Those Germans

Heim ins Reich

One area I’ve especially always enjoyed is history of the latter half of the 20th century.  It’s a great luxury to have the time to plow through tomes re-telling historical events that shaped our modern world.  My interest…and really thorough knowledge….goes back to about the early 1930s –  – when the effects of the Great Depression hit, FDR was first elected President and Hitler became German Chancellor.

Without going into my german teacher mode, just let me briefly point out that in german Reich is most often translated as empire…and that probably is the closest english word.  But….It’s not just the borders of the country.  It’s just as much an idea.  An idea -in the german mind- of what Germany is destined to be; of what it can and should become, the dominant force -the military, economic and cultural master of Europe. Not unlike the American concept of Manifest Destiny. So to say that Reich, simply means ’empire’ is a bit too simplistic.  Kanzler is simply chancellor which is the same thing as the prime minister in Britain.  Whoever is the leader of the majority party in the legislative branch he -or she – becomes the Kanzler or Kanzlerin if the chancellor is, as now, a woman.

Germany used to occupy an enormous part of central Europe before WWI.
This was the Second German Reich, known as the Kaiser Reich.
Lasting from the Prussian victory over France in 1871 until Germany’s defeat in WW I in 1918.
If this was the Second Reich, and Hitler’s was the Third Reich, then what was the First? That was what we know as the Holy Roman Empire which lasted roughly a thousand years from 800 to 1800.

Nowadays, the Germans have virtually erased from their vocabulary the word Reich and replaced it with the word Bundes which means federal.   The legislative branch of government is no longer called the Reichstag, today it’s the Bundestag.  The head of government is no longer the Reichkanzler, she is now the Bundeskanzlerin.  The national

This is the boss-lady of the European Union.  Nothing gets done without her approval.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
This is the boss-lady of the European Union. Nothing gets done without her approval.

railroad used to be called the Reichsbahn, now it’s the Bundesbahn .  You get the drift.

Linguistically, and in every other way, they want to distance their current society from the Nazi era as much as possible.  Who can blame them?

Back in the days of the Weimar Republic the Reichkanzler was head of government.   There was also a President who was head of State.  There were a lot of inherent weaknesses in the Weimar Republic that almost doomed it from the start.  I will leave that discussion for historians far smarter than me to detail those.

Just to clear up any confusion: the Weimar Republic was Germany’s first attempt at republican government that was established between the two World Wars.  Proclaimed in November 1918 -the day after the Armistice- and extinguished in February 1933 when Hitler suspended many civil liberties in the aftermath of the 28 Feb 1933 fire that burned down the Reichstag building.  Many feel the Nazis themselves engineered that fire as a pretense to suspended civil liberties.

As an aside, an armistice is not the same as a surrender.  A surrender is “We give up.  You win, we lose” – as Germany and Japan did in 1945.  An armistice is “let’s just stop fighting and see if we can come to terms”.  The Germans did not surrender in World War I.  They did their best to win before the Americans got involved.  Both sides were exhausted ….spent.  Short of troops, weapons, ammunition, fuel, food and just dead tired from the grind of over three years of trench warfare.

The Versailles Treaty laid the foundation for the Second World War.

The Versailles Treaty laid the foundation for the Second World War.

Then some german submarine commander sinks the Lusitania in the Irish Sea taking 129 Americans to their deaths.  That, plus the Zimmerman letter (where Germany offered to support Mexico if they would make war on the US in an effort to recover Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and other territory ceded to the US) was enough to push President Woodrow Wilson over the brink and the US declared war on Germany.   The sub commander thought he’d be treated like a national hero.  When he came face to face with the Kaiser, Wilhelm read him the riot act for provoking a declaration of war from Washington.

The addition of fresh American troops -US Army and Marines – tipped the balance in favor of the Allies and in November 1918 the Germans proposed an Armistice.  A year later the Brits, French and Americans presented Berlin with the Versailles Treaty laying all blame for the war squarely at their feet.  This in turn laid the foundation for the Second World War.  It was patently unfair to Germany and imposed on them crushing reparations which they just finished paying off in 2010.

