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

rommel

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rommel-with-soldier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winston Churchill wrote of Rommel:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope that own better angels prevail.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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

“Somebody, After all, Had to Make a Start…” Sophie Scholl and Resistance

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have written about Sophie Scholl and the White Rose resistance against Hitler before, in fact I again wrote about her last night, and as I watch what is going on in the United States I cannot get her off my mind. The 22 year old German university student who dared to speak out, to tell the truth, despite having no power of her own, just a belief in freedom and that one had to resist the Hitler regime.

I spent time in September on my last visit to Munich to visit a number of the places where Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and other members of the resistance worked to write and distribute six pamphlets exposing the crimes of the Nazi regime. I also visited her grave.

While distributing the sixth pamphlet, Sophie and Hans were caught when a maintenance man at Munich University spotted them and reported them to the Gestapo.

I find that the the German language film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days is a powerful portrayal of her last days. Whenever I watch the film Imfind that it is an intensely emotional experience. It was shot on location in places that I have walked, so it resonates in real time as I watch the freedoms that the United States was founded on being attacked in real time right now. I wonder how long it will be until the Constitution is turned upon its head and the law and the courts are turned into accomplices of terror.

I think the scenes in the film that were the most powerful to me were those that depicted the interrogation of Sophie by the Gestapo investigator Robert Mohr. He is a Nazi, but he is also a professional police office and investigator, devoted to the law, a law which though the words had not been changed since before Hitler’s assumption of power, had been commandeered by the Nazis to prescribe loyalty to the Hitler regime above all. The real Robert Mohr survived the war and lived until 1977

By the end of the film I was in tears, especially in the scene just before her execution her parents are allowed to visit her, and her father tells her that he is proud of her. Try as I might I couldn’t see my mother doing that for me, my late father yes, but my mother no. When in 2009 I visited them shortly after my father had been placed in a nursing home and I was in a state of emotional and spiteful collapse after my return from Iraq, I objected to her agreement with the Fox News pundits our their portrayal of the war and she called me a coward. I had spent seven months in Al Anbar Province with American advisors and our Iraqi allies, being exposed to constant danger and being shot at on several occasions. She would have been a perfect and obedient servant of the Third Reich. As a career officer returned broken from War I would have probably shared the fate of men like Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg and the other anti-Hitler plotters of the July 20th bomb plot. That night I left her house for a hotel, and though I have visited her and been to the house since then, I have always stayed in a hotel when visiting home. I haven’t been back since October 2014 and that is probably a good thing.

In their trial Hans Scholl, though berated by the President of the People’s Court, Judge Roland Freisler told him: I have served on the Eastern Front, as have many others here, but you haven’t. That is my feeling toward those who combat veterans who object to nationalist propaganda being disguised and patriotism by people who have never spent a day in uniform much less who have never put on a uniform, or even fewer who have served in harms way.

Honestly, in our current day I fear for freedom in this land, and I must always do my best to speak the truth. That might mean making waves or enemies, Lord knows how many supposed friends have condemned my political and religious beliefs because they do not reflect the the ideology of the supposedly Evangelical Christian America First followers of our current President, not to mention those who decide that they cannot speak up simply because they do not want to make waves in order to survive though they know in their hearts that their actions betray their faith and life.

Sophie wrote:

“The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.”

Though Sophie, Hans, and a number of their friends were executed and others imprisoned, their message got out. Smuggled out of Germany the sixth pamphlet was reprinted in the millions and dropped by the Royal Air Force and American Army Air Force over Germany. That leaflet said:

For us there is but one slogan: fight against the party! Get out of the party organisation, which are used to keep our mouths sealed and hold us in political bondage! Get out of the lecture rooms of the SS corporals and sergeants and the party bootlickers! We want genuine learning and real freedom of opinion. No threat can terrorise us, not even the shutting down of the institutions of higher learning. This is the struggle of each and every one of us for our future, our freedom, and our honour under a regime conscious of its moral responsibility…

Fellow Fighters in the Resistance!

