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Freiheit! Sophie Scholl and the White Rose: Examples for all Resisiters

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Seventy-six  years ago a young German woman stepped up the the guillotine at Munich’s Stadelheim Prison. She had been tried and convicted of treason for distributing a series of anti-Nazi leaflets by the Nazi Volksgericht or “People’s Court” under the direction of the notorious Judge Roland Freisler who gained further infamy in his show trials of those suspected of participating in or supporting the July 20th Bomb Plot against Hitler.

The woman was Sophie Scholl, a student at the University of Munich she was just 22 years old. Her story and the story of the resistance group that she was at the center of is remarkable for the moral clarity that she and her friends displayed in an era where most people were willing to look the other way, if not unreservedly served Hitler’s Third Reich.

She and those who like her resisited Hitler’s Third Reich at the height of its power are worthwhile examples for those who resisit President Trump here. Russia’s Putin, and so many other authoritarian leaders in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The precious truth is that Freedom must be defended from those who use patriotism as a prop, and racism as the raison d’etre of their political, social, and foreign policy of their regimes.

 

 


The story of Sophie and the White Rose is a remarkable story because stories like this are often buried by the propaganda machines of totalitarian regimes; but the shock of what these young people did was so great that the Nazi propaganda machine had to publicly confront it with the goal of instilling such fear that no one else’s would dare repeat it. What politicians, generals, and others could not do to shake the Nazi regime a handful of university students accomplished.

There are a number of monuments scattered around Munich to the White Rose movement, but the most remarkable is the monument in front of the university where they studied and where they distributed their leaflets.  Facsimiles of their publications and letters are part of the pavement, looking as if they have been dropped on the ground for someone to pick up.

Scholl, as well as her friends were students, some who in the course of their time of study who had been drafted into the Wehrmacht as medics, serving on the Russian front before returning to the University. There were five of them, Sophie, Willi Graf, Alexander Schmorrel, Hans Scholl, and Christoph Probst, plus one of their professors, Professor Dr. Kurt Huber who began a resistance cell that focused on telling the truth about the crimes of the Nazi regime, and the lies of Hitler.

Telling the truth in a dictatorship is dangerous and although Sophie and her companions could have remained silent they had consciences that were guided by reason and human rights, as well as by their Christian faith, a faith which remained despite their aversion to the institutional church for its complicity with the Nazis. As she stood before Freisler and the Volksgericht she was recorded as saying:

“Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.”

Too many people lacked the courage to speak as Sophie did in her day as all too many do today. It is far easier to take the path of least resistance. Laurence Rees in his history of Auschwitz 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.”

Sophie and her circle of friends in the White Rose chose how courageous people behave in such abominable conditions. They published a series of six leaflets which they printed themselves and distributed around the university, the city, and to like minded people in a number of other cities. They asked those who got them to make as many copies as they could and distribute them. They were in the process of drafting a seventh when Scholl was spotted distributing them at the university by a maintenance man who was a member of the Nazi Party. She and her friends were arrested on February 21st 1943 by the notorious Nazi People’s Court under the direction of Roland Freisler on the 22nd, and executed by beheading at Munich’s Stadelheim Prison on the 23rd.


The members of the White Rose were bold and defiant in the face of evil, of course those that have that kind of courage usually have short life expectancies in a totalitarian state, but they did not back down. Their pamphlets and graffiti criticizing Hitler garnered the attention of the Gestapo and when they were caught they were brutally tortured, but none backed down.

Their criticisms of Hitler and his Third Reich were hard hitting. Since all of the students had spent much of their childhood teenage years in Nazi organizations which were designed to make loyal little Nazis, their resistance came as a shock to many. All were children who could have easily due to their family background taken the easy road, but chose the more honorable and dangerous road.


Their pamphlets are striking, and each focused on a different part or aspect of the Nazi regime. In their first leaflet they wrote:

“Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be governed without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct.” They urged their readers “Therefore every individual, conscious of his responsibility as a member of Christian and Western civilization, must defend himself as best he can at this late hour, he must work against the scourges of mankind, against fascism and any similar system of totalitarianism.” And to “Offer passive resistance – resistance – wherever you may be, forestall the spread of this atheistic war machine before it is too late, before the last cities, like Cologne, have been reduced to rubble, and before the nation’s last young man has given his blood on some battlefield for the hubris of a sub-human. Do not forget that every people deserves the regime it is willing to endure!”

Such was their beginning, but they went on to attack the Nazi, leaders, the Nazi system, and especially the silence of their countrymen over the extermination of the Jews and Polish intellectuals. They asked in the second leaflet:

“Why do German people behave so apathetically in the face of all these abominable crimes, crimes so unworthy of the human race? Hardly anyone thinks about that. It is accepted as fact and put out of mind. The German people slumber on in their dull, stupid sleep and encourage these fascist criminals; they give them the opportunity to carry on their depredations; and of course they do so…. For through his apathetic behavior he gives these evil men the opportunity to act as they do; he tolerates this “government” which has taken upon itself such an infinitely great burden of guilt; indeed, he himself is to blame for the fact that it came about at all! Each man wants to be exonerated of a guilt of this kind, each one continues on his way with the most placid, the calmest conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!”

In each of the letters they asked their readers to offer some form of resistance to Hitler and the Nazi State but urged passive resistance, but in the third missive they went into more detail, including something that anyone who thinks that they are loyal to their country need to appreciate:

“The meaning and the goal of passive resistance is to topple National Socialism, and in this struggle we must not recoil from any course, any action, whatever its nature. At all points we must oppose National Socialism, wherever it is open to attack. We must soon bring this monster of a state to an end. A victory of fascist Germany in this war would have immeasurable, frightful consequences. The military victory over Bolshevism dare not become the primary concern of the Germans. The defeat of the Nazis must unconditionally be the first order of business… And now every convinced opponent of National Socialism must ask himself how he can fight against the present “state” in the most effective way, how he can strike it the most telling blows. Through passive resistance, without a doubt…”

Eventually their tracts became more biting, and in fourth the metaphysical linking Hitler to Satan and Anti-Christ.


They wrote:

“Every word that comes from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war, and when he blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell, and his might is at bottom accursed…. I ask you, you as a Christian wrestling for the preservation of your greatest treasure, whether you hesitate, whether you incline toward intrigue, calculation, or procrastination in the hope that someone else will raise his arm in your defence? Has God not given you the strength, the will to fight? We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler.”

In the fifth leaflet they spoke of where the Nazi war effort would end and the responsibility of not only Hitler but the German people for it:

“It has become a mathematical certainty that Hitler is leading the German people into the abyss. Hitler cannot win the war; he can only prolong it. The guilt of Hitler and his minions goes beyond all measure. Retribution comes closer and closer. But what are the German people doing? They will not see and will not listen. Blindly they follow their seducers into ruin. Victory at any price! is inscribed on their banner. “I will fight to the last man,” says Hitler-but in the meantime the war has already been lost…. Do not believe that Germany’s welfare is linked to the victory of national Socialism for good or ill. A criminal regime cannot achieve a German victory. Separate yourselves in time from everything connected with National Socialism. In the aftermath a terrible but just judgment will be meted out to those who stayed in hiding, who were cowardly and hesitant.”