After the Second War

Jump ahead roughly 25 years.  Germany has now lost its second world war in a quarter-century.   This time there would be no german government.  They would not be allowed to rule themselves at least for the time being.  The country would be occupied.  This time we’d make sure there was no resurgence.   Only half-jokingly those of us in the West said the purpose of NATO was to keep the “Americans in, the Russians out and Germans down”.   The occupation lasted until 1949 when the three western zones formed the Federal Republic of Germany (West) and the the Soviet zone became the German Democratic Republic (East).  Of course East Germany was neither democratic nor a republic.  Ironically, they were forced to pay reparations to the Soviet Union.

Germany was occupied from 45-49, as was Berlin

Germany was occupied from 45-49, as was Berlin

Spring 1945: The country was in shambles.   Our bombing was very effective.   Millions homeless.  Nothing to eat, no heat in the winter.  Women, girls and old men left to clean up the rubble.  All the men between 16 and 60 had been killed in the war.

Germany has for decades had a problem with low birth rates.  There’s a reason for that.  They spent the first half of the last century killing their male population in two world wars.  A desperate situation like that faced by Germany in the immediate aftermath of the war makes communism look like an attractive alternative.   And that’s the last thing we wanted.  It was clear to US policy makers it would require a huge influx of money, all American, to rebuild that economy. That is what became the Marshall Plan where the US essentially paid to rebuild the economies of Western Europe in the late 1940s.

The United States was the only country to fight that war on two fronts and win.  With the obvious exception of Pearl Harbor we’d never been attacked.  Neither of our enemies had a weapons system that could reach us.  We were the western super power, the world’s largest creditor nation – by far the strongest economy (which we still are).  The world looked to America for protection and salvation.

After 1945 the Allies, especially the Americans, were big on “de-Nazification” of Germany. We wanted to erase every single vestige of the Hitler regime….we forbade any flags, songs, music, uniforms, salutes….e v e r y t h i n g.  To this day – 70 years later – it is illegal to play the Horst Wessel song*, give the stiff-arm salute, goose-step  – – and don’t even think about owning much less displaying the swastika flag.  Yes, they have freedom of speech…so long as that speech says nothing favorable about the the Nazi era.

So as an American serviceman…when you go through your indoctrination (How living in Germany is different than living at home in America) they explain this stuff to you….and you’d better not forget.

Here’s one personal episode that illustrates the point: When I first got to Germany in April 1981 I needed to find a place to live.  So with the help of a friend I found a room in the home of a german family who liked renting to American soldiers because we paid our rent on time and were generally quiet, clean and polite.

Their family consisted of “Oma” grandma who was old enough to remember the Kaiser.  Next was Helga mid-40s, nice, spoke perfect english because she grew up in…..of all places…..New York City!  Lastly was a teenage daughter, can’t remember her name, but she stayed up too late listening to loud American music, smoking too many cigarettes and always looked like she needed a bath….a very common trait among European women.

Oma used to scrub the sidewalk in front of their house every morning.  I’d leave for work at 7:30 and she’s out there on her hands and knees scrubbing the sidewalk.  That’s the old german work ethic.  Today they’re too much like us.

My first question was, “If you were living in New York and life was pretty good, then why did you ever come back here?” They moved from New York back to Germany in August 1939 just one month before Hitler started the war.  Well…you see….back in the 1930s the Hitler government put out this call to all german emmigrés to “Come Home to the Fatherland”..Heim ins Reich.  Germans living within Germany were called “Reichsdeutsche”.  Those living abroad were referred to as “Volksdeutsche”.  One proclaimed goal of the Nazi govt was to have all germans living together in one country under one government.  So Hitler’s regime put forth a great effort to entice the Volksdeutsche to come home to the Vaterland.   Many, many germans living overseas responded…. considering it their patriotic duty to come home to the Fatherland.

So there were instances where german soldiers would be captured by American units and one or two of the german prisoners spoke perfect American english because they grew up in Milwaukee or Chicago and came ‘home’ in 1938, got drafted into the german army….and here they are now POWs of the Americans.

