If you haven’t watched My Honor Was Loyalty on Amazon Prime, go put it on your watchlist. Right now. I won’t be offended at all if you watch it before reading the rest of this post, either.
Since I’ve gotten the question “Why Germany?” more than once from people who have read Sani, I decided it was time to devote some time to answering it. I suppose I’m aware that this post may rustle a few feathers… although not as many as it may have a generation or two ago. And if you don’t love history as much as I do… bear with me! This is so important, and has implications far beyond what we know of the Second World War. For example, I saw a sign at my children’s school this spring, painted in a child’s handwriting: “Not all Russians are bad.” Thank you, young person, for that reminder. In a sinful world, we will never cease to be faced with an enemy who is more or less nameless and faceless, an enemy we can easily lump together into one category of “evil.” For most of us, it will never be someone coming at us with tanks and guns. But I think it is easy for us humans to slip into an “us” versus “them” mentality.
So, My Honor Was Loyalty. The film’s title is a reference to the slogan of the Schutzstaffel aka the SS of Nazi Germany. This film reminded me of one of the important reasons that I do what I do. Why I so badly wanted to get past the stereotypes (some of which are justified — there were many people who had innocent blood on their hands). It reinforced how God has put it into my heart to get to know who the boys in Feldgrau truly were: not necessarily the fanatical Nazis history has painted them to be.
History will never be able to deny what happened in 1933-1945, although there have been some who tried. History also seems to have taught us, at least those of my generation, that every German soldier was either a fanatical Nazi or hopelessly duped, without a conscience, fighting to defend everything Hitler stood for.
I think there are a few things we have to consider:
- Hitler’s rise to power did not happen in a vacuum.
- They didn’t know, in 1932 and 1933 when the Nazi party rocketed into power, what we have the “luxury” of looking back on and knowing now.
- In light of that, if one were deeply concerned for the welfare of their nation and family, would standing up against Hitler really have been as simple as we assume it should’ve been? Especially in the early days, when he was perceived as a hero and there was so much blindness to what lie ahead?
We can’t isolate the Third Reich and World War 2 without looking at World War 1. And we can’t look at World War 1 without remembering, and truly understanding what it means to say that “history is written by the victors.”
I’ve always had a passion for history, and my apron strings were cut on Hope and Glory, a British WW2 movie about the London Blitz. I grew up in the 80s and 90s when the Greatest Generation was still very much alive and active. My grandfather fought on Iwo Jima, and I remember attending his Marine reunions, which were held in the backyard of my grandparents’ home, and meeting these older men who were still very much comrades.
I honor their sacrifice. Yes, they fought to put a stop to tyranny on both sides of the globe and prevent that tyranny from reaching our shores. It was not for nothing, so please don’t read that into what I’m saying. I’m pleading that we stop vilifying the enemy, including people who simply don’t agree with us today, as if they are just an evil lot of fanatics, people who lack a conscience or a brain.
More recent generations may have begun to move beyond negative German stereotypes in pop culture, but this part of history is still something that hangs in the German consciousness. Naturally, different people have different feelings about it, different reactions. Some still really struggle, especially those who are old enough to remember the war. And that breaks my heart.
Before the World War 2 generation, there was another generation that fought a war that, while not truly global as the war of 1939-1945 was, was in many ways more savage. Millions of lives were lost. Germany did not start the war, but they were saddled entirely with the responsibility of having done so, and endured the resounding guilt.
We’re taught that Germany used that war as an excuse to invade Belgium and France, and it is true that the German leaders did invade Belgium, a neutral nation. I’m not going to call that into question, but I do know that there had been animosity between the French and the Germans long before 1914.
Perhaps it would help if we read about Napoleon’s exploits from the German perspective… I have only begun to do so, but it’s easy enough to look back and say “Man, he was bad for France,” with a chuckle. He was also bad for the Germanic kingdoms (Germany was not yet unified).
After the French army was defeated and sent packing, Germany had her own internal struggles. Though some wanted unification at that time, it didn’t happen until decades later, under Bismarck. His bad points are highlighted alongside any good he did, such as unifying the German nation, and creating the first social health insurance model. Yes, he was a Prussian, bent on militarism. Was it better, safer, for all those individual German kingdoms to be left to their own devices? Maybe. Or maybe not. No one can really answer questions like that, but we can remember the thousands — millions — of people living in those areas, on farms, in towns, in cities. Individuals, families.
I often wonder what reasons my various German ancestors had for leaving their homelands in Hesse and Rhienland-Pfalz. It could easily have been as simple as wanting to follow the American Dream, but one friend of German descent, whose ancestors came over around the same time, told me this: her grandfather feared service in Bismarck’s army.
