“Only the victors have stories to tell. We, the vanquished, were all cowards and weaklings by then, whose memories, fears, and enthusiasms should not be remembered.”
The Forgotten Soldier
Editions Robert Laffont, 1967; translation copyright 1971 by Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.
The other side was bitter beyond belief.
* * * *
By the spring of 1945, Germany was reduced to a smoldering ruin. One of the most advanced countries in the world saw every one of its cities obliterated into rubble and fire. Basic infrastructure such as water, sewage, electricity, transportation, and communication all but disappeared. Starvation reigned for three years after the Allies occupied Germany in what can only be described as a punitive famine designed for German prisoners of war (POWs) and German civilians alike. The death toll for Germany as a proportion of her population was staggering. For a country of approximately fifty million in 1939, some five million men were killed during the war, and civilian deaths from Allied bombing are estimated at another half a million. Up to two million more were forced into murderous labor in the Soviet Union’s notorious archipelago of prison camps with only a tiny fraction ever returning home.
In the West, the Allied forces committed their form of genocide against German POWs at the little-acknowledged Rheinwiesenlager camps, in which German and Axis prisoners were held in conditions that rivaled the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville. In what was a criminal violation of the Geneva Convention, General Eisenhower’s staff decided that German soldiers should not be classed as POWs, but under a new and fictitious designation of “disarmed enemy forces” (DEFs). As DEFs, rather than POWs, the men were deprived of the Geneva Convention’s protections — they were starved, denied medical attention, and even rudimentary shelter. Although the precise number will never be available, some estimates put one million German POW deaths in Allied post-war concentration camps. German women, especially in the east, suffered the greatest phenomenon of mass rape in history at the hands of the Red Army. Some estimates are that two million German women were raped repeatedly — and almost a quarter of a million died as a result. And it wasn’t simply the Soviets, the U.S. Army is alleged to have raped almost 200,000 German women. And all of this says nothing of another crime against humanity: the ethnic cleansing of Germans through the forced expulsion of some sixteen million ethnic Germans in the former eastern territories of Germany (lost during either the First or Second World War — Austria-Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Czechoslovakia).
Most of this is not known — or certainly ever talked about — by even those with a passing knowledge of World War II.
But all of this happened: what is shown cumulatively is that very few nations were destroyed to the extent that the German nation was destroyed during and after World War II. Wars often result in a terrible toll for the vanquished: what happened to Germany after World War II rivals almost anything in history. Nevertheless, what I have written would strike many as curious in the latter-day West; after all, who cares? Why would anybody bother with cataloging the suffering of Germans — especially after the Second World War? The implied but overwhelming sentiment is that if terrible things happened to German people during and after the war, Germany was egregiously culpable, and empathy should be our last concern. After all, they were “Nazis,” and the mere incantation of “Nazis” implicitly excuses any atrocity committed against Germany during or after the war. Popular albeit dubious books have been written such as Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Goldhagen, which argued in 1996 that the vast majority of ordinary Germans were “willing executioners” in the Holocaust because of a unique and virulent “eliminationist antisemitism” in German political culture. This type of sentiment is widely shared and widely disseminated such that the word “Nazi” has obtained a currency of almost demonic, sub-human proportions.
If this sounds like an idea alien to a Catholic ethos, it most certainly is.
To be interested or even empathetic to the enormous scale of German suffering is to invite suspicion that the humanizer must himself suffer from the same type of moral degeneracy as the Nazis themselves. Simply stated, taking stock of German wartime or post-wartime suffering — whether it be, for example, allied war crimes like the Dresden firebombing or the appalling treatment of German POWs by the Allied forces in the west or by “Uncle Joe” and the Soviet Union in the east — is verboten in polite Western company. Not, of course, as strictly verboten as questioning the scale or extent of the Holocaust, but verboten, nonetheless. For “conservatives” who now clutch their pearls at the excesses of contemporary “cancel culture,” the mirage of “free speech,” and the destruction of individuals for the espousal of unpopular or unconventional opinions, they do not seem to realize that “cancel culture” has been around for a very, very long time in the United States.
Alas, it doesn’t matter much to me anymore.