You remember the scene from ‘Saving Private Ryan’.   A dozen or so german soldiers are captured by an American unit.  One of the germans speaks perfect American english because he was raised in Wisconsin. His family returned to Germany n 1937.  He got drafted into the German Wehrmacht.  The American officer offers each of the german prisoners a cigarette.  Each prisoner gratefully accepts.  The American officer then machine-guns all these Krauts to death….take no prisoners.

Killing prisoners of war is a violation of the Geneva Conventions on Warfare.  Both sides violated the rules.  We did it.  They did it.  If we could not provide for the care and feeding of prisoners of war, we often just shot them.  A recent documentary on Iwo Jima (Feb 1945) readily admits this.  Yes, it’s a violation of the rules of war.  American Union (Civil War) General William Tecumseh Sherman said, “War is hell”…..and yes it is.

After I got to know my host family better I asked, “Well, what about Opa?” (the old man, the grandfather).  He was a baker by profession.  He was drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1942, while in his mid-40s. (That tells you how desperate the Germans were getting when they’re drafting guys in their 40s)  Sent to the eastern front.  Killed in Russia.   I thought (but did not say) “shoulda stayed in New York”.  There are times when it’s best to keep one’s mouth shut….and I thought this might be one of them.  Baking bread in New York City is certainly better than freezing your ass to death in the Russian winter.


Hitler lost at least a million dead on the Eastern Front with another million missing or captured.  After a while Er starb für Deutschland (He died for Germany)…..just doesn’t cut it.   Many of those deaths were needless.  Hitler forbade his field commanders from retreating even an inch.  “Hold out no matter what the cost” was a virtual death sentence.   Had he allowed Paulus and his Sixth Army to retreat from Stalingrad many of the 95,000 german soldiers taken prisoner by the Soviets might well have survived.  Instead, estimates say 90% of those taken prisoner died in Russian hands.  The few who did survive were allowed to return to East Germany in 1955….ten years after the end of the war.


This is exactly how not to run a war.  Commanders should not have to call back to the head of govt for permission for every move they make.  This is similar to how LBJ ran our involvement in Vietnam – he would personally approve or disapprove individual targets from the Oval Office.  Rather, the political leader should say to his military commanders: “I’ve decided that we’re going to win this war – Now you do whatever it takes to make that happen.”  This is how Bush 41 ran the first Gulf War in 1991.   He essentially said to Schwarzkopf, “You tell me what you need.  I’ll see to it that you get it.  You take care of the details.  Just win.”


So the point all of all this:  They were so fearful of being caught with any Nazi  paraphernalia that years earlier Oma had buried in the back yard this book.  After getting me to swear on a stack of Bibles that I would never tell a soul – they showed it to me.   It was a picture book of a 1936 Adolf Hitler visit to their city.  What struck me was the pictures were not printed on the pages…rather they were printed on really good quality

Hitler visits the locals. This was a huge deal.

Hitler visits the locals. This was a huge deal.

photographic paper and then pasted onto the individual pages with those little corner tabs that hold the edges in place.  It was absolutely fascinating.  It told me that many of those Germans -especially the old timers- still took considerable pride in the “good things” that Hitler did for Germany ….at the same time they were scared to death of being found with the book.

In the West we think of Hitler as universally bad….the personification of evil.  The guy behind the Holocaust.   If you can, for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of the average german guy in the early 1930s.  Hitler brought order to a chaotic Germany.  Many were fine with sacrificing some civil liberties for ‘order’.  He scrapped the Versailles Treaty which was the equivalent of thumbing your nose at the victors of the First World War.  No more reparations were paid to the Allies while Hitler was in charge.

Hitler put the nation back to work.  Jobs meant salaries.  That income meant men could feed their families, pay for homes, attain a decent standard of living again….all this was good.  In 1936 Hitler sent german troops back into the Rheinland, (that part of Germany west of the Rhein river bordering France and Belgium) further ignoring a key term of Versailles.  Hitler was asserting Germany’s rights as a nation.  They were no longer the defeated, poor, starving, beaten adversary.  Hitler gave them reason to be proud to be German again.

The 1936 Olympics in Berlin cast Hitler's Germany in a very positive light.

The 1936 Olympics in Berlin cast Hitler’s Germany in a very positive light.

