Category Archives: world war two in europe

Stalingrad and Responsibility: God is Not Always With Us

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tomorrow I will be taking part in a commemoration of the seventy-sixth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It will be a special occasion and I will write about it tomorrow evening.

However tonight I took the time to watch the German film Stalingrad. Released in 1993 it is the story of four soldiers of a platoon of soldiers of the 336th Pioneer Battalion. The Pioneers were the equivalent of American Combat Engineers. It is a sobering film to watch. In a way it is much like the film Platoon. Director Joseph Vilsmaier made the battle and the human suffering come alive with realism. There is no happy ending and there are few if any heroes. The men see, protest, are punished, and then are ordered to participate in war crimes.

The battle of Stalingrad was one of the turning points of the Second World War, over a million Russian, German, Romanian, and Italian Soldiers died in the battle. Of the 260,000 soldiers of the German Sixth Army which led the attack in Stalingrad and then were surrounded by the Soviet counter-offensive, very few survived. Some escaped because they were evacuated by transport planes, but most perished. Of the approximately 91,000 German soldiers that surrendered only about 6,000 returned home.

I’ll write about that battle again on the anniversary of its surrender at the end of January, but there are two sequences of dialogue that stood out to me. The first is at the beginning of the battle where a German Chaplain exhorts the soldier to fight against the “Godless Bolsheviks” because the Germans believe in God and the Soviets do not, and he calls attentional their belt buckles which are embossed with the words Gott mit Uns, or God is with us. I am a Chaplain and the older I get the more distrustful I am of men who place a veneer of region over the most ungodly and unjust wars. For me that was frightening because I do know from experience that the temptation to do such things when in uniform is all too great, but how can anyone exhort people to acts of criminality in the name of God? I know that it is done far too often and I hate to admit I personally know, or know of American military chaplains who would say the same thing as the German Chaplain depicted in the film.

The second one is also difficult. I have been in the military for about thirty-six and a half years. Truthfully I am a dinosaur. I am the third most senior and the oldest sailor on my base. I have served during the Cold War as a company commander, was mobilized as a chaplain to support the Bosnia operation in 1996, I have served in the Korean DMZ, at sea during Operation Enduring Freedom and Southern Watch, and with American advisors to the Iraqi Army, Police, and Border troops in Al Anbar Province. I have seen too much of war but even though I could retire from the military today I still believe that I am called to serve and care for the men and women who will go into harm’s way.

That being said those who have read my writings on this site for years know just how anti-war I have become and why this dialogue hits so hard. Some of the members of the platoon are accused of cowardice and sent to a penal company in order to redeem themselves. The commander of the unit, a Captain who hold the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross is confronted by one of the men.

Otto: You know we don’t stand a chance. Why not surrender?

Capt. Hermann Musk: You know what would happen if we do.

Otto: Do we deserve any better?

Capt. Hermann Musk: Otto, I’m not a Nazi.

Otto: No, you’re worse. Lousy officers. You went along with it all, even though you knew who was in charge.

That is something that bothers me today. I wonder about the men who go along with wars which cannot be classified as anything other than war crimes based on the precedents set by Americans at Nuremberg, and I am not without my own guilt. In 2003I had misgivings about the invasion of Iraq, but I wholeheartedly supported it and volunteered to go there. I was all too much like the German Captain. I went along with it despite my doubts. As a voter I could have cast my vote for someone else in 2006 but I didn’t. Instead I supported a President who launched a war of aggression that by every definition fits the charges leveled against the leaders of the Nazi state at Nuremberg. When I was in Iraq I saw things that changed me and I have written in much detail about them on this site.

Now as a nation we are in a place where a man who openly advocates breaking the Geneva and Hague Conventions, supports the use of torture, and who both beats the drums of war even as he holds the professional military in contempt seems to be angling for war in both the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula. I have no doubt that War is coming and that our President will be a catalyst for it, but I have to remain in the military to care for the sailors, soldiers, marines, and airmen who will have to go to war and perhaps fight and die. The thought haunts me and makes it hard for me to sleep at night and I do my best to speak up and be truthful in fulfillment of my priestly vows and my oath of office. Today, unlike my younger years; one thing for me is true: I will never tell any military member that God is with us in the sense that all to many nationalists have done in the past. I don’t actually think that I ever said the words “God is with us” in my career as a Chaplain, but I am sure that my words, and public prayers could have been interpreted in that manner when I was younger, especially in the traumatic days after September 11th 2001. Likewise, I did go along with the war in Iraq even though I understood what it meant and what the men and women who engineered it wanted when they took us to war.

