only liked field marshals and corporals his whole life long. This may have influenced his initial acceptance of the NSDAP; he regarded the fact that Hitler too was a corporal as proof that the German army never properly rewarded bravery and ability.... He always retained a love of all things soldierly that I could never understand.
He joined the Party in 1931. He called himself ironically a "slaughtering tax Nazi," because the Nazis had promised to lower the high slaughtering tax. But it was doubtless the nationalistic pathos and the paramilitary activities of the SA with their maneuvers and marches that impressed him. After the seizure of power he rose to become vice-mayor and a local party leader in Altenmarkt, a village near Trostberg to which we had moved. But soon he began to quarrel with the party bosses; reality sobered him, national socialist intolerance repelled him, and he came to be considered an unreliable party member who was always on the verge of expulsion. He resigned his mayoral post. But none of this diminished his enthusiasm for the military, and since he could not converse about this with his wife--she was passive, sickly, and inclined to depression--I was compelled to endure his lengthy and emotional descriptions of battles...
In contrast to my father, who did not attack the church in our village but never stepped inside it, my mother was very pious. But this did not prevent her from joining the National Socialist Women's Organization [Frauenschaft], "because Xavier is in the party, so his wife belongs there too." She could easily reconcile her religious feelings with party membership. Even if Church leaders do not like to hear this today, back then, especially after the seizure of power, the majority of the clergy was certainly not against Hitler. That was true for the Catholic as well as the Protestant Church. My mother certainly saw the election placard that was distributed throughout Germany in 1933, which depicted the papal nuncio Vasallo di Torregrossa in a hearty handshake with Adolf Hitler. Underneath stood the words of the nuncio: "For a long time I did not understand you. But I have long tried to understand you. Today I understand you." At the bottom could be seen in somewhat smaller print: "Today every German Catholic understands Adolf Hitler and will vote Yes on November 12."
How could my mother see through all this and be as wise as some people are today? When you come out of city hall, you are always wiser than when you entered. But Church leaders should not have kept silent after the end of the Third Reich about their state of mind before entering city hall. It remains true nevertheless that even Cardinal Faulhaber [the Archbishop of Munich] once believed in Hitler and signed some of his letters with Heil Hitler. It remains true nevertheless that Cardinal Innitzer of Vienna rang the church bells when Hitler entered his city and saluted with the Hitler Greeting. There is still a great deal of disturbing material in the Church archives. It will prove that many Church leaders prominent today still believed in the final victory in 1944 and urged perseverance with the war effort....
For my mother everything seemed quite simple in 1933. The priest was a good German nationalist. Hitler spoke constantly of Providence. The monastery continued to give its business to father's shop even after the seizure of power. So she attended mass with the same good conscience that she attended meetings of the Women's Organization....
My mother read the church newspaper. On the other hand she hated the Stürmer [a rabidly anti-Semitic Nazi newspaper]. "But the Jews are human beings too," she kept saying. My family was full of contradictions.
My brother was born in 1933. My father insisted on naming him Adolf. Back then he still had a thoroughly positive image of Hitler.... If my brother had been born at the end of 1934, he would certainly have received the name Ernst or Gregor, so that all would know that my father did not consider the murdered Röhm and Strasser to be criminals. He especially admired Strasser, the leader of the socialist wing of the NSDAP. His murder was a heavy blow. My father always believed in what Strasser called the "anti-capitalist yearnings of the German people." Although or rather because my father was an artisan, he wanted more social justice. He actually belonged to the left wing of the NSDAP.... Despite the murder of Röhm and the decline of the SA, my father studied the rise of the SS, which shared the guilt for the fall of Röhm and Strasser, with a sympathy that verged on schizophrenia. My father always advocated some kind of people's militia that would displace the old "monocled Fritzes" in the old royal military establishment. My father was always a dedicated republican too who had no use for the nostalgia of many Bavarians for the Wittelsbach dynasty. Today I still think like my father....
