Professor Brech tells us about the American treatment of German prisoners after
the war. It is something I did not know about although I knew men who were there
at the time. They said nothing about it. They were English which makes a
General Montgomery gave the No Fraternization command. That is the worst I
that knew from that period. But there is a substantial body of literature on the
subject. The references given at the bottom do exist and confirm the
reality. The Daily Telegraph gives credence to Giles McDonogh as a respectable
and competent historian - see
How Three Million Germans Died After VE Day. He gives the Brits a better
bill of decency than the rest.
PS Professor Brech really is out there, living near New York and confirmed his story when I spoke to him. It seems that he went to visit his grandmother in Germany who said that the American army was so good because there were so many Germans in it.
PPS The Wiki takes a position on James Bacque telling us that he was wrong on many issues but then the Wiki has its agenda.
PPPS See the bibliography under or: American Soldiers Hated Wehrmacht Men - http://historyimages.blogspot.ca/2012/01/american-soldiers-hated-and-brutalised.html with pictures included. See also Eisenhower's Holocaust - His Slaughter Of 1.7 Million Germans
PPPPS What Really Happened takes a position at http://www.whatreallyhappened.info/meadows.html. This is is the view that there were real difficulties in dealing with some 7 million prisoners when civilians were going hungry as well. The Wiki has more at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rheinwiesenlager or Rheinwiesenlager. I read it as propaganda, which ignored the genuine official malice.
PPPPPS See more and better details at Eisenhower and post-war German mass deaths ex Metapedia. The Metapedia is prone to tell the truth where the Wiki will not.
UPDATE: Eisenhower was a mass murderer - see the video, know the truth - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbp61fOVFaE or go to Real History and the Allied Treatment of Prisoners of War
In 'Eisenhower’s Death Camps': A U.S. Prison Guard RemembersMartin Brech
In October 1944, at age eighteen, I was drafted into the U.S. army. Largely because of the “Battle of the Bulge,” my training was cut short, my furlough was halved, and I was sent overseas immediately. Upon arrival in Le Havre, France, we were quickly loaded into box cars and shipped to the front. When we got there, I was suffering increasingly severe symptoms of mononucleosis, and was sent to a hospital in Belgium. Since mononucleosis was then known as the "kissing disease," I mailed a letter of thanks to my girlfriend.
By the time I left the hospital, the outfit I had trained with in Spartanburg, South Carolina, was deep inside Germany, so, despite my protests, I was placed in a “repo depot” (replacement depot). I lost interest in the units to which I was assigned, and don't recall all of them: non-combat units were ridiculed at that time. My separation qualification record states I was mostly with Company C, 14th Infantry Regiment, during my seventeen-month stay in Germany, but I remember being transferred to other outfits also.
In late March or early April 1945, I was sent to guard a POW camp near Andernach along the Rhine. I had four years of high school German, so I was able to talk to the prisoners, although this was forbidden. Gradually, however, I was used as an interpreter and asked to ferret out members of the S.S. (I found none.)
In Andernach about 50,000 prisoners of all ages were held in an open field surrounded by barbed wire. The women were kept in a separate enclosure that I did not see until later. The men I guarded had no shelter and no blankets. Many had no coats. They slept in the mud, wet and cold, with inadequate slit trenches for excrement. It was a cold, wet spring, and their misery from exposure alone was evident.
Even more shocking was to see the prisoners throwing grass and weeds into a tin can containing a thin soup. They told me they did this to help ease their hunger pains. Quickly they grew emaciated. Dysentery raged, and soon they were sleeping in their own excrement, too weak and crowded to reach the slit trenches. Many were begging for food, sickening and dying before our eyes. We had ample food and supplies, but did nothing to help them, including no medical assistance.
Outraged, I protested to my officers and was met with hostility or bland indifference. When pressed, they explained they were under strict orders from “higher up.” No officer would dare do this to 50,000 men if he felt that it was “out of line,” leaving him open to charges. Realizing my protests were useless, I asked a friend working in the kitchen if he could slip me some extra food for the prisoners. He too said they were under strict orders to severely ration the prisoners’ food, and that these orders came from “higher up.” But he said they had more food than they knew what to do with, and would sneak me some.
When I threw this food over the barbed wire to the prisoners, I was caught and threatened with imprisonment. I repeated the “offense,” and one officer angrily threatened to shoot me. I assumed this was a bluff until I encountered a captain on a hill above the Rhine shooting down at a group of German civilian women with his .45 caliber pistol. When I asked, “Why?,” he mumbled, “Target practice," and fired until his pistol was empty. I saw the women running for cover, but, at that distance, couldn't tell if any had been hit.