In the aftermath of the disaster at Stalingrad they published their sixth and last issue before being caught. In it they urged Germans to fight against the Nazi Party and regime, and confronted the way that since its inception Hitler and the Party corrupted the meaning of honor and freedom:

“Freedom and honor! For ten long years Hitler and his coadjutor have manhandled, squeezed, twisted, and debased these two splendid German words to the point of nausea, as only dilettantes can, casting the highest values of a nation before swine. They have sufficiently demonstrated in the ten years of destruction of all material and intellectual freedom, of all moral substance among the German people, what they understand by freedom and honor. The frightful bloodbath has opened the eyes of even the stupidest German – it is a slaughter which they arranged in the name of “freedom and honor of the German nation” throughout Europe, and which they daily start anew.”

Just over two weeks later they were caught and in Freisler’s People’s Court convicted and executed. During their trial, if it can be called that, Freisler and others expressed their shock that young Germans could commit treason. Sophie had no problem confronting her accusers:

Her last words before going to the guillotine were unapologetic: “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?” On the back of the order condemning her to death she wrote the word Freedom.


There are leaders in many nations today intent on destroying freedom and in many places the people and the country’d institutions fall in behind them, usually by painting pictures of threats so imminent that people willingly trade real freedom for a false security. It is a dangerous world and all of us must be alert to changes in society and question what comes out of the mouths of leaders, and even more so their true believer followers.

Sophie Scholl and her companions understood the risk, but they got their message heard at the highest level of government, and most were killed. But their example of courage and belief in freedom and human rights is still stronger that they mightiest despot, and unlike their mighty yet evil rulers, they are the ones that Germany remembers.

Last year I visited her grave in Munich’s Friedhof at Perlacher Forst, it is humble but gravesite, but it is obviously a place of remembrance and pilgrimage. When I go o Munich this year I will again make my pilgrimage to places where she and the White Rose used non-violent protest to speak truth about the Hitler regime when most of the population, knowing the truth did nothing to resist.

I think that there is a lesson for us as well, and I think that it is a lesson that many of our young people will understand better than their elders, especially in the age of President Trump.  That my friends gives me hope for the future.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, civil rights, faith, History, holocaust, nazi germany, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

The Ill-Fated Field Marshal of Stalingrad: A Lesson for Men Who Blindly Follow “Invincible” Cult-Like Leaders

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Seventy-six years ago today the commander of the encircled German Sixth Army at Stalingrad, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus left his command bunker and surrendered the the Red Army. In the ruins of Stalingrad lay most of his Army. Around 90,000 survivors surrendered in the coming days to the Red Army. Of the Germans taken prisoner, only about 5,000 returned home. Most were to die of their wounds, or of diseases, maltreatment, and starvation in Soviet Camps between 1943 and 1955 when the bulk of the survivors were released.

Friedrich Paulus was one of them, and his story is interesting, not because he was the Commander of the Sixth Army, but because he wasn’t the kind of man one would have expected to command an army of 13 divisions with a strength of nearly 285,000 men spearheading the great German Offensive of 1942.

Paulus, born in 1890 joined the Imperial Army in 1910 and served on the Western Front in the First World War, finishing the war as a Captain and after serving in. Freikorps was retained as one of the 4,000 officers in the new Reichsheer. He served as a staff officer and company commander, and briefly commanded a battalion. He would also serve on the staff which developed the new Panzer Forces for the Wehrmacht. An apolitical professional he was not a Nazi but considered Hitler:

“an excellent leader for the German people, a man who had contributed greatly to the development of the state. After watching him evolve the strategies that conquered Poland, France, and most of Europe, Paulus was awed by Hitler’s grasp of the technical aspects of warfare. He considered him a genius.”

That being said, Guderian was concerned about Paulus’s lack of command experience, decisiveness, and toughness. Paulus was promoted to Colonel in 1938 and served as Chief of Staff to Heinz Guderian’s XVI Motorized Corps, and then promoted to the rank of Generalmajor (the equivalent of a U.S. Brigadier General) to serve as Chief of Staff to the 10th Army under the command of General Walter Reichenau during the invasion of Poland. He continued in that position when 10th Army was redesigned 6th Army for the Invasion Of France and the Low Countries. After that campaign he was promoted to Generalleutnant and assigned as deputy Chief Staff, Operations, of the Oberkommando Des Heeres, the German General Staff. In this capacity he served as one of the principle planners of Operation Barbarossa.

His wife, Elena, a descendant of one of Romania’s Royal Houses was opposed to Hitler and the war. She told her husband that “he was far too good for the likes of men such as Keitel and the other “lackeys” who surrounded Hitler.” She protested the injustice of the war against Poland, but he simply followed orders. When he brought home maps and documents related to Barbarossa she again protested to him. When he ignored her she said:

“What will become of us all? Who will survive to the end?”

Believing in Hitler’s invincibility, Paulus ignored her concerns and told her that the war would be over in six weeks.

But Elena’s concerns were well justified. In December 1941 the German Offensive ground to a halt at the gates of Moscow and a devastating Red Army counterattack created a crisis in the Wehrmacht which was completely unprepared for the Russian Winter. Only heroic resistance and improvisation by German units and the still imperfect application of operational warfare kept saved the German front. Battles continued throughout the winter, the lines stabilized and both sides planned for the coming year.

During the winter debacle Hitler had sacked many commanders which left many vacancies. Reichenau, a committed National Socialist and fanatical fighter took over command of Army Group South from Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt, who had been fired by Hitler. Reichenau, who had been Paulus’s patron had Paulus promoted to General der Panzertruppen and named as commander of 6th Army.

The two men were nothing alike and Paulus had never commanded more than a battalion, and not in combat, but six days later the athletic Reichenau suffered a heart attack and suffered a head injury during a medical evacuation flight back to Germany. He died, and Paulus, revoked the infamous Commissar Order, and Reichenau’s most notorious orders, the Severity Order which stated:

“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.…”

Paulus also forbade cooperation with the Einsatzgruppen death squads, which Reichenau had gone out of his way to support. This was unusual for any commander on the Eastern Front, especially one who believed in Hitler’s invincibility. Paulus did well in his first combat with the Red Army, when it attempted to disrupt the coming German offensive at Kharkov as Sixth Army encircled and captured over 200,000 Soviet troops.

The Sixth Army had a key role in the German summer offensive, Operation Blau. Paulus commanded it well but became involved in the battle for Stalingrad, and Hitler would not let him quit, and promoted him to Colonel General. Likewise, unknown to Hitler and his commanders, Stalin knew of Operation Blau and observing the German movements decided to turn Stalingrad into a fortress. He conducted a strategic withdraw to preserve his forces, allowing the Germans to advance further into the Caucasus and divide their armies, leaving the flanks of the Sixth Army protected by pathetically equipped Italian, Romanian, and Hungarian armies which could not match the manpower, mobility, or firepower of the Red Army.