After Germany became a nation, she, like the other Western nations, wanted to carve up Africa. She didn’t get much. People point out that the indigenous people in the German colonies were treated violently. I’ve read it framed in this way: Naturally, because they were Germans and that’s what the Germans of the time did, right?
It is easy to blow over the violence and disregard for human life that other nations showed the inhabitants of the lands they conquered. Germany’s sins are more recent, and glaring, and they lost the two most destructive wars mankind has ever known. I came across a statement that amounted to the following: if World War 1 were a clay pot, and someone were to turn it over and look at the inscription carved onto the bottom, it would say: “Made in Germany.” We often read about World War 1 as if the Germans were relentless, savage killers who didn’t know when to call it quits (hence the references to the “Huns”). That their only reason for fighting was to take over Europe. As if every German man wanted to live in France, Belgium or Russia.
History was written by the victors of World War 1 long before the outbreak of World War 2 or even the rise of Hitler. The leaders of the Allied nations were vindictive toward Germany, not just because of the war that had just ended, but because of rivalries that had seethed underneath for generations. And granted, Germany did have a vindictiveness of their own. All were at fault, but because they were on the losing end, Germany was blacklisted.
In History class we always breezed over the Weimar Republic as if it was some laughable prelude to the Third Reich, some glitch on the screen of German history, a sad attempt at democracy that also happened to produce a lot of weird art. Boom. If we have a decent history teacher we might hear about hyperinflation and breadlines in the early 1920s. We might even hear about some street violence.
Germany is situated at the very heart of Europe. In 1918, it was sandwiched between the democratic, victorious West and the newly-communist Russian east. A fledgling democracy, saddled with far more guilt than was likely due to them, threatened by communist sympathizers within their own country — and yes, a blossoming madman waiting in the wings to take advantage of the situation.
Germany’s war debt was more than she could bear without being propped up by American loans. Once she received those, things began improving… until the American stock market crashed in 1929. Again, that fledgling democracy was plummeted into chaos, this time with the rest of the world.
I’ve learned that I cannot truly speak to what I would have done in those times, because I have never lived in a time like that. I’ve lived in a time of prosperity and relative peace. What I do know is that people vote with their pocketbooks. When push comes to shove, people ultimately vote with their stomachs. For the second time in less than ten years, Germans were hungry. They were out of work. There was another uptick in the violence in their streets. Berlin was literally not a safe place to live. There was as much violence being caused by the Red Front and other communist groups as there was by Hitler’s Brownshirts.
Because of all this, and plenty of conniving that was done behind the scenes, many Germans came to believe that Hitler was their salvation. But it is unfair to ask how they couldn’t see through the veneer of goodness and promises of prosperity to the monster that lurked within. Yes, the Nazis were already notorious for violence, but craftily, the rising maniacal dictator managed to disassociate himself and his party from the more radical right wing (if you can believe that — from what I understand of my reading of Shirer and others, the Brownshirts wanted immediate, violent political revolution. They were rowdy and became a stench in the nose of the Nazi leader, who claimed he wanted things done constitutionally… whatever that meant under his interpretation).
It serves as a reminder to me that the average person often doesn’t know everything that is going on in their government, or what the true endgame of their nation’s leadership is. We do not have the luxury of seeing what will happen in the future. We only have as much information as we have today. Unfortunately, today, we have a ridiculous number of conflicting sources of that information. They did then, too.
Nothing new under the sun.
It is also important to remember how much people LOVE their land. As Ludwig says in My Honor Was Loyalty, “My beautiful Germany.” There is a difference between patriotism and nationalism. And a lot of those boys stepped up because they believed in Germany. They loved their homeland. And they trusted their leaders, albeit blindly, that they were doing what was right.
The elephant in the room is always the Holocaust. I will address this a bit more in a second post, but it is easy to look back 75+ years after places like Dachau and Auschwitz were discovered and say, “How could they not have known? Of course they knew. And they continued fighting for Hitler, therefore they are guilty of his crimes.” I’ve read so many different accounts and again I’m convinced that no, not everyone knew. People heard different things depending on where they were, what their connections were, and what they were willing to believe. Rumors spread easily, and perhaps a lot of (well-meaning) people believed it was just one of those rumors.
I love my mother dearly but she was very into conspiracy theories for a time. Conspiracy theories have always existed, so it’s not hard for me to imagine that many Germans just blew the whole idea off as another “conspiracy theory.” Many times, conspiracy theories are hogwash, or at least very twisted and exaggerated versions of the truth. Sometimes they’re not, but how is a person really supposed to know which is which? Do we really know every detail of what our government is up to?
