Colonel General Erich Hoepner
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Monuments to soldiers who served their country faithfully and honorably are not a bad thing. At the same time one has to look at the context of their service and if they serve in the high command or in other government postings their service needs to be carefully examined to see if the deserve to be memorialized.
In the United States we have frequently memorialized men whose actions as military and political leaders, while commendable in some aspects leaves much to be desired in terms of long standing memorials.
A couple of years ago I had a friend whose family survived the Holocaust ask me where removing memorials to men like Robert E. Lee ends. I replied that it was all about context and the totality of life. We mythologize Robert E. Lee in a manner that his crimes and his flaws are intentionally hidden, though they are many. Since then I have written about Lee, and his crimes against the slaves that his family owned, and his meaningless sacrifice of thousands of Confederate Solders and the destruction of much of the South because he did not have the personal courage to tell Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress that the war lost in late 1863 or early 1864. He was the most respected man in the Confederacy and his words word have created an uproar that the Confederacy could not have survived. Instead he is remembered for the myth of his nobility with statues throughout the South and even the former Union States.
I then talked about German General Erich Hoepner who though he had been a part of plots to overthrow Hitler before the war and took part in the plot to overthrow Hitler in 1944 and was executed after a sham trial. The pictures and films of Hoepner being shamed and degraded by the Nazi Chief inquisitor, Judge Roland Freisler, give an impression that General Hoepner was a victim of the Nazi regime.
To some extent Hoepner was a victim of the regime, but while in command of Panzer Group Four during the invasion of the Soviet Union his actions place him in the pantheon of Nazi War Criminals. He fully cooperated with some the most criminal aspects of the Nazi regimes actions. He was a willing accomplice to crimes that stagger the imagination.
In his initial message to his troops Hoepner stated:
The war against Russia is an important chapter in the German nation’s struggle for existence. It is the old battle of the Germanic against the Slavic people, of the defence of European culture against Muscovite-Asiatic inundation and of the repulse of Jewish Bolshevism. The objective of this battle must be the demolition of present-day Russia and must therefore be conducted with unprecedented severity. Every military action must be guided in planning and execution by an iron resolution to exterminate the enemy remorselessly and totally. In particular, no adherents of the contemporary Russian Bolshevik system are to be spared.
Hoepner issued a number of other orders directing how Jews should be treated and the commander of Einsatzgruppe A, SS Brigadier General Walter Stahlecker whose units killed nearly 250,000 Jews between July and December 1941 praised the cooperation of the Wehrmacht and in particular of Hoepner with his execution squads. Stahlecker described the cooperation of the Wehrmacht with his men as “generally very good”, and “in certain cases, as for example, with Panzer Group 4 under the command of General Hoepner, extremely close, one might say even warm.” The fact is that the Einsatzgruppen could not have ran up such massive numbers of deaths without the cooperation of the German Army leaders in Russia.
That leaves us with the question of how does one remember such a military leader? Hoepner demonstrated bravery as a young officer in the First World War, and was prepared to help overthrow Hitler before the war and lost his life in the attempt to kill Hitler on July 20th 1944. But he enabled and participated in war crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination.
In 1956 a Berlin school was named after Hoepner for his role in the anti-Hitler plot, but in 2008, after his actions in relationship to the Nazi war crimes became public, the school was renamed. Because he perished in the attempt on Hitler’s life, Hoepner was included in the myth of the noble Wehrmacht. But that was a myth, the Wehrmacht was so complicit in the Nazi crimes that it cannot be exculpated from them. It’s leaders for the most part agreed with Nazi racial policies and had no hesitation in cooperating with the SS. Yes, there were exceptions, but they were and forever will remain exceptions, the myth be damned.
So in relation to the American controversy regarding monuments to Confederate leaders, or for that matter to leaders who planned, conducted, or supported our own genocide of Native Americans, the unlawful subjection and conquest of Mexico, the exploitation of territories and peoples gained following the Spanish-American War, those who conducted medical experiments not much different than the Nazi doctors on minorities and the handicapped, and so many other examples which would take too long to list for the purpose of this article: what are we to do?
As I have written before, this is a matter of context and honesty. Honestly I think this is something that we need to address, just as the Germans have since the end of the Second World War. We have to be brutally honest in our assessment of the men and women who we chose to memorialize. If we aren’t we simply bless their crimes and allow their veneration to inspire new generations of racial motivated criminals.
That is where we have to go if we have the moral courage to do so. However, I don’t think that will happen in the next few years, or even in my lifetime, but I can hope and I can act in my own way to bring attention to to them, and hopefully do what I can to keep people of our present time from heading down the same evil path.
So until tomorrow,