This is when I realized I was dealing with cold-blooded killers filled with moralistic hatred. They considered the Germans subhuman and worthy of extermination; another expression of the downward spiral of racism. Articles in the G.I. newspaper, Stars and Stripes, played up the German concentration camps, complete with photos of emaciated bodies. This amplified our self-righteous cruelty, and made it easier to imitate behavior we were supposed to oppose. Also, I think, soldiers not exposed to combat were trying to prove how tough they were by taking it out on the prisoners and civilians.
These prisoners, I found out, were mostly farmers and workingmen, as simple and ignorant as many of our own troops. As time went on, more of them lapsed into a zombie-like state of listlessness, while others tried to escape in a demented or suicidal fashion, running through open fields in broad daylight towards the Rhine to quench their thirst. They were mowed down.
Some prisoners were as eager for cigarettes as for food, saying they took the edge off their hunger. Accordingly, enterprising G.I. “Yankee traders” were acquiring hordes of watches and rings in exchange for handfuls of cigarettes or less. When I began throwing cartons of cigarettes to the prisoners to ruin this trade, I was threatened by rank-and-file G.I.s too.
The only bright spot in this gloomy picture came one night when. I was put on the “graveyard shift,” from two to four a.m. Actually, there was a graveyard on the uphill side of this enclosure, not many yards away. My superiors had forgotten to give me a flashlight and I hadn't bothered to ask for one, disgusted as I was with the whole situation by that time. It was a fairly bright night and I soon became aware of a prisoner crawling under the wires towards the graveyard. We were supposed to shoot escapees on sight, so I started to get up from the ground to warn him to get back. Suddenly I noticed another prisoner crawling from the graveyard back to the enclosure. They were risking their lives to get to the graveyard for something. I had to investigate.
When I entered the gloom of this shrubby, tree-shaded cemetery, I felt completely vulnerable, but somehow curiosity kept me moving. Despite my caution, I tripped over the legs of someone in a prone position. Whipping my rifle around while stumbling and trying to regain composure of mind and body, I soon was relieved I hadn't reflexively fired. The figure sat up. Gradually, I could see the beautiful but terror-stricken face of a woman with a picnic basket nearby. German civilians were not allowed to feed, nor even come near the prisoners, so I quickly assured her I approved of what she was doing, not to be afraid, and that I would leave the graveyard to get out of the way.
I did so immediately and sat down, leaning against a tree at the edge of the cemetery to be inconspicuous and not frighten the prisoners. I imagined then, and still do now, what it would be like to meet a beautiful woman with a picnic basket under those conditions as a prisoner. I have never forgotten her face.
Eventually, more prisoners crawled back to the enclosure. I saw they were dragging food to their comrades, and could only admire their courage and devotion.
On May 8, V.E. Day , I decided to celebrate with some prisoners I was guarding who were baking bread the other prisoners occasionally received. This group had all the bread they could eat, and shared the jovial mood generated by the end of the war. We all thought we were going home soon, a pathetic hope on their part. We were in what was to become the French zone [of occupation], where I soon would witness the brutality of the French soldiers when we transferred our prisoners to them for their slave labor camps.
On this day, however, we were happy.
As a gesture of friendliness, I emptied my rifle and stood it in the corner, even allowing them to play with it at their request. This thoroughly “broke the ice,” and soon we were singing songs we taught each other, or that I had learned in high school German class (“Du, du, liegst mir im Herzen”). Out of gratitude, they baked me a special small loaf of sweet bread, the only possible present they had left to offer. I stuffed it in my “Eisenhower jacket,” and snuck it back to my barracks, eating it when I had privacy. I have never tasted more delicious bread, nor felt a deeper sense of communion while eating it. I believe a cosmic sense of Christ (the Oneness of all Being) revealed its normally hidden presence to me on that occasion, influencing my later decision to major in philosophy and religion.
Shortly afterwards, some of our weak and sickly prisoners were marched off by French soldiers to their camp. We were riding on a truck behind this column. Temporarily, it slowed down and dropped back, perhaps because the driver was as shocked as I was. Whenever a German prisoner staggered or dropped back, he was hit on the head with a club and killed. The bodies were rolled to the side of the road to be picked up by another truck. For many, this quick death might have been preferable to slow starvation in our “killing fields.”