Germanic blood — along with that of the Celtic and Nordic peoples — courses through my veins. Far from being ashamed of it, I honor it. As I have gotten older — and less Americanist — I have come to appreciate my ancestry and the history of my people. The first principle of deracination is to uproot a man from his family and the communitarian aspect of his heritage — so, it follows, the first remedy against the deracinating impact of Americanism is to re-root me within my people and culture. For the sake of the obvious, such a reflowering of affection for a people and culture is not tantamount to a supremacist notion. My family and my heritage aren’t better than anyone else’s; it is just my own. Thus, I deny no man the right to glory in his heritage and ancestors, but I refuse to countenance those who would deny me the same. I do not have to justify the sympathy that I feel acutely for the plight of my extended kin, and yes, my kin are Europeans.
As a Catholic by spirit and a European by blood, it is enough for me to lament the horrors of World War II, which, like the First World War, was an unmitigated killing field for the people who made up Western Civilization — my birthright. I feel for the sufferers no matter where they lived or to what European nation they belonged. More to the point, as a Catholic, vengeance is not mine; I do not carry it against my enemy and I certain do not carry it against my kin. We all know that Germany lost and paid an horrific price in blood, soil, and reputation. And yet look at the dystopia which we have inherited. The Anglo-American world order of internationalist bankers, war profiteers, and industrialists won, and that order was imposed the world over. It is only now when the wretchedness and moral depravity at the heart of that order is being exposed are some — really a few — Americans waking up to a different narrative altogether. But here too the rabbit hole extends much deeper than we might imagine.
Much of what we “know” and believe about the Second World War is the overhang of grotesque anti-German propaganda manufactured in London, Washington, and Moscow during the war. It is hard to separate fact from fiction in this regard. Indeed, it is amazing how such propaganda can lose its palpable absurdity and morph over time into axiomatic “reality” — and a reality that cannot be questioned without suffering enormous consequences. The undeniable fact is that there are wide swaths of “history” that are morally beyond question, and which have obtained a quasi-religious status of an orthodoxy that can only be scrutinized if we are comfortable with the status of a secular heretic. What we must accept as unquestionable “fact” as it relates to German war crimes is therefore problematic on several levels. The issue is that even questioning the veracity, or the extent, of German war crimes is to expose oneself to the charge of “denialism,” as if critical scholarship itself that serves to find the truth is somehow dangerous. The problem becomes all the more acute when those who are defamed are in no position to rebut the absurdities because they are, well, dead. But then again much of what we know about most of U.S. history is so slanted that it borders on fabrication if it is not in fact a fabrication. It is incredible that most American “conservatives” still believe reflexively that Americans have always been the “good guys.” It is even more unbelievable for American Catholics to believe it. For my part, it is a childish naiveté and credulity that I find it more and more difficult to stomach the older I become. It is a testament to our brainwashing and conditioning that we lack even the rudiments of curiosity. At least since the Trump presidency, many Americans realize that the press and media are complete shills and liars. Seemingly the only good development in recent years has been the catastrophic loss of trust in American institutions of every variety. Such trust was always misplaced. Yes, the time will come for a reevaluation of everything that we were taught, but that time is not now — our cultural censors will not allow it, and the vast majority of our people are, to put it bluntly, too stupid to seek it.
Now, some eighty years after the war, I feel no incentive to continue moral leprosy attributed to Germany when I stare now into the abyss of the American leviathan. Indeed, I have never been more estranged from the country of my birth than I am today. Moreover, even if I contextualize it, the horror of Stalin’s Soviet Union was much worse than Hitler’s National Socialism. That sentiment alone puts me in a category of the grossly immoral — a thought criminal by any conventional standard. Even if I concede their equality (which I do not), the support of the United States and Great Britain enabled the U.S.S.R. to continue enslaving millions of Russians and enslaving millions more other Europeans after WWII. Where is the “Truth & Reconciliation” committee for those crimes? If all Germans are responsible for Nazism, who then is responsible for the murderous monstrosity of the Soviet Union? Where is their commensurate excommunication? Whatever Germany did — or was alleged to have done — she paid for it richly. To use a Yiddish expression that I learned from an Orthodox Jew, it is time for rachmones, which means four things in one: mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and empathy. Typically, rachmones is something Jews only afford to other Jews based upon ties of blood and faith; here, I do the same for those whom I am tied to by blood and faith.
* * * *
When I was a young man, I raised my right hand and repeated the oath of enlistment to join the United States military. To preserve my obscurity, I will not belabor the details. That said, the act strangely stays fixed in my memory. It was not in a fit of patriotism that I did it although that played a small role. I was in the middle of college — home for Christmas break. At the time, and as mediated through a nineteen-year-old brain, I joined the military because, at least then, I wanted to become a history professor. My surmise was that having some facility and familiarity with the military and its culture would be helpful to that future career. The G.I. Bill would also help me finish college. I viewed myself as something akin to an academic observer of the military who would learn of it on-the-job, as it were. While I did not enlist to write a story, like George Plimpton’s Paper Lion, I joined to learn about the military more than to ever be in it — almost as if it were a sociological experiment. Only later, in the midst of it, did I realize how ridiculous that sentiment was, and only then did I think I should have joined because it was good in its own right.
