Greece is the word

Hans, a young Gebirgsjäger, stands in front of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, after the German capture of the city on 27 April, 1941. He serves in the 6. Gebirgs-Division, one of the elite mountain ranger divisions that saw action on most fronts. It was established in June 1940, spent its first time on occupation duty in France. It was relocated to Poland and then got its baptism of fire in “Operation Marita”, which was the code name for the invasion of Greece. In September that year it was deployed to Finnish Lapland, where it remained until the Germans were forced out from Finland after the armistice between Finland and the USSR in September 1944. It surrendered to British forces in Norway in May 1945.

About twelve years later, my father visited Athens as a young sailor, and went sightseeing. He had a look at the Acropolis; he took a photo that still hangs in my childhood home. The Third Reich had been gone for almost as many years as it had existed. Athens and the Acropolis still stood, while Berlin slowly rose from the ashes. In the annals of history, both Athens and the Third Reich will stand out, but for different reasons.

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Welcome to the new masters

A bazaar in a Croatian city, 1941. A German soldier (center left) strolls down the street, his arm in a sling, perhaps the result of a wound sustained during the invasion. The Nazi German flag flies next to that of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, as if the locals want to ingratiate themselves with the invaders.

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was a patchwork of ethnic groups created from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the tensions that sparked the First World War not really gone. Also, Italy, ruled by the fascist Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, had geopolitical goals in the Balkans, clashing with those of Great Britain. Italy invaded Greece in 1940, starting a six-month battle that ended when the Germans joined in April, 1941. The Yugoslav government signed a pact with the Axis powers, as they feared they would be invaded if they tried to stay neutral. After a military coup in March 1941, which was supported by the British, Germany and Italy invaded Yugoslavia on 6 April 1941. The campaign was short and ended with the Yugoslav army’s surrender on 18 April.

What followed was four years of bitter civil war, where the divided Yugoslav territories saw fascist and communist forces clash in a dirty conflict that killed hundreds of thousands civilians, which in turn caused long-lived resentment that erupted again in 1991, effectively ending the nation known as Yugoslavia.

There’s a persistent myth that the invasion of Yugoslavia threw the German plans for the launching of Operation Barbarossa on 15 May 1941, and that the delay resulted in the German failure to capture Moscow before the onset of winter. Rains in the late spring of 1941 raised the water levels in the Soviet rivers, and Finland and Romania, which hadn’t been involved in the planning, needed time to prepare. Most historians think that the campaign in Yugoslavia didn’t affect the outcome of Operation Barbarossa.

Stolz des Herrenvolks?

The image of the German soldier as some sort of superhuman has been perpetuated through war movies, photos in books and articles (often featuring pics taken by Wehrmacht propaganda units), as the tough opposition in computer games, and – I think – a need to paint the enemy larger than life in order to make the victory over him so much more impressive.

Here we have a study in contrasts. To the left, a blond Germanic warrior, the typical  jack-booted soldier, probably on occupation duty somewhere in France in 1940-41. Just add the iconic helmet, and you would have a nice propaganda picture. I’m pretty sure he was popular with the girls, too. Then we have the rather lumpy-looking Unteroffizier August of the Luftwaffe in Greece, 29 October, 1943… The guy looks like a regular human being (with big feet, though), and if he was ever to star in a movie or TV show, it would be as the bumbling sergeant in some POW camp comedy.

We know absolutely nothing about who August was as a person. A dyed-in-the-wool Nazi or someone who just did what he was told, and happy to be in a relatively safe and cushy location? One thing is for sure, though: he isn’t the image of the bad “Nazi” soldier favored in movies and games. Perhaps he would be like Gert Fröbe’s rotund sergeant in “The Longest Day”, but mostly for comic relief. Like millions of his countrymen, he served an evil cause, but rarely because of a need to be a bad person or to live out some power trip.

That’s the problem with humans – under certain circumstances, good people can be made to do (or at least actively or passively support) bad things. Before we pass judgment on them, we should ask ourselves: “What would I do in the same situation?”. In most totalitarian systems, the rebels and resistance fighters have formed a small minority. Most people just want to manage their own lives, keeping their heads down as to not attract unwanted attention, and perhaps secretly long for a change, only not with them in the first rank.