When I finally saw the German women held in a separate enclosure, I asked why we were holding them prisoner. I was told they were “camp followers,” selected as breeding stock for the S.S. to create a super-race. I spoke to some, and must say I never met a more spirited or attractive group of women. I certainly didn't think they deserved imprisonment.
More and more I was used as an interpreter, and was able to prevent some particularly unfortunate arrests. One somewhat amusing incident involved an old farmer who was being dragged away by several M.P.s. I was told he had a “fancy Nazi medal,” which they showed me. Fortunately, I had a chart identifying such medals. He'd been awarded it for having five children! Perhaps his wife was somewhat relieved to get him “off her back, ”but I didn't think one of our death camps was a fair punishment for his contribution to Germany. The M.P.s agreed and released him to continue his “dirty work.”
Famine began to spread among the German civilians also. It was a common sight to see German women up to their elbows in our garbage cans looking for something edible -- that is, if they weren't chased away.
When I interviewed mayors of small towns and villages, I was told that their supply of food had been taken away by “displaced persons” (foreigners who had worked in Germany), who packed the food on trucks and drove away. When I reported this, the response was a shrug. I never saw any Red Cross at the camp or helping civilians, although their coffee and doughnut stands were available everywhere else for us. In the meantime, the Germans had to rely on the sharing of hidden stores until the next harvest.
Hunger made German women more “available," but despite this, rape was prevalent and often accompanied by additional violence. In particular I remember an eighteen-year old woman who had the side of her faced smashed with a rifle butt, and was then raped by two G.I.s. Even the French complained that the rapes, looting and drunken destructiveness on the part of our troops was excessive. In Le Havre, we’d been given booklets warning us that the German soldiers had maintained a high standard of behavior with French civilians who were peaceful, and that we should do the same. In this we failed miserably.
“So what?” some would say. “The enemy's atrocities were worse than ours.” It is true that I experienced only the end of the war, when we were already the victors. The German opportunity for atrocities had faded, while ours was at hand. But two wrongs don't make a right. Rather than copying our enemy's crimes, we should aim once and for all to break the cycle of hatred and vengeance that has plagued and distorted human history. This is why I am speaking out now, 45 years after the crime. We can never prevent individual war crimes, but we can, if enough of us speak out, influence government policy. We can reject government propaganda that depicts our enemies as subhuman and encourages the kind of outrages I witnessed. We can protest the bombing of civilian targets, which still goes on today. And we can refuse ever to condone our government’s murder of unarmed and defeated prisoners of war.
I realize it’s difficult for the average citizen to admit witnessing a crime of this magnitude, especially if implicated himself. Even G.I.s sympathetic to the victims were afraid to complain and get into trouble, they told me. And the danger has not ceased. Since I spoke out a few weeks ago, I have received threatening calls and had my mailbox smashed. But its been worth it. Writing about these atrocities has been a catharsis of feelings suppressed too long, a liberation, that perhaps will remind other witnesses that “the truth will make us free, have no fear.” We may even learn a supreme lesson from all this: only love can conquer all.
Martin Brech lives in Mahopac, New York. When he wrote this memoir essay in 1990, he was an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York. Brech holds a master’s degree in theology from Columbia University, and is a Unitarian-Universalist minister.
This essay was published in The Journal of Historical Review, Summer 1990 (Vol. 10, No. 2), pp. 161-166. (Revised, updated: Nov. 2008)
Post-War Apology and Reconciliation
A retired officer in the US army has apologized to the German army for the mass deaths of German prisoners in US army camps after World War Two. Following extensive private investigations in the US and Germany, Merrit P. Drucker has sent an e-mail to Lt. Col. Max Klaar, head of the Verband der deutscher Soldaten (German Veterans’ Association), regretting the lethal conditions in the US camps where some 750,000 Germans died while they were denied available food and shelter.
Drucker has also formed a committee of six people, in Germany, the UK, Canada and the US to pursue further investigations and make amends by way of apologies to the families of the dead, and veterans’ institutions. Drucker’s first e-mail letter has been posted on the veterans’ website where there is also a questionnaire asking for details of prisoners’ internment.
The book Other Losses by James Bacque, which helped to set off the investigation, is being re-issued in an American edition in October. The launch will be held in Washington in the Marriott Hotel where Drucker plans to present a formal letter of apology to Klaar who is flying over for the occasion. Klaar will present in his turn a proposal for a peace treaty between the USA and Germany. It has 14 points. Two films about postwar Germany are included in the program.