Shaken and broken, our people behold the loss of the men of Stalingrad. Three hundred and thirty thousand German men have been senselessly and irresponsibly driven to death and destruction by the inspired strategy of our World War I Private First Class. Fuhrer, we thank you!

The German people are in ferment. Will we continue to entrust the fate of our armies to a dilettante? Do we want to sacrifice the rest of German youth to the base ambitions of a Party clique? No, never! The day of reckoning has come – the reckoning of German youth with the most abominable tyrant our people have ever been forced to endure. In the name of German youth we demand restitution by Adolf Hitler’s state of our personal freedom, the most precious treasure we have, out of which he has swindled us in the most miserable way.

We grew up in a state in which all free expression of opinion is unscrupulously suppressed. The Hitler Youth, the SA, the SS have tried to drug us, to revolutionise us, to regiment us in the most promising young years of our lives. “Philosophical training” is the name given to the despicable method by which our budding intellectual development is muffled in a fog of empty phrases. A system of selection of leaders at once unimaginably devilish and narrow-minded trains up its future party bigwigs in the “Castles of the Knightly Order” to become Godless, impudent, and conscienceless exploiters and executioners – blind, stupid hangers-on of the Fuhrer. We “Intellectual Workers” are the ones who should put obstacles in the path of this caste of overlords. Soldiers at the front are regimented like schoolboys by student leaders and trainees for the post of Gauleiter, and the lewd jokes of the Gauleiters insult the honour of the women students. German women students at the university in Munich have given a dignified reply to the besmirching of their honour, and German students have defended the women in the universities and have stood firm…. That is a beginning of the struggle for our free self-determination – without which intellectual and spiritual values cannot be created. We thank the brave comrades, both men and women, who have set us brilliant examples.

For us there is but one slogan: fight against the party! Get out of the party organisation, which are used to keep our mouths sealed and hold us in political bondage! Get out of the lecture rooms of the SS corporals and sergeants and the party bootlickers! We want genuine learning and real freedom of opinion. No threat can terrorise us, not even the shutting down of the institutions of higher learning. This is the struggle of each and every one of us for our future, our freedom, and our honour under a regime conscious of its moral responsibility.

Freedom and honour! 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 honour. 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 honour of the German nation” throughout Europe, and which they daily start anew. The name of Germany is dishonoured for all time if German youth does not finally rise, take revenge, and atone, smash its tormentors, and set up a new Europe of the spirit. Students! The German people look to us. As in 1813 the people expected us to shake off the Napoleonic yoke, so in 1943 they look to us to break the National Socialist terror through the power of the spirit. Beresina and Stalingrad are burning in the East. The dead of Stalingrad implore us to take action. “Up, up, my people, let smoke and flame be our sign!”

Our people stand ready to rebel against the Nationals Socialist enslavement of Europe in a fervent new breakthrough of freedom and honour.

Honestly, I do not know how many Americans today regardless of their political party who would if faced with the possibly imprisonment and death of speaking out against the anti-American, illegal, and unconstitutional actions of the Trump Administration, or for that matter any administration. Sophie said “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.”

Freedom matters, as does truth. There is no excuse for the Christian to stay silent in the face of evil. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak.”

Never forget that resistance is never futile.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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

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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The Tale of the Desert Fox: Erwin Rommel, a Cautionary Tale for Men Who Serve Tyrants

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just over 74 years ago in Ulm Germany a car pulled up to the residence of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. In the car was the driver and two Generals dispatched by Hitler.  Rommel was recuperating following being severely wounded in an air attack in Normandy on July 17th 1944.

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

He was also an opportunist. With the rise of the Nazis came the expansion of the German military. Rommel was already well known due to his exploits as a platoon and company commander during the First World War in France, Romania, and Italy. In Italy he captured an entire Italian infantry division during the Battle of Mount Cosna, which was part of the Caporetto in October 1917. His company of 150 troops, exploited terrain and weather to surprise and capture 9,000 soldiers and 81 artillery pieces at the cost of 6 men killed and 30 wounded. Rommel used infiltration tactics, flanking maneuvers, and even disobeyed the orders of his superiors during the battle. Less than two weeks later at Langarone using the same tactics, his company surprised the 1st Italian Infantry which thinking it surrounded by superior forces surrendered to Rommel. For these actions Rommel was awarded the coveted Blue Max. 