My interest in history and my experience in the military, however, has never meant that I had an interest in the military or military life per se. Truth be told, the passions of my intellectual life have always vacillated between history, religion, politics, and philosophy. Stories of war for the sake of thinking about war held little appeal to me. As a boy at heart, bright, shiny metal things always grab my attention, so I occasionally find myself looking up pictures of armor, planes, tanks, jets, ramparts, or missiles but even this is ephemeral. Now, I have read seemingly hundreds of books on various wars, but I always read them in the context of movements of history, religion, and ideology. I have worn out all the titles I could find on the U.S. Civil War, WWI, and WWII. I have read book after book on the Crusades, the Reconquista, and other European wars. I have read Thucydides and Xenophon. I have read about Carthage and Actium. I have read about Malta and Lepanto. While some of them involve the unique suffering and trauma of being a warrior or a soldier, I never read them for that purpose. To put it bluntly, the “soldier’s story” genre of writing never interested me much, and neither did the strategy or tactics of war or the implements of war used. Indeed, I usually gloss over the pages of maps in such war books marked by arrows and troop movements.
My opinion of this genre, however, may change. In recently reading Guy Sajer’s memoir of a German soldier’s experience on the Russian front, The Forgotten Soldier, I must admit that I have found a book that moved me as few books of any genre have. It is as powerful as it is devastating — from start to finish — as anything that I have read, which is no small feat. When I take it all in, it is not the genre per se that makes this book what it is — no, it is a story of a soul subjected to suffering and deprivation that is almost incomprehensible coupled with an ability to communicate that suffering. As an inveterate reader, I say the following with some experience: sometimes a book “hits” a reader at a particular point in which the book was exactly what the reader wanted. Such moments in a reader’s life are relatively rare but the pure serendipity of finding something that you were looking for is similar to finding the pearl of great price. And, for whatever reason, I wanted to read this book. So, I realize that my praise of the book is flavored by the serendipitous time in which I read it. But all the same, I loved The Forgotten Soldier. Like any story, anguish is all too human and all too humanizing — in one way or another, it marks our time as fallen men. That type of story, which can take place in war but need not, is something if honestly presented by a sensitive soul that has the power to change us. But the reality is, however, that this is a consummate war book — and a war book that chronicles some of the most beastly modern warfare ever fought. And as the resting place for so many fallen comrades, it is a book that Sajer insists that we treat venerably as if we are walking hallowed literary ground. He tells us so bluntly in the beginning that this is no ordinary story:
Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual. One should really read such accounts under compulsion, in discomfort, considering oneself fortunate not to be describing the events in a letter home, writing from a hole in the mud. One should read about war in the worst circumstances, when everything is going badly, remembering that the torments of peace are trivial, and not worth any white hairs. Nothing is really serious in the tranquility of peace; only an idiot could be really disturbed by a question of salary. One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!
Truth be told, I understood from the beginning that Sajer was also no ordinary writer. But even if it is a book of death and war, a great book such as this one can be likened to a romance — a fit of love in a life otherwise ordinarily led. Such a book need not be a romance — all it needs to do is make us take stock of our lives and see the world through another’s eyes. If that is at least one test of a great book, The Forgotten Soldier is truly a great book. And I can say now that The Forgotten Soldier is a book that I will read again — and again — and that is something I can say of very few books.
* * * *
The Forgotten Soldier is the memoir of Guy Sajer (pseudonym of Guy Mouminoux). It was written about twenty years after the war in a style that reads very much like a novel — Sajer reconstructs dialogue that it is difficult to imagine that he remembered with precision. Dates and places are often obscure — and it is implicit that the “fog of war” enveloped and excused his inability to tell something akin to a dispassionate narrative of his history in the Wehrmacht. His style of writing, perhaps in translation from French, can be repetitive at times, at least in terms of the frequent use of certain descriptors over and over again. That said, it has the feel of someone who was there, and I found authenticity in the arc of his descriptions. While some have accused Mouminoux of inventing The Forgotten Soldier out of whole cloth, the book never struck me as something that even hinted at fraud. The book indeed recounts so many near-misses of death — so many close encounters — that one is almost incredulous that anyone could have survived what he describes. Indeed, some critics of the book claim that it reads like the recounting of every soldier’s tale of woe in the east stitched together for drama and effect. To that I would respond the if someone survived the successive retreats from near the Volga to the Baltic Sea over three years, the account is more or less what I would expect. The incredulity is not in the account but that anyone survived. Moreover, the men that did survive would tell similar stories to what Sajer writes. The fact of their survival necessarily means that they were “lucky” compared with the hundreds of thousands who did not. The incredible nature of his survival then is not an argument against the book. We would not have had it otherwise.
