Did deserters deserve to be shot?


Status: 04/14/2020 9:27 a.m.

Lenz's novel "The Defector", meanwhile made into a film, shows the dilemma of duty and morality. How realistic is the scenario? And how do you look at deserters today? An interview with historian Sönke Neitzel.

Apparently the publication of the novel "Der Überläufer" by Siegfried Lenz seemed too sensitive to the Hoffmann und Campe publishing house in the early 1950s. A soldier who changes fronts, becomes a deserter - difficult material in post-war Germany, as defectors were widely regarded as traitors. The novel was finally published posthumously in 2016 and filmed by NDR, ARD Degeto and SWR. In the ARD media library, "Der Überläufer" can be seen both as a feature length and as a four-part series.

In the field of tension between duty and conscience

The plot focuses on a phenomenon from any time of war - the field of tension between a sense of duty, responsibility, morality and conscience. How close is the story of the "defector" to the historical reality of World War II? What were the different motives for a change of front? And how has society's view of deserters changed in recent decades? A conversation with the military historian Sönke Neitzel, whose focus is on military history and the cultural history of violence.

Mr. Neitzel, Siegfried Lenz tells in his novel about a deserter who defected to the Red Army in Poland and was used in Soviet propaganda at the front. Is the scenario realistic?

The historian Sönke Neitzel has held the chair for military history and cultural history of violence at the University of Potsdam since 2015.

Sönke Neitzel: There have been such desertions. The front commandos of the National Committee for Free Germany consisted of German prisoners of war, defectors and communist emigrants. They were often used in the front line by the Red Army to call on Wehrmacht soldiers to surrender via loudspeaker announcements. The GDR later celebrated the members of the committee as heroes, even if their missions were not very successful. In the young Federal Republic, on the other hand, their agitation was viewed as treason. That is why the Hoffmann und Campe publishing house did not dare to publish the novel at the time. Which reader should identify with such deviants in the early 1950s?

In the meantime, of course, the content is no longer controversial, it almost seems natural. The main characters are against the war and oppose the Nazi system. A novel about a soldier who loves fighting and the excitement of battle would be offensive today. That would come even closer to the reality of World War II. But publishers would probably reject such a manuscript for the same "material reasons" that they once offered against the "defector". Siegfried Lenz was decades ahead of his time with this novel.

In the novel, the soldier Walter Proska moves comrades to give up. The men are shot. Is Proska guilty?

Neitzel: I would never work with that term. Among today's historians, the view has prevailed: All soldiers who have contributed to this insane war ending were on the right side. If all German soldiers had defected to the Red Army in 1944, the war would have been over immediately. In West German society, decades after the war, things were viewed completely differently. Deserters were almost unanimously considered cowards.

Who Has Been Called a Traitor?

Neitzel: Even during the Cold War, the prevailing opinion was that soldiers who endanger the lives of their comrades, for example by giving up positions, are traitors. In the Bonn Republic there was a long discussion about the question of whether the Wehrmacht officer Hans Peter Oster should be honored as a central figure in the military resistance against the Nazi regime. As Colonel of the Abwehr, Oster had told the Dutch military attaché the date of the attack on the Benelux countries and France - and thus put the lives of German soldiers at risk. The case is different with Henning von Tresckow or Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, as it was called at the time: They tried to kill Adolf Hitler but did not cooperate with the enemy. This distinction is no longer made today.

Are the motives of the deserters known?

Neitzel: There were 30,000 deserters in the Wehrmacht, mostly in the West. Most of the soldiers deserted at the end of the Second World War, at a time when the institutions of the Nazi state collapsed. As described in the novel, overflows have usually arisen out of a predicament. They were situational rather than intentional. For some it was desertion, others voluntarily went into captivity to save their lives. Or they just went home because they saw: the war is lost, we are being led to the slaughter.

In the case of communists and social democrats, there were also political reasons. As with Alfred Andersch, who deserted on the Italian front in July 1944 and chose American captivity. He reports about this in his book "The Cherries of Freedom", in which he does not always stick to the facts. He probably did not storm as an individual, but defected in the group, which - contrary to what has been described - was not an elite unit. I find it remarkable that Andersch expresses himself negatively about the Nazi state and positively about the Wehrmacht. All in all, deserters were not a big problem for them. Because more than 18 million Germans fulfilled their military tasks to the end.

Did millions feel bound by the soldier's oath?

Neitzel: Great importance was attached to the soldier's oath, especially in the upper hierarchy. Higher officers who swore the holy oath on the Führer Adolf Hitler mostly felt connected to the Wehrmacht as an institution and to the state. We know from reliable sources that the oath also played a major role in military resistance circles.