Now we live in a world where nationalism, ethnic, racial, and religious hatred are rising, and our own President seems to be abandoning the democratic and pluralistic ideas of or founders. Honestly, I dread what may befall us.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Dunkirk: A Symphony of War in Three Parts


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last night Judy and I went to see the movie Dunkirk. It was different from any war movie that I have ever seen and that was a good thing. It was a work of art that brought the terrible truth of war, of defeat, and of human courage and suffering together in a symphony. Director Christopher Nolan managed to blend three separate timelines to tie together the action on the ground, at sea, and in the air. 

There was not a lot of dialogue but what there was blended well with the images and the score. The fact that the film was primarily shot in IMAX and 70mm instead of digital and used real ships and aircraft instead of massed amounts of digitally created military hardware added to the realism, as the musical score written by Hans Zimmer wrapped itself around you with the ticking of a watch ever present. 

If you have ever been to war or served at sea and been shot at, the movie captured the worst fears of a soldier, sailor, or airman at war; a soldier being trapped on a beach under fire and waiting for rescue; a sailor struggling to escape a sinking ship, or an airman wondering if you have enough fuel to complete the mission and make it home. It also captured the feeling of being delivered from danger, and how that feeling can change in the blink of an eye to terror and despair. 

I liked the way that Nolan and Hans Zimmer who wrote the musical score gave something we often overlook in life, the matter of time to the forefront. The ticking of the watch and the blending of an hour in the air, a day at sea, and a week on the land reminded me of how important time is, especially when you are at war. I remember traveling in Iraq by air and ground and just how different each felt in manner of time. Likewise, how different the concept of time felt being on a larger ship or a small boat in a hostile area. 

Dunkirk was a different way to look at war, and maybe because so few people in the United States or Western Europe have experienced war that is a good thing. I honestly think that a film like this, which did not focus on the Generals, Admirals, or political leaders, but rather common soldiers, sailors, and airmen, was a good thing. As far as characters in the film I found that Kenneth Branagh’s character, a Royal Navy Commander directing the evacuation of soldiers from the harbor mole, followed by Tom Hardy who played a Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot, and Mark Rylance who played a civilian mariner to be the most compelling characters. 

Anyway, it is a film that I believe deserves much praise because it focused on the men who fight the war, and what they feel when under fire, rather than trying to wrap the narrative in a neat package with a happy ending. Dunkirk was a miracle that kept a disaster from ending the war. It was not a military victory, it was a nation pulling together to stave off utter defeat, and it allowed Britain to remain in the war and hold off the Nazis in the west until the United States entered the war after Pearl Harbor. 

If you want to read a good book about Dunkirk that will not take too much time I recommend Walter Lord’s Miracle at Dunkirk, and for a broader perspective on the 1940 campaign in France, I recommend Alistair Horne’s classic To Lose a Battle, France 1940, and William Shirer’s The Collapse of the Third Republic, an Inquiry into the Fall of France 1940. 

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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How Will History Judge Us? Operation Valkyrie at 73


                                                                                         Henning Von Trescow 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Seventy-three years ago today a number of German military officers as well as civilian officials attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler in an attempt to overthrow the Nazi Regime and end the Second World War. Ironically many had been supporters of Hitler’s early policies and few had spoken out against the Nazi seizure of power, elimination of political opponents, the outlawing of trade unions and opposition political parties. Most remained silent when Hitler conducted his brutal Night of the Long Knives massacre of 1934 and took the personal oath of loyalty to him after Hindenburg died soon after. 

Some would recognize the threat but offered little resistance as Hitler consolidated his power and began to begin his reign of terror at home even as he began to conquer swaths of Europe without firing a shot. Early plans to overthrow Hitler collapsed because his opponents, so used to being loyal and obedient servants of the State were paralyzed whenever an unexpected contingency arose. 