Stalin allowed the German Army Group South to advance, and allowed Sixth Army to battle street by street, building by building, factory by factory to capture Stalingrad. Had the Germans followed their operational doctrine Stalingrad would have been bypassed and surrounded, but they didn’t. Paulus allowed the Soviets to maintain their defense by not cutting the Red Army defenders in the city off from the Volga, even not taking action to link up with the Fourth Panzer Army which under its commander Hermann Hoth had broken through the Soviet front south of the Stalingrad when the opportunity presented itself.

Even so the German advance had conquered most of the city when in November the Red Army launched Operation Uranus. The operation totally surprised the Germans and in four days time the Sixth Army went from the spearhead of the German assault to an army cut off and surrounded by a Soviet Army Group. The Italian, Hungarian, and Romanian armies on its flanks were shattered.

Plans were made to relieve the Sixth Army but they depended on the Sixth Army attacking out to meet the relief forces from the Fourth Panzer Army. Hitler refused permission and Paulus obeyed, believing Hitler’s promise that Goering’s Luftwaffe would be able to keep his troops supplied. On New Year’s Day Hitler promoted Paulus to Colonel General.

But the handwriting was on the wall. German Forces to the south were having to extricate themselves from an even bigger encirclement. The superb generalship of Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein prevented a complete disaster and inflicted a compelling defeat on the Red Army, but the Sixth Army was doomed. On the 7th Of January Paulus was offered generous surrender terms by General Konstantin Rokossovsky. Paulus asked permission to surrender which was denied by Hitler.

Again on January 22nd Paulus requested his Fuhrer:

… For submittal to the Führer and to commander in chief, Army Group Don.… The Russians are advancing on a six-kilometer frontage both sides of Voporonovo toward the east, [toward Stalingrad] in part with flying colors. There is no possibility to close the gap … All provisions are used up. Over twelve thousand unattended [wounded] men in the pocket. What orders am I to issue to the troops, who have no ammunition left? … Immediate decision is required, since symptoms of disintegration are noted in some places. However, the troops still have faith in their commanders.” Paulus

On January 25th the Red Army overran the last airfield in the Stalingrad pocket.

To a Luftwaffe Officer who was sent by Berlin to encourage Paulus about new airlifts, Paulus said:

“Why on earth did the Luftwaffe ever promise to keep us supplied? Who is the man responsible for declaring that it was possible? Had someone told me it was not possible, I should not have held it against the Luftwaffe. I could have broken out. When I was strong enough to do so. Now it is too late.…”

Paulus radioed Hitler for permission to surrender, empathetically stating the conditions in the pocket. No food, no medicine, no ammunition, no fuel; only to be denied again.

On January 30th, the 10th anniversary of Hitler’s seizure of power the Troops in Stalingrad were treated to a radio broadcast from Berlin, not Hitler, but Goering. The words of the Reichsmarschal fell hollow on the ears of the doomed men:

“… What herculean labors our Führer has performed … out of this pulp, this human pulp … to forge a nation as hard as steel. The enemy is tough, but the German soldier has grown tougher.… We have taken away the Russians’ coal and iron, and without that they can no longer make armaments on a large scale.… Rising above all these gigantic battles like a mighty monument is Stalingrad.… One day this will be recognized as the greatest battle in our history, a battle of heroes.… We have a mighty epic of an incomparable struggle, the struggle of the Nibelungs. They, too, stood to the last.… My soldiers, thousands of years have passed, and thousands of years ago in a tiny pass in Greece stood a tremendously brave and bold man with three hundred soldiers, Leonidas with his three hundred Spartans.… Then the last man fell … and now only the inscription stands: ‘Wanderer, if you should come to Sparta, go tell the Spartans you found us lying here as the law bade us.’… Someday men will read: ‘If you come to Germany, go tell the Germans you saw us lying in Stalingrad, as the law bade us.…’”

The soldiers knew that they had been abandoned by Berlin. Yet, Paulus, ever loyal radioed:

January 30th:

On the tenth anniversary of your assumption of power, the Sixth Army hails its “Führer.” The swastika flag is still flying above Stalingrad. May our battle be an example to the present and coming generations, that they must never capitulate even in a hopeless situation, for then Germany will come out victorious.

Hail my Führer Paulus, Generaloberst

But it was a lie. Less than 24 hours later on January 31st with Red Army tanks and troops outside his command bunker, Paulus surrendered, just hours after Hitler promoted him to Field Marshal. The promotion was supposed to encourage Paulus to commit suicide as no German Field Marshal had ever surrendered his army.

Colonel Adam, an aide to Paulus recorded how Paulus received his promotion:

January 31, 1943 – 7.00 a.m. It was still dark but day was dawning almost imperceptibly. Paulus was asleep. It was some time before I could break out of the maze of thoughts and strange dreams that depressed me so greatly. But I don’t think I remained in this state for very long. I was going to get up quietly when someone knocked at the door. Paulus awoke and sat up. It was the HQ commander. He handed the colonel general a piece of paper and said: ‘Congratulations. The rank of field marshal has been conferred upon you. The dispatch came early this morning – it was the last one.’

‘One can’t help feeling it’s an invitation to suicide. However I’m not going to do them such a favour.’ said Paulus after reading the dispatch. Schmidt continued: ‘At the same time I have to inform you that the Russians are at the door.’ with these words he opened the door and a Soviet general and his interpreter entered the room. The general announced that we were his prisoners. I placed my revolver on the table.”

Paulus surrendered, and did not commit suicide. In the next few days the other isolated pockets of German resistance surrendered as well. Roughly 95,000 Germans, Italians, and Romanians surrendered at Stalingrad. Fewer than 6,000 would return home after nearly a decade of imprisonment and forced labor.

In Hitler’s headquarters the scene was terrifying. Hitler ranted about the treason and cowardice of Paulus, and his lackeys in the military agreed. Paulus should have shot himself and the garrison formed a hedgehog and resisted to the last bullet.

Though he surrendered Paulus did not give support to the Soviets or the German resistance until he learned of the execution of his Friend Field Marshal Erich von Witzleben and others for their participation in the attempt to kill Hitler. When he learned of their deaths he joined the he joined the Communist-inspired Bund Deutsche Offiziere, an “anti-Fascist” group that broadcast appeals to the citizens of the Third Reich against the Hitler regime.

After the war he testified at the Nuremberg Trials admitting German conduct of the war in the east was criminal but refusing to label men like Wilhelm Keitel, and Afred Jodl as war criminals. He took up a position as the civilian chief for military history for the new East German Government. He died on February 1st 1957, having never seen his wife since he left to take command of Sixth Army in January 1942, she died in 1949. His son Alexander was killed at Anzio in 1944. His other son, Ernst, survived the war and committed suicide in 1970.