Rommel was retained in the 100,000 man Reichswehr, but he had refused to attend the course that would have made him part of the elite General Staff. As such he was not assigned to the critical billets that would normally lead to high command. Instead he served in company command and as an instructor at the Infantry School in Dresden. While assigned to the school he wrote a manual of infantry tactics and training based on his experience. The book, Infantrie Greift an, or Infantry Attacks is still considered a classic book on infantry tactics and leadership, and was highly influential in his rise to high command. He was promoted to Major after serving 14 years as a Captain in 1932. In October 1933 he was assigned to command the 3rd Jaeger Battalion of the 17th Infantry Regiment where he first met Hitler when the latter reviewed his troops on an inspection visit.

Rommel, like many officers was caught in the thrall of Hitler. His wife, Lucy was caught up in the moment and was a Hitler supporter. Rommel was never a Nazi party member, but that did not keep him from supporting the overtly nationalist and militarist actions of the Hitler regime. In 1935 he was assigned to the Military Academy at Potsdam where as a Lieutenant Colonel he published Infantrie Greift an. In 1937 Hitler appointed Rommel as the liaison officer from the War Ministry to the Hitler Youth. Rommel clashed with the head of the Hitler Jugend, Baldur von Schirach and twiced proposed removing the organization from the Party to the War Ministry.

The conflict resulted in Rommel being quietly reposted from that assignment, promoted to Colonel and assigned to command the former Austrian Theresian Military Academy  in Wiener Neustadt. He was then selected by Hitler to command the Führer-Begleit-Battalion (Escort battalion) which served as the force protection unit for Hitler’s headquarters during the Polish campaign.

Following that campaign, Rommel, now a Major General was appointed to command the newly formed 7th Panzer Division which he commanded with great distinction during the Battle of France, 1940. When the campaign ended the division was placed in reserve where it readied to become part of the planned invasion of Britain, Operation Sea Lion. When that operation was postponed due to the defeat of the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain, and Mussolini’s Italian army in North Africa was routed by the small British Western Desert Force, Rommel was assigned to command the Deutsches Afrika Korps, composed of the 5th Light Division, which would soon be re-designated as the 21st Panzer Division and the 15th Panzer Division.

Over the next two years in North Africa built a reputation as an energetic and often risk taking commander who fought against long odds in a campaign which his own high command gave little support. The isolation of North Africa and its purely military significance in supporting a weak ally made it a different war from the concurrent, racially driven German invasion of the Soviet Union. Fighting the British and later the Americans, Rommel built a reputation of being a noble and chivalrous opponent. Unlike most of Europe and especially in Russian there was little to no influence of the SS in theater and the Jewish population of Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria suffered little under Nazi occupation, which many North African Jews attributed to Rommel.

During the North African campaign Rommel soared to the heights of international fame due to his exploits. The Nazi Propaganda Minister, Josef Goebbels sent one of his aides, Lieutenant Alfred Berndt to serve on Rommel’s Staff.  Berndt sent reports to the Propaganda Ministry which became the staple of Nazi propaganda to build Rommel into a German hero. Despite serving in a remote theater and commanding a relatively small number of troops, Rommel became the poster child for Goebbels’s propaganda machine. He was revered by the German people, and at the same time despised by many of his Army contemporaries and superiors.

His fame also earned the resentment of many fellow officers who because he was not an officer of the General Staff regarded him with jealous envy and distain. Even so, Rommel was a soldier’s soldier. He believed in sharing in the suffering of his troops. He once said: 

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

Rommel basked in the praise of Hitler but as time wore on in Africa he became disillusioned by the course of the war, and while maintaining faith in Hitler, he openly despised many of the Nazi elite and his own High Command. While in Africa, Rommel was promoted to Field Marshal but denied the troops and supplies that he needed to successfully hold out in Africa. He opposed efforts to send more troops to Africa and recommended withdrawing his German and Italian soldiers before the Allies closed the door on withdraw across the Mediterranean.