Eleven years after Hitler made opposition political parties illegal and almost five years after he invaded Poland to begin the Second World War a plan called Operation Valkyrie was launched. Two of the key plotters were Colonel Claus Schenk Von Stauffenberg, Major General Henning Von Trescow, and retired General Ludwig Beck. 

Most understood that the attempt would likely fail, but they were determined to try. Von Trescow said: “It is almost certain that we will fail. But how will future history judge the German people, if not even a handful of men had the courage to put an end to that criminal?” 

When Stauffenberg detonated a bomb at Hitler’s East Prussian Wolf’s Lair headquarters Beck and other conspirators attempted to seize power in Berlin. However their plans went awry. Hitler survived the blast. Josef Goebbels secured Berlin, and the plot fell apart. Stauffenberg and a number of conspirators were shot that night, Beck attempted to commit suicide but failed and was killed. Over 5,000 more conspirators, suspects, and other Nazi opponents, including some of the most respected officers of the Wehrmacht were tried in show trials and executed. Some like Field Marshal Erwin Rommel were given the choice of committing suicide to save their families. Von Trescow, who killed himself on the Russian front following the collapse of the coup noted: “We have to show the world that not all of us are like him. Otherwise, this will always be Hitler’s Germany.” Beck notes something that has become a key part of my military ethic: “It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.” 

Fabian von Schlabrendorff, a conspirator who was tortured by the Gestapo, said: “Obedience is the rule. However, there are cases which demand disobedience. This has been uncontested in the Prussian Army. Blind obedience has its origin with Hitler.” 

When Hitler issued the Commisar or Criminal Order on the eve of Operation Barbarossa in 1941, Von Trescow told a colleague:

“Remember this moment. If we don’t convince the field marshal (Fedor von Bock) to fly to Hitler at once and have these orders (Commissar Order) canceled, the German people will be burdened with a guilt the world will not forget in a hundred years. This guilt will fall not only on Hitler, Himmler, Göring, and their comrades but on you and me, your wife and mine, your children and mine, that woman crossing the street, and those children over there playing ball.” 

Unlike Hitler’s Germany Americans still have some checks and balances to guard against a President attempting to gain control of the country the way Hitler did Germany, but those checks and balances are delicate, fragile, and if neglected will fail in the crisis. If they do will we have the courage to stand for the principles and ideals of our country? That we do not yet know. Timothy Snyder wrote: 

“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.”

But there are prices to be paid for obedience to unlawful orders and the actions of a criminal state, as well as a price to be paid for disobedience. The men who belatedly and against a nation that was still devoted to Hitler understood those questions and acted accordingly. I do hope that none of us have to face what these men did between 1933 and 1944, but if we do, will we stand the test? 

That my friends is a question we may all have to answer sooner than we think. 
Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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What Does it take to Become a War Criminal? 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Over the past few days I have been writing about the German invasion of the Soviet Union and the fact that 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 

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…” 

An order was issued by General Erich Von Manstein’s 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. 


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. 



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. 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. I will address this in the recent American context next week. So until tomorrow, when I publish something more personal and unrelated to this subject.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Devil’s Details: Hitler’s Criminal Orders and his Obedient Generals


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday I posted a short article, well by my standards, dealing with the criminal nature of Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. The words of Hitler are damning, but even worse are the words and actions of the Generals who should have known better.

Hitler’s war against the Soviet Union was something that he had dreamed of long before he took power. I wrote about it in Mein Kampf and spoke about it many times. He wrote: “The fight against Jewish world Bolshevism requires a clear attitude toward Soviet Russia. You cannot drive out the Devil with Beelzebub.” He intended that those who served him would carry out his orders implicitly without regard to traditional morality, ethics, or law. His war against the Soviet Union was unlike any in history.