My father opposed the Party sharply over the Jewish question. The persecution of the Jews did not correspond with his inborn tolerance. His motto was "live and let live," and he shared his hobbies like fishing and hiking with political opponents. He did not care at all that one of my best friends was the son of a local Communist....
[The author decided to volunteer for the Waffen-SS in 1942, just before he became eligible for the draft.]
...So I reported to the air force, wanting to become a pilot. I knew all along that I would never allow myself to join the "clod-hoppers", the regular infantry, nor would I join what everyone had to join, the army. Thus I first displayed a fundamental character trait that often caused me difficulty later, a pronounced thirst for fame, a determination to accomplish something extraordinary, something that could not be compared with the deeds of ordinary mortals, in order to forget that I was merely a cattle-dealer's son, to compensate for my origins with achievements. My ambition to become [a fighter ace] collapsed because of the veto of the air force doctor. He declared me unable to fly. Thus there remained only the Waffen-SS, the glamorous military formation of that time, comparable to the paras [French paratroopers] or the "leathernecks" [U.S. Marines]. Every day you read in the newspapers about the heroic deeds of the men of the Waffen-SS, heard about them on radio, and their exploits were heavily emphasized in the weekly newsreels. The names of their top leaders became ever more famous, especially that of the legendary Sepp Dietrich [the former head of Hitler's personal bodyguard]. He became my role model, because he showed me that in the Waffen-SS one could rise to the top despite coming from the bottom, without belonging to an illustrious family, if one was brave enough. He reminded me of the great French field marshals [of Napoleon], whose names became immortal despite their origins as common soldiers or humble tradesmen: Masséna, Murat, Ney, and others. In the Waffen-SS everyone seemed to have the marshal's staff in their knapsack. I still believe today that in this regard a new and revolutionary spirit governed the Waffen-SS, the principle that achievement alone mattered. I have never understood why critics on the political left object to the fact that the father of Sepp Dietrich was supposedly a sergeant and his mother a milkmaid. I also fail to understand why people deride Hitler as a "house-painter". Surely it corresponds to socialist ideals that everyone should be able to rise despite their origins.... Many of these critics who wrongly consider themselves leftists display a remarkable affinity for the plutocrats and aristocrats. They keep reproaching Nixon, for example, because he stemmed from humble folks, in contrast to Kennedy, who came from wealthy and refined Boston circles. It doesn't bother them that this Boston circle became rich by smuggling alcohol and through other dubious methods! ...I ask the reader to forgive this digression. It is intended to help you understand the bitterness of the former soldiers and officers of the Waffen-SS who came from the working class and tried after the war to promote their socialist ideals in the SPD, but found themselves rebuffed by the younger party members....
But it must be noted here that former members of the Waffen-SS have served and still sit in the Bundestag and state parliaments, represent the Federal Republic as diplomats, hold important positions in the party headquarters, and serve as mayors and county supervisors. Sometimes for the SPD too. They have dedicated themselves to the common good and proved their fidelity and loyalty to the new state.
[The author considered himself a "francophile", spoke French fairly well, and volunteered to serve as his unit's translator when stationed in Brittany. In 1943 the sexually inexperienced 20-year-old soldier met a beautiful young Frenchwoman whose parents allowed him to come courting in the evenings.]
Many Germans use the two letters "SS" as an alibi for their innocence, and in the same way the Resistance serves today in France as an alibi to preserve the myth of a fighting France. Both alibis certainly will not withstand the historian's scrutiny. Even in France the opinion is spreading more and more that the significance of the Resistance was greatly exaggerated. This despite the many films that portray the members of the Resistance as heroes and supermen and the German soldiers as stupid boches bumbling around on the screen. One feels like asking how these stupid Germans could defeat one European country after another and bring the whole world to the brink of disaster.... Anyway, back then one saw nothing in Brittany of the Resistance that everyone talks about today. There like almost everywhere else in France, people's hearts beat for Philippe Pétain, the victor of Verdun. His pictures hung everywhere. Everywhere he was spoken of with reverence. This still in the year 1943, when it no longer necessarily appeared that one must believe in Germany's victory. But the parents of Françoise ...were cautious villagers who observed world events with the wait-and-see attitude of the peasant. They listened to the BBC in London as well as Radio Paris. They did not much like de Gaulle, ...but one never knew. Would the "old gang" of prewar politicians come back or not? What then? So the parents, even though they liked me, asked me not to show myself with their daughter in public. I understood their concern, even though I would have dearly liked to show off my beautiful conquest to my comrades...
