Thursday, March 12, 2009

Michael K.

The verdict was guilty, the sentence death.  Months ago, when Michael had heard these words from the military tribunal, he was struck by the tragic absurdity of it all.  He was shattered, of course, but not particularly surprised.  Now, in the stillness of his cell, he thought more of the past than of the future – a future that would end abruptly tomorrow morning with six bullets through his heart.

It was two years ago when he first endured the frigid wretchedness of the eastern front – the mud, ankle deep from the ceaseless trudging of a million boots, cold sweat that froze and stung his skin, the constant rumble of artillery, the ghastly food, the lice.  He’d made captain by the age of twenty-four, merited an Iron Cross Second Class for heroism in battle, and received the gold wound badge with seven trips to field hospitals.  He’d risked his life for his country and for his men countless times, yet had been condemned for mere words.  But four years of service and sacrifice couldn’t mitigate the unforgiving punishment worthy of a traitor…

Michael Kitzelmann died on June 12, 1942 in front of a firing squad, sentenced for “undermining the German Army”.  He’d fought dutifully for his country during the Polish and French campaigns, earned a commission, and served as a company commander on the eastern front. 

Michael K. is a fictional character, inspired by the real-life German officer who lost his life—not in battle—but at the hands of his own Army.  I’ve invented a detail or two that may deviate from historical fact, but hope to have conveyed the essence of Michael Kitzelmann’s story.

The specifics of his court-martial are not known, and even if transcripts exist, I would have a difficult time deciphering them with my poor grasp of the German language.  (I doubt they would have ever been translated into English.)  Thankfully, what survives is his eloquent and heart-rending diary, written in a military prison as he awaited execution.  Though I quote only a small portion, his character and anguish come through in a few lines:

“Now I know the full fury of these Military Laws.  Overnight I was branded as a criminal just for making a few derogatory remarks about the government.  And for that apparently I must lose my life, my honor, my friends and my place in human society…  Haven’t I served my country honorably for four years?  I was at the front for two years, took part in three campaigns and proved my loyalty often enough.  Is this the thanks I get from my country?”

A short but poignant biography of Michael Kitzelmann can be found in Conscience in Revolt: Sixty-Four Stories of Resistance in Germany, 1933-45.  It was compiled by Annedore Leber, widow of dissenting German politician Julius Leber, executed by the Third Reich in 1945 for defying the Nazis.  Published in English in 1994 by Westview Press as part of their series Der Widerstand (the Resistance), it’s well worth reading. 

Accounts of French, Italian and Jewish resistance to the Nazis are familiar to American consumers of popular media.  But stories of Germans who refused to follow Hitler’s sway, who risked and usually forfeited their lives by opposing the Third Reich, have mostly escaped notice.  Michael Kitzelmann’s merits our attention.