Other Losses, a world-wide best-seller published in 13 countries, has been suppressed in the US for over 20 years. The new edition is being published by Talonbooks of Vancouver, whose editor, Karl Siegler, is the son of a former prisoner in a US army camp. When his father told him what had happened to him in the US camp, Siegler said, “I don’t believe you.” He changed his mind after reading Other Losses. Because of such sad events, Lt. Colonel Klaar has said that “Germany is a country of wounded souls.” Many Germans have already written to Major Drucker to thank him for taking a heavy weight of grief and guilt off their minds.
TIME AND PLACE Monday, October 31, 2011, at the Courtyard US Capitol Marriott Hotel, 1325 Northeast Street, Washington, DC 20002, (202) 898-4000. The meeting will be in the Congressional and Monument Rooms. Time TBA.
REQUESTS FOR INTERVIEWS Please contact Talonbooks: (604) 444-4889.
For further information, contact Kevin Williams (firstname.lastname@example.org) or James Bacque at (705) 549-8148 or Merrit P. Drucker at (202) 722-6716
So it really happened. But the author has not fingered the Jew, the criminal that set up the murder of 1.7 million Germans.
How Three Million Germans Died After VE Day
Nigel Jones reviews After the Reich: From the Liberation of Vienna to the Berlin Airlift by Giles MacDonogh
Giles MacDonogh is a bon viveur and a historian of wine and gastronomy, but in this book, pursuing his other consuming interest - German history - he serves a dish to turn the strongest of stomachs. It makes particularly uncomfortable reading for those who compare the disastrous occupation of Iraq unfavourably to the post-war settlement of Germany and Austria.
MacDonogh argues that the months that followed May 1945 brought no peace to the shattered skeleton of Hitler's Reich, but suffering even worse than the destruction wrought by the war. After the atrocities that the Nazis had visited on Europe, some degree of justified vengeance by their victims was inevitable, but the appalling bestialities that MacDonogh documents so soberly went far beyond that. The first 200 pages of his brave book are an almost unbearable chronicle of human suffering.
His best estimate is that some three million Germans died unnecessarily after the official end of hostilities. A million soldiers vanished before they could creep back to the holes that had been their homes. The majority of them died in Soviet captivity (of the 90,000 who surrendered at Stalingrad, only 5,000 eventually came home) but, shamingly, many thousands perished as prisoners of the Anglo-Americans. Herded into cages along the Rhine, with no shelter and very little food, they dropped like flies. Others, more fortunate, toiled as slave labour in a score of Allied countries, often for years. Incredibly, some Germans were still being held in Russia as late as 1979.
The two million German civilians who died were largely the old, women and children: victims of disease, cold, hunger, suicide - and mass murder.
Apart from the well-known repeated rape of virtually every girl and woman unlucky enough to be in the Soviet occupation zones, perhaps the most shocking outrage recorded by MacDonogh - for the first time in English - is the slaughter of a quarter of a million Sudeten Germans by their vengeful Czech compatriots. The survivors of this ethnic cleansing, naked and shivering, were pitched across the border, never to return to their homes. Similar scenes were seen across Poland, Silesia and East Prussia as age-old German communities were brutally expunged.
Given that what amounted to a lesser Holocaust was unfolding under their noses, it may be asked why the western Allies did not stop this venting of long-dammed-up rage on the (mainly) innocent. MacDonogh's answer is that it could all have been even worse. The US Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau, favoured turning Germany into a gigantic farm, and there were genocidal Nazi-like schemes afoot to starve, sterilise or deport the population of what was left of the bombed-out cities.
The discovery of the Nazi death camps stoked Allied fury, with General George Patton asking an aide amid the horrors of Buchenwald: 'Do you still find it hard to hate them?' But the surviving inmates were soon replaced by German captives - Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and even Auschwitz stayed in business after the war, only now with the Germans behind the wire.
It was Realpolitik, not humanitarian concern, that caused a swift shift in western attitudes towards their former foes. Fear of Communism spreading into the heart of Europe, and the barbarities of the Russians - who kidnapped and killed hundreds of their perceived enemies from the western zones of Berlin and Vienna - belatedly made the West realise that they had beaten one totalitarian power only to be threatened by another.
Even that hardline Kraut-hater Patton was sacked for advocating a pre-emptive strike against Russia. Building up West Germany and saving Berlin from Soviet strangulation with the 1948 airlift became the first battles of the Cold War - even if that meant overlooking Nazi crimes and enlisting Nazi criminals in the 'economic miracle' of reconstruction.