[After many dates in which Franz was too bashful to do anything more than kiss her, Françoise grew impatient and initiated sexual intercourse during a picnic in a country meadow.] It was a long night. I forgot the war--everything! We made plans for the future, wanted to marry. She cried: "But no, you are German and I am French. Nothing will come of it." I spoke of the coming peace, of the house of my parents, of my father's affection for the French, etc. etc. And again and again she demanded displays of my affection. For me she opened the gates to the Olympus of love. She did so in a way that was as natural as it was sophisticated. She did not lead me by the direct path but by artful and prolonged detours. Philistines might call them perverse. But even if it sounds like the oldest of clichés, France is the land of love, and it does not have to be Paris...
After the war I often toyed with the idea of contacting Françoise again. I did not. Not only because I did not want to cause her any difficulties, but also to spare myself any disappointment. You are only 20 years old once. And I wanted to preserve her in my memory as a 20-year-old.... I hope nothing happened to the lovely Breton. She was fond of the human being, not the German. But during the so-called Liberation, innocent people often had their heads shaved, or worse things were done to them.
[While his unit was transported to Yugoslavia, the author was hospitalized for infectious jaundice in the city of Laibach, today Ljubljana, in Slovenia.]
This lovely Slovenian city, which gave evidence of its roots in the old Habsburg Empire, was actually already a war zone. Slovenian partisans operated right in the neighborhood. Shots were heard now and then. Every day the hospital received more wounded from the partisan war. Most of them comrades from the SS division "Prince Eugene," which consisted mostly of ethnic Germans, Swabians from Batchka and Banat [in Rumania and Hungary]. They reported on the unimaginable cruelty of the struggle. No quarter was given by either side in partisan warfare. This was all pretty new to me. Our propaganda had always tried to play down the extent of the partisan warfare in Yugoslavia, to depict Tito and his people as a few desperadoes and criminals...
I can still remember clearly a picture from the Munich Illustrated Press. It showed SS volunteers from Bosnia and Herzegowina. By accident I recently saw the picture again and read the caption underneath: "Ancient enmity divides Islam from Judaism. Young Bosnians who have joined SS volunteer units are reading a pamphlet that tells how the Jews sought to poison Mohammed." I wonder if there is such a pamphlet in a PLO camp today?
The patient in the bed next to mine expressed his opinion of this theater of war in the simplest formula: "God help you, Franz, if you as a member of the Waffen-SS fall into the hands of Tito's people. Then the best thing you could hope for would be a quick bullet to the back of the neck. Actually, you have a pretty good chance of getting one, since you come from Germany proper. For us ethnic Germans they do it more slowly and painfully."
This conversation did not exactly speed up my recovery....
After the war the ethnic Germans had to pay the bill for the genocide. Their fate is especially deplorable...
