When I was barely a teenager, I bought a WWII German helmet at a flea market. I paid $10 for it and it was in very good condition. It still had the leather liner and the soldier’s name inscribed on it. The man who sold it to me told me he had gotten it from the American veteran who had personally killed its original owner. Unfortunately, the helmet got lost over time. In Israel, we used it as a charity box. The tragedy of WWII was so immense, and on so many levels, that it has always held a fascination for me.
I just finished reading “Adolf Hitler” by John Toland. I found it riveting and I could hardly put it down, though I had to skip over some parts that dealt with the slaughter of Jews. The book is about 900 pages long so there will be no comprehensive review here. But there are a few points I wanted to make regarding it.
Firstly I strongly recommend that Irish Savant read it, for he expressed some confusion recently in one of his posts. I’ll admit to being confused myself. As a matter of fact, many Germans – and even Nazis – were confused during WWII. It should be no surprise, to anybody familiar with human nature, that not all Nazis were in favor of “The Final Solution”, that many within the National Socialist Party simply wanted to relocate the Jews, that even many of those who did want to physically eliminate the Jews were determined to do so as painlessly as possible. There were explicit orders to avoid unnecessary suffering. As can be imagined, there were many legal grey areas. Old laws against murder were still in place and Hitler’s ascent to absolute dictator was a gradual one. By the time he had achieved complete power, more and more people within his own party (and especially generals) recognized that he was growing increasingly mad.
What kind of individual would seek out a position in which he presides over the snuffing out of human life? Certainly not the most sensitive, moral or upstanding of citizens. It should therefore come as no surprise that gangs of sadistic sociopaths flocked to concentration camps. Even if their job was not to murder as many people as possible, they ruled over masses of powerless subjects and there was very little to stop them from doing as they pleased.
One person who stood in their way was S.S. judge Georg Morgen. Using the German judicial system, he was able to prosecute several war criminals during the war. If we bear in mind that, even during the height of Nazi power, not all of Germany was a black hole of evil, that not all Germans were complicit in murder – that not even all Nazis were blood-thirsty demons – then we should not be so surprised by phenomena such as Morgen.
The War is, in some respects, not over yet. Bodies, from the last few months of that horrific conflict, are still being dug up and identified. Funerals for the dead are still being held. One of the many tragedies of that era is the lot of the tens of thousands of soldiers, on all sides, who were fully aware that the outcome of the war was already determined. Those thousands of German soldiers, who died in the outskirts of Berlin in 1945, knew they were dying for a lost cause. The Americans, and British, who died during the Battle of the Bulge, knew that they were dying for a war that was already won. Many of the Soviet soldiers must have realized they were dying to protect a regime that was no better than that of the Nazis – and that they, too, were dying in a war whose outcome was already determined.
The soldiers who lost their lives, whether German, Russian, American, English or French, all ended up on the same side in the end. Most of those soldiers had no choice but to fight. Refusal was not much of an option. To quote Germany’s corpse hunter, Erwin Kowalke:
When it comes to reburial, he believes even the smallest details are of paramount importance. “If I overlook something,” he stresses, “no one else can make up for that. It’s gone forever.” And it doesn’t matter to him if the person who he recovers is German or Russian, a member of the SS or the Red Army. “After death, we are all the same,” Kowalke says. “I might not know the poor guy. But God knows and loves them all.”