Richard Evans notes that Mein Kampf clearly enunciated that “Hitler considered racial conflict…the essence of history, and the Jews to be the sworn enemy of the German race ….” And that the “Jews were now linked indissolubly in Hitler’s mind with “Bolshevism” and “Marxism.” When Hitler became the dictator of Germany “his ideology and strategy became the ends and means of German foreign policy.” His aims were clear, Hitler remarked to Czech Foreign Minister Chvalkovsky on 21 January 1939: “We are going to destroy the Jews.” It was clear that Hitler understood his own role in this effort noting to General Gotthard Heinrici that “he was the first man since Charlemagne to hold unlimited power in his own hand. He did not hold this power in vain, he said, but would know how to use it in the struggle for Germany…”


Hitler’s “ideological and grandiose objectives, expressed in racial and semi-mystical terms, made the war absolute.” Field Marshal Keitel noted a speech in March 1941 where Hitler talked about the inevitability of conflict between “diametrically opposed ideologies” and that the “war was a fight for survival and that they dispense with their outdated and traditional ideas about chivalry and the generally accepted rules of warfare.” General Franz Halder, Chief of the OKH wrote in his War Dairy for that meeting: “Annihilating verdict on Bolshevism…the leaders must demand of themselves the sacrifice of understanding their scruples.”

Based on the concepts of Lebensraum (living space) and race, the German approach to war would combine “racism and political ideology” for the purpose of the “conquest of new living space in the east and its ruthless Germanization.” Hitler explained that the “struggle for the hegemony of the world will be decided in favor of Europe by the possession of the Russian space.” Territories conquered in the East by the Wehrmacht would be “Reich protectorates…and that these areas were to be deprived of anything in the nature of a Slav intelligentsia.”

This goal was manifest in the “Criminal Order” issued by OKW which stated that the war was “more than mere armed conflict; it is a collision between two different ideologies…The Bolshevist-Jewish intelligentsia must be eliminated….” The Slavic inhabitants of the conquered eastern lands would be killed or allowed to starve. This was directly tied in to the economic considerations of the Reich, which gave Germans priority in distribution of food, even that from the conquered lands. The Slavs, being untermenschen or sub-human in Nazi parlance, were simply excess mouths to feed and thus expendable. Starvation was a population control measure that supplemented other forms of annihilation, and it was cheaper than bullets. As Fest notes in Russia Hitler was “seeking nothing but “final solutions.” Despite the numerous post-war justifications and evasions of responsibility by various Wehrmacht generals; many of who found employment working for the Americans and British in the years following the war, the “Wehrmacht and army fell into line with Hitler because there was “a substantial measure of agreement of “ideological questions.”

Ideology was key to Hitler’s worldview and fundamental to understanding his actions in the war. However twisted Hitler’s ideological formulations were, he found men who willingly carried them out beyond the true believers of the Nazi faithful. They were embraced by much of the Army and Police, who would execute the campaigns in Poland and Russia in conjunction with the Einsatzgrüppen and Nazi party organizations.  In these organizations he found allies with pre-existing cultural, political and doctrinal understandings which allowed them to be willing participants in Hitler’s grand scheme of eastern conquest.


The lesson for today is that no tyrant bent on conquest or terror at home can do so without compliant members of the police, the military, the civil service, and the judiciary. As Timothy Snyder wrote: “If lawyers had followed the norm of no execution without trial, if doctors had accepted the rule of no surgery without consent, if businessmen had endorsed the prohibition of slavery, if bureaucrats had refused to handle paperwork involving murder, then the Nazi regime would have been much harder pressed to carry out the atrocities by which we remember it.” The German Generals also had their chances to stop the Hitler, but they became the men who made his conquests and genocide possible by carrying out his orders.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Directions for a Criminal War of Annihilation

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today marks the 76th anniversary of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. The German war 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 deliberate starvation of 30 million people in the Soviet Union, the destruction of the Jews of the Soviet Union, and the elimination of anyone associated with the Soviet government or Communist Party. 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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What Can You Do for Your Country? Thoughts on the Passing of the Greatest Generation and an Unending War

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Marine Colonel Francis I. Fenton, kneeling prays at the foot of his son’s grave on Okinawa 1945

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tom Brokaw wrote:

“At the end of the twentieth century the contributions of this generation would be in bold print in any review of this turbulent and earth-altering time. It may be historically premature to judge the greatness of a whole generation, but indisputably, there are common traits that cannot be denied. It is a generation that, by and large, made no demands of homage from those who followed and prospered economically, politically, and culturally because of its sacrifices. It is a generation of towering achievement and modest demeanor, a legacy of their formative years when they were participants in and witness to sacrifices of the highest order. They know how many of the best of their generation didn’t make it to their early twenties, how many brilliant scientists, teachers, spiritual and business leaders, politicians and artists were lost in the ravages of the greatest war the world has seen.”