It is true that the outright persecution of Jews in Germany became increasingly obvious overtime. It ended in the most disgusting, gut-wrenchingly evil incidence of genocide in history. However, in light of our country’s treatment of minorities, even at that time, it is difficult to justify pointing the finger at the average German. Jews were being rounded up in Germany, while here in America blacks couldn’t sit at a counter with whites, had to ride at the back of the bus, and use separate toilets. It hurts to even say this, but would anyone have even noticed if blacks were going missing?
Although most of my characters so far have been soldiers of the regular army, one of the Schmidt boys I am currently writing about is on the trajectory to join the Waffen-SS, which, while not concentration camp guards or Einsatzgruppen, was still notorious for war crimes, especially on the Eastern Front.
Yet there were a lot of other men, as this film depicts (“fictional but based on actual events”) who tried to do the right thing. For many, being in the SS was an honor, simply because they were the elite. The tallest. The fittest. The most disciplined and well-trained. They became frustrated when they began to realize that what they were being asked to do, and what they were fighting for, was not the right thing.
We’ll never truly know how many men continued to behave with honor. True honor, not loyalty to Hitler. My father is reading oral histories of Jews who escaped Europe. One individual gives an account of an SS officer who knocked on the door of her family’s apartment days before Kristallnacht and told them they had to get out. Get out right now. You’re not safe. Because of this man, the family made it safely out of Germany.
So I’ve found myself on a passionate hunt to find out whatever I can, and as much as I can. I was angry the first time I read some of the reviews of the documentary Final Account. I don’t believe every German veteran of World War 2 who shares his story is covering up the truth about what he really felt or did in order to make himself look like a hero, or like he was an innocent victim of deception.
Right now I’m reading Erwin Bartmann’s memoir Für Volk und Fuhrer. While this has more material that I consider “TMI” than the last memoir I read (I had to entirely skip one chapter so far), for the most part it has been a fascinating read and I appreciate the fact that he comes right out and says he was caught up in the Zeitgeist, i.e., the spirit of the times. He was glowingly proud to become a member of the SS and pledge his loyalty to Hitler. But like fictional Ludwig in My Honor Was Loyalty, he too will eventually come to the point where he begins to battle his conscience. I haven’t gotten that far yet.
Most of them didn’t survive to write memoirs. I want to weep every time I read about the millions of soldiers who were slaughtered on the Eastern Front. There. I said it. Yes, Russia was fighting alongside the USA to beat back one kind of evil, but as they pushed westward, they carried with them the threat of another kind of evil. An evil which we came to fear shortly thereafter.
Russian boys have their stories too. They did then, and they do now.
So along with my blossoming love of my German heritage as a whole has come this: I owe it to every German who fought in the world wars (and there were some who fought in both) to reconsider their story. Combat is something that can’t truly be understood by anyone who has not experienced it. Erich Maria Remarque describes it for us in All Quiet on the Western Front. I wish I could put it into his words, because he was masterful with his pen. The sentiment, however, is that an animal-like instinct kicks in and you attack as a horde, not as an individual. We need to consider that many of these men were, in their own right, heroes, even if they ended up on the wrong side of the war (they really had no say where they were born). As a person of German descent, I owe it to them to try to see things from their perspective, just as each of us owes it to every person we encounter to remember that they are not just acting within a vacuum. Something happened to bring them to the point they are at.
But I digress. History is written by the victors, and certainly, there was a lot to condemn Germany’s leadership for. And yes, many less-important men were implicit in those crimes as well. But not the whole. I might even venture to say not the majority. Many of them didn’t even care about politics, they cared about their nation. They did what they hoped was right, or what they felt they needed to, or what they were forced to. I’m sure most of us, myself included, want to believe we would do the right thing if we were put in the same situation, but the truth is none of us know what we would do because we, thank God, have not been put in such a situation. We were born in a time of peace and tranquility, and even now, the division our country is facing has not brought us to such extremes.
Would any American man not want to protect his home and family if he felt it was truly under threat? Would he truly have the inner strength to risk his life, especially if it meant his wife and children would be without a father? Man looks at the outside, but God sees the heart. God saw every individual German heart. I take comfort knowing that he didn’t ball them all up and throw them away as a generation condemned to hell, even if they did not do what history expects they should have.
My deepest appreciation for those who have taken the time to read this post! I look forward to sharing a bit more in the coming weeks. God bless, my friends.