Mouminoux was born in 1927 in Lorraine to a French father and German mother, whose maiden name was Sajer. He died in his mid-nineties in 2022 and found fame as a cartoonist and artist in France — and as a writer of The Forgotten Soldier. His mixed Alsatian ancestry looms large throughout the book. In 1942, as a young teenager, Mouminoux joined the Wehrmacht under his mother’s maiden name evidently to accentuate his German ancestry. In the beginning, he offers a glimpse of who he thought he was alongside portents of what was to follow:
Guy Sajer … who are you?
My parents were country people, born some hundreds of miles apart — a distance filled with difficulties, strange complexities, jumbled frontiers, and sentiments which were equivalent but untranslatable. I was produced by this alliance, straddling this delicate combination, with only one life to deal with its manifold problems. I was a child, but that is without significance.
The problems I had existed before I did, and I discovered them. Then there was the war, and I married it because there was nothing else when I reached the age of falling in love. I had to shoulder a brutally heavy burden. Suddenly there were two flags for me to honor, and two lines of defense — the Siegfried and the Maginot — and powerful external enemies. I entered the service, dreamed, and hoped. I also knew cold and fear in places never seen by Lilli Marlene. A day came when I should have died, and after that nothing seemed very important. So I have stayed as I am, without regret, separated from the normal human condition.
It was not clear to me whether he enlisted or was conscripted. What is clear is that he volunteered for the Luftwaffe but was not accepted. After his initial training, Sajer was sent to a logistics/transportation unit (the Rollbahn) to load and drive trucks bringing supplies to the front in southern Russia. In the Rollbahn, he met several other men who would become his close companions throughout the war. He chronicles the war from his training through the destruction of the German army in the East to his brief sojourn and surrender in the West. The three years he recounts, almost all of which take place in the East, are the most gut-wrenching account of the war that I have ever read. Even though the book is virtually an uninterrupted story of privation, death, suffering, and misery, I was crestfallen to leave Guy Sajer — and for me, the sorrow at finishing a book is one of the telltale signs of its quality and poignancy.
* * * *
Part One (Autumn, 1942). The Forgotten Soldier starts in earnest with Sajer’s mission to supply the German front in Russia as a member of the Rollbahn. It seems clear, although unstated, that teenagers, older men, and disabled veterans were assigned to these logistics and supply support units at this point in the war. Sajer, as a teenager probably still baby-faced, was assigned to this unit. The dangerous trek of supplies and war matériel, which were shipped by train, truck, and beast of burden, was made over an incredible distance with the ultimate destination being the Sixth Army in Stalingrad. Most of the journey was made in the company of his new companions: Lensen, Olensheim, Neubach, and Hals, who spoke French.
The journey made during the late fall of 1942 into the early winter is itself a demonstration of the sheer logistical nightmare of what an invasion and occupation of a country the size of Russia meant. Warsaw to Stalingrad on the banks of the Volga River is more than 1,500 miles in distance — and this distance was traversed using 1940s diesel trucks on practically non-existent Soviet roads in cold that rivals the Artic circle. Sajer is candid in his view that he was not ready for the privations that the war was already imposing on him; he writes, “I can remember crying out between bursts of sobs: I’m too young to be a soldier.” The immensity of the logistical problems associated with just Sajer’s description of the small part he played in supplying troops along the far-flung Soviet front is a microcosm of why, even after success after success in the beginning, Germany’s defeat of the Soviet Union was always so precarious. The theme of the sheer and unforgiving expanse of Russia is played out over and over again throughout the book.