I took a special interest in the history of the SS Division "Prince Eugene" and for my Waffen-SS comrades from Hungary, Rumania, and Yugoslavia. When the first SS volunteer divisions were formed, there was a great flow of volunteers among the young ethnic Germans. They had to pass severe tests that excluded many. Many fled from the armies of their host countries and entered the Waffen-SS. There was extraordinary enthusiasm among the ethnic Germans for this service to their former fatherland, and it lasted much longer than in Germany proper. Later the enthusiasm was dampened by the string of defeats, and the stream of volunteers dried up, so compulsory conscription began. All in all over 300,000 ethnic Germans served in the Waffen-SS, some estimates even talk of 320,000. They did not have it easy, especially in the beginning. They suffered from the arrogance of their instructors from Germany, who derided them all as flighty Balkans. Most of the instructors had no understanding for their distinctive ethnic background and customs.... This often supercilious treatment of the ethnic Germans wounded them deeply, and their viewpoint was justified. For decades, indeed centuries, they had served as the outposts of Germandom in the East, displaying a touching loyalty to the German race, culture, and language, and they glorified the Reich. In Hungary for example they resisted brutal policies of Magyarization, and they resisted the only slightly weaker efforts in Rumania and Yugoslavia to deprive them of their German identity. The gratitude of the Reich often went no further than to denounce them as opportunists or to deride their customs and dialects.
...A Flemish SS nurse served in the hospital, a quiet and uncommonly helpful girl. She wanted to study medicine later. We all admired her.... Gradually we became friends, Astrid and I. On fair days we took long walks at the lake. She was quite open and did not conceal her bitterness and disappointment from us. "You know, most Germans are basically philistines and barbarians, even if brave. I do not believe that Germany is going to save the world. German National Socialism has ruined European fascism. I am a fascist, like many of my Flemish and Walloon friends, but not a National Socialist." ...I asked naively, "Why don't you clear out and go home to Belgium?" She laughed bitterly: "What then? In my village? There I'm considered a German soldiers' whore, my brother, a traitor. No, I cannot and will not go home again." Ironically she added: "Anyway, you are always talking about the final victory and your miracle weapons." Suddenly she grabbed my arm: "Franz, whoever belongs to the Waffen-SS is branded for life and cannot pull out. Think of the blood group on your arm."
Now she had raised a point that had already set me thinking: Why had we all had our blood groups tattooed on the left upper arm? Only for medical reasons? So that we could get blood transfusions more quickly? Did we not secretly call these tattoosCfor me it was especially visible, because my blood group is ABCour "keys to Valhalla" or "tickets for an execution"? Might the whole point be to brand us as Praetorian Guards with these tattoos once and for all, so that we only had two alternatives, victory or death? Is this why I gradually began to feel less and less like a member of an elite and more like a desperado? ...
[Throughout the book the author praises
the soldiers of the Waffen-SS for their patriotic idealism and spirit
of comradeship, and he seeks to illustrate the meaning of comradeship
with the following anecdote from early 1944.
The reader knows to take the charge of theft of a comrade's belongings
seriously because of an earlier scene describing the execution of a
fellow soldier by firing squad on just such a charge.]
With torn feelings, I traveled back to join my unit in Breslau [today "Wroclaw" in western Poland], where in the opinion of the former primate of Poland, Cardinal Wyszynski, even the stones speak Polish. I never heard one word of Polish in Breslau. To me Breslau appeared every bit as German as Munich or Berlin. I know what it means for me to write this. Among Poles a reference to the larger Poland of the past is considered nothing more than a patriotic duty, but among us the same gesture is defamed as chauvinism.
I was gripped with a true hunger for life after my illness and because of my anxiety. Every evening...I went out drinking and tried to pick up a girl. But throughout the war I never really excelled in this field. Somehow I was too shy; my standards were too high, and I failed to notice how many girls did not want any elaborate courtship but just wanted to be grasped firmly. Back then more and more women as well as men had adopted the motto: Enjoy the war, the peace will be terrible.