Although MacDonogh roundly condemns all the occupying powers, the British emerge with some credit. Apart from one Air Marshal who looted art treasures; and an MI5 interrogator nicknamed 'Tin Eye' Stephens who ran a private torture chamber, British hands may have been grubby, but were not deeply blood-stained. British squaddies preferred to purchase their sex privately with a packet of fags or a pair of nylons, rather than in the Soviet style.
MacDonogh has written a gruelling but important book. This unhappy story has long been cloaked in silence since telling it suited no one. Not the Allies, because it placed them near the moral nadir of the Nazis; nor the Germans, because they did not wish to be accused of whitewashing Hitler by highlighting what was, by any standard, a war crime. Giles MacDonogh has told a very inconvenient truth.
This reinforces Martin Brech's account of American atrocities.
For Further Reading:-
James Bacque ,Crimes and Mercies: The Fate of German Civilians Under Allied Occupation, 1944-1950, Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1997)
James Bacque, Other Losses: An investigation into the mass deaths of German prisoners at the hands of the French and Americans after World War II (Toronto: Stoddart, 1989)
Alfred-Maurice de Zayas, NEMESIS AT POTSDAM: The Anglo-Americans and the Expulsion of the Germans (Lincoln, Neb.: 1990)
Alfred-Maurice de Zayas, A Terrible Revenge, Second Edition, Fully Revised and Updated: The Ethnic Cleansing of the East European Germans, 1944-1950 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994)
John Dietrich, The Morgenthau Plan: Soviet Influence on American Postwar Policy (New York: Algora, 2002)
Ralph Franklin Keeling, Gruesome Harvest - The Allies Postwar War Against the German People (IHR, 1992). Originally published in Chicago in 1947.
Giles MacDonogh, After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation (New York: Basic Books, 2007)
John Sack, An Eye for an Eye: The Story of Jews Who Sought Revenge for the Holocaust (2000)
Mark Weber, New Book Details Mass Killings and Brutal Mistreatment of Germans at the End of World War Two (Summer 2007) ( http://www.ihr.org/other/afterthereich072007.html ) Mr Weber reviews Giles McDonogh's book.
In 'Eisenhower’s Death Camps': A U.S. Prison Guard Remembers
Real History and the Allied Treatment of Prisoners of War
A U.S. PRISON GUARD AT ONE OF "IKE'S DEATH CAMPS"
By Martin Brech
FORTY-FIVE years ago, I witnessed an atrocity: the deliberate starvation of German POWs by our own army. History, written by the victors, suppressed all news of this atrocity until James Bacque, a Canadian author, published his brilliant expose, OTHER LOSSES. This book is a best seller in Canada, a sensation in Europe, yet is virtually unavailable (censored?) in the U.S. Our major booksellers told me their distributors are not handling it. When I prevailed upon a small, independent bookstore to order direct from Canada, the publisher told them they would be the only store in New York State to carry the book. This in 'the land of the free'?"
Fortunately, Pat Buchanan called attention to OTHER LOSSES in his January 10, 1990 column. He wrote:"Conclusion: the U.S. Army killed ten times as many Germans in POW camps as we did on battlefields from Normandy to V.E. day. (German POWs) had their rations cut below survival level until they were dying at rates up to 30% of exposure, starvation and neglect... Red Cross food trains were turned back and U.S. food shipments sat on the docks...One French officer said the U.S. camps reminded him of Dachau and Buchenwald...The book blames Eisenhower. 'The German is a beast,' Ike had written...But that was not how the Canadians and British felt, who treated their prisoners justly...It was not the view of General Mark Clark, nor of Patton...Ignoring the book is not enough."
Pat Buchanan's courageous column inspired me to help end the cover-up of the atrocity I had witnessed. I wrote letters to several newspapers which were, of necessity, short and incomplete. Now I would like to finally free more of my painful memories, hoping to be heard, so that this will help us to acknowledge our share in the "banality of evil", cleansing ourselves with the truth. Perhaps we as a nation may then put this behind us with some integrity and with some hope for redemption.
In October 1944, at age eighteen, I was drafted into the army while a student at the NYS College of Forestry. Largely due to the "Battle of the Bulge", my training was cut short, my furlough cut in half, and I was then immediately sent overseas. Upon arrival in Le Havre, France, we were quickly loaded into boxcars and shipped to the front. By the time we reached it, I had developed mononucleosis severely enough to be sent to a hospital in Belgium.