His unit faced considerable difficulty in managing to remain supplied and the transportation situation—grave to begin with—was seriously hampered by the freezing temperatures and constant snow. Temperatures that plummeted to twenty degrees below zero, diesel trucks that would not start, inadequate clothing and the accompanying frostbite, inadequate shelter, and wool gloves that became filled with holes from constant shoveling of snow were only part of the misery that was the Russian winter for the ill-prepared Sajer. He recounted the effect that the first dead body — a Soviet soldier — had on him on his initial trip east. The irony is not lost on the memoirist in Sajer — he would see many, many more. The soldiers suffered much from the cold and their freezing is a major preoccupation of this part. The Russian cold remained a thematic element throughout the book considering that Sajer went through three more winters before the end of the war, but the maddening cold is a constant refrain initially. It seems to me that the cold takes center stage early because it was Sajer’s first true enemy and he was ill-prepared to face it — later, combat, death, illness, exhaustion, and hunger would become enemies in a degree proportionate to the punishing cold. But here, it is one page after another of what, for example, a midnight watch is like in conditions of thirty-five degrees below zero.
Toward Stalingrad, Sajer’s traveled from Bialystok to Minsk, on to Kiev, and finally to Kharkiv. Surviving a few firefights, Sajer reached the eastern front to resupply fighting units only to learn that the Sixth German Army commanded by Field Marshall Paulus had been encircled and captured at Stalingrad. As if to anticipate what will come, Sajer foreshadowed the expected brutality that he can expect forthwith in the words of a desperate message from a trapped soldier in Stalingrad that a German officer reads to the assembled men as proof of German valor; it is:
We are the last seven survivors in this place. Four of us are wounded. We have been entrenched in the wreckage of the tractor factory for four days. We have not had any food for four days. I have just opened the last magazine for my automatic. In ten minutes the Bolsheviks will overrun us. Tell my father that I have done my duty, and that I shall know how to die. Long live Germany! Heil Hitler!’
Sajer recounted the horrors of the fighting that followed the fallout from the Wehrmacht’s defeat at Stalingrad and the first retreat from the Don. After Stalingrad, Sajer introduces a theme that will play a larger role as the book progresses and the German prospects deteriorated: namely, defeatism. As the war began to turn against Germany and the slow retreat westward was ordered, Sajer notes how a change occurred in the attitudes of German soldiers from staunch patriotism towards the will to survive regardless of ideologies and leaders. He notes after Stalingrad how the “older men were, generally speaking, defeatist, while the younger ones were determined to liberate their comrades,” probably because the younger soldiers had yet to witness the horrors of war.
There is an irony here that has application beyond Sajer’s observation; the young are almost always more instinctively heroic than the old — and the old cling to life much more tenaciously than the young. Sajer, as a very young man, exemplified anti-defeatism early on in the war, which was evident by his anger at an older soldier for feeling relieved about the surrender at Stalingrad, although his attitude later changed as he and his comrades became battle-hardened and battle-scarred veterans. It is not surprising to me that an older German soldier might have expressed relief at the prospect of not having to relieve Stalingrad with its building-to-building fighting — but it is cowardly all the same, i.e., better than a half million soldiers are annihilated than I face death to help them. Later the war would chasten his enthusiasm; Sajer said he and his comrades, fighting on the Second Dnieper Front against a superior Russian army, that they “no longer fought for Hitler, or National Socialism, or the Third Reich. … We fought from simple fear … for reasons which are perhaps shameful, but are, in the end, stronger than any doctrine.”
During this first retreat, Sajer’s first true friend in the army, Ernst Neubach, was killed by Soviet strafing in a truck driven by Sajer filled with seriously wounded men. If the first dead body witnessed by Sajer shocked him with almost morbid curiosity and wonder, this death, while far from the last, broke him. During this first retreat and Neubach’s death, we catch a glimpse of Soviet air superiority and the havoc that it wreaked over German supply lines. Part of the terror of the book is that the men looked to the sky with dread because the Soviet planes always meant death for some of them. The Luftwaffe, while almost always superior to the Soviet air force when it was available, was outnumbered by a factor of 10 by the time Sajer and his compatriots began their retreat from the environs of Stalingrad. Later in the war, the German planes would be outnumbered by a factor of 100 and the buzz of planes in the sky always portended death from above. Neubach’s death, which took place in Sajer’s arms, was awful. He refused to accept the death of his friend and stopped the convoy with manful moxie to demand that someone treat his mortally wounded friend. The men of the convoy, which had to make good time to simply survive were incredulous that one more dying German amid so many wounded and dying men (who suffered without any care) should stop their progress. The entire episode was a brutal juxtaposition of personal anguish with the general insensitivity to great suffering. In the end, Sajer’s will prevailed; his demands were met and Neubach’s body was “buried” in a shallow grave while Sajer looked on in stupefied disbelief. Even in the mortars and shells, in the cold and hunger, the war became real for Sajer through the death of a friend in his arms. The progression of the memoir is one devastating blow after another for Sajer and his companions. The account itself is a testament to the incredible limits of human suffering and the capacity for finding some reason — really any reason — to put one foot in front of the other in the face of truly horrendous circumstances.
