Category Archives: world war two in europe

The Nature Of Evil

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Thirty years ago when I was in seminary my Philosophy Of Religion Professor, Dr. Yandall Woodfin told our class that until we had death with the realities of evil, death, and suffering we had not yet done Christian theology. He was right, but I have not learned that by wrestling with theology per say, but rather human experience as recorded by history, especially my studies of the Holocaust, and American Slavery, as well as what the and as observed in my life as a trauma and surgery department chaplain in a number of large and medium sized hospitals, including Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.

Since that time I have witnessed hundreds of violent deaths. Most in the United States but some in Iraq. I have seen cruelty, committed by human beings that only can be described as evil. I have also spoken directly with men who killed in cold blood, including an assassination type hit on a man and his son who owed him fifty dollars. That man was a Navy Hospital Corpsmen with a wife and a child, his victims a couple of locals. When I looked in his eyes there was no feeling, it didn’t matter what he had did, he was a classic sociopath. He had no empathy for the men he killed or the devastation he left in the lives of his wife and child. The state he committed the murder in does have the death penalty, but he received two back to back life sentences. The Navy discharged him and that cut off my attempts to communicate with him.

But the question always comes back to the nature of evil itself, and the willing ignorance of many people of it. Having come face to face with this man and others like him, I have to agree with the comments of Captain and psychologist Gustave Gilbert about the Nazi War Criminals at Nuremberg:

“In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trails 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”

I have to admit that the amount of ignorance in the defense of evil that I see daily is simply mind blowing. It makes me shake my head. But then I cannot be surprised anymore. About two years ago I saw a poll in which nine percent of Americans said that holding White Supremacist or Neo-Nazi views and ideology was okay. 

Now nine percent doesn’t sound like a big number or anything to worry about until you extrapolate that percentage into the numbers of people who hold that view. Based on the population of the United States that nine percent equals about thirty million individuals. Now I’m sure that many of these patriotic Americans are not card carrying Klansmen or Nazis, but the fact that they would turn a blind eye to the evil of both in the name of some incomprehensible moral equivalence as did President Trump after Charlottesville is quite disturbing. Perhaps it is his example that enables them to be so open about their acceptance of evil. 

A while back on my Facebook page a friend of a friend commented on an article which discussed new research that indicates that the Nazis in their occupation of the Ukraine killed perhaps a half million more Jews than previously believed. That woman made the comment that there were others, and yes that is true. Had the Nazis won the war tens of millions more of the Jews as well as the Slavs who they referred to as Untermenschen or subhumans would have been killed, either directly or through a policy of intentional starvation. But make no bones about it, from the months that Hitler spent in Landsberg prison for his role in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 writing Mein Kampf until the end of the war as the Red Army closed in on his bunker in Berlin, the Jews above all were the object of his personal hatred. 

Close to six million Jews and millions of others were killed by the Nazis. Millions of Africans were enslaved in the United States and even after emancipation were by law treated as less than full citizens. Under Jim Crow they were discriminated against at every level of government including states that were neither a part of the Confederacy or not even States when the Civil War was fought, they were impressed as forced labor under the Black Codes and thousands were murdered, often in public by people who brought their children to watch Black men die. 

But these people were not just numbers. It’s all to easy to blur them into a mass of dehumanized humanity by talking about the millions, when every single one was a human being, yes, I believe created in the image of God. We have to see their faces and we have to recognize their essential humanity as men and women, children, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, husbands and wives, whose lives were in the case of the Jews obliterated as if they never existed, and others like African slaves who were simply property.

I explained that in quite a few fewer words and told her that she shouldn’t challenge me on the subject, which of course she did. So I went into more detail and shot her argument down in flames, to the cheers of other commentators on the post. When you have spent much of your academic life studying a subject it really gets old hearing people make excuse for evil by trying to minimize that evil, especially against the targeted people. 

It’s like Confederate apologists saying that the institution of slavery which enslaved millions of Africans was actually worse for White people. Yes it is true that many poor whites benefited little from slavery, but they were not bought and sold as chattel, sold away from their wives and children, whipped, and marched across country in chains to new owners, or yes even killed simply because they were not considered human beings but property. 

Sadly, as Dr. Timothy Snyder wrote “The history of the Holocaust is not over. Its precedent is eternal, and its lessons have not yet been learned.” 

So there are about 30 million Americans who believe that holding Nazi and White Supremacist beliefs is okay. A few years ago I would believed that the number was lower, but after seven months of living in Trump’s America I believe that it might be even higher than the poll indicated. I only say this based on the postings I see on various social media platforms, news comment pages, the proliferation of websites that cater to these beliefs, and the lack of real condemnation of such individuals by the majority of the GOP Senate and House majorities, and the outright defense of them by other GOP representatives at the Federal and State level. These people have not learned the lessons of the Holocaust, nor American slavery. 

Again I don’t believe that the majority of these people are real card carrying Nazis or Klansmen. Most would probably be considered great citizens: they work, they raise families, they go to church, and many would claim that they have “a Black or Jewish friend” so obviously they cannot be racists. But that being said they turn a blind eye to the evil of race hatred and White supremacy, and sometimes join in on social media meme wars where they mock the victims. But no matter what, not condemning the purveyors of White Supremacist or Neo-Nazi ideology, or by using the arguments of moral equivalence to minimize those crimes against humanity makes these people as complicit in the past, present, and future crimes of Naziism as if they were. 

They may be ordinary people, as seemingly normal as anyone else, but as Hannah Arendt noted about Adolf Eichmann and other Nazis who advanced the destruction of the Jews was that they were so normal. She wrote: 

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.” 

That my friends is as true as the day she wrote it after Eichmann’s trial, as it is today, and why we must constantly educate people in every forum possible that it is all too easy to become either a perpetrator or evil or a bystander. As Snyder wrote: “It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander. It is tempting to say that a Nazi murderer is beyond the pale of understanding. …Yet to deny a human being his human character is to render ethics impossible. To yield to this temptation, to find other people inhuman, is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position. To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.” 

Since they were human beings the Nazis were not unique to history. In every era of history human beings have committed atrocities, many in the name of some kind of ethnic, religious, or nationalist ideology of supremacy that held other people to be less than human. That may sound harsh, but it is all too true based on history.

Yehuda Bauer wrote: “The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.” 

In the movie Judgment at Nuremberg the judge played by Spencer Tracy noted something important about the defendants in the trial. His words need to be heard today as well:

Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and the death of millions by the Government of which he was a part. Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe.

But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.

It is high time that we learn that again and that we make up our minds to oppose the ideologies that made the Holocaust and Slavery possible. As Hannah Arendt observed: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

But then there are those who have no problem with it, sociopaths who have an extreme absence of empathy.