By the time I left the hospital, the unit I had trained with in Spartenburg, South Carolina was so deeply into Germany that I warn placed in a "repo depo" (a replacement depot) despite my protests. I then lost interest in which units I was assigned to because non-combat units were generally not respected. My separation qualification record states that I served mostly with the 14th Infantry Regiment, during which time I guarded prisoners of war and served as an interpreter. During my seventeen month stay in Germany, I was transferred to other outfits also.
In late March or early April 1945, I was assigned to help guard a POW camp near Andernach along the Rhine. I had four years of high school German, so I was able to talk to the prisoners, although this was forbidden.
Gradually, however, I was used as an interpreter and asked to ferret out the S.S. (I found none.)
In Andernach, between 50,000 and 65,000 prisoners, ranging in age from very young teens to very old men, were crowded together in an open field surrounded by barbed wire. The women were kept in a separate enclosure which I did not see until later. The men I guarded had no tents or other shelter, no blankets and many had no coats. Inadequate numbers of slit trenches were provided for excrement, and so the men lived and slept in the mud and increasing filth during a cold, wet spring. Their misery from exposure alone was evident.
It was even more shocking to see them eating grass, sometimes throwing it into a tin can containing a thin soup. They told me they did this hoping to ease their hunger pains. Soon their emaciation was evident. Dysentery raged and, too weak and crowded to reach the slit trenches, they were increasingly sleeping in excrement. I saw no sign of provision for water, so the thin soup was their food and water for the day. Some days there was bread, less than a slice each. Other days there was nothing.
The sight of so many men desperate for food and water, sickening and dying before our eyes, is indescribable. Even now, I can only think of it momentarily.
We had ample food and supplies that could have been shared more humanely, and we could have offered some medical assistance, but did nothing. Only the dead were quickly and efficiently taken care of: hauled away to mass graves.
My outrage reached the point that I protested to my officers, but I was met with hostility or bland indifference. When pressed, they explained they were under strict orders from "higher up". No officer would dare to systematically do this to over 50,000 prisoners if he felt he was violating general policy and subject to court martial. The term "war criminal" was just beginning to come into fashion.
Realizing my protests were useless, I asked a friend working in the kitchen if he could slip me some extra food for the prisoners. He too repeated that they were under strict orders to severely ration the prisoners' food, and that these orders came from "higher up". But he said they had more food than they knew what to do with and would sneak me some.
When I threw this food over the barbed wires to the prisoners I was caught and threatened with imprisonment. I repeated the "offense", and one officer threatened to shoot me. I naturally assumed this was a bluff, but I began to have some doubts after I encountered a captain on a hill above the Rhine shooting down at a group of German civilian women with his .45 caliber pistol. When I asked, "Why?" he mumbled, "Target practice," and fired until his pistol was empty. I saw the women running for cover, but, at that distance, couldn't tell if any had been hit.
This is when I more fully realized I was dealing with some cold-blooded killers filled with moralistic hatred. They considered the Germans sub-human and worthy of extermination; another expression of the downward spiral of racism. Articles in the G.I. newspaper, Stars & Stripes, played up the Nazi concentration camps, complete with photographs of emaciated bodies; this amplified our self-righteous cruelty and made it easier to imitate behavior we were supposed to oppose. Also, I think, soldiers not exposed to combat were trying to prove how tough they were by taking it out on the prisoners and civilians. At least, many combat soldiers told me later they would not have tolerated this, for they combined hatred with respect for a courageous enemy.
The prisoners I spoke to were mostly simple farmers and workingmen, as ignorant, albeit nationalistic, as many of our own troops. I heard many versions of "my country, right or wrong, my country," which we still hear in our own country today.
As time went on, many of them lapsed into a Zombie-like state of listlessness. Others, maddened by thirst, tried to escape in a desperate or suicidal fashion, running through open fields in broad daylight towards the Rhine to quench their thirst. They were mowed down.
Some prisoners were extremely eager for cigarettes, saying they took the edge off their hunger. Accordingly, some enterprising G.I. "Yankee traders" were acquiring hordes of wrist watches and rings in exchange for handfuls of cigarettes or less. When I began throwing cartons of cigar-ettes to the prisoners to ruin this trade, I found myself threatened by rank-and-file G.I.s also. At least this taught me an indelible lesson: how wrong majorities and authorities can be.
