April 1945 in Neuhof, on the Zenn River nine miles southeast of Bad Windsheim, a similar circumstance also demonstrated the willingness of Nazi military and civilian authorities to punish those deemed insufficiently zealous in their defense of the homeland. As early as April 5 the men of the local Volkssturm unit had been ordered to construct antitank defenses at the upper and lower entrances to the walled, medieval village. Declaring, “We will not build any defenses! The war is lost!” the men simply refused to obey any further orders given by their local commander. The next night women from the town sawed and distributed as firewood the logs cut previously by the Volkssturm for use as barricades. Early on the morning of April 7, police arrived from neighboring Dietenhofen and began searching houses for culprits in the mutiny. As Peter Heinlein, a participant in the events in Neuhof, recalled sardonically, “Each betrayed the other.”
The next day, a Sunday, two truckloads of police and SS men, along with a gallows, arrived in Neuhof. As the troops set about blocking all exits from the town, the commander of the SS unit, a lieutenant in his early twenties, ordered all residents to gather at the Marktplatz. There, in front of the World War I monument, with the sound of artillery thumping in the distance, he immediately launched into a tirade of abuse against “those dishonorable swine who stabbed the Wehrmacht in the back and so must die a shameful death.” Against that ominous backdrop, the police and SS proceeded to arrest eight men of the Volkssturm, along with the mayor and local party leader, and brought them in handcuffs to a local inn for trial. The court-martial, presided over by SS-Major Waldeck and consisting of the local Volkssturm commander and two other noncommissioned officers, began around 8:00 P.M. and lasted well into the early morning hours of April 9.
Although on trial for refusal to obey orders and for mutiny in the face of the enemy, the court-martial proved no drumhead trial, despite the presence of the gallows outside, for Major Waldeck allowed each defendant to defend himself and to give an account of the relevant events. Unable to ascertain the ringleaders, and anxious to get back to his unit, Waldeck brought the, in his words, “Bauernkomödie” (farce) to an end with the following verdict: no one was to be sentenced to death, the mayor and local party leader were to be released, but the eight other accused were to remain under house arrest at the inn. Obviously expecting that the incident would be lost in the rush of events, Waldeck hurriedly departed on the morning of April 9.
The Nazi bureaucracy, however, stubbornly refused to drop the matter. Amazingly, with American forces nearing and the absence of virtually any military transport hampering an effective defense, toward evening on April 11 two trucks arrived in Neuhof, all twenty-eight Volkssturm men were loaded on board, and the trucks set off for Nuremberg. On arrival at police headquarters, the eight accused found themselves dumped into a single, unfurnished cell, while the other twenty were put into two common cells. Once in Nuremberg, Nazi retribution came swiftly, if not as murderously as that meted out in Brettheim. After a cursory investigation, police officials on April 13 singled out Georg Freund as the instigator of the Neuhof mutiny and sentenced him to death. Freund cheated the hangman, however, for with American forces fast approaching the outskirts of Nuremberg, the local police authorities decided on the night of April 15 to send him and the other Volkssturm men to Dachau. Chained in twos and guarded by eight policemen, in the early morning hours of April 16 the men of Neuhof set off on foot for the notorious concentration camp some one hundred miles to the south.
In a surreal scenario played out all over the remnants of Hitler’s Reich by political prisoners, POWs, and survivors of death camps, for the next ten days the Neuhof Volkssturm men wandered southward, living off cheese and bread supplied by farmers and sleeping in barns. Although spared the worst punishment, the men received a macabre reminder of what could have been their fate. On April 17, near the small village of Obersteinbach, twenty-five miles southwest of Nuremberg, they found a local newspaper dated April 14, 1945, with the blaring headline, “A plate of shame and humiliation; How traitors are fed!” (gerichtet: a play on words since ‘Gericht’ can also mean justice):
In the town of Neuhof on the Zenn the mustered Volkssturm soldiers mutinied against their Führer and removed anti-tank barriers. Today before a court-martial this monstrously traitorous act found its atonement. The ringleader Georg Freund was hanged before the assembled Volkssturm men. The remaining traitors . . . began the journey to a concentration camp.
Reichs Defense Commissar
Obviously meant as a warning to others considering surrendering without resistance, this article, despite (or because of) its inaccuracies, also served as a reminder to the men of their precarious situation. Not until April 25 were they liberated, paradoxically by the American “enemy.”
By then, however, their homes and village had been destroyed. Cleansed of its mutinous Volkssturm men, young soldiers of the so-called children’s SS took up positions in Neuhof and fiercely resisted American attempts to cross the Zenn River. As a result, on the night of April 15–16 the small market town went up in flames, destroyed in a savage artillery bombardment, one that continued long after the last Wehrmacht soldier had slunk out of town. When late that night the terrified inhabitants crept out of their cellars or returned from hiding in the surrounding woods, they found, in place of their splendid walled, medieval village, a devastated wasteland. Only the agonizing cries of the wounded, one survivor remembered, could be heard above the noise of the raging fires and collapsing buildings.