So until tomorrow, 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Criminal Campaign and Compliant Generals: Barbarossa 1941

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The 78th anniversary of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 is approaching. The German war against the Soviet Union was unlike any in modern military history. It was not just a war to defeat the Soviets militarily or to overthrow Stalin’s regime of terror. It was a war conceived to conquer as well as to exterminate and enslave.

The Nazis believed the Slavic peoples of the Soviet Union to what the referred to as untermenschen or sub-human and the plan was designed to provide the German master race with the necessary Lebensraum, or living space. The plan called for ethnic cleansing, the extermination of the Jews and the deliberate starvation of 30 million other people in the Soviet Union. The destruction of the Jews of the Soviet Union, which the Nazis linked with Bolshevism, and the elimination of anyone associated with the Soviet government or Communist Party was paramount. It was an ideological war without mercy in which civilized norms that governed the conduct of war were defied and trampled.

The German war in the east would differ from any previous war.  Its underlying basis was ideological. Economic and geopolitical considerations were given importance in relationship to the understanding of the German “Master Race.”  Race and Lebensraum was the goal of the State that “concentrates all of its strength on marking out a way of life for our people through the allocation of Lebensraum for the next one hundred years…the goal corresponds equally to the highest national and ethnic requirements.” 

Hitler set the stage on March 3rd 1941 when he told confidants: “the forthcoming campaign is more than a mere armed conflict; it is a collision between two different ideologies…this war will not be ended merely by the defeat of the enemy armed forces” and that “the Jewish-Bolshevist intelligentsia must be eliminated….”

On March 30th 1941 Hitler addressed 250 Generals about the nature of the war to come:

Shortly before the order was issued, Hitler previewed it to the generals saying that the war in Russia “cannot be conducted in a knightly fashion” and that it would have to be waged with “unprecedented, unmerciful and unrelenting harshness. Hitler told the Generals that they would have to “dispense with all of their outdated and traditional ideas about chivalry and the generally accepted rules of warfare: the Bolsheviks had long since dispensed with them.” He explained that his orders were beyond their comprehension, he told them “I cannot and will not change my orders and I insist that that they be carried out with unquestioning and unconditional obedience.” Few questioned the order and few protested, those that did were told by the Army Commander, Field Marshal Von Brauchtisch “the he would express their opinion to OKW and Hitler respectively.” 

But Von Brauchitsch refused to protest to Hitler and instead issued an order on his own authority “threatening dire penalties for excesses against civilians and prisoners of war” which he maintained at Nurmeberg “was sufficient to nullify the Commissar Order.” Yet Von Brauchitsch’s hands were not unsoiled and he later told his commanders to “proceed with the necessary hardness.” He knew what that meant as he was present.

General Franz Halder, Chief of the OKH, or the Army High Command took notes on Hitler’s speech. They are chilling to read as none present could have understood them in any other way than Hitler meant:

“Clash of two ideologies. Crushing denunciation of Bolshevism, identified with asocial criminality….We must forget the comradeship between soldiers. A Communist is no comrade before nor after the battle. This is a war of extermination….We do not wage war to preserve the enemy….War against Russia: Extermination of the Bolshevist Commissars and of the Communist intelligentsia….this is no job for military courts. The individual troop commanders must know the issues at stake. They must be leaders in the fight….This war will be very different from war in the West. In the East harshness today means leniency in the future. Commanders must make the sacrifice of overcoming their personal scruples.” 

General Erich Hoepner, commander of Panzer Group Four who would be executed following the attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1944, told his commanders that the invasion was “an essential part of the German people’s struggle for existence” and stated, “the struggle must aim at the annihilation of today’s Russia and must therefore be waged with unparalleled harshness”. Hoepner told his officers that they were fighting for “the defense of European culture against Moscovite–Asiatic inundation, and the repulse of Jewish Bolshevism … No adherents of the present Russian-Bolshevik system are to be spared.”

The German Army as well as the SS Einsatzgruppen and the German Order Police launched their attack in the early hours of June 22nd  and did not lack the hardness required to commit war crimes and atrocities that are unimaginable, and which can never be allowed to happen again.

I could go on but I will end for now.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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War Crimes and War Criminals: Criminal Orders and Cooperation Equals Genocide


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Over the past few days I have been writing about War crimes, war criminals, and bringing them to justice while pointing out that some commanders, even in criminal nations have opposed and disobeyed such orders.

What caused me to revisit the subject was watching the biographical documentary of Benjamin Ferencz, the last remaining prosecutor from the Nuremberg Trials. Ferencz prosecuted the Einsatzgruppen Trial. The Einsatzgruppen were four units composed of SS, SD, Waffen SS, and Order Police personnel, with a combined strength of about 3,000 personnel, commanded by SS, or SD Colonels or Generals. They had the mission of exterminating Jews, Gypsies, and Soviet Communist Party officials, or Red Army Commissars. They received additional support from Order Police Battalions, Wehrmacht Security Divisions, government and party officials in charge of the occupied territories, and from the Wehrmacht Army Group, Army, Army Corps, and Division Commanders in their areas of operations. The Einsatzgruppen murdered nearly a million and a half people up close and personal with pistols, rifles, and machine guns at close range over mass graves. They also pioneered the use of gas vans. Many of their actions took place before the decision to implement the Final Solution. Without the cooperation of of the Wehrmacht, Government occupation authorities, and the Order Police they could not have murdered so many people.

Contrary to the myth of a clean Wehrmacht, during the German invasion of the Soviet Union senior leaders of the Wehrmacht actively cooperated with the crimes of the Nazi regime against the Jews, Soviet prisoners of war, and Soviet citizens. I have pointed out that Hitler’s ideology of the racial superiority of his Aryan Master Race and the corresponding view that the Jews and Slavs were untermenschen or subhuman justified the most extreme measures that the Nazis used to kill millions of innocent people through extermination, ethnic cleansing, and extermination. 

There was a common myth after the Second World War that the regular German Army, the Wehrmacht, fought an honorable and clean war while the criminal actions of war crimes and genocide were the fault of Hitler, the Nazi Party, and the SS. It was a comforting myth because it allowed a great number of men who agreed with Hitler’s policies, and often assisted in them to maintain a fiction of honor and respectability. While for the most part the German Army in the West fought according to international norms of conduct, it was a different matter on the Easter Front, where following Hitler’s lead the Wehrmacht from its senior officers in down was often at the tip of the spear in enforcing Hitler’s racial and ideological war. 


                                            Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel 

This came form the top. In addition to the Commissar order, also known as the Criminal Order, Field Marshal Keitel offered this directive to units fighting on the Easter Front:

“In view of the vast size of the conquered territories in the East, the forces available for establishing security in these areas will be sufficient only if instead of punishing resistance by sentencing the guilty in a court of law, the occupying forces spread such terror as is likely, by its mere existence, to crush every will to resist amongst the population.

The commanders concerned, together with all available troops, should be made responsible for maintaining peace within their areas. The commanders must find the means of keeping order within their areas, not by demanding more security forces, but by applying suitable drastic measures.”

