A dark period remembered

Hans
Hans Rollmann
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During the holidays I saw "Valkyrie," a new film starring Tom Cruise as Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, the central figure of the assassination plot against Hitler on July 20, 1944. Although I was born in Germany after the Second World War, the dark war clouds still hung over postwar Germany. "Valkyrie" stirred in me two specific memories, one of my childhood fears about an execution near my hometown mentioned once before in a column, the other about a humane general, Karl Soeldner, who left a deep impression on my father.

Execution at dawn
As a boy I always hurried, frightened, past a clearing, not far from where the local road from Herschbroich merges with the highway to the city of Adenau. Each time I passed the open space, I remembered what my parents told me had happened only a decade before. Early one morning in 1940, Siegfried Mitzka, a father of two young children, was tied to a tree. Then soldiers from his own company carried out a terrible order, to execute their comrade for "dissolution of the fighting morale." The man's crime, according to a hastily organized court martial, was that he had questioned publicly whether Germany could win the war.
These shots of 1940 still rang painfully in my ears in the 1950s as I raced my bicycle past the clearing. Growing up in postwar Germany, I confronted everywhere the indignities and atrocities committed during the Nazi period. The stench of war still filled the air about us and had soaked into the bombed-out buildings where we played; but the execution of Siegfried Mitzka haunted me then, and remains with me today.
Using the notions of pneuma and sarx, spirit and flesh, the Apostle Paul identifies the depths and heights of human capability and culpability. For him and for us, flesh embodies human fallibility and sin, while the Spirit promises redemption, hope and liberation. The struggle between those two forces continues in human lives and in history. As they ascended from a protracted national descent into Sarx, manifesting many of its ugliest dimensions, a revival of Spirit moved Germans to declare, in the preamble to their postwar constitution, "the dignity of human beings is inviolable."
Count von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators of 1944 retained a capacity for ethical judgment and decision-making, as this new film illustrates. Despite their mixed motives in real life, they remained witnesses to a humane alternative in these darkest hours of the nation.

Major General Karl Soeldner
Less spectacular, but closer to home, the attitudes and actions of a First World War veteran, Maj.-Gen. Karl Soeldner (1893-1972), who commanded the German Air Force training grounds at Ahrbrueck during the Second World War, demonstrated a humane spirit. Soeldner, a former Bavarian platoon leader and police major, was my father's superior.
Among my father's few prized possessions is a tattered copy of a letter in which he, never a party member, exonerates his superior after the war before the Denazification Commission. The picture of Soeldner that emerges from the letter is that of a professional soldier who - although in charge of training young men in World War Two - never went along with the ideological trappings and repressive tactics of the Nazi regime.
He granted to Russian prisoners of war freedoms seldom found in other places. The general saw personally to their wellbeing by supplying them with the same food that his own soldiers received. He granted prisoners of war the same entertainment privileges and was seen distributing among them his own cigarettes. "In this regard," my father wrote to the Commission, "Mr. Soeldner went above all prohibitions and rules and thus observed the dignity of the prisoners of war under his command."
Soeldner also went beyond the call of duty by having fathers of families freed from service on the front, particularly at a time when the war appeared all but lost. Neither did he exert any ideological or political pressure on his soldiers; in fact, the letter states, "he never greeted with 'Heil Hitler' but always with 'Good Morning'" or the common Bavarian "Gruess Gott," literally meaning "Greet God." When greeting, my father testifies, "his hand rested on his covered head," thus not raising his arm with the Nazi salute. His addresses to the troops were free of ideological jargon and expressed deep empathy for all those who suffered because of the war.
My father and his friends surmised that the sudden retirement of their commander was due to his lack of support for the Nazi cause. "According to my conviction," the letter concludes, "General Soeldner was neither a Nazi nor a militarist." Shortly after these words were written, the general was cleared by the commission and came to thank my father for his testimony.
While wrestling as a child and youth in postwar Germany with its recent dark past, the letter and the reminiscences of my father taught me that there were choices to be made even during this decidedly oppressive period. "Valkyrie" once more brings to light the same challenges as well as, for me, these deeply entrenched childhood memories.

Hans Rollmann is professor of Religious Studies at MUN and can be reached by e-mail: hrollman@mun.ca.

Organizations: Denazification Commission, Good Morning

Geographic location: Germany, Adenau, Ahrbrueck

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