American Views Abroad

Thursday, August 24, 2006
The chattering class in the Sunday newspapers were out in force milking the Guenther Grass admission about his few months of military service. One article was delicious to read. Page Three of Der Tagesspiegel Beichte beim Lieblingsfeind (Confession to a Favorite Foe) by Juergen Schreiber called for being read aloud in parts. It was a tongue-in-cheek report on who is in and out in this small inclusive world at The more interesting and accurate accounts of what was behind Grass being drafted into an elite Nazi troop unit were found in the letters to the editor of that paper. Three letters stood out. The first was by a former interrogator of POWs for the 82 US Division, a German Jewish immigrant. He wrote how he encountered many young Germans who were drafted into the Waffen SS end of 1944 like Grass. His orders were to separate the sheep from the goats - those who were drafted as opposed to those who joined voluntarily for political reasons. He was particularly concerned that those, like Grass, be transferred to a normal prisoner of war camp. They were, after all, 'teenagers'. Another letter writer explained how he was almost drafted into the Waffen SS because in his Navy unit ten had to be chosen for it. Fortunately, he was not one of them. One of the most interesting letters was from a then-23-year-old who described how a General was 'combing' for troops for the front, including the SS. He decided to desert in Denmark instead of joining them. Here is a story journalists should follow. Not enough has ever been reported about those in battle who realize they should never be doing what they are ordered to.

On Tuesday evening ZDF broadcasted a documentary on the Waffen SS. A summary of it can be read in German at,1872,2022078,00.html. It confirmed what the letter writers tried to convey. At first it was a political, volunteer only force which was infamously known for its brutality and atrocities. Later, Himmler was forced to recruit in other countries. Who knew that one of its last troops defending Berlin in 1945 was a Frenchman? It also reported on how it was held up as a role model for the Hitler youth groups, though relatively little of its dark side was reported to the public at large. It was first hand accounts from soldiers home on leave that passed the word around about its true nature.

Untold novels have been written about war. Most don't stand on a pedestal like The Tin Drum. However, some grab readers on a personal level and force them into another reality. Tessa de Loo's The Twins is one such book. Loo, a Dutch writer, portrays twin sisters born in Cologne in the 1920s, and separated in young years because of their parents' death. One ends up with the extended family in Holland, the other on a farm in Germany. They fail to connect to each other over the years for political reasons. Neither can understand the reaction of the other when, for example, one twin admits her late husband was a member of the Waffen SS. Of course, he didn't join it voluntarily, he was drafted into it. For the other the news is so horrible it leaves her stunned. This book, which was later made into a film worth seeing, shows those murky grey areas that entangle lives and relationships. Few things are just black or white, especially in war time.

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