                                           Field Marshal Walter Von Reichenau 

Commanders in the East used Keitel’s order as carte blanche authority to be even more severe than Keitel’s order specified. Field Marshal Walter Reichenau issued what is something’s known as the Severity Order to his 6th Army which was part of Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt’s Army Group South. Von Rundstedt, who was not a Nazi and who maintained his reputation after the war expressed his “complete agreement” with it and urged other subordinates to issue similar orders. 

“The most important objective of this campaign against the Jewish-Bolshevik system is the complete destruction of its sources of power and the extermination of the Asiatic influence in European civilization. … In this eastern theatre, the soldier is not only a man fighting in accordance with the rules of the art of war, but also the ruthless standard bearer of a national conception. … For this reason the soldier must learn fully to appreciate the necessity for the severe but just retribution that must be meted out to the subhuman species of Jewry…” 

Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein

An order was issued by General Erich Von Manstein to his Eleventh Army in November 1941 which stated in part:

“Jewry constitutes the middleman between the enemy in the rear and the remainder of the Red Armed Forces which is still fighting, and the Red leadership. More strongly than in Europe it holds all the key positions in the political leadership and administration, controls commerce and trades, and further forms the nucleus for all unrest and possible uprisings.

The Jewish-Bolshevist system must be exterminated once and for all. Never again must it encroach upon our European living space.

The German soldier has therefore not only the task of crushing the military potential of this system. He comes also as the bearer of a racial concept and as the avenger of all the cruelties’ which have been perpetrated on him and on the German people…

The food situation at home makes it essential that the troops should as far as possible be fed off the land and that furthermore the largest possible stocks should be placed at the disposal of the homeland. Particularly in enemy cities a large part of the population will have to go hungry. Nevertheless nothing which the homeland has sacrificed itself to contribute may, out of a misguided sense of humanity, be given to prisoners or to the population unless they are in the service of the German Wehrmacht.

The soldier must appreciate the necessity for the harsh punishment of Jewry, the spiritual bearer of the Bolshevist terror. This is also necessary in order to nip in the bud all uprisings which are mostly plotted by Jews…

Manstein claimed that he did not remember the order at his trial and that he sought to ensure that his troops did not engage in conduct not fitting of the honor of soldiers. He included the following in the order: “Severest action to be taken: against despotism and self-seeking; against lawlessness and lack of discipline; against every transgression of the honor of a soldier.”

In his defense at Nuremberg Manstien attempted to mitigate the damning words of the order. He explained that “I do want to point out to you that if it says here that the system must be exterminated, then that is extermination of the Bolshevik system, but not the extermination of human beings.” Despite Manstein’s clarification of what he meant in the order it would be hard for soldiers and commanders receiving the order as written could hardly have been expect not to interpret it literally. Likewise his order mentions the intentional starvation of Soviet citizens and harsh invectives against the Jews. 

Like Von Rundstedt, Manstein too would be rehabilitated and for the most part his complicity in Hitler’s racial and ideological war forgotten by historians and military men who admired his strategic, operational, and tactical acumen.


There are many other examples of German Army commanders at various levels issuing orders similar to Von Reichenau and Von Manstein as well as accounts of Wehrmacht units cooperating with the Einsatzgruppen in various mass extermination actions against the Jews, including the action at Babi Yar. In many cases the cooperation was quite close as evidenced by the report of the commander of Einsatzgruppe C to Berlin on November 3rd 1941:

In a great number of cases, it happened that the support of the Einsatzkommandos was requested by the fighting troops. Advance detachments of the Einsatzgruppe also participated in every large military action. They entered newly captured localities side by side with the fighting troops. Thus, in all cases, the utmost support was given. For example, in this connection, it is worth mentioning the participation in the capture of Zhitomir, where the first tanks entering the city were immediately followed by three cars of Einsatzkommando 4a.

As a result of the successful work of the Einsatzgruppe, the Security Police is also held in high regard, in particular by the HQ of the German Army. The liaison officers stationed in Army HQ are loyally briefed of all military operations, and, besides, they receive the utmost cooperation. The Commander of the 6th Army, Generalfeldmarschall von Richenau, has repeatedly praised the work of the Einsatzkommandos and, accordingly, supported the interests of the SD with his staff.

It is true that in some cases individual Wehrmacht officers refused to cooperate with the Einsatzgruppen in their operational areas, but without the cooperation of the Wehrmacht the extermination campaigns against the Jews and other Soviet citizens could not have been successful. 

                                                          The Rape of Nanking 

One has to ask what it takes for otherwise ordinary and law abiding people to carry out crimes of such magnitude. I do believe that the answer is found in the racial ideology that posits certain races as being less than human. The examples of such belief in action litter human history and are not limited to the Germans of the Nazi era. The disturbing thing as that the men who perpetrated the Nazi crimes against humanity and genocide were not unique. The actions of the Japanese army in China, Korea, and Southeast Asia to include the Rape of Nanking and their Unit 731; the American genocide committed against the Native American tribes and the enslavement of Blacks; the extermination of the Herero in German Southwest Africa, the Rwandan genocide, the mass killings of Bosnians by Bosnian Serbs,  the Armenian genocide committed by the Turks, and far too many more examples show this to be the case. 

I think one of our problems is that we want to believe that evil is simply done be evil people. That is why when we see a Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or the monsters of the so-called Islamic State, we are often strangely comforted. This is often because we can point to a single person with a wicked ideology and say “they are evil,” all the while forgetting that they are, or were, like us, also human.Once human beings decide that other human beings are less than human, then all bets are off, and that includes Americans. Over our history we have shown a taste for barbarity when we believe our opponents are less than human.

There is a scene in the movie Nuremberg in which an American psychologist named Gustave Gilbert questions the commandant of Auschwitz. When he asks the commandant if he felt guilty for the extermination of the Jews in his camp the commandant said “does a rat catcher feel guilty for killing rats.” Thereafter Gilbert confronts Herman Goering pointedly asking the number two Nazi “A rat catcher catching rats”. Is that the kind of thinking it takes to carry out state sanctioned mass murder? Not just blind obedience but also a belief that your victims are not human?” 

Goering replies: Let me ask you this. What was Hiroshima? Was it not your medical experiment? Would Americans have dropped bombs as easily on Germany as it did upon Japan killing as many civilians as possible? I think not. To an American sensibility, a Caucasian child is considerably more human than a Japanese child…

What about the negro officers in your own army? Are they not allowed to command troops in combat? Can they sit on the same buses as the whites? The segregation laws in your country and the anti Semitic laws in mine, are they not a difference of degree? 