I was born in 1960 and thankfully for whatever reason I developed a love of history and heritage. I began reading history books as early as second and third grade. The American Heritage Publishing Company had a Junior Library series that I could not get enough of awhile another publisher (it may have also been American Heritage) had a series of biographies which drew me into the lives of many famous people. From 3rd grade on I spent every spare moment at school in the library, even frequently cutting geometry class in 10th grade to explore the history reference books that I could not check out and take home.

I think that anyone that knew me then could probably associate me with a big stack of books that I lugged to and from class and back and forth from home to school. The ironic thing is that as I pack for work or to come home every day my back pack from my tour in Iraq is filled with the books that I am reading or using for research. Maybe it is not ironic, maybe it is the fact that some things never change. For me the quest for knowledge and historical, philosophical, or scientific truth is something that I cannot get enough of, nor be content to think that I know everything on any given subject.

This little introduction takes me into today’s subject. For those that don’t know we are coming up on the anniversaries of two of the most amazing historical events of the past 100 years next week. They are the battles of Midway, June 4th through June 6th 1942 and the invasion of France, or D-Day, June 6th 1944.

The Pilots of Torpedo Eight, only one Survived

I have always been amazed by the men who faced the Japanese at Midway, a battle that by any reasonable means should have resulted in a Japanese victory as well as them men that stormed the beaches at Normandy just two years later. When I first started reading about these battles many of the veterans were still alive, many not much older than I am today. However today not many are left, and the few that remain generally served as junior officers or enlisted personnel, none in high command.

Both battles are remarkable because an American or Allied loss could have changed the course of history. If the United States Navy been defeated at Midway it could have brought about a Japanese victory, or more likely made the ultimate American victory much more costly and taken far longer to achieve. If the Allies had been repulsed at Normandy it could have split the allied coalition or given the Germans the chance to renew their fight against the Soviet Union and possibly change history.

Thus when I look at these two events, battles that for most are now ancient history I am in awe of the men who fought them. They are not academic exercises for me, but as someone who has served at sea and on land in war I feel camaraderie with these men.

I remember reading Cornelius Ryan’s classic book “The Longest Day” and seeing the movie of the same name in grade school, and reading Walter Lord’s classic on Midway “Incredible Victory” when I was in 7th grade. Both are excellent books which have stood the test of time and though I have read and done much more research and writing on both battles I still keep a copy of each book and probably re-read each every few years and consult them for any new projects. Likewise have been fortunate enough to meet some of the men who served in both of these battles, and even in my time as an Army chaplain be with them in their declining years. Men like Frank Smoker and Henry Boyd, both Normandy vets who have since passed away mean much to me.

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team

Today when I see a World War Two veteran, no matter where I encounter them, I make sure that I thank them for their service. They are part of an amazing generation of Americans who bequeathed those of us who live today so much, both during the war and after the war. Many millions served in the military, while many more served in war industries. All contributed to war bond drives, victory gardens and yes even increased taxes and decreased civil liberties to win the war.

The fact that Japanese Americans served in the most highly decorated Army units of the war despite their families being incarcerated in American versions of concentration camps is a testimony to sacrifice.

Likewise the efforts of African Americans who went to war despite being second class citizens and discriminated against under the Jim Crow Laws, which even Nazis like Hermann Goering recognized were only different from the Nazi anti-Semitic laws and persecution in manner of degree.

African American Artillerymen in France 1944

That was an amazing and unique generation of Citizen Soldiers. With few exceptions they were not the professional career soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who serve today. Most would not have considered themselves “warriors.” They were there to do a job, win a war and go home. It was part of who they were as Americans.

How many today would do any of those things? Today we have well under one percent of the population who have served in the wars of the past 16 years, fewer who have served in combat or in a combat zone. Likewise the population in general and in particular the bankers, businesses, lobbyists and defense contractors are not asked to sacrifice anything, instead when the country was attacked the President and others decried the fact that war might prevent people from doing business, shopping or living a normal life. For God’s sake, were at war and that attitude would have been incomprehensible to those of the Greatest Generation who for the most part either went to war, or supported the war effort with their work and other contributions. For them patriotism was not a bumper sticker.