...My liver was acting up again, so I was not required to join the training exercises and received barracks duty. My comrades returned at 6:00 o'clock. Suddenly one cried out: "My parcel from home has disappeared." At first my comrades did not take this seriously, especially since the complainant, a corporal, was not very popular because of his stinginess.... He lodged a formal complaint, ...which brought the sergeant into the barracks. He came and asked with a hint of impatience, "What's wrong here?" The complainant gathered himself together and bawled out, "Sergeant, allow me to report that my parcel has disappeared!" --"Who was in the room?" --"I, sergeant." --My comrades became nervous and looked at me. "Did you see anything?" --"No, sergeant." ...I noticed that I had become pale, with sweat beading my forehead. The image of the soldier shot in Arys suddenly appeared before my eyes. My comrades looked at each other. The sergeant: "Everyone go to your bunks! Open your backpacks!" Trembling, I opened my pack, and nothing was found. Now the bunks were searched. The parcel was found underneath the pillow of the corporal. He had obviously hidden it so that he would not have to share his delicacies and then forgotten the hiding place. Expressions of displeasure became loud: "Swinish! Liar! Uncomradely!" --"Quiet!" yelled the sergeant, and added: "Corporal L will be confined to barracks and mail duty for two weeks." He went away but turned suddenly at the door and said, "I won't make any report. You take care of this among yourselves." Each of us knew exactly what that meant. The culprit became pale. He already sensed the "Holy Ghost", which is what we called nocturnal punishments for uncomradely behavior.
That evening I could not sleep. Things came as expected. At 12:00 o'clock a flashlight was turned on, a blanket was thrown over the corporal, and blows hailed down on him. Now and then one heard a faint groan of pain. I yelled: "Stop it, he's had enough!" --"Don't play the fine gentleman, Franz, this guy nearly brought you into prison or worse." And to show their dislike someone gave him another kick. The whole thing lasted just a few minutes. I cannot deny that I welcomed this manifestation of the "Holy Ghost", feeling myself to be a comrade among comrades. This way of meting out justice might appear very crude today, but you must understand it in the context of the time...
During inspection the next morning the sergeant asked significantly: "Anything out of the ordinary happen?" --"No, Sergeant!" He walked further, stood before the one visited by the "Holy Ghost", who could just barely keep on his feet. "So, what's wrong with you?" --"Nothing, Sergeant, last night I tried to go to the latrine, slipped, and fell on my back." --"Well, be more careful next time that you don't slip up in any way!" And thus the matter was closed...
[In the summer of 1944 the author was sent to eastern France to help train 8,000 French volunteers for the fight against Bolshevism on the Eastern Front. The Frenchmen he trained later counted among the last troops to fight in defense of the Führer's bunker in Berlin in May 1945.]
...I was greeted very casually, and the uniforms also varied greatly from person to person. Uniforms were decorated with German but also French medals, medals earned against us in the First World War or in the western campaign of the Second World War as well as Iron Crosses earned by fighting in our ranks. Colorful scarves were seen. Colors were frequently open, and caps tilted rakishly toward the ear, contrary to regulations. They wore a tricolor patch on the right sleeve, as did we instructors. When I sewed on my tricolored insignia, the SS badge on my collar seemed to become more bearable. Now I felt like a soldier for Europe, no matter how unclear and contradictory my ideas about this might have been. In our view we belonged to a White Guard that would save Europe from the red peril...
[The brigade was divided into three groups, followers of the French fascist politician Jacques Doriot, members of the pro-Vichy "milice" who fought against the "maquis" of the Resistance and revered Marshal Pétain, and young Frenchmen who volunteered for the SS because they admired Adolf Hitler as Europe's savior.] The brigade was only fused together by the ceremonial oath of allegiance, in which I took part. It took place on November 12. Originally it was planned for the 11th, but the French leaders protested. November 11 was the 26th anniversary of the conclusion of the armistice of 1918 between Germany and the victorious Allies. The French argued that this date could be interpreted as revenge or ridicule. About 8,000 Frenchmen swore to be "fidèle et brave jusqu'à la mort"-- "to be brave and loyal to Adolf Hitler until death," just as the SS song of loyalty demanded: "We will remain true even if all others abandon you." ...
This time in Wildflecken was for me the happiest time in this war. Here I got to know people I could converse with. They were open-minded, sensitive, and shaped by the democratic traditions of their country...
