I’d thought of doing this as an update to my earlier post on the death of Günter Grass, but as it turned out longer than I’d planned, I figured I’ll just do it as a separate post.
The question about whether Grass’ Waffen-SS unit engaged in war crimes is not an idle one. In today’s FAZ we have a report on an appearance at the University of Frankfurt by one Robert Hébras, who was among the very few survivors of the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane in Limousin. On June 10, 1944 units of the Waffen-SS armored division Das Reich rolled into town, herded the townspeople into the square, separated the men from the women and children, and then proceeded to massacre 642 innocent civilians. The men were shot in the lower body after being crowded into in a barn, which was then set on fire over their heads. The women and children were burned alive in a church (and shot if they tried to escape the flames). Here’s the Wikipedia write-up on the event; it does not mention a single hanging among the perps. Shameful. Did Grass have anything remotely like this on his conscience? Even a random civilian bicyclist stood against a tree and gunned down? Maybe a gang-rape of one of the eastern Untermenschen?
It appears that at least someone in fact has attempted to figure out just what the 10th SS Armored Division (“Frundsberg,” named after a famous 16th Century commander who directed his cavalry to get off their horses and fight on foot, after the fashion of the Swiss) was up to. It was formed in 1943, with the bulk of its recruits coming from the Reichsarbeitdienst, the labor organization into which Grass was drafted. So that would seem to bolster rather than cast doubt on his claim he was a draftee into the Waffen-SS.
We do know something of the division’s next-to-last commander (up until May 1, 1944, in other words well before Grass would have joined the unit): Karl von Treuenfeld was a material participant in the 1942 retaliatory crimes against the Czechs for the killing of Reinhard (“Hangman”) Heydrich (q.v: Lidice). After getting cross-ways with the Gestapo later, he was transferred to the Waffen-SS. Eventually he was captured by the Americans in Italy, and committed suicide in 1946. Men with clean consciences had nothing to fear from the Americans in 1946, although it isn’t clear whether what suggested to him avoiding too narrow an inquiry into his war-time deeds was on the one hand his participation in massacring Czechs or on the other his actions in command of the armored unit, or both.
In early summer 1944 the division had been transferred from the Eastern Front to northern France, where among other jobs it was involved in resolving the Falaise Pocket battles. How it behaved itself in northern France is at least hinted at by its last commander’s receipt, in 1984, of a commemorative medal from the city of Bayeux (of the tapestry) “in the spirit of Franco-German reconciliation.” It is difficult to think that a French city would so honor the commander of any enemy unit which had earned the reputation for serious misbehavior towards the civilian population.
In December, 1944 the unit participated in defeating Operation Market Garden, its commander receiving swords to go with his earlier award of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.
We next see the division around Colmar in January-February, 1945, fighting against the U.S. 6th Army in the Colmar Pocket. Grass may well have been with the unit by this point.
After that the unit was transferred to the area of Cottbus, in the far east of what became the
Soviet Occupation Zone East Germany, where its peculiar job was to stand by to mount a rescue operation to Berlin to grab Hitler out from in front of the Soviets, a mission which never came to pass.
About the only thing that can be said with certainty is that during the time when we know Grass would have been with his unit, it was stationed in Germany or in areas which Germany viewed as its own (e.g. Colmar). Thus there would have been much diminished opportunity for doings such as Oradour-sur-Glane. On the other hand in the late winter and spring of 1945, as Nazi Germany was coming apart at the seams, with hostile armies over-running its borders east and west, we must bear in mind it was awash in slave laborers, prisoners of war held in slavery, and political prisoners and offenders (as tyrannies circle the toilet bowl they if anything step up their repressive measures against their own populations). This was a time in Germany when you could find yourself shot more or less summarily for “defeatism” if you observed that the “Final Victory” seemed somewhat less likely now that your town, well inside Germany proper, was within ear-shot of the Soviet artillery barrage. It was a time in which prisoner camps were liquidated, the inmates shot and burned and the facilities razed; in which factories were destroyed to deny them to the enemy (and their slave labor forces likewise either marched off barefoot in the dead of winter or shot outright). There would, in other words, have been ample opportunity for Grass to have participated in atrocities, atrocities which have never seen the light of day.
Complicating things is that there is no extant official war diary for the unit. For the internal workings of the unit and its constituent units we’re more or less cast upon third-party sources or the veterans’ own narratives. History is not only written by the victors; it’s written by the survivors generally. Anyone want to bet how many surviving veterans of the Frundsberg Division there were in 2006, when Grass finally poked his head up out of his biographical burrow? How much of the Frundsbergers’ history has been written out of existence by its survivors? You have to assume that the men in the unit, to the extent that they privately recorded any misdeeds, would have found it expedient for those written records to disappear after the war. Likewise they would have joined the German national omerta about their war-time activities, and so not be eager to mention too loudly their personal recollections (like Grass, in other words).
How many potential third-party witnesses would there have been in 2006? Where prisoners and slaves were liquidated there would be no survivors to tell the tale. In areas where the civilian population had, to the extent possible, already fled there would be correspondingly fewer civilian witnesses to survive.
In the end we are left with only a concrete data point, and an inference, and a question. Data: For over 60 years Günter Grass repeatedly spoke and wrote about the Nazi years in Germany and Europe, without once fully and accurately describing his own participation in the events of those years. Inference: He had some positive reason to desire that story not be told. Question: What was that reason?
Unless some soldier’s diary surfaces, or that of a civilian, or a box of documents gets discovered in a barn somewhere, we may never know the answer.