The tragic thing is that while Gilbert was certainly correct in his question to Goering, Goering was also right. For all that is good about America there is a persistent strain of this kind of thinking which deems other people, especially non-white people as inferior racially, culturally, and intellectually. Over the decades we like to think that we have become better but the underlying attitudes are still present today, sometimes in plain view, but often just under our veneer of civility and good manners, but what maintains that civility is quite fragile. In his history of Auschwitz British historian Laurence Rees wrote:

“human behavior is fragile and unpredictable and often at the mercy of the situation. Every individual still, of course, has a choice as to how to behave, it’s just that for many people the situation is the key determinate in that choice.” 

The German military officers who took part in the campaign in the East were terrifyingly normal. They were raised in an advanced society, highly cultured, well educated, and raised in the cradle of Protestantism, as well as Catholic Germany. Yet many of them became willing participants in crimes of their nation that are unimaginable. But the fact is that the character of nations can be as fragile as that if individuals. As Americans we like to think that we are different but our history often belies this, even our military history and this is part of our conundrum. 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote of the struggle:

 “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

When I taught ethics at the Joint Forces Staff College I challenged my students to deal with these kinds of questions. They are not easy and they require that we look into the darkest reaches of our hearts to see what we will do when we are confronted with choices to obey orders that go against the values of the institution but may reflect the more troubling aspects of our culture. Some of these men and women I am sure understood and will not break under pressure, but I am not so sure about others, and I worry about them in the crisis. The fact is we are only as good as we are in the crisis. Historian Timothy Snyder wrote something that we should not discount when asking the question about how ordinary men become war criminals:

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

This is something that we most ponder because it would not take much in our present day where the old ethnic race hatreds, religious hatreds, and resurgent nationalism are again raising their head not only in our own country, but around the world. So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“He Deserves Our Respect…” Remembering the Resistance, Honor, Integrity, and Murder Of Erwin Rommel

rommel

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Some seventy-five years ago in Ulm Germany that a car pulled up to the residence of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. In the car was the driver and two Generals dispatched by Hitler who had orders to give the hero of Germany a choice, death by suicide or a trial before the kangaroo “People’s Court” of judge Roland Freisler.  Rommel was recuperating following being severely wounded in an air attack in Normandy on July 17th 1944.

Rommel had been awarded the Pour le Merite, Imperial Germany’s highest award for valor in the First World War. He was never an official member of the Nazi Party, but like many Germans he believed Hitler’s promises and propaganda. As Hitler rose to power he like many others was carried away by early Nazi successes, the bloodless conquests of the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and the spectacle of the Olympics.

Like most other officers he would serve the regime as it spread its dark pall over Europe, and unlike so many others when he suffered a crisis in conscience about the Nazi leadership and their policies he refused to obey orders that he knew were illegal and immoral and then risked his life by joining the conspiracy to kill Hitler.

After years of stalled promotion, Hitler’s expansion of the military allowed Rommel to be promoted, and when Germany went to war he was commander of the unit which guarded Hitler’s headquarters train when he went into Poland. Rommel received command of the 7th  Panzer Division after Poland and as a division commander in France he led his troops on some of the most epic advances of the French campaign.

He was then given command of the troops sent to bail out Mussolini’s failed African adventure. His small force and always ill-supplied force, which became known as the Afrika Korps scored impressive victories against British forces. In Africa, Rommel gained fame and earned rapid promotion. Though Africa was a sideshow in the Nazi war effort, Rommel became a poster-child for Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine. His fame also earned the resentment of many fellow officers who because he was not an officer of the General Staff regarded him with jealous envy and distain. Even so, Rommel was a soldier’s soldier. He believed in sharing in the suffering of his troops. He once said:

“Be an example to your men in your duty and in private life. Never spare yourself, and let the troops see that you don’t in your endurance of fatigue and privation. Always be tactful and well-mannered, and teach your subordinates to be the same. Avoid excessive sharpness or harshness of voice, which usually indicates the man who has shortcomings of his own to hide.”

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In Arica Rommel showed himself to be a remarkable tactician and field commander. Likewise, unlike many other German (and sadly Allied) commanders had the ability to recognize the valor and soldierly virtues of his opponents, even those who were not white. A captured South African officer pleaded with Rommel to spare him being imprisoned with Black troops under his command. Rommel told him:

“For me, soldiers are all equal. Those black people wore your same uniform, fought on your side, and so you will be in the same jail.”

That was not until Rommel discovered the reality of Hitler’s promises as the troops of the Afrika Corps were hollow that he began to understand the man he had sworn his allegiance. He and his gallant German and Italian soldiers found themselves subjected to constant privation from lack of supply, air support and reinforcements. As commander of the Afrika Corps and later the Panzer Armee Arfika he and his troops achieved amazing success against an enemy that was always better supplied and equipped and which had air and sea superiority. Battling the British as well as the political machinations of Mussolini and Germany’s Italian Allies as well as opponents in the German government such as Hermann Goering, Rommel saw his troops crushed under the press of the British as well as the Americans who landed in French North Africa. Eventually, sick and worn out, Rommel was sent back to Germany to recuperate.

While visiting Hitler’s headquarters during that leave Rommel was struck by the atmosphere and made this observation:

“During the conference I realised that the atmosphere in the Fuehrer’s H.Q,. was extremely optimistic. Goering in particular was inclined to minimise our difficulties. When I said that British fighter-bombers had shot up my tanks with 4O-mm. shells, the Reichsmarschall, who felt himself touched by this, said: ” That’s completely impossible. The Americans only know how to make razor blades.” I replied: “We could do with some of those razor blades, Herr Reichsmarschall.”

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Rommel had a sense of honor and humanity that many other German generals lacked. He refused to allow anti-Jewish measures in areas occupied by German troops in North Africa, ensuring that the approximately 425,000 Jews living in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco were spared the fate of the Holocaust. He refused to execute Jewish POWs, and refused to follow the notorious “commando order.” In June of 1994 he protested the massacre of the people of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane by units of the 2nd SS Panzer Division directly to Hitler and asked for the authority to punish those responsible, but was his protest was refused.

In late 1943 and early 1944 Rommel began to learn of the mass killings being orchestrated by Himmler’s SS. His son Manfred asked his father’s permission to join the Waffen SS, which Rommel insisted that he not do, the younger Rommel recounted:

“While, he said, he perfectly well recognised the quality of the S.S. troops, under no circumstances did he want me to be under the command of a man who, according to his information, was carrying out mass killings. ” Do you mean Himmler? ” I asked. ” Yes,” he answered, and instructed me to maintain absolute silence about the whole affair. The war was not going at all well and he had heard that people like Himmler were trying, by actions of this kind, to burn the bridges of the German people behind them. I think he was not at all certain at that time whether Hitler knew anything about what was going on, for no mention of the mass executions had ever been made at the Fuehrer’s H.Q. And perhaps he would never have brought himself to the decision to end the war -by a revolt if necessary -if he had not received further information in the early months of 1944 which confirmed these crimes and gave some idea of their extent. From that moment on, all my father’s inner allegiance to Adolf Hitler, whom he had once admired, was destroyed, and he brought himself, from his knowledge of the Fuehrer’s crimes, to act against him.” 