Reading Sebastian Haffner’s “Defying Hitler” gives an interesting look into life as a young man in the tumultuous times of 1920’s and 30’s Germany, and that the descent into a totalitarian state was gradual. Few people could foresee what was coming, just as we have been surprised by changes in our own time. It is said that history repeats itself, but it is more like that we who know something about history see leaders who haven’t learned anything from history repeating the mistakes of previous generations. All we can strive for is to make the right decisions. What those are? We’ll know with hindsight…

Freezing winter, blazing hate

January 1942, near Caparde in the Independent State of Croatia (now in Bosnia-Herzegovina). In the center of the photo is Oberst Rolf, and right behind him Hauptmann Köller, and to the right an unnamed Croatian Major acting as liaison officer for the Croatian Home Guard. The Germans are probably from the 718. Infanterie-Division, while the Croatian might be from the 5. Infantry Division. The photo might be taken prior to Unternehmen Kroatien Süd-Ost (“Operation Croatia South-East”), 15-23 January 1942. The German division was involved in anti-partisan warfare together with the 342. Infanterie-Division and Croatian units during this short campaign. It was essentially a search-and-destroy operation designed to locate and eliminate partisan forces in and around Sarajevo, Zvornik, Tuzla and others locations in the region. It was launched during the cold of winter so as to hit the partisan forces when they would be weak from lack of proper winter clothing and protection.

The 718. Infanterie-Division was formed on 30 April, 1941 from various units of the Replacement Army. It was intended for service in the Balkan region and was designed as an occupation and security unit to meet those needs. This unit, like the 14 others of the 700-designations, had at least half of its manpower consisting of older reservists with little experience. Many of the officers hadn’t been in uniform since WW1. The “700” divisions consisted of two infantry regiments instead of three, the latter being the norm until the Volksgrenadier divisions were introduced, and it had fewer motor vehicles and heavy weapons.

After formation, the Division was transported to Croatia and Bosnia, where it took part in security operations, anti-partisan drives, reconnaissance missions, mopping up actions, training, and general occupation duties. One of the major tasks was to protect the local industry, major railroads, and bauxite mining, which was very important to the German war effort (bauxite being needed for the production of aluminium). The Division was renamed the 118. Jäger-Division in 1943. It surrendered to British forces in Austria in May, 1945.

The Croatian Home Guard was founded in April 1941, a few days after the founding of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) itself, following the collapse of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. It was done with the authorisation of German occupation authorities. The task of the new Croatian armed forces was to defend the new state against both foreign and domestic enemies. Its name was taken from the old Royal Croatian Home Guard – the Croatian section of the Royal Hungarian Landwehr component of the Austro-Hungarian Army. The NDH was a Fascist puppet state following the lead of Germany and Italy, its leadership targeting Serbs, Communists, Jews, Roma, and other “undesirables”. Following the anti-partisan actions, a Gestapo report to Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler, dated 17 February 1942, stated:

Increased activity of the [partisan] bands is chiefly due to atrocities carried out by Ustaše units in Croatia against the Orthodox population. The Ustaše [a Fascist Croatian movement] committed their deeds in a bestial manner not only against males of conscript age, but especially against helpless old people, women and children. The number of the Orthodox that the Croats have massacred and sadistically tortured to death is about three hundred thousand.

The fighting in Yugoslavia was extremely cruel, making even the Gestapo blanch. The Croatian and Serbian factions showed little mercy to each other. Still, German units got bogged down in anti-partisan warfare, the Germans worsening the situation by raising ethnic units like Muslim SS forces, contributing to the rising number of atrocities. The resulting resentment needed little prompting to be fanned into full-blown civil war 50 years later…

Let’s go to the movies

A Panzer soldier and his Fallschirmjäger friend in tropical uniforms, perhaps on their way to the movies. The photo is probably taken in 1942, location unknown.

