Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Requiem for a German Past II

A Boyhood among the Nazis by Jurgen Herbst
The next day I was on my way to Rendsburg. When I arrived in mid-afternoon at the village to which I had been ordered to report I felt I had finally reached my goal. The reception by our company chief, First Lieutenant Preuss, and our staff-sergeant was warm and friendly. By evening I wore my new uniform with the black ribbon Grossdeutschland on its sleeve. As an officer's candidate, I had been assigned my first duty as orderly. By comparison with basic training at Rodewald, my first few weeks in the army were exhilarating. Here, I felt, I was among real soldiers; soldiers as I had imagined them from all the stories Bodo Wacker and my father had told, soldiers who proudly wore the division's name. Our company chief, the sergeant-major, and our other noncommissioned officers were experienced combat soldiers who had earned their decorations and purple hearts on the Eastern front where the division had been mainly engaged. They made it a point to remind us that we were the inheritors of Prussian military tradition and honor; that our division, of which we were the replacement brigade, had grown out of the Berlin Guard Regiment. As we marched along to the training ground we sang the Guard's song:

The name Great Germany on our sleeve, loyalty and honor in our hearts, love to our people and faith in God, willingness to bear arms and endure combat: Yes, we are soldiers and want to remain soldiers, loyal comrades, fighters for the fatherland.

The song expressed my feelings perfectly. Loyalty and honor, love of people, faith in God, commitment to the profession of arms—these were ideals my father and Bodo Wacker had talked about to me as a youngster, these were the ideals I wanted to live by, and now I had my chance. My life as a professional soldier had begun. Yes, I was well aware now that the enemy had entered Germany, the hour was late; that the time of easy victories had long since passed; that soldiers like my father had come to doubt the righteousness of our cause. But not everything was lost, I told myself. We were being groomed to enter the fight in the war's last, decisive hour. I was among soldiers who, I was sure, thought like my father did. We would have the opportunity by our fortitude and commitment to forestall defeat, stamp out corruption, and right the injustices committed in our people's name. No matter how somber the outlook was in mid-March of 1945, we were going to live up to our oath and fight for Germany until the trumpet would call us to desist. It would be up to us to finally force the enemy to a halt and to restore our country's honor and good name.  

Wir tragen den Namen Grofldeutschland am Rock, im Herzen die Treue und Ehre, die Liebe zum Volk und den Glauben an Gott, den Wille zur Waffe und Wehre. Ja, wir sind Soldaten, wollen Soldaten sein und bleiben, Treue Kameraden, Kampfer fiir das Vaterland.

Here, among the soldiers of the division Grossdeutschland, I no longer had to choose. I was on the side of the army whose battle was for Germany, its people, and its honor. No one here ever mentioned the party; everyone, however, was acutely conscious that we, as the army's elite division, were the army's counterforce to the Armed SS, the party's military arm. Though little was said about strained relations with the SS, our song's profession of faith in God and occasional remarks by our noncoms about the SS not living up to German military traditions and giving the German army a bad name made it clear that the division's old soldiers did not think we had any reason to admire or support the Armed SS. The depth of their contempt and hatred for the SS, however, did not show itself until a month later in combat. Then, at a village called Glinstedt, our sergeant-major, the company's most highly decorated noncommissioned officer, ordered us to our battle stations and pointed to an SS antitank battery slightly ahead to our left. Though our field of fire lay to our right, he remarked offhandedly, we could extend it to our left at will. With a smirk on his face he left us in no doubt that he meant what he said.

In Schleswig our infantry combat training lasted exactly one week. At its end, our two companies left our village quarters at night in single file, marched to a nearby railroad yard, and boarded the cars of a freight train for the journey south past Rendsburg and Flensburg. By the time we crossed the curving bridge over the North Sea-Baltic Sea Canal to Hamburg it was daylight. As we passed the anti-aircraft batteries on the bridge towers, we kept our assault rifles at the ready, on the lookout for strafing fighter planes. But the trip remained uneventful, and, toward evening, we disembarked at Sagehorn, a small railroad station east of Bremen. It was dark by the time we marched single file the six miles into Achim. There our training continued for two more days. We were issued our heavy infantry weapons, bazookas, grenade launchers, and machine guns, and were instructed in their use.

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