Rommel’s honest assessments of the chances of the Germans winning the war which he spoke candidly to Hitler and the High Command made him persona non grata in Berlin and Berchtesgaden. In the time before he was posted to France in late 1943 he became a part of the plot to end the war and overthrow Hitler. Rommel’s Chief of Staff at OB West, General Hans Speidel, was a key man in the conspiracy and Rommel had contacts with a number of key conspirators. He believed that the war was lost unless his forces could repel the coming Allied invasion on the beaches and worked feverishly to bolster the beach fortifications. He recommended that the Panzer Divisions be deployed near the coast where they could immediately counterattack Allied invasion forces while they were still vulnerable. But his advice was not taken. He was given command of the Army Group but was not given control of most of the Panzer Divisions, which Hitler kept under his direct control.

When the invasion came Rommel was away from Normandy visiting his wife. On learning of the invasion he sped back to Normandy. When he arrived he fought a desperate battle against the Allied forces. His outnumbered forces were under constant assault from the land, sea and air received paltry reinforcements compared to the Allies. Even so, German troops inflicted many local defeats and exacted a heavy price in allied blood in Normandy but were ground to dust. Even so, many American and British infantry regiments suffered 100% casualties but remained in action because of a continuous stream of replacements. Rommel urged Hitler and the High Command to withdraw German forces from Normandy before the allies broke through his front. By doing so he found that he was now considered a defeatist.

Rommel was severely wounded in an air attack on his vehicle by a just days before the attempt on Hitler’s life. Hitler survived the attempted assassination and exacted a terrible revenge on anyone connected with the plot. Show trials and public hangings of officers who had served valiantly at the front were common. Thousands were killed and thousands more imprisoned.

Eventually, other conspirator’s testimony exposed that Rommel was part of the plot. He was recommended by the “Court of Military Honor” to be expelled from the military and tried by the “People’s Court” of Judge Roland Freisler. During the purge that followed the attempt on Hitler’s life, many noted German military commanders were hauled before this court and humiliated by Freisler before they were sent to their deaths. Freisler, a fanatic Nazi judge has been part of the infamous Wansee Conference which planned the details of the Final Solution was killed when his courtroom was bombed in February 1945.

Because of his fame and popularity in Germany Hitler was decided to offer Rommel a choice of being tried by the People’s Court or committing suicide and ensuring his family’s safety. Hitler dispatched two generals from Berlin to personally deliver the message.

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Rommel suspected that he would be identified and killed and told that to his friends and family in the days leading up to the arrival of Generals Wilhelm Burgorf and Ernst Maisel from OKW with the ultimatum. They met with Rommel for a short time before giving him the opportunity to say goodbye to his family. Rommel told them of his choice and left his home for the last time. 15 minutes later the Generals called his wife to say that he had died of a heart attack. Rommel was given a state funeral and the German people were lied to about his cause of his death.

Winston Churchill wrote of Rommel:

“He also deserves our respect because, although a loyal German soldier, he came to hate Hitler and all his works, and took part in the conspiracy to rescue Germany by displacing the maniac and tyrant. For this, he paid the forfeit of his life. In the sombre wars of modern democracy, chivalry finds no place … Still, I do not regret or retract the tribute I paid to Rommel, unfashionable though it was judged.”

Rommel was just 52 years old when he died. I find in the story of Rommel some commonality in my own life. Before Rommel went to Africa he believed that Germany would win the war, during his command there he discovered that what he believed was lies and that Hitler had little regard for him or his troops. Before I went to Iraq in 2007 I believed much of the political propaganda promoted by the Bush administration and right wing news media and pundits about that war.

The example of Erwin Rommel is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a brilliant and honorable man comes under the spell of a demagogue. Rommel believed Hitler and blindly followed him until he ran into the hard face of reality in Africa at which point he had the moral courage to do the right thing, but many didn’t.

The fact is that it is hard for most Americans to imagine what it would be to,serve in the military, law enforcement, intelligence, or justice departments of a totalitarian regime, but we are fast approaching that point.

Sadly there are otherwise honorable men and women in the current United States military who are blindly supporting a delusional and quite probably criminal President;  a man who promises to order soldiers to commit war crimes, who threatens to jail political opponents, who condemns whole races of people and religions, a man who has no respect for the courts, the law, or the Constitution.  Personally as a historian I cannot understand that kind of blind loyalty especially when the the leader in question has no loyalty to anyone other than himself. Not long before he was killed Rommel told his son:

“one thing is quite clear, it’s intolerable that the fate and welfare of a whole nation should depend on the whim of a small group. There must be some limit, otherwise, the most fantastic things can happen without anyone noticing.”

Rommel refused to obey the criminal orders that so many other German Generals and Officers obeyed. He lost his life because of his honor and personal integrity, and willingness to oppose a criminal regime. The question is, if President Trump and his administration cross that line, will American military leaders emulate Rommel or the officers who obeyed their orders, aided and abetted War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, and in many cases lied about the activities after the war in order to secure lucrative employment advising the Western Allies on the tactics and operational methods of the Soviets while writing their memoirs, which coincidentally omitted or denied their cooperation with Hitler’s most criminal orders.

Others, who were captured by the Soviets and worked for the Army or Security and Intelligence Services Of East Germany never admitted their roles in Hitler’s crimes. It was like they all sought to erase history, but the archives don’t lie, whether they worked for NATO or the Soviets.

The frightening thing is that almost all had served many of their formative years in the service of the Kaiser, or the Weimar Republic. They were not products of the Hitler Youth or Nazi education. They knew better. We should too, but that is no guarantee that we will not devolve as they did.

I hope that own better angels prevail.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, History, holocaust, Loose thoughts and musings, Military, nazi germany, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

The Unending Reality Of Endlösung: The Legacy of Adolf Eichmann and those Who Embrace Race Hatred

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

On June 1st 1962 Adolf Eichmann was hanged in Israel for his crimes of mass murder and genocide. His appearance in the court where he portrayed himself as a functionary and bureaucrat who was repulsed by bloodshed and only following orders. So convincing was his act that Hannah Arendt wrote of him:

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied — as had been said at Nuremberg over and over again by the defendants and their counsels — that this new type of criminal, who is in actual fact hostis generis humani, commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.”

Unfortunately there are people such as Arendt described, but Eichmann was not one of them. She wrote her commentary having only attended parts of the trial, but what she saw convinced her that Eichmann was ordinary and normal. She was convinced by his appearance and presentation at the trial that he was not the man who ran roughshod over Jews as well as German officials in order to execute the Final Solution. That phrase, “the banality of evil” has often been used to provide an alibi for men and women who wholeheartedly participated in the extermination of the Jews and others deemed to be less than human regardless of whether they were desk bound bureaucrats in Berlin, managers of the extermination camps, or the members of the Einsatzgruppen, the Ordungspolizei, or the Wehrmacht who systematically exterminated millions of people up close and personal.