As his troops were being chewed to pieces at El Alamein he requested permission to withdraw to the west. The request was refused and Hitler issued and order to stand in place and not withdraw. Rommel’s words are revealing for a man who had previously trusted Hitler and taken every opportunity from the dictator to advance his career.

“The order demanded the impossible. Even the most devoted soldier can be killed by a bomb. In spite of our unvarnished situation reports, it was apparently still not realized at the Fuehrer’s H.Q. how matters really stood in Africa.  Arms, petrol, and aircraft could have helped us, but not orders. We were completely stunned, and for the first time during the Africa campaign I did not know what to do. A kind of apathy took hold of us as we issued orders for the existing positions to be held on instructions from highest authority. I forced myself to this action, as I had always demanded unconditional obedience from others and, consequently, wished to apply the principle to myself. Had I known what was to come I should have acted differently, because from that time on, we had continually to circumvent orders from the Fuehrer or Duce in order to save the army from destruction. But this first instance of interference by higher authority in the tactical conduct of the African war came as a considerable shock.”

Like most other officers Rommel had served the Hitler regime as it spread its dark pall over Europe without protest. Yet, unlike so many other officers when he suffered a crisis in conscience about the Nazi leadership and their policies, he refused to obey orders that he knew were both illegal and immoral, and then risked his life by joining the conspiracy to kill Hitler.bundesarchiv_bild_146-1991-031-25a_nordafrika_vor_tobruk_rommel

It was at El Alamein that Rommel discovered the emptiness of Hitler’s promises as the troops of the Afrika Corps found themselves subjected to constant privation from lack of supply, air support and reinforcements. As commander of the Afrika Corps and later the Panzer Armee Afrika he and his troops achieved amazing success against an enemy that was always better supplied, equipped and which always had air and sea superiority. Battling the British as well as the political machinations of Mussolini and Germany’s Italian Allies as well as opponents in the German government such as Hermann Goering, Rommel saw his troops crushed under the press of the British as well as the Americans who landed in French North Africa. Eventually, sick and worn out, Rommel was sent back to Germany to recuperate.

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Rommel had a sense of honor and humanity that many other German generals lacked. He refused to allow anti-Jewish measures in areas occupied by German troops in North Africa, ensuring that the approximately 425,000 Jews living in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco were spared the fate of the Holocaust. He refused to execute Jewish POWs, including members of the Jewish Battalion serving with the British 8th Army. Likewise, Rommel refused to follow the notorious “commando order.” In June of 1994 he protested the massacre of the people of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane by units of the 2nd SS Panzer Division directly to Hitler and asked for the authority to punish those responsible, but was refused.

After his return from Africa, Rommel’s honest and open assessments of the chances of the Germans winning the war made him persona non grata in Berlin and Berchtesgaden. He was posted to France in early 1944 according to some accounts he became a part of the plot to end the war and overthrow Hitler. Rommel’s Chief of Staff at OB West, General Hans Speidel, was a key man in the conspiracy and Rommel had contacts with a number of key conspirators. There are arguments about Rommel’s connections and activities in regard to the anti-Hitler plot among respected historians.

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

If Rommel had joined the plot to topple Hitler, he did not stop working to defend Germany against the coming Allied invasion. He believed that the war was lost if his forces failed to repel the Allies on the beaches of France, and he worked feverishly to bolster the beach fortifications. He recommended that the Panzer Divisions be deployed near the coast where they could immediately counterattack Allied invasion forces while they were still vulnerable. But his advice was not taken. He was given command of the Army Group but was not given control of most of the Panzer Divisions, which Hitler kept under his direct control. Neither did he approve of an assassination attempt but realizing that his front was about to collapse he was in favor of independent peace negotiations with the Allies on the Western Front.