There were hardly any peasants among them, also none of the typical bourgeois. On the contrary: the young volunteers were above all rebels against the Philistine attitude [Spießertum] prevalent in France. They loved discussions, elegant phrases, and grand gestures. They questioned all arguments, even their own. I entered a whole new SS reality and was fascinated and confused at the same time. Most of the young French SS volunteers considered themselves a White Guard, part of a great, militant movement against Communism; they considered themselves fighters for a "new Europe" in which France would be an equal member. They were, to use the terminology of today, fascists with a human face...
[The author explains that these volunteers received enthusiastic praise and moral support from the reactionary old Cardinal Baudrillart, for whom the French Revolution was the root of all evil.] But there are two souls contending in my breast, today just like back then in Wildflecken, whenever we discuss the French Revolution. Then I stood and today I stand on the side of the revolutionaries who tear down class barriers; those are "my people." We had Kaiser and kings for too long in Germany. But I mourn the fact that the price of freedom was so high back then. I and a majority of my friends in Wildflecken considered ourselves both Christians and socialists. These Frenchmen respected Baudrillart without betraying the Revolution.
[Schönhuber discerns some kind of parallel between the catastrophic defeat of Germany in 1945 and a victory by the SPD in a recent state election.]
May 8, 1945--May 8, 1988! Then a fight for survival; today a struggle for votes. Both times the arena is Schleswig-Holstein.
On May 8, 1945, the fate of Germany was decided here; on May 8, 1988, Schleswig-Holstein veered to the left.
An election campaign as a trip into the past.
I ride on the same roads as 43 years ago. The weather now is probably the same as then.... At the end of April 1945, here in the vicinity of Lübeck, my comrade [in the Waffen-SS] from Bosnia shot himself. He could not remove his tattooed blood type, the brand of the SS, and feared extradition. Does anyone remember him now? Perhaps an older woman? He was a handsome lad.
It was also in Lübeck that we heard of the "treason" of Reich Marshall Göring, which opened the last act of the "Götterdämmerung".
Now SPD placards cover the sidewalk. Somewhere I see the head of Willy Brandt. Back then this native of Lübeck was probably preparing a victory party for the other side.
In the evening a party rally in Lübeck. I refer briefly to the past but stop suddenly--don't lapse into the veteran's sentimentality, don't display emotion.... Memories of the past are just dead weight today, at least for the journalists.
I ride into the city.... There on the corner of Moltke Street is the Lornsen School, the first station of my imprisonment. From the front the school still looks exactly as it did.... Here stood the guards, and when they looked away--which they did occasionally--we could exchange news with the inhabitants on the other side of the fence; comrades could exchange a few words with their wives or girl friends or catch an apple thrown over the fence. Back then the prisoners of war were still considered victims who deserved sympathy and pity. The Englishmen were guards and occupiers, and nobody is glad to see strange men in their own home. Sometimes it is more humiliating to be a prisoner of war in your own country than in the enemy country. I think back: Did we experience May 8 as liberation or defeat? Probably as the end of Germany [finis Germaniae], or to put it in modern idiom, the knockout punch. Many were still imbued with the Hitler Youth mentality; reeducation had not yet begun.
A few schoolgirls and schoolboys are standing around. I ask them if they knew that prisoners of war had been kept here? Surprise and some distrust passes over their faces.
"Yes," says a young girl hesitantly, "Englishmen were prisoners here." --"No, they were the guards," I explain. They shrug their shoulders. "Ach so!" We have a little conversation. Why am I so interested in all this? Because I was a prisoner here. "Ach so!"
As I leave I sense them murmuring behind me and feel like an old veteran. For these young people the time back then seems as distant as the war of 1870 was for us at their age...
In these days in May I come to understand why young people have problems mastering the past [mit Vergangenheitsbewältigung]. They live in Today and think about Tomorrow. What was yesterday may interest them now and then, but it is not their problem.
I thought exactly the same way back then: survive, get on with your life!
Kiel, May 8--last stop on my northern tour. The barracks of the past are no more. And neither is the CDU government.
History Department | Grinnell College
Last updated October 12, 2004