Nailed to the Swastika

There used to be a time, starting with Frederick the Great and stretching well into World War II, when the Prussian/German military was universally respected, often admired. Foreigners from all over the world flocked to study it—as, for example, US General Emory Upton (The Armies of Europe and Asia, 1878) and British militry author Wilkinson Spenser, (The Brain of an Army, 1895) did. When Japan started modernizing its army in the 1870s it turned to Germany as a matter of course. In several Latin American countries, notably Chile, German military influence is visible (and audible; they love to perform their exercises to Wagner’s music) right down to the present day.

In part, this admiration was due to Germany’s military performance which, starting in 1866. became almost legendary. In part, it was due to the German military spirit. That spirit in turn was anchored in what, in one of my books, I have called Kriegskultur. Kriegskultur is the concrete expression of everything an army fights for. Often the product of centuries of development, some of it spontaneous, some deliberate, it consists of symbols, ceremonies, traditions, and customs; the uniforms, the marching songs, and so on. Between them they form the corset that holds an army together, so to speak. It is they which turn it from a haphazard gathering of unruly men into a cohesive body capable of fighting and, if necessary, dying for the cause.

That, however, was before 1945. True, the War Criminals’ Trials never formally declared the Wehrmacht to be a criminal organization as they did other Nazi organizations, including the Waffen SS. As the years went by and more information came to light, though, its involvement in war crimes—including widespread looting, the extreme mistreatment of Soviet prisoners of war, hostage taking, massacres of civilians, and logistic and administrative support for the extermination of the Jews—became undeniable. This involvement caused German Kriegskultur (military culture), long considered exemplary and widely imitated, to fall under a cloud. More so in Germany, paradoxically, than abroad. To provide just one example, in most other countries models of aircraft, tanks, etc. bearing the swastika can be freely bought and publicly displayed. The same applies to books, magazines, memorabilia etc. Not so in Germany where all of this is verboten and can easily lead to criminal prosecution.

To avoid any association with National Socialism, the Bundeswehr’s bases and casernes were cleansed. Not once but repeatedly as successive ministers of defense sought to leave their impact and make headlines. Statues and paintings and old uniforms, flags and standards and trophies, disappeared as if by magic. So, if certain left-wing critics have their way, will the name of anyone who had served in the Wehrmacht. Take the case of pilot-officer Hans-Joachim Marseille. Marseille, whom no one has ever accused of being involved in war crimes or even of being aware of them, shot down no fewer than 158 enemy aircraft. In 1942, when just 22 years old, he was killed when the engine of his Messerschmidt gave up the ghost. In 1975 he had a Luftwaffe base named after him. Now, if the critics have their way, he will be made into an unperson. Such, such are the rewards for serving the German fatherland.

Perhaps it was inevitable that, as time went on, the cleansing process should stretch backward in time to cover not just the terrible years after 1933 but those before it as well. No one who has visited bases and casernes in many countries, as I have, can fail to notice how utilitarian, how bare, how soul-less, German ones appear in comparison with foreign ones. For example, at the Clausewitz-Caserne in Hamburg, home to the staff college, which I last visited some years ago, one will look in vain for any reference to the commanders who, for good or ill, did so much to make Germany into the country it is. Not to Seeckt. Not to Hindenburg. Not to Ludendorff. Not to Schlieffen. Not to Moltke. Not (which God forbid) to Frederick the Great. Not to any of their subordinates. In the whole of German history, apparently the only conflict to receive the kosher stamp are the Wars of Liberation of 1813-15.

Now minister of defense Ursula von der Leyen has begun yet another round of cleansing. Among the victims is former chancellor and her fellow Social-Democrat Helmut Schmidt. A photograph of him in Wehrmacht uniform—he was a junior officer at the time—is being removed from the Bundeswehr-University which, serving as minister of defense (1969-72), he founded. No doubt it is only a question of time before he too is made into an unperson. As usual, the declared objective is to rid the Bundeswehr from anything that might link soldiers with the past. One must, however, ask where, when, and whether the process will ever stop. Also what the impact on fighting power is going to be; given that, to repeat, an army without a military culture is inconceivable.

Nor is the problem limited to the Bundeswehr alone. By committing the crimes it did in 1933-45, the German people nailed itself to the Swastika. Just as Jesus was nailed to the cross. But Jesus was taken down after only six hours. Not so the German people, which is almost certain to remain where it is as long as human memory lasts. Without respite and without hope of leaving its past behind.

That, I well know, is highly unfair to a great many Germans born before 1927 and to all of those who were born after that date. Including my friends, of whom I am very fond indeed. Nevertheless, being a Jew and an Israeli several of whose family members perished during the Holocaust, in all honesty I cannot see how it can be solved.