This is how Nazi judges raged on the home front

So far, little is known about the effects of Nazi military justice in Hamburg. But now research shows: Nazi judges are responsible for more than 200 death sentences. more

Were deserters punished particularly brutally during the Nazi era?

Neitzel: Deserting was already a criminal offense in the German Empire, and it is still a criminal offense in today's military law. Young men who fail to do military service or who leave without permission have been persecuted and punished by the military police. The big difference to the Nazi dictatorship lies in the penalties. In the German Empire there were 48 executions for desertion, in the Third Reich there were 20,000. In the First World War, probably 100,000 soldiers avoided having to go back to the front. The higher authorities knew that, but the people were not liquidated.

Adolf Hitler drew conclusions from this and issued new regulations to punish deserters. It was also stipulated that mitigating circumstances can be asserted against juvenile delinquents. This Hitler decree was tightened in 1943 by Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, Commander in Chief of the Navy. As a reaction to the tense military situation, Doenitz decreed that all "faithless weaklings" should be put against the wall without mercy.

Who tried the men?

Neitzel: In the initial phase, the military courts were responsible. In one case that caused a stir, the commander of a sinking submarine was the first to disembark and jump onto the enemy ship. He was freed in a prisoner exchange, brought before a naval court in Germany and sentenced to death out of cowardice in front of the enemy. Most of the cases that we commonly associate with Nazi judicial crimes stem from the last phase of the war. During this time, the hanging was comparatively indiscriminate. The deserters were sentenced by court courts that did not deserve the name. Brief negotiations took place with three or four officers, if any, but the verdict was clear beforehand. There were excesses of violence: whoever did not feel was killed.

It was not until 1998 that the Bundestag overturned the unjust judgments of the Nazi judiciary against deserters. Why did it happen so late?

Neitzel: Because the Wehrmacht veterans played a formative role in society. In 1969, 60 percent of the members of the Bundestag had served in the Wehrmacht. It was not until 1998 that the last veteran entered political retirement. A new generation followed, the Bundestag discussed the "Crimes of the Wehrmacht" exhibition. It documents the complicity of the military in the extermination of the Jews, the mass murder of prisoners of war and the terror against the civilian population. The dimension of the crime was known beforehand, but it had been pushed into the background. Now it was felt with full force.

In 1978, Hans Filbinger had to resign as Prime Minister of Baden-Württemberg because, as a military judge in the Navy, he had passed death sentences for desertion and looting. The affair remained an isolated incident. Why was there no thorough investigation into the Nazi justice system?

Neitzel: The realization that the judiciary has bent the law in the Nazi sense in an outrageous manner has only slowly leaked. In some cases it is only revealed today who has signed all the death sentences. A current study of the Federal Ministry of Justice and the Nazi state shows how the Nazi judges continued to work after the war. Of the 170 lawyers who held senior positions in the ministry from 1949 to 1973, 90 belonged to the NSDAP and 34 to the SA. That had serious consequences. High-ranking generals in the Bundeswehr who were involved in Nazi crimes were interrogated by senior public prosecutors who were previously involved themselves. We had great understanding for one another.

How Hamburg's Nazi judges brought death

Up until 1945, courts martial in Hamburg had pronounced hundreds of death sentences against soldiers in order to maintain discipline in the Wehrmacht. The Nazi judges got off lightly after the war. more

Why did so few Wehrmacht soldiers desert?

Neitzel: From today's perspective, the question has been asked. 75 years after the war we know about the Wehrmacht's extermination campaign in the east. Our focus is on the crimes of World War II. We have made a moral judgment about this. But is our current value system transferable to back then? What could the average soldier who fought at the front in 1941 know? For him, the Third Reich was not a twelve year old, but a 1,000 year old one. It was the given state, also in the future, and to serve it was law for him.

He was used to violence early on. The crimes of National Socialism played only a subordinate role in his everyday life, unless he was directly involved in them. The main role played the death in the main battle line, the dying of comrades, one's own survival. That is why many soldiers saw themselves as victims after the war. In our book "Soldiers", together with the sociologist Harald Welzer, I advocate taking a closer look at the reality of the soldiers' lives and reconstructing their logic. We have to see the war through their eyes - and then we understand it.

Is the one who overflows the good one today per se?

Neitzel: I wouldn't see it that way. A current soldier who would desert to the Tablian in Afghanistan would have to answer before a German court on his return. There is the case of a German armed forces soldier of Russian descent who left the troops in Ukraine in 2014 and defected to the pro-Russian separatists. Soldiers have pledged to serve the state. If they violate it, it may be a criminal offense. But today no one would be sentenced to a long prison term for desertion.

The interview was conducted by Helmut Monkenbusch, a freelance journalist.

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