The 1936 Olympics in Berlin were considered a spectacular success showing the world the “new” Germany.   The construction of the Autobahn and the secret rebuilding of the German military created millions of jobs.  Versailles limited the Army to 100,000 troops.  By the mid 1930s it was well past 300,000, eventually consisting of millions of soldiers.

They were allowed no air force whatsoever under the Versailles Treaty.  In 1935 Hitler introduced the new, modern, enormous Luftwaffe.  The British complained.  The French whined.  So what?  Hitler’s answer was basically, “So what are you going to do about it?  No one did anything.  Hitler saw them as the weaklings they were.  Now, he knew he could get away with more of the same……

A word about the Autobahn.  It’s the best-built highway in the world and was built in the mid 1930s.  The German population thought it was so Fritz, Helga and their kids could get to their summer vacation destination more easily.  Hitler knew full well, he’d need to move troops and equipment quickly from Poland to France…that was the real reason for a modern road system.

Twenty years later….in the 1950s…..who is President of the United States?  Eisenhower.   One of his signature accomplishments was….the interstate highway system.   Did he

US Interstate highway system built during 1950s

US Interstate highway system built during 1950s

borrow a page from Adolf’s book?  You bet he did.  He justified spending billions on a US inter-state highway system based on more than strictly commerce and the convenience of American citizens.  Ike knew too that if we ever faced a full-scale war, logistics would be key.  Logistics had been a huge headache in Europe in 1944-eisenhower system45.  The country needed decent roads if we were going to move men and equipment expeditiously.

The point of all this is: Hitler was perceived as a very good thing for Germany throughout the 1930s right up until the early 1940s.  Jews were less than 1% of the population.  They were unpopular with many Germans to begin with.  It wasn’t until Kristallnacht (Nov 9, 1938) that the population realized, “Hey these Nazis are serious about this anti-Jewish stuff”.  After that, you couldn’t say you did not know that anti-semitism was official govt policy.

This is the point at which those Germans with a conscience began to feel the guilt…der Schuld – that will haunt Germany for centuries.  Hitler liked to boast his Reich would last “a thousand years”.  The only thing that will last that long is the guilt and shame of the crimes against humanity perpetrated by these criminals who had wrestled control of this civilized, cultured and predominantly Christian nation.

It didn’t hit home that the war was not going well until German cities began to be on the receiving end of Allied bombing.   One very old lady once said to me, “…but they told us we were winning the war, right up until your planes started bombing our cities”.   They didn’t know.  They weren’t allowed to listen to foreign radio broadcasts.   If you were caught listening to the BBC (British radio) you’d be off to a concentration camp or simply shot.

The Nazi government controlled radio, newspapers, all media – – Göbbels censored every piece of news the german public heard.  The first hint that things weren’t going well was when they had a public collection of winter clothing for troops on the eastern front in the fall of 1942. ‘You mean our troops needed warm clothes?  The government has not adequately provided for our fighting men?’

They thought defeat was impossible.  They rolled over Poland in five weeks, France in six. Belgium took about a half hour, Holland an afternoon and Norway a weekend. Never mind Denmark, they don’t even count.  It was like a sporting event.

Then there was Russia……

Russia is enormous.  Here’s a comparison you might relate to.  Look at the map below. They’re the biggest landmass on earth.  This map lays Russia over the continental US.

Russia is 1.75 the size of the United States.

Russia is 1.75 the size of the continental United States.

Next thing the German public heard was news of the defeat at Stalingrad.   Little did they know the significance of that.  It was the turning point of the war.  Stalingrad was the high water mark of the Reich.  After the German surrender there in early February 1943 they were on the defensive….all the way back to Berlin.   Germany’s defensive posture was confirmed at the battle of Kursk near Minsk (Belarus) in the spring of 1943.  It was the biggest tank battle in the history of warfare and a decisive Soviet victory.  From this point forward, the Germans were conducting a fighting retreat.