A bright spot in this gloomy picture came, oddly enough, one night when I was put on the "graveyard shift", from two to four A.M. Actually, there was a graveyard on the uphill side of this enclosure, not many yards away. My superiors had forgotten to give me a flashlight and I hadn't bothered to ask, being disgusted with the whole situation by that time. It was a fairly bright night and I soon became aware of a prisoner crawling under the wires to the graveyard. We were supposed to shoot escapees on sight, so I started to get up to warn him to get back. Suddenly I noticed another prisoner crawling from the graveyard back to the enclosure. They were risking their lives to get to the graveyard for something; I had to investigate.
When I entered the gloom of this shrubby, tree-shaded cemetery, I never felt more vulnerable, but somehow curiosity kept me going. Despite my caution, I tripped over the legs of someone in a prone position. Whipping my rifle around while stumbling and trying to regain composure of mind and body, I soon was relieved I hadn't reflexively fired. The figure sat up, moving erratically. Gradually I could see the beautiful but terror-stricken face of a woman with a picnic basket nearby. German civilians were not allowed to feed, nor even come near, the prisoners, so I quickly assured her I approved of what she was doing, not to be afraid, and that I would leave the graveyard to get out of the way, telling no one.
I left the graveyard as quickly as possible and sat down, leaning against a tree at the edge CF the cemetary to be inconspicuous and not frighten the prisoners. I imagined then, and often since, what it would be like to be a prisoner under those conditions and meet a beautiful woman with a picnic basket. I never saw her again, but I have never forgotten her face.
While I watched, more prisoners crawled to and from the enclosure. I saw they were dragging food back to their comrades and could only admire their courage and devotion. As I walked back to my quarters at the end of my shift, a nightingale and I were singing -- both felt a touch of spring.
(I originally did not intend to reveal the following incident, for it moves into a realm termed "mystical". However, for me, it was an extremely significant experience, changing my life, providing a light no darkness can extinguish. It must be told, hoping it will foster understanding.)
On May 8, V.E. day, I decided to celebrate with some prisoners I was guarding who were baking bread, meager amounts of which the other prisoners occasionally received. This group had all the bread they could eat, and shared the jovial mood generated by the end of the war. We all thought we would be going home soon, a pathetic hope on their part. We were in what was to become the French zone, and I later witnessed the brutality of the French soldiers when we transferred our prisoners to them for their slave labor camps (see below).
However, on this day we were happy.
After chatting with them about the potentials of peace for the rest of our lives, I decided to risk a gesture of trust that objectively would seem foolish. I emptied my rifle and stood it in the corner. They tested me further by asking to play with it, and I agreed. Intuitively I felt I could rely on their sense of honor not to attack me, for they knew they too were being tested. This thoroughly 'broke the ice', and soon we were singing songs we taught each other or I had learned in high school German ("Du, du, liegst mir im Herzen"). Out of gratitude, they secretly baked a small sweet bread and insisted I take it, explaining it was the only possible gift they had left to offer. Expressing my gratitude with a lump in my throat, I put it in my tight "Eisenhower jacket" so I could sneak it back to my barracks. I later found an opportunity to eat it outside.
Never had bread tasted more delicious, nor conveyed to me a deeper sense of communion while eating it. A wonderful feeling pervaded me, gently opening me to an intimation of the Oneness of all Being. Through those prisoners I sensed the ~cosmic presence of what has been called the Christ, Buddha-nature, or, perhaps most aptly, the Ineffable: cosmically present, but hidden and apparently separate, until revealed in the wholeness of the giving of the self. Even within the horror humans had created, I was taught a path to redemption may open by taking a first, tentative step in the direction of love, understanding and forgiveness. This above all the prisoners taught me: not only are we all potentially humane humans, there is divinity within us waiting for us to dissolve the defensive shield of ego. I was pleased to discover later the words of Matthew 25:34-46, expressing the potential within prisoners and all who are at our mercy.
Shortly after this experience I was plunged into even greater horror. Some of our weak and sickly prisoners were being marched off by French soldiers to their camp. The truck we were on first passed another truck picking up bodies along the side of the road, and then came up behind a slowly moving column of men. Temporarily we slowed down and remained behind, perhaps because the driver was as shocked as I was. The French soldiers were apparently incensed at the poor condition of our prisoners, not only for labor but for marching to another camp. Whenever a prisoner staggered or dropped back, the French clubbed him to death and then dragged him to the side of the road. For many, this quick death might have been preferable to their prolonged suffering. Even gas would have been more merciful than our murder by neglect in our slow 'killing fields'.