Eichamnn was a true believer in the Nazi system and its desire to exterminate the Jews from the earth and he enjoyed what he did. He not only acted on orders but he anticipated them, as he told William Sassen in an interview while living undercover in Argentina in the 1950s:

“If we would have killed 10.3 million Jews, then I would be satisfied and would say, good, we annihilated an enemy. … I wasn’t only issued orders, in this case I’d have been a moron, but I rather anticipated, I was an idealist.”

Eichmann began his career by persecuting the Jews of Vienna but following the Wansee Conference he was entrusted by Reinhard Heydrich with overseeing the mechanics of implementing the Final Solution. He was only an SS Lieutenant Colonel but he wielded his power with such effect that he could ensure that Nazi functionaries senior to him did his bidding in regard to the Jews, He told Sassen:

“They knew me wherever I went. Through the press, the name Eichmann had emerged as a symbol…. In any case, the word Jew … was irreversibly linked with the word Eichmann. Much more power … was attributed to me than I actually had.”

Eichmann summed up the attitude of many when he said regarding his work to deport hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in in just a few weeks during the fall of 1944, “Whether they were bank directors or mental cases, the people who were loaded on those trains meant nothing to me.” Speaking to Willem Sassen in 1957 Eichmann reveled in that accomplishment, “It was an achievement that was never matched before or since.” Eichmann also enjoyed leading his victims on, pretending that he might listen, and they might change his mind. Eichmann was proud of what he did. He told his staff, “I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”

Some of the 437,000 Hungarian Jews Being Sent to Auschwitz

His greatest accomplishment of genocide was in Hungary between March and May of 1944 when he orchestrated the “evacuation” of 437,000 Jews to Auschwitz, of which nearly 400,000 were exterminated in that camps massive gas chambers. His greatest regret was that Himmler and others, realizing that the war was lost were now trying to find ways to deal with the Allies using the Jews as bargaining chips. They put an end to his campaign leaving half of Hungary’s Jews alive, something that he detested to the end of his life for his superiors had taken away his reason for being.

Eichmann twisted language in a perverse manner to both glorify and justify his inhumanity. Bettina Stangneth, wrote in her book Eichmann Before Jerusalem:

“The language becomes entirely perverted where Eichmann turns metaphors on their heads, talking about expulsion and murder using gentle images of life. An institution for forced emigration was his “first child,” where he was able to “be creative in my work.” All the individual acts of robbery and expulsion that took place in Austria were committed to “provide [the country] with injections of Jewish solutions.” Even exterminations and deportations were “born”. This was why he felt so superfluous in Budapest, when he was forced to stop deporting people to Auschwitz: “As far as I know, I couldn’t have done anything fruitful anymore” … In Eichmann’s language, he didn’t send people to the death camps; the camps were “fed with material”.

Adolf Eichmann went to his death unrepentant and there is nothing to be mourned on this anniversary of his death, other than the fact that there are people who are much like him today. That is the terrifying reality. Some may be those faceless bureaucrats, but too many others would easily become killers. As Timothy Snyder noted:

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

Christopher Browning wrote in his book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Holocaust in Poland:

“I fear that we live in a world in which war and racism are ubiquitous, in which the powers of government mobilization and legitimization are powerful and increasing, in which a sense of personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated by specialization and bureaucratization, and in which the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. In such a world, I fear, modern governments that wish to commit mass murder will seldom fail in their efforts for being unable to induce “ordinary men” to become their “willing executioners.”

In such a world it is all too important that we never forget, especially now when we could be watching it begin all over again. Eichmann may be dead but he lives on and we must always remain vigilant, or the specter of the Holocaust will rise again, quite possibly in countries that are considered civilized and freedom loving, like the United States.

Never forget,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, holocaust, nazi germany, Political Commentary, war crimes, world war two in europe

D-Day at 75 Years: “We Have to do Our Best to Uphold in Our own Lives the Values that They we’re Prepared to Die For”

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I find the days around Memorial Day and the anniversaries of the Battle of Midway and the D-Day landings to be a time when I become quite reflective about what it means to be a career American military officer, combat veteran, and the son of a Navy Chief who was also a combat veteran. I am also an uncle to a young man who likely will be enlisting in the Army in the coming weeks.

When he spoke on Omaha Beach during the ceremony marking the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day landings President Barak Obama said:

“We are on this Earth for only a moment in time.  And fewer of us have parents and grandparents to tell us about what the veterans of D-Day did here 70 years ago.  As I was landing on Marine One, I told my staff, I don’t think there’s a time where I miss my grandfather more, where I’d be more happy to have him here, than this day.  So we have to tell their stories for them.  We have to do our best to uphold in our own lives the values that they were prepared to die for.  We have to honor those who carry forward that legacy, recognizing that people cannot live in freedom unless free people are prepared to die for it.” 

All of my adult life I have strived to uphold those values that those men were prepared to die for, and for almost 38 years of Army and Navy service that I have been prepared to do so at a moment’s notice.

Seventy-five years ago the liberation of France began on the beaches of Normandy.  Soldiers from 6 Allied Infantry and 3 Airborne Divisions supported by an Armada of over 5000 ships and landing craft and several thousand aircraft braved weather, heavy seas and in places fierce German resistance to gain the foothold on beaches named Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword and Juno.  Over the next seven weeks the Allied soldiers advanced yard by yard through the hedgerows and villages of Normandy against ferocious German resistance before they were able to break out of the lodgment area and begin the drive across France. In his D-Day message to his troops General Dwight Eisenhower reminded them that their mission was “the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.” There are still those in the world who subject their people to tyranny and attempt to destabilize and overthrow the governments of liberty loving peoples, likewise Eisenhower knew that security for ourselves meant close alliances with those who have our values and not isolating ourselves from the world.

The fighting was bloody, most American, British and Canadian infantry battalions and regiments suffered nearly 100% casualty rates in Normandy.  Replacements were fed in at a cyclic rate to make up the losses even as fresh divisions flowed ashore, but the losses were terrible.  By the time the landings took place, the British having been at war for nearly five years were bled out.  They had little left to replace their losses.  From Normandy on the British were losing combat power at a rate that they could not make up.

For the Americans there was another problem.  The US High command decided to limit the Army to 90 Divisions.  Many of these were committed to the Pacific and Mediterranean theaters.   Likewise, American Infantry units were generally made up of the lowest caliber of recruits, led often by the poorest officers; the best went to either the Air Corps or technical branches of the Army.

Now this is not to criticize veterans, but it is a factor in the campaign.  Most US Infantry Divisions with the exceptions of those previously blooded in North Africa and Sicily often performed badly in action.  Some, after being manhandled by the Germans had their leadership replaced and became excellent combat units.  However, every new division that arrived in France after D-Day always got the worst of their initial engagement against German forces.

