When I was in Germany all those years ago, I was interested in talking to Germans about the war. I met a middle-aged couple on the train who admitted that until Stalingrad, they thought Hitler was great. And, knowing the condition Germany was in after the first World War, I could understand them if not agree with them. Even in the late 30s after Krystallnacht, those Germans who could not see the evil coming chose to ignore it.
Until with the centenary of the end of WW1 and my reading up on it, I was not aware of the suffering of the German civilians during that time. While the war’s destruction never reached German cities, Germany was nevertheless “hollowed out” with an estimated 500,000-700,000 German civilians dying of starvation. The British blockade was pretty successful.
Add to that the virtual destruction of a generation of British, French and German young men, and so much of French cities and countryside reduced to looking like the moonscape, and I can understand the Versailles Treaty, and the allies’ desire for retribution.
Which, with a weak Weimar Republic, set the stage for Hitler’s rise to power.
In addition to that couple, I met a woman who, during a fairly long conversation when asked where she was during the War, finally said through tears that “I buried my baby in a concentration camp”.
The German I knew the best ran the photo lab at my small base in Neubruecke. The lab was for the off-duty use of personnel and for the time, a virtual paradise for photographers. There were 4 or 5 Leitz enlargers to make prints (remember film?) and you could buy the developing chemicals and paper for maybe a third of retail. I spent a lot of time there.
You can see some of the work I did in that lab here.
Willi was an interesting fellow. Drafted into the Wehrmacht he told me of the “heady days” of marching into Paris.
Then he was sent to Narvik Norway along the west coast.
Finally, he was sent to the Eastern Front. He never did say where on the Eastern Front he served. He became a POW, and was released over 10 years later in 1955. The only way he survived, he said, was that he was a diesel mechanic and the Russians found a use for him. The odds of surviving the Gulag for 10 years were heavily against him.
In the time I knew him, I never had the feeling that he was ever a Nazi.
I just saw an interesting program on Netflix, called The Accountant of Auschwitz.
Oskar Gröning was a low-ranking SS enlisted man, who “counted and sorted the money taken from prisoners, and he was in charge of the personal property of arriving prisoners. On a few occasions he witnessed the procedures of mass killing in the camp. ”
With his background, he probably would have died in obscurity had he not been interviewed years after the war on some television networks. Since he never participated in the killing of prisoners at Auschwitz, he wasn’t a high profile Nazi.
He was unapologetic at 93 years old about his time at Auschwitz. It was as if time had not intervened, and he was interviewed in 1945.
Particularly chilling for me was his answer to the question if he felt guilty over the killing of small children. He said that the children were innocent, but “their blood was not.”
He was put on trial a few years ago when he was 93 years old.
In September 2014, Gröning was charged by German prosecutors as an accessory to murder, in 300,000 cases, for his role at the Auschwitz concentration camp. His trial began in April 2015, after the court had ruled that, at the age of 93, he was still fit to stand trial. The trial was held in Lüneburg, Germany. On 15 July 2015, he was found guilty of facilitating mass murder and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. Following a number of unsuccessful appeals against the prison sentence, Gröning died on 9 March 2018 while hospitalized before he was set to begin his sentence.
The trial was a precedent in the prosecution of former Nazis in that he was not accused in the actual killing but simply being there as an accessory.
I wrote some time ago of a colorful neighbor I had. Speed was a veteran of Tarawa and Saipan, and I remembered something he said about the Japanese. That they were never really held to account for war atrocities as the Germans were.
But according to this program, the Nazis who were put on trial was just a small sliver of those who could have been tried. The numbers presented were staggering.
And through the 1960s, many German courts refused to take these cases because many of the judges were former Nazis.
While Gröning felt no remorse over his part, he did in the remainder of his life have some redemption: He told all of the Holocaust deniers that he was there.
If I have one criticism of the program, they dealt too much with the background and very little on Gröning’s trial.
But I think it is worth seeing.