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.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating! Thanks, this definitly sounds like something I want to read!


Lisbeth Eng said...

Thanks, Mari

Lise said...

Unfortunately, another example of the "good German" soldier, or citizen, who was decimated by the behemoth that was the Nazi regime. The general knowledge of the Nazis exterminating the Jewish population is sorely lacking because in addition to the gypsies, Catholics, those deemed mentally defective - were the citizens who did or said anything the Nazis didn't like. The assorted deaths based simply for speaking out or misspeaking should be tallied in with all the others. A single, poingnat reminder that Hitler and his collaborators have a wealth to be held responsible for. A price that can never be exacted, sadly.

Maria F. said...

Heroes come in all size and shapes and nationalities. Thankfully Michael K. has not been forgotten. Thank you for bringing him back to life. ---Maria


When I was a girl, history teachers did not make history palatable, let alone interesting. It wasn’t until I was older
and began to read books and see moves like (The Young Lions, gun of Navarone etc), that I realized what my mother always tried to teach and that’s you should NEVER paint everyone with the same broad brush. Unless a person is a dedicated historian like yourself they might not even be interested in a MICHAEL K, however I must admit that by just reading your little snippet makes me want to know more.
You these are the people who would fade into obscurity who we would probably never know unless someone like you brings him to the forefront. Sell this book and I’ll buy it because I am hooked.

Lisbeth Eng said...

Thanks, Patt! (That is you, Patt, isn't it?)