Paulus’s fate is an object lesson for military personnel, civil servants, or police officials who themselves are apolitical, and honorable people become seduced and believe in cults of personality, and end up sacrificing their lives, reputations, and even their families in the process.

Without mentioning any names, Americans who worship at the cult of Trump should pay heed. like Paulus, their loyalty will be betrayed, and even as their leader abandons them.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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”The Lessons Have Not Been Learned” Reflections after International Holocaust Remembrance Day

conspiracy

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Sunday was Holocaust Remembrance Day. I took the time to write about it after completing reading the book Hitler’s Death Squads: The Logic Of Mass Murder, by Helmut Langerbein, Forgotten Crimes: The Holocaust and People with Disabilities, Perpetrators: the World Of the Holocaust Killers, by Gunter Lewy, and Operation Eichmann by Zvi Aharoni and Wilhelm Dietl. I also watched a number of films and documentaries about the Holocaust. Sunday was the anniversary of the day that the Red Army liberated the Nazi extermination and slave labor camp at Auschwitz.

Primo Levi wrote, “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” 

Seventy-seven years ago this a group of 15 relatively common bureaucrats of various German government, police, and party agencies sat around a table and discussed the implementation of what is called the Final Solution. The meeting was chaired by SS Lieutenant General Reinhard Heydrich, who had been charged with the task of solving Germany’s “Jewish Problem” shortly after the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Hermann Goering, the number two man in the Nazi Reich sent Heydrich the following message:

Berlin, July 31st 1941

To: Gruppenfuhrer Heydrich

Supplementing the task assigned to you by the decree of January 24th 1939, to solve the Jewish problem by means of evacuation and emigration in the best possible way by according to present conditions, I hereby charge you to carry out preparations as regards organizational, financial, and material matters for a total solution (Gesamtlosung) of the Jewish question in all the territories of Europe under German occupation.

Where the competency of other organizations touches on this matter, the organizations are to collaborate. 

I charge you further to submit to me as soon as possible a general plan of the administrative material and financial measures necessary for the carrying out the desired final solution (Endlosung) of the Jewish question.”

Goering

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                                                            Heydrich 

When Goering wrote Heydrich, the head of the Reichssiecherhiethauptampt (RSHA) or Reich Security Main Office, in July 1941 it seemed that Nazi victory in Europe was all but assured. Goering’s words were businesslike. Early measures taken by Heydrich to rid Germany and annexed Austria had been reasonably successful to rid those areas of their Jews through emigration and evacuation. These were not benign measures, people were forced to leave their homes, businesses, communities, and had most of their belongings taken from them in order to leave the Reich. However with the occupation of most of Europe following the Nazi military success and the looming occupation and subjugation of the Soviet Union the process of giving the Jews a chance to emigrate to lands outside Nazi control had come to an end. In fact the Nazis occupied the countries that may Jews had found refuge.

Less than six months after he received the directive from Goering, on January 20th 1942 Heydrich summoned representatives from various Reich agencies were called for what turned out to be a brief, two hour meeting which decided the fate of the Jews. The meeting was held at an estate located in the suburbs of Berlin, called Wansee. Organized by Heydrich’s deputy Adolph Eichmann, involved Heydrich, Eichmann and 13 mid level representatives from various economic, governmental, justice and police entities.

At the conference Heydrich established his authority through Goering’s directive to overcome the bureaucratic and personal attempts of various attendees to take control of the Final Solution process. Despite objections from some attendees who favored sterilization and the use of Jews in the war armaments industries, Heydrich made it clear that the Final Solution would be a campaign of extermination. He was quite clear:

“Approximately 11 million Jews will be involved…in large single sex labor columns, Jews fit to work will work their way eastward constructing roads. Doubtless the large majority will be eliminated through natural causes. Any final remnant that survives will doubtlessly consist of the most resistant elements. They will have to be dealt with appropriately, because otherwise by natural selection, they would form the germ cell of a new Jewish revival.”

brama_birkenau-2

The Nazi leadership decided that its race war against the Jews needed to forge ahead. Within days of Wansee the orders went out and SS commanders at various concentration camps began devising more efficient means to exterminate Jews and other “sub-humans.” It was a matter of pride and efficiency for them. As Rudolph Hoess the Commandant of Auschwitz said at Nuremberg “the camp commandant at Treblinka told me that he had liquidated 80,000 in the course of one half year. He was principally concerned with liquidating all the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. He used monoxide gas, and I did not think that his methods were very efficient. So when I set up the extermination building at Auschwitz, I used Zyclon B….” Hoess estimated that some 2.5 million people were exterminated at Auschwitz at rates as high as 10,000 a day.

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Einsatzgruppen in Action

In the Soviet Union four Einsatzgruppen followed each of the German Army Groups and systematically began to massacre the Jews of every city and village which German soldiers captured. The EinsatzgruppenOrdungspolizeibattalions, Army Security Divisions and locally recruited units in fewer than six months, killed over a million and a half Soviet Jews, and the slaughter would continue unabated until the dying days of the Reich.

Heinrich Himmler, Heydrich’s friend and superior told a gathering of senior SS leaders:

“I also want to mention a very difficult subject before you here, completely openly. It should be discussed among us, and yet, nevertheless, we will never speak about it in public…I am talking about the “Jewish evacuation” the extermination of the Jewish people.” 

It is One of the things that is easily said. “The Jewish people is being exterminated,” every Party member will tell you, “perfectly clear, it’s part of our plans, we’re eliminating the Jews, exterminating them, ha!, a small matter.” 

But then along they all come, all the decent upright Germans and each has his decent Jew. They all say: the others are all swine, but here is a first class Jew. And none of them has seen it, has endured it. Most of you will know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, or when there are 500 or 1000. And to have seen this through, and –with the exception of human weaknesses– to have remained decent, has made us hard and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned….”

himmlervisit

Himmler and his entourage 

Whether the words are those of Goering, Heydrich, Hoess or Himmler, there is a certain businesslike banality to them. But these men, and many others like them orchestrated a campaign of genocide and race hatred unmatched in history. Yes, there have been other genocides, the Turks killing the Armenians during the First World War and the Hutu and Tutsi slaughter in Rwanda but neither they or the politically motivated campaigns of mass slaughter conducted by the Soviets, the Chinese Communists and the Khamer Rouge killing fields can match the systematized extermination campaign waged by the Nazis against the Jews.

The truly terrifying thing about the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust to me is that most of the men at Wansee, men that commanded the Concentration camps and the Einsatzgruppen were very ordinary men who simply believed that they were doing their jobs. Very few could be described as psychopathic killers by nature. They were lawyers, doctors, career police officials, businessmen, and bureaucrats who carried out an extermination campaign that killed by their own numbers between 5.5 and 6 million Jews, not to mention others deemed to be subhuman including the handicapped, the mentally ill, homosexuals, and other non-Jewish minorities like the Gypsies not to mention the wide variety of those considered political enemies. But it was the Jews that bore the most tragic fate and it was the Jews who were the object of Hitler’s most bloodthirsty actions.

