When did they know it? Those are the questions so often asked of Germans who lived through Hitler’s era. Men who served in the armed forces of the Third Reich are subject to the suspicions and denunciation of the world, as well as of their own children and grandchildren. Not even mothers and grandmothers are exempt; women contributed to the war effort, some serving as concentration camp guards, and many more supported their Führer, at least in principle. Twenty-first century Germans still bear the stigma of the crimes of their forebears, and Nazi guilt is deeply embedded in the conscience of today’s Germany.
During the first decades following the war, world condemnation focused on the SS, especially the Allgemeine-SS, and the Gestapo. The Waffen-SS fought on the front alongside the regular Army. Though still labeled a criminal organization by the victorious Allies, their guilt was considered less reprehensible than that of their Allgemeine brethren who worked in the death camps.
More recent research has unearthed atrocities committed by members of the regular Army, the foot soldiers of the Wehrmacht. Without question, many participated in death squads and horrendous treatment of Jews, Russians, Poles and Slavs in the east. But most were merely fighting for their country and struggling to survive the mortar, artillery and aerial bombardment of the enemy. Some fought willingly for the Reich but most were drafted. Those who resisted military service were imprisoned or executed; Nazi Germany did not recognize conscientious objection.
I've read numerous autobiographies and memoirs of the men of the Wehrmacht, seeking out their humanity and assessing the responsibility of the average German soldier for the crimes of the Reich. Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier is the poignant, beautifully written memoir of a common Landser. I challenge any German-hater to read this book and not feel sympathy for a young man experiencing the horrors of battle. I was profoundly moved by his story, but disappointed that the author does not address the guilt of his fellow soldiers. Though the accuracy of the book has been called into question by some historians, I am satisfied that Sajer himself was not guilty of any atrocities.
Siegfried Knappe, who rose to the rank of major in the German Army, professes to know nothing of the death camps until after the war. His autobiography, Soldat: Reflections of a German Soldier, 1936-1949, describes harrowing experiences on all battle fronts, ending with his surrender in decimated Berlin at the very end of the conflict. Upon beginning five years of Soviet captivity, he is challenged, “What have you got to say about Auschwitz?” and is mystified. Though a high-ranking officer on the General Staff, even meeting the Führer in his infamous bunker, he learns nothing of the Holocaust until years later.
Other autobiographies do address Nazi atrocities, some revealing the conflicted souls of the authors. In A Mind in Prison: The Memoir of a Son and Soldier of the Third Reich, former Wehrmacht corporal Bruno Manz reveals the troubled conscience of a man who esteemed the Führer as a Hitler Youth, and later fights for the German Army. When a comrade tells him of the atrocities, he doesn’t want to believe him. Manz questions his mission as a German soldier, imagining the consequences of acknowledging his country’s guilt. He envisions the firing squad he would face if he acts in accordance with his conscience and lays down his arms. He does not choose that path but returns to the battlefield instead, preferring to confront the enemy rather than himself. Though his military record is beyond reproach, the guilt of “knowing” but not acting haunts him for decades after the war.
What did they know? When did they know it? I am convinced that there were soldiers of the Third Reich too occupied dodging American, British and Soviet bullets, too busy freezing and starving in foxholes, to participate in or even know of the worst atrocities of their countrymen. German shame is also mitigated by the recognition of courageous, honorable Germans who fought against the Nazis. (See my two previous posts for their stories.) Among ordinary Germans, who knew and who didn’t? What percentage of the armed forces, or even the general population, comprised those two groups? How much can we credit accounts of Wehrmacht veterans? Can we believe their claims of ignorance? Historians still debate these questions. Does it even matter now, two generations after the war? Those alive today old enough to be culpable of Nazi crimes represent a tiny fraction of German citizens. But twelve years of Nazi horror still color our perception of what it means to be German.