While performance suffered there was another problem for the Americans.  With the limitation in number of divisions, they stopped building infantry divisions, upon whom the bulk of the campaign depended. Thus they had little in the way of trained infantry replacements to make up heavy losses in Normandy.  By late 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge the American infantry crisis was so bad that 30,000 Air Corps candidates were trained as infantry and soldiers from support units such as Ant-Aircraft battalions were used to bolster infantry units.

Had the Germans been able to hold out and had they not been bled white by the Red Army on the Easter Front, had they not lost the nearly their entire Army Group Center in the Red Army offensive of 1944 it is conceivable that the British and American offensive in the West would have ground to a halt for lank of infantry in 1945.  In spite of this there was no lack of individual courage among the troops engaged; the courage and sacrifice of all who fought there should not be forgotten.

The human toll among the combatants both Allied and German, as well as the local populace was especially traumatic.  While the American, Canadian and British people are keen to remember the sacrifices made by our soldiers we often forget the toll among the French civilian population of Normandy as well as the German soldiers, mostly conscripts, sacrificed by the Nazi regime.  Normandy suffered more than any part of France during the liberation.  In the months leading up to D-Day Allied Air Forces unleashed hell on Normandy to attempt to lessen potential German resistance.  The Allied Naval bombardment added to the carnage ashore and once the campaign began the combined fires of both Allied and German forces devastated the region.  Whole cites such as Caen were destroyed by Allied Air forces and an estimated 30,000 French civilians were killed during the Normandy campaign, 3000 on D-Day alone.  I think it can be said that the blood of the civilians of Normandy was shed for the freedom of all of France.

The campaign in Normandy was one of the most viciously contested in western military history.  German forces, especially Paratroops of the 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th Fallschirmjager Divisions, German Army Panzer Divisions such as the 2nd, 21st, 116th and Panzer Lehr and those of the Waffen-SS, especially the 1st, 2nd and 12th SS Panzer Divisions held the line against ever increasing Allied forces.  As they sacrificed themselves Hitler refused to commit more forces to Normandy and insisted that his Army contest every meter of ground.  He forbade his commanders to withdraw to more defensible positions along the Seine.

Hitler’s decisions actually shortened the campaign.  Whatever the crimes of the Hitler Regime and Nazism, which were among the most heinous in history, one can never question the valor, courage and sacrifice of ordinary German soldiers.  For those Americans who lump all Germans who fought in World War II with the evil of the Nazi regime, please do not forget this fact:  There are those today, even in this country that make the same charge against Americans who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and those at home and abroad who have labeled the US as an aggressor nation. As President Trump continues to go his own way to make the United States a pariah nation, including pardoning convicted war criminals, we have to be very aware of the costs of it and also remember that the Americans who went ashore on D-Day did so to help defeat a pariah nation that had flaunted every standard of justice in attempting to make Germany Great Again. When you judge others, know that the same standard will be applied to you someday and it is possible that our day may come sooner than we think. It is as Justice Robert Jackson who served as the Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal wrote:

“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”

Normandy was a near run thing for the Allies.  First the weather almost delayed it by 2 to 4 weeks.  Had that happened the Germans might have been even better prepared to meet the invasion.  Likewise, the Red Army’s devastating offensive which annihilated Army Group Center in June kept the Germans from transferring additional forces from the Russian Front to Normandy.  On D-Day itself there were a number of times where Lady Luck, or maybe the Deity Herself, saved the Allies from disaster.

Any person who has seen Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day or Band of Brothers knows a little bit about how close Overlord came to failure.  Allied Airborne units were dispersed throughout the region after they drooped.  Many units were not fully operational for more than a day as they sought to organize themselves and gather their troops.  At Omaha Beach the Americans had not counted on the presence of the first rate German 352nd Infantry Division.  This division, despite being pounded by naval and air forces almost cause General Bradley to withdraw from Omaha.  At Utah the soldiers of the 4th Infantry division escaped a similar mauling by landing on the wrong beach.  Had they landed at the planned beaches they would have ran into the same kind of resistance from well dug in German forces.  At Gold Juno and Sword British forces benefited from confusion in the German command which kept the 21st Panzer Division from descending on the British forces and quite possibly splitting the British zones.

The Allies benefited from the absence of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B who because of the ad weather assumed no invasion was possible and traveled to German to celebrate his wife’s birthday.  Finally, and perhaps most important they benefited by Hitler’s refusal to immediately commit forces, including his Panzer reserve to defeat the invasion at the beachhead.

For those who fought in Normandy and those civilians who lived through it the memories are still vivid. Many suffer the effects of PTSD, grief and other wounds, physical, emotional and spiritual.  When one is exposed to the danger and destruction of war, the smell of death, the sight of burned out cities, vehicles and the suffering of the wounded and dying, it makes for a lifetime of often painful memories.

For some of the German, British and American veterans, the struggle in Normandy has given way to long lasting friendships.  Many of those who fought against the Allied onslaught became fast friends after the war. Those who fought against each other were soon allies as part of NATO and soldiers of nations which were once bitter enemies serve together in harm’s way in Afghanistan.  The generation that fought at Normandy is rapidly passing away, their numbers ever dwindling they remain a witness to courage, sacrifice and reconciliation.

In the end it is reconciliation and healing that matters. Some scars of war never pass away; some memories are far too painful to release.  Yet we who serve often strive to reconcile.  In 2002 while deployed at sea for Operation Enduring Freedom I was an advisor to a boarding team from my ship.  It was our job to make sure that impounded ships which were breaking the UN embargo on Iraq were not in danger of sinking, and that their crews had food, water and medical care.  Since many of these ships remained at anchor for 2-4 weeks in the heat of the Arabian Gulf, this was important.

The delays imposed by UN rules sometimes meant that the sailors of these ships grew resentful.  It was my job to spend time with the Masters of these ships to keep things calm and work out any issues that arose.  On one of these ships I met an Iraqi merchant skipper.  The man was well traveled, educated in the U.K. in the 1960s and in his career a frequent visitor to the US. In 1990 he was the senior captain of the Kuwaiti shipping line.  Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.  As a result of this when Kuwait was liberated he lost his job.  His nation was an international pariah.  Since his life was the sea he took up the only job possible to support his family, what he knew best, captaining ships.  He was most apologetic for the trouble that he and others like him caused us.  We shared much during those visits.   One of his daughters was in medical school and other children in university.  He longed for the day when Iraq would be free.  On our last talk before his ship was released he remarked to me “I hope one day we will meet again.  Maybe someday like the American, British and German soldiers after the war, we can meet in a pub, share a drink and be friends.” 