Appendix: The Historical Context of The Forgotten Soldier.
Sajer’s account from 1942 to 1945 requires some historical context to appreciate his situation. The German Empire was cobbled together from varying German-speaking principalities and independent states under the leadership of Prussia in 1871. Coincidentally, Italy completed its national unification in the same year. The union of Germany was hastened by the stunning success of the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870–71. In the final days of the war, with German success all but assured, the German union was proclaimed as the German Empire under the Prussian King Wilhelm I and Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Except for Austria, almost all German speakers were united in a nation-state for the first time. Parenthetically, the word Reich is almost always translated into English as “empire,” but this definition, which has its imperial baggage, is not quite accurate. The word conveys meaning more akin to realm or domain — as in the Reich is the realm of the Germans. While Reich could be expansive and imperial, it need not be. The Treaty of Frankfurt that ended the Franco-Prussian War gave most of Alsace and parts of Lorraine, the Franco-German borderland between both countries, to Germany. It would remain under German sovereignty for the next fifty years until it was returned to France after the First World War. Alsace-Lorraine and its uniquely fused Franco-German character figure prominently in The Forgotten Soldier.
Without getting into the particulars of the causes of the First World War that began in August 1914, it is one of the few wars for which culpability is difficult to assign. For a war that ruined a continent (Europe) and destroyed a race (Europeans), it is disconcerting that such a war and carnage of untold proportions lacks a villain. It was simply a suicidal slaughter of epic proportions for no reason at all — yet the modern world as we know it was largely born in the aftermath of the First World War. Four empires ceased to exist and were carved up after the war (Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Ottoman) and many new sovereign countries were born out of their carcasses. Marxism-Leninism was first implemented at the level of a sovereign state in the husk of the former Russian Empire in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, which unleashed untold sorrows for the world. Even today, as it relates to the intersection of borders and ideology, the Ukrainian-Russian conflict has its antecedents in the aftermath of World War One.
After four years of bitter fighting, a staggering death toll (on all sides), the entry of the United States against Germany in 1917, and the mass starvation of the German population in which some half a million civilians died of hunger brought about by the British naval blockade, the German government capitulated to an armistice famously signed on the eleventh day of the eleventh month (11/11/1918) or what we now know as Veteran’s Day in the United States. Armistice Day, as it used to be known, concluded in the infamous Treaty of Versailles in which much of the German Empire was dismembered, impoverished, and degraded. For a country that surrendered without ever being occupied and without being at fault for the war in any meaningful sense, Versailles was viciously and stupidly one-sided.
To compare the borders of the German Empire to its borders today (or its borders after Versailles) is to see the sheer extent of diminution of the German state. Millions of Germans were left outside of the newly shrunken Germany in 1919 — and left in new sovereign countries such as Poland and Czechoslovakia. Prussia was carved up in particular. The cutting up of the German Empire to form new countries led to certain geographic anomalies: one of the larger German cities, the ancient port city of Danzig in East Prussia (now the Polish city of Gdansk), where some half million Germans lived as some 90% of its population, was cut off completely from the post-WWI German state and administered under Polish rule as a “free city-state.” To look at a map today is to see how far inside Poland Gdansk is — or, stated differently, how far Germany once extended. The famous “Sudetenland Crisis” in 1938, which concluded in the Munich Conference and Germany’s reabsorption of the Sudetenland (and its some three million ethnic Germans) from Czechoslovakia, was prompted by Versailles’s removal of those same Germans from the post-WWI German state. For a war that brought the world horrendous misery and destruction without sensible culpability, the grossly unfair obligations, terms, and national dismemberments of Versailles imposed by the victors (the Allied French, Germans, Americans, and Italians) at the expense of the vanquished (Germany, Austria-Hungry, and Ottomans) were, in hindsight, idiotic and immoral. If an honorable peace had been struck, there is little doubt that World War II would have never been fought.