Many commanders in the west, including Waffen SS commanders were in agreement Rommel was severely wounded in an air attack on his vehicle by a just days before the attempt on Hitler’s life. Hitler survived the attempted assassination and exacted a terrible revenge on anyone connected with the plot. Show trials and public hangings of officers who had served valiantly at the front were common. Thousands were killed and thousands more imprisoned. Many of those arrested, imprisoned, or killed, were those who knew Rommel’s views on ending the war.

Various conspirator’s testimony exposed Rommel as part of the plot. Leading Nazis, including Martin Bormann, and Heinrich Himmler urged Hitler to deal with Rommel. Likewise, some in the High Command, including Heinz Guderian turned upon Rommel. After a secret hearing it was recommended by the “Court of Military Honor” that Rommel be expelled from the military and tried by the “People’s Court” of Judge Roland Freisler. During the purge that followed the attempt on Hitler’s life, many noted German military commanders were hauled before this court and humiliated by Freisler before they were sent to their deaths. Freisler, a fanatic Nazi judge was a participant at the infamous Wannsee Conference which planned the details of the Final Solution was killed when his courtroom was bombed in February 1945.

On 27 September, Martin Bormann submitted to Hitler a memorandum which claimed that “the late General Stülpnagel, Colonel von Hofacker, Kluge’s nephew who has been executed, Lieutenant Colonel Rathgens, and several … living defendants have testified that Field Marshal Rommel was perfectly in the picture about the assassination plan and has promised to be at the disposal of the New Government.”

Rommel’s fate was sealed, but because of his fame and popularity in Germany Hitler decided to offer Rommel a choice of being tried by the People’s Court or committing suicide. Goebbels who had spent so much time building up the Rommel legend The latter with an offer to ensure his family’s safety, which he would not guarantee if Rommel choose to defend himself in open court. Hitler dispatched Generals Wilhelm Burgdorf and Ernst Maisel from Berlin to personally deliver the message.

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

Winston Churchill wrote of Rommel:

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

Rommel was just 52 years old when he died. I find in the story of Rommel some commonality in my own life. Before Rommel went to Africa he believed that Germany would win the war, during his command there he discovered that what he believed was lies and that Hitler had little regard for him or his troops.

Rommel is a complex character. His attitudes towards Hitler waxed and waned. He was no Nazi. He conducted his battles in an honorable manner and displayed much chivalry towards his opponents. His views on race were not at all Nazi like. In North Africa he faced down a White South African commander who did not want to be imprisoned with his Black troops. Rommel told the officer: “For me, soldiers are all equal. Those black people wore your same uniform, fought on your side, and so you will be in the same jail.”

But from the beginning he willingly served Hitler’s regime and basked in the fame that he enjoyed due to Goebbels’s propaganda machine. At the same time while he was according to the Chief of the German Navy in the West, Admiral Friedrich Ruge, as well as his Rommel’s letters to his wife, indicated that Rommel’s mood fluctuated wildly regarding Hitler: while he showed disgust towards the atrocities and disappointment towards the overall military and strategic situation, he was overjoyed to welcome a visit or praise from Hitler, only to return to depression the next day when faced with reality.

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

Sadly there are otherwise honorable men and women in the current United States military that blindly support a delusional madman who happens to be the President: a man who promises to order soldiers to commit war crimes, who threatens to jail political opponents, who condemns whole races of people and religions, who incites violence against his opponents, a man who has no respect for the courts, the law, or the Constitution to which they are sworn to defend.

But I think that we also have to remember the men like Rommel who though not a true believer in the Nazi cause and polices, not only willingly served the Reich, but basked in the adulation lavished on him by friends and foes alike.