Rachel Maddow said it well in her book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power:

“When civilians are not asked to pay any price, it’s easy to be at war – not just to intervene in a foreign land in the first place, but to keep on fighting there. The justifications for staying at war don’t have to be particularly rational or cogently argued when so few Americans are making the sacrifice that it takes to stay.”

Jimmy Stewart and his Bomber Crew

Because of the sacrifice of people of the Greatest Generation I am grateful for them. I believe that we can learn so much from them. Even A-List Hollywood stars and professional sport heroes left their careers to serve their country. Clarke Gable, Audie Murphy, Glenn Miller, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Feller, Ted Williams, and Joe DiMaggio; just to name a few sacrificed major portions of their careers to serve. With the exception of Pat Tillman who died in a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan which was covered up by the Army and Bush administration, how many of the 1%, the A-List, or professional athletes can you name that have sacrificed their fortunes to serve in the front lines? I can’t name any others, but in the Second World War even the 1% had skin in the game so to speak, the Kennedy’s, Roosevelt’s and the Bush’s to name just a few.

I think that is why I am in awe of those of the Greatest Generation and why as the anniversaries of Midway and D-Day approach I am extra thoughtful, quite reflective and very thankful for those who through their sacrifice made so much of what we have today possible. What bothers me today is how few, especially of those who either advocate for war, lobby for it or profit from it no matter what their political, economic or religious persuasion is, offers to serve or pay for the cost of war.

Today those costs are borne by a tiny minority of Americans, military professionals of the all-volunteer military, both active duty and reserve who have endured deployment after deployment as the bulk of the nation stood by, mostly cheering them on. Of course as one who had his father serve in Vietnam and entered the military not long after had to endure the jeers of Americans, cheers are nice. They are much better than being called a “Nazi” for wearing your uniform to class. However, sometimes I think that many that cheer us on are able to do so because vicarious patriotism is easy. Vicarious patriotism anything, someone else serves, and someone else dies while they “support the troops” without actually doing anything.

Now please don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of good people who have never served in the military and who do care. There are men and women who take action to support the troops, both those serving and the veterans, including those disabled in some way by war. For them I am grateful, they donate time, money and personal effort to care, and I do not care if they are conservatives or liberals, Republicans, Democrats or Independents, religious or atheist. They are Americans who are doing something. Likewise I do not disparage those who take the time to learn the issues that the nation faces and the domestic policies that impact the country and in a healthy body politic it doesn’t mean that we have to completely agree with each other to be patriots. Such an understanding would have been unthinkable to our founders much less most of the Greatest Generation. Veteran’s issues are important but national security also involves so much more, everything from the infrastructure that the Greatest Generation had the vision and wherewithal to build to the environment.

I have been to Normandy as well as other World War II battlefields in Europe and the Pacific. I can only agree with Tom Brokaw who wrote: “there on the beaches of Normandy I began to reflect on the wonders of these ordinary people whose lives were laced with the markings of greatness.”

So, when you read anything I write or re-publish during the next couple of weeks, be it about D-Day, Midway or even Gettysburg, please read what I write though those lenses. It is not that I am bitter. I have chosen my life in the military, but I wonder why so few of us bear the burden. It is a question that every citizen must ask themselves and their political representatives.

Rabbi Roland Gittlesohn, a Navy Chaplain serving with the Marines, recalled Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address when gave a eulogy at the dedication of a cemetery on Iwo Jima that puts it all in perspective.

“Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors generations ago helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores.

Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor . . .together. Here are Protestants, Catholics and Jews together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many men of each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.

Whosoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or who thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this, then, as our solemn duty, sacred duty do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the right of Protestants, Catholics and Jews, of white men and Negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price.

We here solemnly swear that this shall not be in vain. Out of this and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this will come, we promise, the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere.”

Since the last members of the Greatest Generation are passing away at an ever increasing rate and few will remain among us; I will ask you to ask yourself the question posed by the World War II veteran and hero John F Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, national security, Political Commentary, World War II at Sea, world war two in europe, world war two in the pacific