Among many other reasons, Adolf Hitler’s rise to power is difficult to imagine without the humiliating specter of Versailles haunting Germany. Similarly, the rise of Marxism-Leninism in the Soviet Union and the threat that the Reds represented to Germany and other western European countries was another enormous factor as well. To make this point, it is worthwhile to revisit the party platform of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the “NSDAP” or “Nazis”) that eventually swept the Nazis into power. Like all political parties, the Nazis put forward a program based on values, grievances, and vision. To read it now — or at least parts of it — almost a century later is to understand its appeal. It is noteworthy that the first three and a subsequent one of that platform deal expressly with Versailles (1–3, 22).
- We demand the union of all Germans to form the Greater Germany on the basis of the people’s right to self-determination enjoyed by the nations.
- We demand equality of rights for the German people in its dealings with other nations; and abolition of the peace treaties of Versailles and St. Germain.
- We demand land and territory (colonies) for the sustenance of our people and colonization for our superfluous population.
- We demand abolition of the mercenary troops and formation of a national army.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of the Treaty of Versailles in the rise of the Nazis in Germany. And from a foreign policy perspective, everything that Germany pursued during the interwar period after the accession of Adolf Hitler in 1933 involved the reversal of the injustice done to Germany at Versailles and the restoration of Germany on terms similar to any other country. It is important to note that many non-Germans agreed that Germany’s grievances were legitimate. What is often overlooked is the success by hook or crook of the Third Reich’s attempt to reconstitute the extent and domains of Germany following Versailles: the reoccupation and remilitarization of German territory in the Rhineland (March 1936); German annexation of Austria or Anschluss (March 1938); German annexation of the Sudetenland following the Munich Conference (September 1938); and the return of the former Prussian territory of Memelland (now Klaipėda) (March 1939). (The siege of Memel in late 1944 and early 1945 figures prominently in The Forgotten Soldier.)
However, it is worth noting that Hitler’s final attempt to reconstitute Germany from its dismemberment following World War One ultimately led to World War Two. The precipitating factor was a diplomatic crisis over Danzig. Point 13 of President Woodrow Wilson’s infamous “14 Points” demanded that: “[a]n independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.” By “access to the sea,” Wilson meant that Danzig, a thoroughly German city, and its deep-water port, should be ceded to Poland after the war. During the post-war negotiations, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George opposed Poland’s demand to take Danzig because its population was almost exclusively German. In a compromise, the Great Powers agreed that Danzig would become a “Free City” that would belong to neither Germany nor Poland, but both would have special rights in the city. The interwar status of Danzig was never clear: no one could agree whether it was a sovereign state, a state without sovereignty, a protectorate of Poland, or a protectorate of the League of Nations. The loss of Danzig — the so-called “Amsterdam of the East” — significantly wounded Germany’s national pride during the interwar period. It is not an exaggeration to compare it to wrenching Venice from Italy, Calais from France, or Manchester from England. For more than a year before the outbreak of World War Two in September 1939, negotiations over returning Danzig to Germany continued in what can only be described as a haphazard way: the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Poland navigated German demands and Polish refusals intermixed with threats of war and war guarantees.
Polish intransigence over Danzig proved its — and eventually Germany’s — catastrophic downfall. The invasion of Poland is inextricably tied to its refusal to return Danzig, an overwhelming German city both demographically and historically, to Germany. Considering the misery endured by the Poles and the Germans — and considering further that World War II was the deadliest military conflict in history with, by some estimates, some seventy million people perishing, was such intransigence worth it? While it is beyond absurd to blame Poland for World War II, I have often wondered if Poland knew her fate in defying what was to many at the time as reasonable German demands. If she knew that she would be smashed and occupied by the Soviets and Nazis and then subjected to almost fifty years of iron-fisted Soviet rule thereafter, would she have acted as defiantly over Danzig?
Given the cataclysm that was World War II, the anti-war phrase, “Why die for Danzig?, popularized on the eve of World War II in a Parisian newspaper, proved to be more than prophetic. It reflected a widespread view that Danzig, as a historically German city, ought to be returned to Germany, and, in any event, a dispute over Danzig ought not to serve as the impetus for World War II. Setting aside German colonies seized after WWI and some scattered Germans living throughout Poland, Danzig represented the last major enclave of Germans left outside of the Reich that was cut off as a result of Versailles. Perhaps Hitler would have made yet still more demands for Germany if Poland had capitulated on the question of Danzig’s return to the Reich, but we will never know.