To me this is not about partisan politics but something that is bigger than politics, bigger than temporary political advantage, bigger than any single political issue, for which in our country, at least for the moment, that there are many ways to express dissent which were not available to most Germans of Rommel’s era. It is about the Constitution, the rule of law, and the foundational principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Personally, as a historian I cannot understand the blind obedience in the face of the evidence; but then I blindly followed President George Bush into the ill-advised and criminal invasion of Iraq. It was in the desert of Iraq’s Al Anbar Province that I had my own revelation that the man I supported had led the country into a war that could not be won. Like Rommel at El Alamein, it opened my eyes to things that I had never seen before.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“Safe?! From What?” A Visit to the Grave of Sophie Scholl

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Our visit to Munich today was relatively quiet. We went to breakfast and then since Judy’s knees were not up to a lot of long walks or standing took our rental car out to see a couple of places that we haven’t been. We went to the grave of the anti-Nazi martyr Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and friend Christoph Probst who were executed in February 1943 for publishing anti-Hitler, Nazi, and war pamphlets. Following that we went to the BMW Museum and BMW World.

I will write about the latter later, but tonight I will write about a visit to the Friedhof at Perlacher Forst in Munich where Sophie Scholl is buried.

The cemetery is adjacent to the Stadelheim Prison where she was held before her trial and executed on February 22nd 1943. I have written about her and the White Rose resistance movement before. Last year I visited the White Rose Museum and study center at the Ludwig Maximillians University of Munich but last year I didn’t get the chance to make a pilgrimage to her gravesite. I made it a priority this year.

We parked on the street outside Stadelheim, which is still an active prison surrounded by tall walls and guard towers. While Judy waited with the car I walked to the cemetery and then to the gravesite which is on the opposite side of the cemetery from the main entrance. It is a very peaceful place, with many trees and the sections cordoned off by carefully trimmed grapevines.

When I reached the gravesite I paused, and remained for about ten minutes contemplating the cost of real resistance to tyranny. She and her companions had no political, military, or economic power. They were students, and a number had served as medics on the Eastern Front before resuming their studies.

Unlike the men who launched Operation Valkyrie 17 months later they had no connections to any kind of power: they were not part of the movement of German conservatives and militarists who initially supported Hitler and then had second thoughts. When Hitler came to power they were children. They resisted because they found what was happening to go beyond any sense of ethics, morality, or in some cases, like Sophie, their Christian faith.

At her trial she told the notorious President of the Nazi People’s Court, Roland Freisler:

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.

While I was their I tried to imagine her courage as she testified to the truth and went to her death. The woman who shared Sophie’s cell wrote of her final words before going to her execution:

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?

Many people today are being faced with the same questions that Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and friends, including Christoph Probst who was executed the same day had to make. Thankfully, for the most part the future imitators of Hitler have not yet seized full power in Europe or the United States, but it wouldn’t take much for that to happen. Too many people, and not just conservatives, would be willing to sacrifice freedom in the name of security if a major war, terrorist attack, or natural disaster that threatened their well being and/or their economic or social status occurred.

In such a situation, how many people would allow their government to oppress and terrorize people that they distrusted due to their race, ethnicity, or religion? I think that the numbers are a lot higher than we would want to admit. The preservation or self and wealth is often more of a motivation than faith, or the rights and liberties of others.

During the Nazi era many non-Nazis supported the Nazi programs because they thought that they benefited them. The same is true in any authoritarian State regardless of the ideology that it subscribes and its people hold dear.

Sophie said:

The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.

So until tomorrow from Munich,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“Do not forget that every people deserves the regime it is willing to endure.” My Favorite Resistors, Part One: the Anti-Nazis

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

They are know and unknown but all resisted tyrants and all have become inspirational figures in my life. They are men and women, and many are soldiers or clergy, while others were civil rights leaders. Most were advocates of non-violence, but some due to the incredibly evil nature of the regime under which they lived and served resorted to violence. But all show me and I hope will show you that the path of resistance is not futile.

The problem is that far too many people become discouraged the longer the struggle lasts and end up accommodating themselves to the evil regimes under which they lived. That will probably be the experience of those who struggle against tyranny around the world today as authoritarianism under many guises becomes more entrenched. It is a world wide phenomena but if the classic understanding of democratic liberalism advocated by so many including the founders of the United States is to survive, authoritarians and their tyrannical worldview must be resisted.