But without the bureaucrats, the mayors, district leaders, party functionaries, police officers, soldiers, railroad officials, businessmen, and others who helped there could have been no Holocaust. As 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.” 

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Timothy Snyder correctly observed that “The world is now changing, reviving fears that were familiar in Hitler’s time, and to which Hitler responded. The history of the Holocaust is not over. Its precedent is eternal, and its lessons have not yet been learned.”

That is something that we must never forget lest the would be architects of annihilation of our day; the politicians, preachers, propagandists, and profiteers, who demonize the Jews, Muslims, dark skinned immigrants, LTBTQ people and other inconvenient elements and prepare people to do evil or ignore it: the ordinary men who just obey orders. Primo Levi who I quoted at the beginning was right, the common me, those that don’t think but simply follow orders or turn their heads and ignore the evil who are the most dangerous.

Milton Mayer wrote in his book They Thought They Were Free about a German colleague during the 1950s that had lived through the Hitler years as an academic. The man tried to explain how changes were so gradual that people like him who should have known better did not take action, if they did at all until it was too late. The man asked Mayer:

“How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men? Frankly, I do not know. I do not see, even now. Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice—‘Resist the beginnings’ and ‘Consider the end.’ But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One must foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men? Things might have. And everyone counts on that might.”

We cannot forget and we must always be vigilant or we too could easily succumb, it is not that hard. History and human nature shows it all too clearly.

Peace

Padre Steve

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

Yes Men and No Men: Hermann Goering and Johannes Steinhoff in the Age of Trump

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am posting a slightly updated version on an article that I have published before because I think it is even more relevant following how President Trump has treated, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, and Mattis’s recommendation of Air Force General David Goldfein to be the next Chairman Of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. All are decorated combat commanders, had been under enemy fire, and all are scholars capable of self-reflection. All stand for a different type of military than that Trump admires, they are not yes men, nor Trump’s Generals. That is why Goldfein was rejected by Trump, why Mattis and McMaster both resigned, and were replaced by men that Trump sees as yes men, the same as with the replacement of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, FBI Director James Comey, and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, by people thought to be loyal to the President, most of whom are totally unqualified for their office but whose personal loyalty to the President, not the Constitution, is unquestionable.

At Nuremberg, Hermann Goering was asked by Gustave Gilbert as to “why he and the others had been such abject “yes men,” Goering replied: “Please show me a ‘no man’ in Germany who is not six feet under the ground today.” Goering, who was exceptionally intelligent and talented subordinated himself to Hitler and while not completely correct in regards to the fate of all the “no men” did understand the principle of unconditional personal loyalty to his leader, which makes the actions of men like Johannes Steinhoff much more remarkable.

A few months back I did some research on the anti-Nazi resistors, which caused me to go back are re-read a book by World War II German Luftwaffe ace Johannes Steinhoff, which I believe should be requires reading for any military officer or public servant in the Trump era.

Steinhoff was unlike many of the German officers who wrote memoirs following the war, memoirs that historian Williamson Murray wrote “fell generally into two categories; generals writing in the genre of “if the fuhrer had only listened to me!” and fighter pilots or tank busters writing about their heroics against the productive flood from America or the primitively masses of the Soviet Union.”

Steinhoff’s book, The Final Hours: The Luftwaffe Plot Against Goering should be essential reading for any currently serving officer, diplomat, Federal law enforcement, intelligence, or Department of Justice official  as the Trump administration becomes more established and capricious.

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General Johannes Steinhof (above) as a Bundeswehr and NATO officer, showing his burns and before his crash (below)

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In his books, Steinhoff does something that you do not see authors do in most military or political memoirs, he actually does serious self reflection on his role in supporting an evil regime. In his introduction to his book The Final Hours the legendary fighter ace who was horribly disfigured when his Me-262 jet fighter crashed and burned two weeks prior to the end of the war wrote:

“In recalling these events, which had been long buried in my memory, it has not been my intention to make excuses. Our unconditional self-sacrifice in the service of the Third Reich is too well documented for that….

So it is because of what is happening today—with freedom threatened in virtually every respect by its own abuse—that I offer this contribution, in the form of an episode in which I was myself involved, to the history of the soldier in the twentieth century. Soldiers have always, in every century of their existence, been victims of the ruthless misuse of power; indeed, given the opportunity, they have joined in the power game themselves. But it fell to our own century to accomplish, with the aid of a whole technology of mass extermination, the most atrocious massacres in the history of mankind. This fact alone makes pacifism a philosophy worthy of respect, and I have a great deal of sympathy with those who profess it. 

The figure of the soldier in all his manifestations is thus symptomatic of the century now nearing its close, and it is to the history of that figure that I wish to contribute by describing what happened to me. I have tried to show what it is possible to do to men, how insidiously they can be manipulated by education, how they can be hoisted onto a pedestal as “heroes,” how they can be so corrupted as even to enjoy the experience—and how they can be dropped and denounced as mutineers when they discover that they have scruples. The complete lack of scruples that such treatment implies is peculiar to rulers who believe that the problems of their own and other peoples can be solved by imposing, through the use of military force, peace on their, the rulers’, terms—in our case a pax germanica, but the second Latin word is readily interchangeable.” from “The Final Hours: The Luftwaffe Plot Against Goring (Aviation Classics)” by Johannes Steinhoff

Since I am a historian and and a career military officer with service in the Iraq War, a war that was illegal and unjust by all measure I can understand Steinhof’s words. Because much of my undergraduate and graduate work focused on German history, particularly that of Imperial Germany after the unification, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi Reich, I draw a lot of lessons from the period. I also understand how people in this country can fall for the same kind of vitriolic propaganda that the Germans of that era did. I can understand because for years I fell for the lies and propaganda being put out by the politicians, pundits and preachers of the American political right.

In fact I wrote about an incident that happened to me in my own chapel where a dedicated Trump supporter attempted to have me charged with Conduct Unbecoming an Officer and Contempt for the President.  He did this because I used biblical preaching backed by sound theology and history to condemn the President’s comparison of immigrants of darker skin colors as “animals” and an “infestation.” I compared those words with the way Hitler and other totalitarian leaders used such terminology to dehumanize their victims. As I mentioned I was completely cleared by the preliminary inquiry but it sends a chill through my spine.

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A picture of me (on left) in Iraq 2007 with my assistant and bodyguard RP1 Nelson Lebron

One of those lessons is that in times of crisis, that people, no matter what their race, culture, religious belief system, educational, or economic background are still human. Humanity is the one constant in all of history, our prejudices are often ingrained in us during childhood and reinforced by the words of politicians, pundits, and preachers. In times of stress, crisis, and societal change or upheaval even good people, moral people, people of great intellectual, scientific abilities can fall prey to demagogues who preach hate and blame others, usually racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, as well as civil libertarians who champion the rights of those minorities for the problems of the nation.