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World War II began on September 1, 1939, with the German invasion of Poland. Only ten days earlier, the Soviet Union and the Third Reich signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact on August 23, 1939 — the public part of the pact provided for non-aggression between the powers; the non-public protocols divided up eastern Europe in Soviet and Nazi spheres of influence following the expected defeat of Poland. Two and a half weeks after the German invasion began from the West, the Soviets invaded Poland from the east on September 17, 1939, and the two powers essentially split the former country into two. Notably, France and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany for its invasion on September 3, 1939, but remained remarkably circumspect when the Soviets invaded Poland just weeks later. Without an eastern flank to worry about compliments of the German-Soviet Pact, Hitler took the step to launch the war without hesitation. In less than nine months following, Hitler would smash the Allied forces in the West in May 1940 — driving the British into a perilous and crushing retreat from Dunkirk and the French into a humiliating armistice after overrunning the country. By the summer of 1940, Hitler controlled or was allied with, virtually all of Western and Central Europe except the British Isles. The British, now fighting Germany alone, valiantly defended her home islands during the fall of 1940 in the Battle of Britain but continued to lose battles and ground to the Axis forces throughout the various theaters of the war. The success of the Germans pushed the British to the brink; had the war not broken out between the Germans and the Soviets during 1941 and had the Axis powers pivoted instead towards Persia and the lifeblood of oil for the British Empire, it is more than possible that Britain would have sued for peace given its perilous position. But Hitler’s monumental decision to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941 strengthened Churchill’s resolve to continue the fight now that Germany would be engaged on two fronts. More than that, Germany’s decision decided the fate of Europe — and the world — for generations to come.
But even the step to attack the U.S.S.R. taken by the Germans is little understood. As a sidebar, one book that describes the Soviet-German conflict in a way that is both convincing and controversial is The Chief Culprit: Stalin’s Grand Design to Start World War II by Viktor Suvorov, a former Soviet intelligence officer. Suvorov describes Operation Barbarossa as a preemptive defensive war by the Germans in response to an imminent invasion by the Soviets. Suvorov discredits the theory that Stalin was duped by Hitler or that the Soviet Union was a victim of Nazi aggression. Instead, he argues that Stalin neither feared Hitler nor mistakenly trusted him. He shows how Hitler’s intelligence services detected the Soviet Union’s massive preparations for war against Germany. This detection, he argues, led to Germany’s proactive war plan and the launch of an invasion of the Soviet Union. He argues that the reason the Soviets performed so poorly at the beginning of the war was because they were assembled, in mass with enormous numbers of troops and amounts of war material, on the Western border in preparation for an invasion. Hitler’s largely unexpected attack enveloped a massive force unprepared for a defensive war that was promptly encircled and annihilated. Suvorov goes so far as to claim that had the Germans not attacked and pushed the Soviets back as far as they did, all of Western Europe up to the Atlantic Ocean would have been behind the Iron Curtin.
Operation Barbarossa was the largest invasion force ever assembled and it initially demonstrated again the successes of the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe — pushing the Soviets back to Moscow and Leningrad in the north and Stalingrad in the south. Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic countries were completely occupied by Axis forces. By the end of 1941, some 700,000 square miles of Soviet territory and almost six million Soviet POWs were in German hands. By the end of 1941, even with the American entry into World War II, a decisive German victory over the Soviet Union seemed not merely likely but almost certain.
For many reasons, not the least of which was the intoxicating spirit of victory and the opportunity to fight the menace of communism and the diabolical Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht in 1941 was an attractive prospect for young men throughout much of Western Europe — and hundreds of thousands of non-Germans joined and fought either in Wehrmacht or the Waffen SS. In addition, it is estimated that more than a million Soviet citizens fought in the German forces against the Soviet Union when allowed to escape the Soviet yoke. Parenthetically, the current crisis in Ukraine is, at least by some measures, a continuation of the resistance of the Western Ukrainians against the Russo-Soviets. Much as Vladimir Putin likes to point out, it is a fact that Stepan Bandera, leader of the Ukrainian nationalists during World War II, was a committed ally of the invading Germans and fought side-by-side with them against the Soviet Union. On January 22, 2010, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko honored Stepan Bandera by posthumously bestowing on him the state honor, “Hero of Ukraine.” To describe Bandera as a blatant Nazi sympathizer is to put it mildly indeed.
 For those who are interested, Nos. 4–9 deal with immigration and citizenship and preserving citizenship to Germans alone; Nos. 10–18 deal with economic questions; Nos. 19–20 deal with education and children; Nos. 23–24 deal with the freedoms of religion and the press; and Nos. 21 and 25 address governmental and legal reforms.