Public outrage erupted in 1985 when then US President Ronald Reagan participated in a memorial service at a German military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany. Among the dead German soldiers of the Second World War were graves of members of the Waffen-SS. In 1946, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg had condemned the SS, in its entirety, as a criminal organization. How could an American president honor such men?
Johann Voss volunteered for the Waffen-SS (literally “Armed SS,” which included volunteers from many nations) at the age of seventeen. It was his strong conviction that Europe was under the threat of Bolshevik invasion, and it was his obligation to protect both his native Germany and traditional Western culture as a whole from the Red Peril. Voss was not particularly enamored of Nazi ideology, nor an anti-Semite; his parents deplored the racist dogma of Hitler’s regime.
Young Johann was an idealist and believed in service, pride and duty. To him the SS motto “Meine Ehre heißt Treue” (My honor is loyalty) was a solemn vow. He fought as a machine gunner in fierce battles against Soviet and later American troops. He witnessed many of his comrades, men whom he believed had served with dignity and courage, lay down their lives for their country and for what they saw as the struggle against the godless menace of Communism.
Voss began his chronicle, Black Edelweiss—A Memoir of Combat and Conscience by a Soldier of the Waffen-SS, as a prisoner-of-war, and never intended to publish it. When confronted after the war with the hideous truth of Nazi terror and the magnitude of the Holocaust he was stunned and horrified. But he wanted to tell the story of principled men who fought alongside him as combat soldiers, men who had nothing to do with the atrocities then coming to light. Decades later, it was the widespread criticism of President Reagan’s Bitburg visit that spurred this former SS soldier to publically defend his own honor, and that of his comrades-in-arms.
“For there is nothing monstrous in my memories of our unit’s past, no acts of crime or shameful deeds, or even knowledge of the wicked deeds. What I have seen is the commitment of youth who, in good faith, believed that Bolshevism was their common foe; a cause that in their eyes was noble, even greater than mere patriotism because it united young patriots from many countries of Europe. Their selflessness knew no bounds, not even the boundary of death, as if the fate of Europe was depending on them, on the individual volunteers as well as on their combat groups and on the unit as a whole.” *
Voss does not excuse the contemptibly evil, nearly unfathomable acts of the Nazi regime, nor the men who carried out the murderous scheme. He defends the combat troops of his regiment, men who wore the same uniform as SS members who committed atrocities. But soldiers like Voss, along with many members of other combat units, were guilty of no crimes against humanity. They fought on the battlefield with their honor intact, though later condemned for the SS runes they wore. It is Johann Voss’s plea that he and soldiers like him be judged for their individual acts and not pronounced as villains en masse. The story of Black Edelweiss rings true; this soldier’s voice should be heard, as his fallen comrades cannot speak for themselves.
“Yet there can be no release from our loyalty to our dead, from our duty to stand up for them and to ensure that their remembrance and their honor will remain untarnished. They, like all the others fallen in the war or murdered through racial fanaticism, must be remembered as a solemn warning never to let it happen again.”**
*(Black Edelweiss, page 7)
**(Black Edelweiss, page 203)
Voss, Johann. Black Edelweiss—A Memoir of Combat and Conscience by a Soldier of the Waffen-SS. Bedford, PA: The Aberjona Press, 2002.