Symbols of Reconciliation at the German Cemetery in Normandy

I too pray for that, especially after my tour in Al Anbar five years after I encountered that Iraqi Merchant Captain.  Maybe someday we will. I thought of him almost every day that I was in Iraq. I only hope that he and his family have survived the war, the continuing violence in Iraq and are doing well. There is hardly a day that goes by that I do not think of this man or the Iraqis that I had the honor of serving alongside in Al Anbar in 2007 and 2008.

President Obama remarked in Normandy last week about the veterans of the 9-11 Generation of service members, of which I and so many others like me are part:

“And this generation — this 9/11 Generation of service members — they, too, felt something.  They answered some call; they said “I will go.”  They, too, chose to serve a cause that’s greater than self — many even after they knew they’d be sent into harm’s way.  And for more than a decade, they have endured tour after tour.”

The survivors of the D-Day landings and those on the other side of the hill are continuing to pass from the bonds of this earth and into eternity. The youngest of the living are now in their early to mid 90s, some are over 100. We owe it to them and to the world to make what they sacrificed themselves to do into reality, battling tyranny and striving for peace and security.

Their generation built the pillars of peace and economic security that President Trump often mocks, criticizes, or condemns. D-Day was just part of their story. The burden is now on we the living to carry the torch of freedom that they once held. My military career of 38 years will come to an end early next year, but my nephew Darren will be completing Marine Corps Basic Training in a few weeks. He wants to become an infantryman and maybe serve with Marine Security Forces or Special Operations. I am proud of him.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, leadership, Military, News and current events, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

The Responsibility Of Command: Eisenhower’s Letter in Case the D-Day Invasion Failed

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The great Prussian military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz noted: “It is now quite clear how greatly the objective of war makes it a matter of assessing probabilities. Only one more element is needed to make war a gamble – chance: the very last thing that war lacks. No other human activity is so continuously or universally bound up with chance. And through through the element of guesswork and luck come to play a great part in war…. If we now consider briefly the subjective nature of war – the means by which war has to be fought – it will look more like a gamble. The highest of all moral qualities in time of danger is certainly courage.”

For a year General Dwight D. Eisenhower had worked to marshal the largest force possible to launch the long awaited invasion of Nazi Occupied France. Eisenhower surrounded himself with an exceptional staff, but had to fight for what he would need for the coming invasion. He had to struggle with Admiral Ernest King for the landing ships and crafts he needed, against the competing needs of Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur’s Forces in the Pacific Theatre of operations. He had to battle Allied bomber commands, British Bomber Command, and 8th Air Force for bombers to support the invasion, taking them away from the strategic bombing command against the heart of German industry; and finally he had to battle Winston Churchill to be in overall command of the multi-national force being assembled to attack.

The invasion was in fact his baby. He had the ultimate responsibility for its success or failure. He knew the dangers. In 1942 the British launched a raid using Canadian troops on the English Channel port of Dieppe. It was a disaster. With all the work he had done to get his forces ready for the invasion, Eisenhower knew that he owned the result.

Eisenhower understood that everything in war is a gamble and that success is not guaranteed. The weather conditions of the English Channel are unpredictable and only offer a few month window of opportunity to successfully mount a cross channel invasion. The Germans found that out in 1940 when after their failure to clear the skies of the Royal Air Force that the a favorable opportunity for Operation Sea Lion had passed.

The Allied invasion required a full moon for a nighttime paratroop drop, and favorable weather for the landing craft to get ashore. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating. High winds, seas, and rain forced a cancellation of the planned June 5th invasion, the open question was whether conditions would be on the 6th would be favorable. If not the next opportunity would not be for at least two more weeks.

The German weather forecasters, having lost the ability to observe weather in the western and mid-Atlantic anticipated that the weather would continue to be unfavorable for an invasion. With this in mind, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B which had operational control over the potential landing beaches, decided to make a visit to his wife for her birthday and a trip to Berlin to plead for more resources. Other Senior German Commanders departed to inland areas to conduct war games and were not with their units.

Meanwhile, forecasters at Eisenhower’s headquarters who had access to weather data from the mid-Atlantic, predicted a brief lull, not perfect weather, but acceptable. Eisenhower met with his staff and made the decision to go ahead with the invasion in the night of June 5th and June 6th.

But the weather was but one factor, the Allies did not know the latest German deployments, including the movement of the crack 352nd Infantry Division to Omaha Beach. Likewise, a prompt German response with heavy Panzer units could throw the invaders back into the sea if they moved fast enough. However, neither Eisenhower or his staff knew of the conflict in the German High Command and Hitler regarding the deployment of the Panzer Divisions. Rommel argued that the Panzer Divisions should be deployed near the potential invasion beaches, but traditionalists in the German command and Hitler decided that most of the Panzer Divisions should be held back awaiting the point that they could make a decisive counterattack. Rommel, a veteran of Africa and the West knew the power of allied tactical air assets, and the havoc they could inflict on the Panzers. Rommel believed that the invasion had to be defeated on the beachheads and not given the chance to advance inland.

Eisenhower also knew that the success of the invasion depended on the success of the landings. A disaster at any of the landing beaches could doom the invasion. In light of this and so many other ways that could fail, Eisenhower, wrote a letter to his troops and the world when the invasion commenced. It read:

“Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force:

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.

The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.

In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped, and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944. Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations1 have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned. The free men of the world are marching together to victory.

I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory.

Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

However, prepared for any eventuality he also also wrote a letter in case the invasion failed, as it nearly did on Omaha Beach. That letter noted:

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

It was dated July 5th, not June 5th, the mistake obviously due to the pressure of what he was feeling for his soldiers, the mission, and if the mission failed, his adversaries in the United States military and in Britain would have seen to his relief. It also could have aided those in the United States and Britain willing to make peace with Germany, which could have destroyed the allied alliance that ended up defeating Germany and rebuilding a democratic Europe, establishing NATO, the United Nations, and many other international organizations that have done much good for America and the world, but which are now under threat from leaders in the United States and Europe who would rather go back to the days of Hitler than advance into a better future.

Eisenhower did not make excuses if the invasion failed. He was ready to take full responsibility if Overlord failed, regardless of how it happened.

Likewise, he knew that the failure of the invasion would have made it possible for the Nazis to divert needed forces to the Eastern Front, where they might have been able to turn back the Soviet Operation Bagration which destroyed the German Army Group Center and opened the way for the Soviets to drive the Nazis from Soviet territory, advance to Warsaw, and knock key German allies out of the war. Before long, Hungary, Romania, and Finland were abandoning the Germans.

The fact that the invasion succeeded was as much as luck as it was the careful planning, and the exceptional courage, and dogged determination of the Allied troops.

Eisenhower’s willingness to take responsibility for defeat as well as give his troops credit for the eventual victory over the Nazis sets him apart from so many others then, and now who would deflect blame for a failed operation to their subordinates and lie about the results achieved.

In the age of Trump it is something to remember.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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