Shrewd politicians, preachers, and pundits do this well. They demonize the target group or population and then let the hatred of their disaffected followers flow. The leaders need that disaffected and angry base in order to rise to power; such was how Hitler, Stalin, and so many other despots gained power. They took advantage of a climate of fear, and found others to blame. For Hitler it was the Jews, Slavs, Socialists and Communists; while for Stalin it was various groups like the Ukrainians, or the Poles who were the devil to be feared and destroyed. Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin wrote:

“Dead human beings provided retrospective arguments for the rectitude of policy. Hitler and Stalin thus shared a certain politics of tyranny: they brought about catastrophes, blamed the enemy of their choice, and then used the death of millions to make the case that their policies were necessary or desirable. Each of them had a transformative utopia, a group to be blamed when its realization proved impossible, and then a policy of mass murder that could be proclaimed as a kind of ersatz victory.”

But that being said, there are a lot of people who from childhood believe the lies about others without question. In good times such people continue on with life as normal, but in crisis those hatreds and prejudices come to the fore. Rudolf Höss, the notorious sociopath who commanded Auschwitz told American Army psychologist Gustave Gilbert about his reaction when ordered to turn the camp into an extermination center. He said that the order “fitted in with all that had been preached to me for years,” and “at the same time I didn’t think of it as propaganda, but as something one just had to believe.” 

Eugene Davidson in his book on the Nuremberg Trials wrote:

“Every society has in it at all times negative, criminal, sadistic, asocial forces. What holds them in check more than law and police is the consensus of the society – a general belief that despite everything wrong and stupid and muddleheaded in politics, the state is a going concern that will somehow make its way into the future.” (Davidson, The Trial of the Germans p.581)

But when things do not go well, when people do not feel that things will be okay, that the future will be better, and that they have a purpose they look for answers. However, they tend to find their answers in the rantings of demagogues, race baiters, conspiracy theorists, and others who they would tend to dismiss out of hand in good times. In Germany it was the loss of the First World War, the humiliation of Versailles and the economic chaos and social change of the Weimar period which allowed Hitler to gain an audience, then a following, then political power. The demagogues played to what was already in the hearts and minds of the disaffected masses, without that fertile soil, the rantings of Hitler and his propagandists would have never succeeded. Albert Speer wrote:

“As I see it today, Hitler and Goebbels were in fact molded by the mob itself, guided by its yearnings and its daydreams. Of course, Goebbels and Hitler knew how to penetrate through to the instincts of their audiences; but in the deeper sense they derived their whole existence from these audiences. Certainly the masses roared to the beat set by Hitler’s and Goebbels’ baton; yet they were not the true conductors. The mob determined the theme. To compensate for misery, insecurity, unemployment, and hopelessness, this anonymous assemblage wallowed for hours at a time in obsessions, savagery and license. The personal unhappiness caused by the breakdown of the economy was replaced by a frenzy that demanded victims. By lashing out at their opponents and vilifying the Jews, they gave expression and direction to fierce primal passions.”

In a sense a similar thing has happened in the United States which has experienced a series of wars beginning with Vietnam, the shock of the 9-11-2001 attacks, the economic crash of 2007 and 2008 which devastated the savings, home ownership, and investments of many Americans while at the same time benefiting the banking and brokerage houses whose government assisted policies brought about the crash. Of course there are other issues, many religious conservatives hate the progress made by the Women’s and Gay Rights movements, and their leaders play to their fears in apocalyptic terms. I could go on, but I am sure that my readers can identify other issues which demagogues and others use to spread fear and hate to further their goals. The fact is that without the the fertile soil that lays in the hearts of their most fervent followers they would never have a following.

In Weimar Germany hate mongers like Julius Streicher and propagandist Josef Goebbels stuck a chord with disenchanted people who felt that they had lost their country. They were fearful, angry, and desired a leader who would “make Germany great again.” Hitler and his Nazi media sycophants played to that fear, and took advantage of their anger at the existing order. Davidson wrote such people “exist everywhere and in a sick society they can flourish.” 

For decades the way has been prepared for true extremists to take advantage of the fears and doubts of people as modern American versions of Streicher and Goebbels have been at work for years. Rush Limbaugh was a modern pioneer of this in the United States, and he has been joined by so many who are even more extreme in their rantings that it is hard to name them all. Likewise, whole media corporations especially Fox News, websites, and political networks spread such fear every minute of the day, claiming that they, and they alone are real Americans. They actively support politicians who condemn, and sometimes even threaten people who oppose them, and all the while claim that “make America great again.”

When I was younger I devoured that propaganda, despite all of my learning I followed the rantings of men who I realize today are propagandists who promote the basest of lies, and hatred, often in the name of God. I was changed when I was at war, and when I returned home from Iraq in 2008 I realized through hard experience that I had been lied to, and that as a result that thousands of my brothers and sisters were dead, and tens of thousands shattered in body, mind, and spirit. Likewise I saw the massive destruction levied on Iraq and realized how terrible war really is. That was my epiphany, that is what it took to see how much I had been lied to, and it called me to question everything else that I had so willingly believed, things which had been fed to me by years of indoctrination in church, through the media, and by politicians who I believed were truly Christian. I can understand now how Martin Niemoller felt after the Nazi seizure of power when he said, “I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.”

There was a time that I hated people who espouse the views that I hold today, the views that I write about so often here on this site. I can remember how angry I would get as I listened to the propaganda being put out by Limbaugh, Hannity, the Fox News Channel and all of the others that I listened to every time that I had the chance. But when I changed after Iraq, I felt the sting of that hatred in very real ways. I remember the day I was called by my bishop in my former church, who told me that I had to leave because my views on women, gays, and Moslems were to use his words were now “too liberal.” After that, many men who I considered to be the best of friends turned their backs on me, some in the most bitter and vindictive of ways.

But I realize now that what they did was because I had in a sense left the cult, and had to be ostracized. I can understand that now, because when I was under the spell I too turned my back on people who had fallen out of favor, or people who had rejected the tenants of the church or the political movement, and those are things that I can never undo. But at the time it made sense, it fitted in with all I had been taught for decades, as Albert Speer wrote of Hitler, “One seldom recognizes the devil when he is putting his hand on your shoulder.”

What happened to Steinhoff’s generation is threatening to happen again, in our country, an authoritarian movement is threatening to destroy our democracy and republic. In it soldiers are esteemed, until they realize what is going on and speak out, but by then it is usually too late. I am understanding that fact more and more every day, and having had people troll this blog and call me a traitor and worse, I understand just a bit of what happened to Steinhoff and his fellow officers when they protested to the highest levels what was happening to Germany in early 1945.

