Saturday, May 16, 2009

What did they know?

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.


Anonymous said...

Certainly not every German citizen knew the scale of the atrocities in the death camps. These camps were remote and isolated. However, it is inconceivable that any German citizen or soldier could plead ignorance of the existence of atrocites against jews and other "undesirables". They just didn't care about them.

Throughout German society, it was well known that Jews were second class citizens. They weren't much different than the black Americans of the same time but the Americans were treated better. When the Nazi's came for the Jews, it was widely accepted. Everyone knew the Jews were treated poorly but no one cared in general. Certainly there were sypathizers.

The poor treatment? Jews were sometimes murdered in the streets by Nazi soldiers. They were evicted from the homes they owned. They were robbed of their wealth and possessions. This was widespread.

Does it really matter if they knew of the death camps? Similar atrocities on a lesser scale occurred daily.

I find it interesting that you question whether it matters to hunt them down even today. Of course it does. Would you stop hunting a Klan member who lynched a black man in the 1950's? As americans, we tend to remove ourselves from the atrocities of Europe. Ask an older European if these criminals should be allowed to live the rest of their lives free.

Lisbeth Eng said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Of course justice still matters, as most Germans today would agree. Germany is currently prosecuting John Demjanjuk, recently deported from the U.S. to face trial in Munich for his alleged participation in the murder of tens of thousands of Jews at the Sobibor death camp. Those responsible for crimes should be brought to justice, no matter how many decades have passed. The main issue I raise, however, is to consider the German soldier as an individual and to weigh his personal culpability in light of his own actions, and in the context of the situation in which he found himself. I suggest that we avoid painting people with too broad of a brush. Look at the individual and listen to his story. I encourage you to read one of the books I've cited in my post. A Mind in Prison by Bruno Manz may be a good one to start with, since Manz explores many of the moral issues you raise.


Concentration camps were not a secret. I do not believe that most German’s didn’t know about them.

To says that ALL German’s are responsible and at fault is ridiculous, and like with all else that is not palatable to us, people tend to focus on the negative because it has been more glaring.

It was hard for the populace who was not involved to understand how six million people allowed themselves to be killed in the manner that they did—to walk into ovens, to go into showers where poisonous gas was released and host of other atrocities.
It’s because they were lied to, and even though some knew what would happen, perhaps it was better dying than to live under such a horrific regime.

One of the best movies dipcitng how the war impacted a family where one brother joined the Nazi’s and another didn’t was
The Mortal Storm. It is a 1940 film that was one of the most direct anti-Nazi Hollywood films released before the American entry into the Second World War. It stars James Stewart as a German who refuses to join the rest of his small Bavarian town in supporting Nazism. He falls in love with "non-Aryan" Freya Roth (Margaret Sullavan), the daughter of a Junker mother and a "non-Aryan" father.
Freya and her father are implied to be Jews but the word "Jew" is never used, and they are only identified as "non-Aryans"; in addition, Freya's half brothers are all members of the Nazi Party. Though it is understood that the film is set in Germany, the name of the country is rarely mentioned except at the very beginning in a short text of introduction. MGM purposely did not mention the name of the country or the religion of Freya's family because of the large German market for its films, but it was to no avail—the movie infuriated the Nazi government and it led to all MGM films being banned in Germany.

Fear is a big deterrent when bullies expend it with the force of an army behind it. If German’s were sympathetic, they ran the risk of exposure and or death of themselves and their families. So to me the question is not so much of what did they know and when did they know it, but what would you have done?

One thing I will say, is that I applaud Lisbeth for daring to tackle this subject, even though she may be castigated just because she chooses to explore another side of the unknown German soldier.

Lisbeth Eng said...

Thanks, Patt, for your insightful comments. Yes, I agree that a very important question is, "What would you have done?" I don't know how many of us can honestly answer that. Few Germans openly resisted the regime, some for fear of retribution, some because of indifference and some because they sympathized with Nazi policies. But even if they didn't actively participate in Nazi crimes, the guilt of not doing enough to stop them still weighs on the German conscience.
That film sounds fascinating. I will definitely look it up!

Maria Ferrer said...

There was enough guilt during WWII to go around. The Germans will always be tarnished by the Holocaust. And while they were the ones who performed the actual atrocities, there were many other nations that looked the other way -- France, Switzerland, England, the US to name a few. Yes, many did look the other way, and hesitated to take action in a war that wasn't touching them personally, that wasn't on their soil. It wasn't until the Germans moved into France, into England that those countries sort of "woke up." And it wasn't until Japan bombed Pearl Harbor that the US actually got off its butt and took a stand.
Again, there is plenty of guilt to go around. We each have a voice. We each have conscience. And when we don't exercise it as a person, as a society, as a nation, then we are ALL guilty.

Lisbeth Eng said...