When I saw the German women held in a separate enclosure, I asked why we were keeping them. I was told they were "camp followers", selected as breeding stock for the S.S. to create a super-race. We provided them with tents but they were extremely hungry. I spoke to some and must say they were still spirited and attractive. However, I believe I was objective enough when I told all concerned that I didn't think they deserved our treatment.
As an interpreter, I was able to prevent some particularly unfortunate arrests. One somewhat amusing incident occurred during a pre-dawn raid we conducted on a town to discover Nazis or arms. An old farmer was being dragged away by some soldiers. I was told he had a "fancy Nazi medal", which they showed to me. Fortunately, I had a chart identifying such medals. He had been awarded it for having five or more children! Perhaps his wife was somewhat relieved to get him "off her back", but I didn't think one of our 'death camps' was a fair punishment for his contribution to Germany. The soldiers agreed and released him to continue his "dirty work".
Famine was spreading amongst German civilians also. It was a common sight to see German women up to their elbows in our garbage cans looking for something edible -- that is, when they weren't chased away.
When I interviewed mayors of small towns and villages, I was told their supply of food had been taken away by "displaced persons" (foreigners who had worked in Germany), who packed the food on trucks and drove away. When I reported this, the response was a shrug or an expression of helplessness.
Although the Red Cross coffee and doughnut stands were available everywhere for us, I never saw any Red Cross in the prison camps or helping the civilians. While my girlfriend had all the "contraband" doughnuts she could eat, most Germans had to share their meager hidden stores and wait until the next harvest.
This hunger undoubtedly made many German women more "available", but, despite this, rape was incredibly prevalent and often accompanied by additional violence. I particularly remember a charming eighteen year old girl who had several unsuccessful suitors and was "just friends" with me, who had the side of her face smashed with a rifle butt and was then raped by two G.I.s. The casual shooting of German civilians also continued, usually by drunken soldiers who would tell of this as something amusing. All too many G.I.s gave the impression they were 1ike animals released from cages, free to do what they liked because they were dealing with yet a lower species of animal, a reverse racism, inflamed by our propaganda. However, even the French complained to me that our rape and drunken destructive behavior in their country was excessive. When we had arrived in Le Havre, we had been given booklets instructing us that the Germans had maintained a high standard of behavior with French civilians who were peaceful, and that we should do the same. In this we failed miserably.
So what? we might still say. The enemies' atrocities were worse than ours. Certainly my experiences were only of the last phases of the war, when we were already clearly the victors. The Nazi opportunity for atrocities had faded and ours was unleashed. But we might have learned the simple lesson that two wrongs do not make a right. Perhaps we might even have broken the cycle of vengeful retaliation and unbridled hatred, fed by racism, that has plagued human history and blighted human potential all to long. Instead, we committed our own atrocities and now are clinging to a cover-up. That is why I am speaking out now, forty-five years after the crime. We can never prevent individual war crimes, but we can, if enough of us speak out, influence government policy. We can reject government propaganda that depicts our enemies as subhuman and encourages the kinds of outrages I witnessed. We can protest the bombing of civilian targets, which still goes on today. (I will never forget the sickly sweet smell of rotting human flesh rising from the shattered remains of the cities and towns I entered.) And we can refuse ever to condone our government' s murder of unarmed and defeated prisoners of war.
I realized it's difficult to admit witnessing a crime of this magnitude, especially if implicated oneself. Even G.I .s sympathetic to the victims told me they were afraid to oppose so massive a policy that would surely seek to cover its tracks. I never heard this directly from an officer, but it was the belief of the rank-and-file G.I.s I spoke to that we were not to "talk" because, first, no one would believe us, and second, we would surely get into trouble. They all insisted it was better not to talk, and slowly I too realized it would be futile and dangerous. That is, until now, thanks to James Bacque and Pat Buchanan. This is not to say the danger has passed. Since I "spoke out" recently, my mailbox has been smashed and I have received threatening phone calls. But I believe it is worth the risk. Writing about these atrocities has been a catharsis of feelings suppressed too long, a liberation, and perhaps will remind other witnesses and citizens -that "the truth shall make us free, have no fear." And, in any case, "the truth shall out".
We may even learn a supreme lesson from all this: Hate is self-destructive; only love can conquer and evolve all as One.
Martin Brech (Adjunct Professor, Philosophy & Religion, Mercy College; Ex-G.I., Finally Free)
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Updated on 20/02/2017 11:43