Sophie Scholl, a young student at the University of Munich wrote:

“I’ve been thinking of a story from the Old Testament: Moses stood all day and all night with outstretched arms, praying to God for victory. And whenever he let down his arms, the enemy prevailed over the children of Israel. Are there still people today who never weary of directing all their thinking and all their energy, single-heartedly, to one cause?”

That my friends is important.

Yesterday, July 20th was the 74th anniversary of Operation Valkyrie, the attempt of conservative German military officers, diplomats, and others to kill Hitler and end the tyrannical and genocidal Nazi regime. Among the men who died in that attempt were Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, General Henning von Trescow, General Ludwig Beck, Lieutenant Colonel Mertz von Quirnheim, and General Friedrich Olbricht. Others were implicated and were murdered after kangaroo court proceedings at the hand of the Volksgericht, the “People’s Court” headed by Roland Freisler. Among them was Field Marshal Erich von Witzleben. While Freisler hounded and tried to humiliate him Witzleben remained calm and announced to the court:

“You may hand us over to the executioner, but in three months’ time, the disgusted and harried people will bring you to book and drag you alive through the dirt in the streets!”

 

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General Henning von Tresckow

“We have to show the world that not all of us are like him. Otherwise, this will always be Hitler’s Germany.” When the attempt failed von Trescow was serving on the Russian front far away from Berlin. To avoid arrest and the possibility that under torture he could implicate others or cause harm to his wife and children von Trescow killed himself. Another participant wrote that before his death von Trescow said:

“The whole world will vilify us now, but I am still totally convinced that we did the right thing. Hitler is the archenemy not only of Germany but of the world. When, in few hours’ time, I go before God to account for what I have done and left undone, I know I will be able to justify what I did in the struggle against Hitler. God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if only ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope for our sake God will not destroy Germany. No one among us can complain about dying, for whoever joined our ranks put on the shirt of Nessus. A man’s moral worth is established only at the point where he is ready to give his life in defense of his convictions.”

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General Ludwig Beck

Beck, who had resigned his post as commander of the German Army in protest of the planned invasion of Czechoslovakia wrote something that has become a key part of my military and personal 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.” 

Tresckow, a committed Christian also noted of Hitler’s supposedly Christian supporters: “I cannot understand how people can still call themselves Christians and not be furious adversaries of Hitler’s regime.” 

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Admiral Wilhelm Canaris 

There were other Christian resisters of the Hitler regime. Hans Oster was the son of a pastor and one of the senior officers in the Abwehr, the German military intelligence. His boss, Admiral Wihelm Canaris was also a resister. Both would be executed on the personal order of Hitler in April 1945 along with Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, all had been arrested for their involvement in anti-Hitler activities. For his part Canaris would note something that military, intelligence, or police officials who might be tempted to excuse the actions of modern day tyrants or would be authoritarians:

“One day the world will hold the Wehrmacht responsible for these methods since these things are taking place under its nose.”

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer 

Pastor Bonhoeffer who died with Oster and Canaris at Flossenburg wrote:

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”

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Hermann Maas 

Hermann Maas, another Lutheran pastor made his mark by speaking out in defense of Jews and Socialists. He angered the German political right including the Nazis by doing so. He aided Jews and other non-Aryans to escape Germany, and cared for the elderly Jews who could not. He was removed from his pastorate and imprisoned. He survived the war and would be the first German recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Maas discussed the responsibility of all Germans for the crimes of Hitler and the Nazis, something that Christians and others in nations like the United States, Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America that are threatened by authoritarian leaders and racist regimes:

“Every German bears responsibility for Germany no matter who he is or where he stands, in the homeland or abroad, in public and at home. No one can absolve him of this responsibility. He can transfer it to no one.” 

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Sophie Scholl

But these men were not the only opponents of the Nazi regime. A young woman, a student at the University of Munich named Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans were at the center of an anti-Nazi resistance called the White Rose. They published and distributed a number of anti-Nazi leaflets and were caught doing so in early 1943.

One of those pamphlets noted:

“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. It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes – crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure – reach the light of day?