Very true, Maria. And Germans weren't the only active participants. They found willing partners and collaborators in the countries they occupied. Yet in each of those countries there were partisans too, who actively resisted and fought the Nazis. Heroes and villains, as well as those who "looked the other way", could be found in every corner of Europe and the rest of the world.

Lise said...

Wonderful, insightful, yet sobering post, Lis, and ditto for the folks who have commented. This is, sadly, a divisive topic and one with such inherent emotions that it can not always be discussed calmly. However, I do hope that people continue to ponder this episode - the hows and the whys - from all sides. Only by examining can we hope to understand, and hopefully, prevent the horror of the Holocaust from ever happening again. Sadly, of course, though the Nazi regime was so clinical and methodical in their operation (which ultimately led to the downfall of huge numbers of Nazis because their own records condemned them, they are not the only group to attempt to wipe out an entire other group. Everyone from the Russians and the pogroms that were carried out for decades, if not centuries, against their Jewish population; the Turks and the slaughter of Armenians; the Killing Fields of Indonesia; far too many massacres in Africa and South America, Bosnia, Iraq. Humankind has, and no doubt always will, be preyed upon by the evil that has engendered acts such as the Holocaust. Our most potent weapon is knowledge.

Lisbeth Eng said...

Thanks, Lise. Your comments are quite sobering, too, in reminding us how pervasive violence and hatred have been throughout human history. I remain hopeful, however, that mankind can progress towards more enlightened, peaceful resolutions of conflict. We can start by converting one heart and one mind at a time. Examination of history, with an open mind, is a step in the right direction. As Santayana famously said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Hans said...

Thanks for an interesting blog. The question if and how much the average German did know about the holocaust has also been puzzling me. Year ago I have been talking to older Germans who had experience from the WWII. Some of them had also been active in the army.
My conclusion (not scientific) is humans have a kind of selective way what we hear and believe. The most of them had similar information, some of understood what was going on, others couldn't simply draw the correct conclusions.

Actually, it was a similar situation 1989 when the wall came down. Some persons "couldn't believe" how bad the situation had been in former East Germany. Even though the had the same information as many of us had.
I hope my English is understandable (ESL)

Lisbeth Eng said...

Thank you, Hans. I find your observations informative and thoughtful. You draw an interesting comparison with the former DDR. I suspect from your name and comments that you are German and I appreciate your insight from that perspective. Your English is completely understandable and a hundred times better than my German! I won't even attempt any here except to say, "Vielen Dank!"

Hans said...

Lisbeth, I'm very interesting in German history during the WWII and +/- 30 years. But no, even though my name is German, I'm of swedish nationality :-)
I learned german as I have spent some years of working and living in both DDR and West Germany. During my time in Germany I spent a lot of time learning the WWII from their view and of cause visiting many concentration camps and other memory places of the war.
Keep on writing, I will follow your blog

Lisbeth Eng said...

I'm so glad you like my blog, Hans. Just out of curiousity, how did you find it? As you can see, I don't post frequently, only about once a month. Thanks for your interest and I look forward to reading your comments on future posts!

Eldorado said...

Hi again, Lisbeth
A friend of mine told me about the book from Bruno Manz. I googled his name to find out more about him and your blog showed up on page four. I couldn't resist a title like "World war II…with a German accent" :-)
The quality and content of your posts are high, better a few good posts per month than 30 with nonsense!

The blog you find on the link is unfortunately in swedish, but you should be able to find my email there. There is a post about the movie Eine Frau in Berlin (A woman in Berlin, in english), have you seen it?


Rosa Sala Rose said...

You have written in a very sensitive way about a very difficult issue. Great post.
I did not know about two of the books you mention, but I wrote myself once about Bruno Manz. I found his testimony of enormous value:
Being half German myself, I wonderer often about "what did they know". It is almost impossible to answer objectively to this question. But once I was in charge of the Spanish edition of Sophie Scholls flyers. In one of them, released in June 1942 and written by her brother Hans and another member of "The white Rose", you can read that "since the conquest of Poland, 300.000 Jews have been brutally killed in Germany". Of course at that time the amount of victims was already much higher. But I always wondered: how could a bunch of young medicine students from Munich, not connected to any Nazi authority, know about the brutal killing of Jews? If they managed to know about this at such an early date, why not all other Germans? Troubling question...
Thank you for your post, I really enjoyed it. I will keep following you.

Lisbeth Eng said...

Thank you so much for your comments. You raise very interesting and troubling points, and I'm fascinated by your details about the Scholls story. I am also half German. (My father's family came to the US from Germany in the mid 1800's. My father himself served in the US Army during WWII in the Pacific Theater.)
It is very nice to hear from you. If you want to keep in touch you can email me at Also, please visit my website at There is info about my WWII novel, In the Arms of the Enemy. It takes place in Italy in 1944 and involves a romance between a German officer and a woman who works for the Italian Resistance.
Best regards,