There’s been many hundreds of movies made about World War 2, both during the war and after it. Most of them feature American and/or British good guys fighting evil Nazis, but in recent years there’s also been an increase in Russian-made war movies. It’s easy to tire of Brad Pitt fight half the Third Reich, or Russian movies that only make Putin happy. Those of us who like a more varied fare look for other perspectives. As the theme for this blog is the German Wehrmacht, I’ll take a look at some of the best movies from a German viewpoint. I’m afraid the list won’t be terribly original, but that’s a consequence of the lack of good movies about the German wartime experience. So, in chronological order as the events unfolded in the war, here’s my list of five war movies with a German point of view that are worth (re-)watching.

First out isDas Boot from 1981. Regarded as the best submarine movie of all time, it tells the story of a combat tour with U-96. Set in 1941, it covers the successes and terrors experienced by the young crew. Based on the novel by former war correspondent Lothar-Günther Buchheim, who in turn based it on a combat tour with the real U-96, the movie became an international success, paving the way for the Hollywood careers of director Wolfgang Petersen and leading man Jürgen Prochnow. While some of the special effects are dated (the destroyer model wasn’t convincing even in 1981), it’s still a powerful movie. Long periods of tedium are interrupted by moments of terror, when the U-96 has to dodge attacks by enemy ships and aircraft. It has been released in three versions: the theatrical cut at 149 minutes, the director’s cut at 209 minutes, and the full mini-series at 293 minutes. The longer versions allow for more character development and exposition, and I recommend either of them. The theatrical cut isn’t available, anyway. A new mini-series based on the same story will be released in 2018.

Avoid: “U-571″, a sub-standard (pun intended) Hollywood movie that managed to insult the British by claiming that Americans captured an Enigma code machine before the Brits did.

 

The producers of “Das Boot” wanted to make another movie/mini-series about the German war experience, and opted for the Battle of Stalingrad. For some reason, the plans for the mini-series were scrapped, and a 134-minute movie was released in 1993. It tells the story of a combat engineer company which is sent to Stalingrad after a stint in North Africa. We follow some soldiers in a platoon commanded by Lieutenant von Witzleben (Thomas Kretschmann in his second role as a German officer; he’s played officers in at least ten movies). They descend into the hell known as Stalingrad, and the losses mount in the fierce fighting in the ruins. Things take a turn for the (even) worse when the men are sent to a penal battalion. A memorable fight against T-34 tanks sees them rehabilitated, but not without losses. As the 6th Army is surrounded, the winter growing harsher and supplies dwindle, the situation gets desperate, and one by one the soldiers meet their untimely ends. The last two try to break out of the encirclement, leading to one of the most depressing movie endings ever. While “Stalingrad” isn’t perfect, it’s still one of the best Eastern Front movies.

Avoid: the Russian “Stalingrad” (2013), which is so bad that even Russians didn’t like it.

 

Before “Stalingrad” there was “Cross of Iron” (1977). Based on the novel “The Willing Flesh” by Eastern Front veteran Willi Heinrich, it was one of the first non-German post-war movies to show an entirely German perspective. It was directed by Sam Peckinpah and featured a cast of American, German, British and Yugoslavian actors. Set in 1943, it tells the story of a squad led by Sergeant Steiner (James Coburn; almost twice as old as one would expect, but still great in that role). Their new company commander, Captain Stransky, arrives to the front. He’s a martinet and glory-hound, out for an Iron Cross, which he couldn’t get in his previous cushy posting in France. The two men clash, and as the Soviets assault their positions, things come to a head. Cynical and realistic, “Cross of Iron” still stands out. Peckinpah’s trademark bloody slow motion scenes have been parodied, but they work in this context. The ending, which was rewritten due to budget constraints, might not be to everyone’s taste, but it works.

Avoid: “Breakthrough”, the sequel to “Cross of Iron”, which was just an attempt to cash in on the first movie. Steiner and Stransky aren’t even played by the same actors.