In 1944 he and other fighter pilots were subjected to a political indoctrination session and realized that in the Nazi state loyalty and doctrinal purity to Naziism was more important than either combat service or competence. He wrote:

“Now, however, we realized to our horror that a group of officers had decided, after five years of war, to conduct a purge among the troops with the object of eliminating all those “whose past life and present conduct were not consonant with the National-Socialist type” and who did not “stand firm on National-Socialist principles.” We sat there petrified, but some of those present appeared hugely to enjoy the ensuing discussion of what they called “National-Socialist guidelines.” Perhaps, though, for many it was simply an attempt to escape into a less concrete area of discussion than the desperate military situation—and then there was the added satisfaction of being able to censure others. Fanaticism took the place of hopelessness, and phrases like “faith in the Führer,” “rootedness in National-Socialist ideology,” and “irreproachability of character” fell without hesitation from people’s lips. The Luftwaffe leadership, it was said, must be “combed” from top to bottom, and then someone even came out with the “National-Socialist soul…”

We will soon know how military professionals react to being labeled as traitors. President Trump and his followers have been demonizing the personnel of the nation’s intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic communities since before the election. The President lambasts critics of any station on his Twitter feed which results in them receiving death threats from his followers. I expect that when Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaks his mind and tells the truth that we will find out.

Personally I expect that when he does that Trump and his most strident supporters will label him as a traitor for doing so. Like a religious cult they have no capacity to tolerate dissent, loyalty to the man will supersede loyalty to the country or the Constitution. When that happens it will be interesting to see the throngs of people in the military and outside of it who make the choice to throw one of the most courageous, selfless, and intellectual soldiers ever produced by our nation under the bus.

Their’s will be a conscious decision. My opinion is that the Constitution and the country will always come first. I wanted to give the President the benefit of the doubt and prayed that he world do the right thing for the country. But I was wrong. I am concerned because of his past and current behavior that his only loyalty is to himself. General Ludwig Beck, who resigned rather than obey Hitler’s order to invade Czechoslovakia in 1938 and died in the anti-Hitler coup attempt in 1944 said:

“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.” 

I have no doubt that General Mattis understands that and will courageously speak his mind, even if he is condemned for doing so. Sadly I have many doubts about other leaders: be they military, political, business, or religious. There are many people who will sell their souls for their personal advancement, the advancement of their agenda, or an increase in their bottom line. It is after all human nature.

But the question is: will we see true men and women of courage who will stand when it appears there is no chance of success? As Atticus Finch said in To Kill a Mockingbird: “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” 

That will be what is demanded in the coming months and years.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

Christmas NUTS! Anthony McAuliffe and the 101st Airborne at Bastogne

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Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

On December 16th 1944 the German Army launched an assault in the Ardennes Forrest completely surprising the thinly spread American VIII Corps.  The German 6th Panzer Army, 5th Panzer Army and 7th Army attacked and forced the surrender of 2 regiments of 106th Infantry Division, mauled the 28th Division in the center of the American line while battering other U.S. forces.  To the north the 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions were tenaciously defending Elsenborn Ridge while to the south the thinly spread 4th Infantry and 9th Armored Divisions resisted the 7th Army advance. As elements of the two German Panzer armies advanced west Eisenhower dispatched his only reserves the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to meet the threat. The 82nd moved to the town of St Vith to aid the 7th Armored Division while the 101st was dispatched to hold the key road center of Bastogne.

By the 22nd of December the besieged American defenders of Bastogne were causing Hasso Von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army headaches. Manteuffel’s leading Panzer units of the 2nd Panzer Division and Panzer Lehr had been thwarted from taking Bastogne by a Combat Command of 10th Armored Division and lead elements of the 101st Airborne Division. After failing to take the town the Germans invested it with the 26thVolksgrenadier Division, and a regiment of Panzer Lehr while the  2ndPanzer and the bulk of Panzer Lehr continued their westward advance.

Cut off from any other American forces the 101st and a collection of stray units including CCB 10th Armored Division and remnants of CCR 9th Armored Division, three 155mm artillery battalions including the African American 969th Field Artillery Battalion held out. By the 21st of December they were completely surrounded by strong German Forces with no relief in sight.

The Commander of the American garrison was Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe. McAuliffe was the acting commander of the 101st and normally was the commander of the Division Artillery. Major General Matthew Ridgeway and many key commanders and staff were away from the division when it was hastily deployed to the Bulge to combat the German offensive.  McAuliffe now commanded a division which was surrounded, and that was short of ammunition, food, and cold weather gear.

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General Der Panzertrüppen Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz

The German forces surrounding the city were commanded by the veteran General Der Panzertrüppen Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz, commander of XLVII Panzer Corps.  Lüttwitz believed that resistance to his forces was futile sent the following message under a flag of truce to McAuliffe

To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.

The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river Our near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre-Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands.

There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.

If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours term.

All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.

The German Commander

McAuliffe’s response has become one of the immortal responses to a surrender demand in military history. According to staff members present when he received Lüttwitz’s note he simple said “nuts.” One of his staff officers suggested that he use “nuts” as his official reply to Lüttwitz and the following reply was typed:

To the German Commander

NUTS!

The American Commander

The reply was delivered by the commander of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Harper and his S-3 Major Alvin Jones. When Harper delivered the message he told the German delegation that in “plain English” it meant “Go to hell.” The scene has been immortalized on film in the movie The Battle of the Bulge

Likewise it is also depicted in the mini-series Band of Brothers. 

And in the 1949 film Battleground 

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The garrison held out until it was relieved on December 26th by the 4th Armored Division of General George Patton’s 3rd Army.  Despite that the situation remained tenuous and the town was the scene of much hard fighting over the next two weeks.

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McAuliffe’s Christmas Message to his Soldiers

McAuliffe went on to command the 103rd Infantry Division by the end of the war.  He returned to Europe as Commander of 7th Army in 1953 and U.S. Army Europe in 1955. He retired in 1956 with the rank of General.  He died in 1975 at the age of 77. His adversary Von Lüttwitz died at the age of 72 in 1969.

As we remain engaged in the current war it is always worth our time to remember the heroism, courage and faith of those that served before us.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Post Script: To read more about the Battle of the Bulge on this site go to Wacht am Rhein: The Battle of the Bulge

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Filed under film, History, leadership, Military, nazi germany, us army, world war two in europe

Hope In Hell: Dr. Kurt Reuber and the Madonna Of Stalingrad

Bundeswehr zeigt "Stalingrad"-Ausstellung

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is almost Christmas and I am reflecting about the true meaning of Christmas in a world where hope seems to be dying before our eyes. In such an environment I reflect on men who lived in a human made hell, a hell made by hate filled ideologues who launched the world into its bloodiest war, and I wonder, could it happen again? A decade ago I would have said it never could again happen, but now I am not so sure. So, in the age of Donald Trump, I must try to find hope wherever I can find it.

I think most of my readers know that I am a career military officer and have served in peace and war as a chaplain. That service includes a tour in Iraq, a war, which by almost any standard would have been considered unjust and illegal, yet I served there, and came back a changed man. As such the stories of those who served in war, especially those who serve in hopeless battles, and even in evil causes during Christmas have a special place in my heart. One of those men was a German pastor and medical doctor named Kurt Reuber.