If the German people are already so corrupted and spiritually crushed that they do not raise a hand, frivolously trusting in a questionable faith in lawful order in history; if they surrender man’s highest principle, that which raises him above all other God’s creatures, his free will; if they abandon the will to take decisive action and turn the wheel of history and thus subject it to their own rational decision; if they are so devoid of all individuality, have already gone so far along the road toward turning into a spiritless and cowardly mass – then, yes, they deserve their downfall.

Goethe speaks of the Germans as a tragic people, like the Jews and the Greeks, but today it would appear rather that they are a spineless, will-less herd of hangers-on, who now – the marrow sucked out of their bones, robbed of their center of stability – are waiting to be hounded to their destruction. So it seems – but it is not so. Rather, by means of a gradual, treacherous, systematic abuse, the system has put every man into a spiritual prison. Only now, finding himself lying in fetters, has he become aware of his fate.

Only a few recognized the threat of ruin, and the reward for their heroic warning was death. We will have more to say about the fate of these persons. If everyone waits until the other man makes a start, the messengers of avenging Nemesis will come steadily closer; then even the last victim will have been cast senselessly into the maw of the insatiable demon.

Therefore every individual, conscious of his responsibility as a member of Christian and Western civilization, must defend himself against the scourges of mankind, against fascism and any similar system of totalitarianism. 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.”

She wrote:

“It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.”

I think of all of these people that I admire young Sophie Scholl the most. She had no power. She was not an officer, a government official, a businessman, or a pastor. She was simply a young woman who was informed by her faith and her concern for basic human morality and ethics.

While the Nazi State was consumed by the flames of Hitler’s Götterdämmerung, the lives and message of those few who resisted still redounds to us today. And yes, in comparison to the majority of Germans  of the Hitler era, they were a tiny minority, Of over 2000 German General and Flag officers a mere 22 were involved in anti-Nazi activities and the same is true for most professions in the Third Reich.

Milton Mayer wrote the words of a German University Professor and colleague after the war was over. The professor was reflecting on how people ended up going along with the Nazi regime. Mayer wrote his friends words:

“And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jewish swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in—your nation, your people—is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God. The system itself could not have intended this in the beginning, but in order to sustain itself it was compelled to go all the way.

“You have gone almost all the way yourself. Life is a continuing process, a flow, not a succession of acts and events at all. It has flowed to a new level, carrying you with it, without any effort on your part. On this new level you live, you have been living more comfortably every day, with new morals, new principles. You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things that your father, even in Germany, could not have imagined.

“Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.

“What then? You must then shoot yourself. A few did. Or ‘adjust’ your principles. Many tried, and some, I suppose, succeeded; not I, however. Or learn to live the rest of your life with your shame. This last is the nearest there is, under the circumstances, to heroism: shame. Many Germans became this poor kind of hero, many more, I think, than the world knows or cares to know.”

I think that I shall close with that tonight.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Cautionary Tale of Soldierly Obedience: The Fate of the Desert Fox

rommel

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

He was then given command of the troops sent to bail out Mussolini’s failed African adventure. His small force and always ill-supplied force, which became known as the Afrika Korps scored impressive victories against British forces. In Africa, Rommel gained fame and earned rapid promotion. Though Africa was a sideshow in the Nazi war effort, Rommel became a poster-child for Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine. His fame also earned the resentment of many fellow officers who because he was not an officer of the General Staff regarded him with jealous envy and distain. Even so, Rommel was a soldier’s soldier. He believed in sharing in the suffering of his troops. He once said: “Be an example to your men in your duty and in private life. Never spare yourself, and let the troops see that you don’t in your endurance of fatigue and privation. Always be tactful and well-mannered, and teach your subordinates to be the same. Avoid excessive sharpness or harshness of voice, which usually indicates the man who has shortcomings of his own to hide.”

bundesarchiv_bild_146-1991-031-25a_nordafrika_vor_tobruk_rommel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

492px-Erwin_rommel_death

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

Winston Churchill wrote of Rommel:

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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