Stalingrad and Kursk were the turning points, not Normandy.  It was the Soviet Red Army that broke the back of the Wehrmacht.  So many of us in the West refer to the Allied landings in France as “turning the tide” of the war.  That is 110% bullshit.  Hitler was defeated at Stalingrad, by the Soviets.  Not by George Patton.  The Anglos coming from the west hastened the end, yes.  But the Soviets could have and would have won that war without us.  Then they would have occupied ALL of Europe and that was what we really wanted to avoid…

We know the story from there.  The Russians pushed West.  The US and Brits bombed day and night.  By early 1945 Hitler’s public support had dwindled to 10% or so of the population.  It wasn’t until after the early May 1945 surrender when existence of the death camps -the Holocaust- became widely known to the public – to the German people and to the world – that it really became crystal clear what an evil bastard Hitler really was.

I have lots and lots of these kinds of memories of my years in Europe…..and I want to put them down somewhere while I still remember them well.   Many, many of the older Germans I talked to said the thing that scared them the most was the Allied bombing.  They were absolutely terrified of the American and British bombers.   Nothing instilled fear like the sound of our bombers coming.  They never knew if it’d be their house next.  They described running for the shelters, the underground tunnels to escape the Allied bombs.  After Dresden they had good reason.  By any measure what we (the US and Britain) did to Dresden was a war crime.   Funny thing though, have you ever noticed it’s only the losers who get prosecuted for war crimes, never the victors.

Okay, so that’s enough war-time stories for the moment.   Let’s move beyond 1945 and take a quick overview of the next 15 years.  No sooner was the war over with Germany than the Cold War with the Soviets started.   After a very brief  celebration with the Russians at beating Hitler our relations with the Soviets settled down into an uncomfortable mutual distrust….much of that centered on the city of Berlin itself.

Western access to Berlin went through the Soviet zone.

Western access to Berlin went through the Soviet zone.

The German capital was divided into four sectors just as the rest of the country was.  What many Americans don’t understand, is that the entire city of Berlin, all four sectors of it, were INSIDE the Soviet zone of occupation.  What that meant was they -the Russians- largely controlled our access to our sector of Berlin….as well as the British and French sectors.

There were three land routes we could use to travel from zones in western Germany to our zones in western Berlin…and when I say “our” I mean the US, British and French forces.  Policies for administering these three western zones were so closely coordinated for that many intents and purposes they functioned as one…although the french would occasionally be difficult, just to be difficult.  Not much has changed.

Come the spring 1948 Stalin decided he wanted to be difficult as well.  He shut off our land, rail and canal access to our zones in western Berlin.  He’s thinking we’re going to let people in our zones of western Berlin starve.   He guessed wrong.  From June 1948 to May 1949 the USAF* along with the Brits, the Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders and South Africans flew 4,700 tons of supplies every day into West Berlin in what became known as the Berlin Airlift.  This demonstrated our commitment to the western sectors of the city.  No way we were going to let those people starve….we have the planes, the fuel and the food…and we’re gonna use them and you’re not stopping us, so “F*ck you, pal” was the message the Allies sent to the Kremlin.

Had the Soviets shot down one of our planes that would have been an act of war.  At this point we – the United States – still had a monopoly on the atomic bomb.  One news reporter once asked President Truman how he would react if the Soviets shot down one of our planes resupplying Berlin. Truman said, “It’s going to get awfully hot in Moscow, really fast.” Clear meaning: I’ll use the bomb against them if they shoot at our planes. So Stalin understood he didn’t want to push his luck too far.   All the land routes were reopened in less than a year -in May 1949 – and there were no problems, of that nature, for the next four decades when the two Germanies united on October 3, 1990.

"Don't forget, Unlce Joe, we're still the only guys who got this!"

“Don’t forget, Unlce Joe, we’re still the only guys who got this!”

*Congress passed a massive piece of legislation in 1947 that established the Air Force as a separate service on an equal footing with the Army and the Navy.  It was no longer part of the Army.  It also changed the name from the War Dept to the Dept of Defense.  We were no longer making war, now we were defending ourselves.

*Horst Wessel was sort of the Nathan Hale of the Nazi Party.  He was a leader in the Nov 9, 1923 Beer Hall Putsch where the Nazis attempted to forcibly overthrow the govt of Bavaria.