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As I said, Reuber was a theologian, pastor and medical doctor, likewise he was an accomplished artist and used that medium to convey his own faith, and doubts. He was a friend of Albert Schweitzer in 1939 he was conscripted to serve as a physician in the Germany Army. By November 1942 he was a seasoned military physician serving with the 16th Panzer Division, part of the German 6th Army, which had been fighting in the hell of Stalingrad. When his division along with most of 6th Army was surrounded by the Soviets, cut off from most supply and without real hope of relief, he like other physicians continued to serve the soldiers committed to his care.

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However, unlike most physicians, the care Reuber offered care included spiritual matters, as he sought to help his soldiers deal with the hopelessness of their situation. As Reuber reflected on the desperation of the German soldiers in the Stalingrad pocket. He wrote to his family.

“I wondered for a long while what I should paint, and in the end I decided on a Madonna, or mother and child. I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into a studio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the picture properly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get the perspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencils vanish into the mud. There is nothing to lean my big picture of the Madonna against, except a sloping, home-made table past which I can just manage to squeeze. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map for paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting my Madonna, and how much it means to me.”

“The picture looks like this: the mother’s head and the child’s lean toward each other, and a large cloak enfolds them both. It is intended to symbolize ‘security’ and ‘mother love.’ I remembered the words of St. John: light, life, and love. What more can I add? I wanted to suggest these three things in the homely and common vision of a mother with her child and the security that they represent.”

The picture was drawn on the back of a captured Soviet map and when he finished it he displayed it in his bunker, which became something of a shrine. Reuber wrote:

“When according to ancient custom I opened the Christmas door, the slatted door of our bunker, and the comrades went in, they stood as if entranced, devout and too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall…The entire celebration took place under the influence of the picture, and they thoughtfully read the words: light, life, love…Whether commander or simple soldier, the Madonna was always an object of outward and inward contemplation.”

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As the siege continued men came to the bunker for both medical care and spiritual solace.  On Christmas Eve Reuber found himself treating a number of men wounded by bombs outside the bunker. Another soldier lay dying, just minutes before the soldier had been in the bunker singing the Christmas hymn O Du Froehliche.  Reuber wrote:

“I spent Christmas evening with the other doctors and the sick. The Commanding Officer had presented the letter with his last bottle of Champagne. We raised our mugs and drank to those we love, but before we had had a chance to taste the wine we had to throw ourselves flat on the ground as a stick of bombs fell outside. I seized my doctor’s bag and ran to the scene of the explosions, where there were dead and wounded. My shelter with its lovely Christmas decorations became a dressing station. One of the dying men had been hit in the head and there was nothing more I could do for him. He had been with us at our celebration, and had only that moment left to go on duty, but before he went he had said: ‘I’ll finish the carol with first. O du Frohliche!” A few moments later he was dead. There was plenty of hard and sad work to do in our Christmas shelter. It is late now, but it is Christmas night still. And so much sadness everywhere.”

On January 9th 1943 with all hope of escape or reinforcement gone Reuber gave the picture to the battalion commander as the officer was too ill to carry on and was one of the last soldiers to be evacuated from the pocket. Reuber’s commander carried the Madonna out of the pocket and returned it delivered it to Reuber’s family, preserving it for all.

Reuber was taken prisoner and survived the harrowing winter march to the Yelabuga prison camp. In late 1943 Reuber wrote his Christmas Letter to a German Wife and Mother – Advent 1943. It was a spiritual reflection but also a reflection on the hope for life after the war, when the Nazi regime would be defeated, and Germany given a new birth.

Reuber wrote:

“The concatenation of guilt and fate has opened our eyes wide to the guilt. You know, perhaps we will be grateful at the end of our present difficult path yet once again that we will be granted true salvation and liberation of the individual and the nation by apparent disappointment of our “anticipation of Advent”, by all of the suffering of last year’s as well as this year’s Christmas. According to ancient tradition, the Advent season is simultaneously the season of self-reflection. So at the very end, facing ruin, in death’s grip – what a revaluation of values has taken place in us! We thus want to use this period of waiting as inner preparation for a meaningful new existence and enterprise in our family, in our vocation, in the nation. The Christmas light of joy is already shining in the midst of our Advent path of death as a celebration of the birth of a new age in which – as hard as it may also be – we want to prove ourselves worthy of the newly given life.”  (Erich Wiegand in Kurt Reuber, Pastor, Physician, Painter, Evangelischer Medienverb. Kassel 2004. )

prisoner's madonna

Reuber did not live to see that day. He died of Typhus on January 20th 1944, not long after writing this and just a few weeks after painting another portrait of the Madonna, this one entitled The Prisoner’s Madonna. He was not alone, of the approximately 95,000 German POWs taken at Stalingrad only about 6,000 returned home.

His paintings survived the war and his family gave The Madonna of Stalingrad to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin after it was restored as a symbol of hope and reconciliation. Copies are also displayed in Coventry Cathedral and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Volgograd, the former Stalingrad. A copy of The Prisoner’s Madonna is now displayed at the Church of the Resurrection in Kassel.

I have a print of the Madonna of Stalingrad in my office. It has become one of the most meaningful pictures I have since I returned from Iraq in 2008. To me they are symbols of God’s presence when God seems entirely absent.

Praying for an end to war.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“You’re Worse… You Went Along With it All, Even Though You Knew…” Loyal Servants of Evil Regimes

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One of the more sobering war movies that I have ever watched is the 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 around Christmas and 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 believed in God and the officially Atheistic Soviet Union and its people did not. In his exhortation the Chaplain calls attentional the belt buckles worn by every soldier in the Wehrmacht, which were embossed with the words Gott mit Uns, or God is with us.

I am a a military Chaplain. I have been one since 1992, 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. Back in the Cold War while serving as an officer before I became a Chaplain I used to talk about the Godless Communists.

The second question is also difficult. I have been in the military for about thirty-seven plus years. Truthfully I am a dinosaur. I am the second 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?

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

Otto: Do we deserve any better?

Captain 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 even 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 2003 I had my own 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 John Kerry in 2004, 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, but I supported that invasion.

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, to the extent of appointing one of the most strident proponents of the invasion of Iraq as his National Security Advisor. Likewise, he holds the professional military in contempt appears to be angling for war in the Middle East against Iran even as he excuses the criminal actions of Saudi Arabia in Yemen and against American residents.

I have no doubt that unless something changes that a terrible war is coming and that our President will be a catalyst for it. But for the next nine months before I retire, I will 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 too many Christian nationalists have done in the past.

I don’t actually think that I ever said the words “God is with us” in regards to advocating war in my career as a Chaplain, but I am sure that my words, and public prayers could have been interpreted in that way 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. Sadly, I trusted my leaders too much, especially when Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke before the United Nations to prove the case against Iraq just before the invasion.

Supreme Justice Robert Jackson, who served as the Chief American Prosecutor at Nuremberg stated in the London Agreement:

“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.”

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, while praising and tacitly supporting authoritarian and Fascist rulers around the world. Honestly, I dread what may befall us if he remains in power.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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