 

How do you manage to make an exciting thriller about an event with an ending just slightly less predictable than that of “Titanic“? You let Bryan Singer direct it. “Valkyrie” from 2008 works. Even though you know Hitler will survive and the conspirators fail, Singer managed to create a movie that moves along at a steady clip, somehow managing to make it feel like the bomb plot will work. There was much criticism when Tom Cruise was picked to play Stauffenberg, but I think he did a really good job, working together with a great cast without hogging the limelight. While this movie is about officers in the highest echelons, plotting away in headquarters, there are some scenes from the front in North Africa that puts Stauffenberg in the line of fire, and not just as a smartly dressed staff officer. The art direction is great, presenting a time and place in a rich, convincing manner. It also reminds us of the other failed attempts on Hitler’s life, showing that there was opposition to him even before the war was about to be lost.

See also: “Operation Valkyrie“, a German TV movie from 2004. It covers most of the same events, but differently and in my opinion not as exciting. Appreciated by people with a fetish for dialogue in German.

 

Valkyrie” sort of sets the stage for “Downfall” (2004), the excellent retelling of the last weeks of the Thousand-Years Reich. Bruno Ganz delivers the best and most convincing movie Hitler ever, and it’s a pity that most people are only familiar with the movie through the innumerable “Hitler rant” clips on YouTube. It could easily have become a set piece in the bunker, but by following some of the defenders of Berlin, it recreates the final battle through the eyes of the kids and old men tasked with the defense. The desperation and sense of doom pervades the movie, and there are some strong scenes that will hit people who are parents especially hard. Told from the perspective of one of Hitler’s secretaries, Traudl Junge, it is probably the definite retelling of those final days.

For laughs: “Fall of Berlin“, a Soviet propaganda movie from 1949. It turns Hitler’s bunker into a freakshow, and features the perhaps most over-acting movie Hitler ever.

 

Somehow, this list doesn’t feel complete. While the movies are among the best war movies of all time, none of them really tells about the German war experience in a broader context, in part because a movie rarely can tell a story about a subject in depth over a longer period of time. In 2013, a German mini-series caused much discussion as it was the first real attempt in years to tell about the effect of the war on young Germans. In three 90-minutes episodes, “Generation War” (original title: “Unsere Mutter, unsere Väter“), we follow brothers Wilhelm and Friedhelm and their friends Charlotte, Greta and Viktor during the years 1941-45. Wilhelm is a lieutenant whose patriotism and idealism is put to the test, while his younger brother Friedhelm goes from being an unwilling soldier to hardened cynic. Charlotte serves as a nurse on the Eastern Front, while Greta is a singer, using her connections with a Gestapo officer to further her career while protecting her secret boyfriend Viktor, who is a Jew. While the mini-series drew some criticism for simplifying some events, as well as portraying the Polish resistance as anti-Semitic, it’s still the best treatment of the subject I’ve seen. It doesn’t shy away from the brutalization of the war on the Eastern Front, or the moral challenge of living in the Third Reich. If you haven’t watched “Generation War“, do yourself a service and do that.

 

Picnic in wartime

Thursday 8th June 1944, outside Turin, Italy. An SS-Untersturmführer (Lieutenant, standing) and a Fallschirmjäger (sitting in front of him) enjoy a day out together with a couple of Wehrmachthelferinnen (female Army auxiliaries), two civilian women and a little girl. The woman in the floral pattern dress (probably the mother of the girl) has donned the SS officer’s peaked cap, the silver death’s head glinting in the sun. It looks idyllic, but the people in the photo don’t know that there’s just eleven months left of the war. On 4 June, Allied troops captured Rome, and two days later Allied forces landed in Normandy. The Third Reich is crumbling around them, but perhaps they think that the vengance weapons or some other miracle the propaganda talks about will turn the tide of the war.

The female auxiliaries wear the lightning emblem of the signals troops on the sleeves of their white dresses, identifying them as telephone or radio operators. Over half a million German women served as auxiliaries for shorter or longer periods during the war, more than half of them as volunteers, the rest as conscripts. Those in signals capacity were known as “Blitzmädel“, “lightning-girls”, because of the signals troops patch. Other served as Flakhelferinnen (female anti-aircraft auxiliaries), manning searchlights, rangefinders, listening equipment, and even AA guns. It isn’t known how many women were killed while in service of the Wehrmacht.