German legends: The little dog of Bretten

In the Rhenish Palatinate, especially in the Kraichgau, the saying goes among the people when there is talk of badly rewarded loyalty: „It happens to you as it did to the little dog of Bretten.“ The folk tale must be old, because very old writers already allude to it.
In the little town of Bretten there lived a man who had a faithful little dog that was trained to do all sorts of things. He used to send it out, put a basket in its mouth with a note written on it with the necessary money, and it would even fetch meat and sausage from the butcher without ever touching a bite of it. But once, on a Friday, his master sent him to a butcher who kept a strict fast. [The „no meat on Friday“ rule.] When the butcher found a sausage ordered on the slip of paper, he held the little dog, cut off its tail and put it in the basket, saying: „Here’s your meat!“
But the little dog, abused and badly wounded, faithfully carried the basket home across the alley, lay down and died. The whole town mourned, and the image of a dog without a tail was carved in stone over the town gate.
Others tell it like this: It stole meat and sausages for its poor master and carried them to him until a butcher finally caught it and punished it by losing its tail.

(Deutsche Sagen, gesammelt und bearbeitet von Gustav A. Ritter)


Sacrificing Liberty

No, not another old movie review. 😉

I discovered the story of the USS Liberty only recently. I had heard of the incident before, but mainly, I must confess, through Sabaton History’s video on the Six-Day War (with which I, as a reader of Jüdische Rundschau and follower of Israelnetz, am somewhat familiar, but far from an expert, so…).
Was I surprised at what I learned? Not at all. I was surprised at how much I had never even heard of, and I feel for the survivors, I really do, but sad to say, it’s not like the political leaders of the USA had not done something eerily similar to get their country involved in the Second World War. It’s not a conspiracy theory; the records are all there. FDR really wanted to fight Germany long before Pearl Harbor… well, he wanted US soldiers to fight German soldiers. That’s how it always goes, isn’t it? He had his Navy try to provoke German submarines into firing on US ships just to have the necessary justification. So – nope. No surprise there.

The four-part miniseries is available on YouTube and Odysee; I highly recommend it.

There is a certain bitter and quite pointless satisfaction I as a German take from the „shocking“ reveal. Let’s face it: British lobbyists tried their hardest to get the USA involved in World War I, and how did it finally happen? By way of the sinking of the Lusitania that was, as is generally agreed today after decades of denial, carrying military equipment and was thus made a legitimate target. British politicians declared war on Germany over the matter of Poland and thereby started World War II, knowing full well that they had no hope of winning this war without the US at their back. And so they did their hardest to drag the US into it – which, like I said, FDR was not at all averse to. Again, not conspiracy theories, just facts. And now the Liberty survivors and researchers are outraged that Israel has taken the place of Britain and that the sinking of a US ship was used as a means to achieve an end? Really, it’s nothing new in principle. For all its reputation as an imperialistic bully the USA is surprisingly bad at self-assertion, it would appear.
(Not to forget Britain’s Moscow Option and Israel’s Samson Option – just what is it with those people?)

As stated by one of the survivors, it’s always an influential but small group responsible for those messes. The people on the ground, who would get along as well or as badly as any neighbours, are always the ones who pay the price. So the story of the Liberty truly should be more widely known and has a lot to teach us, not only about US politics but about politics on a global level. Because we all are the ones who have to live with the consequences or who have to die because of those back-room deals, as those victims of the attack on the Liberty did and still do.
And if ever World War III should break out over the sinking of a ship, well, we’ll know what to make of it.

Return to Bretzenheim

Much faster than expected, basically over night (time difference), my article on the remembrance of Bretzenheim camp was published on Counter-Currents – „schneller als der Schall“, as we say! (Faster than sound.) I had submitted it only yesterday, and as I started up the internet this morning, I found the article already online. Wow.
So for those readers who might have Googled either me or the topic afterwards, here are some of my posts on Bretzenheim:

Germans as captives of the Western Allies – Part 3 (Rhine Meadows Camps)
Germans as captives of the Western Allies – Part 4 (Rhine Meadows Camps)
Germans as captives of the Western Allies – Part 5 (The peoples at Rhine Meadows Camp Bretzenheim)
The series Voices from the past in general might be of interest to you.
Dale R. Carver’s poem „The Camp at Bretzenheim“, quoted in the CC article.
My early, still confused post after the visit to Bretzenheim of which the CC article is a massive rewrite.
Then there’s the 2015 film Other Losses, by James Bacque and narrated by him. I don’t know about its availability abroad, but the German DVD has an English version and can be ordered from Nation & Wissen. (Perhaps it’s on YouTube or Odysee, I haven’t checked.) It’s only about an hour long and so doesn’t go very in-depth, but it gives a good overview both of the situation in the Rhine Meadows Camps and the situation in Germany in general. I found the ending especially powerful. Of course I recommend reading Bacque’s books Other Losses and Crimes and Mercies.

The 2023 commemorative event at Bretzenheim will be held on 8 July.

Voices from the past: From Berlin to Thuringia, Part 5

The next morning at nine o’clock we walked out of the village. On the way, we had been given letters to Eisenach. We now had a whole batch for half of Thuringia and Saxony. As we strolled along the country road, a car suddenly came along. We had hardly ever stopped cars. We never knew whether they were Germans or Americans, and since we had once begged a Yank in vain, we didn’t even ask. But the car that was approaching now looked so unmistakably good and German that I waved without hesitation. And lo and behold, it stopped! The driver asked if we wanted to go to Seesen. […]
We crawled into the back of the dark van and were greeted there by a cheerful company of „our kind“. Most of them were soldiers who were heading avanti – in the direction of home. The friendship was soon established and there was another lively exchange of experiences. When it was breakfast time, everyone pulled out what they had and everything was shared fraternally, like old acquaintances. The common fate, the common concern for our home and the possible uniting against the foreign occupation were such an unspeakable bond in these hours. There was a very healthy country road comradeship. […]
In Herzberg, our car was stopped in front of a blown-up bridge. Our papers were checked by an American soldier. Everyone searched and rummaged for false papers. One soldier, who had just escaped from captivity in the village before and of course had nothing on hand yet, was quickly hidden behind a sugar sack. Another one stood with his legs wide apart in front of it and calmly smoked his pipe.
I rummaged in my wallet for a somewhat credible piece of paper and, after searching through all the compartments, found an old participant’s card for the Th. Harz 1939 performance show. Harmlessly and with the most innocent face in the world, I gave him the „document“. He first looked disapprovingly at the swastika, muttered bitingly, „And you good!“ Then he laboriously read Eisenach. „Where?“ he asked, challenging, and I said calmly, „The next village – three kilometres.“ Satisfied, he handed me back the pass. The others stifled their laughter with difficulty. When the good gentleman fell for all the others‘ fake papers too and didn’t even notice our man behind the sugar sack, we were quite relieved. When the Yank then condescended to speak the liberating word „Pass“ full of pathos, our car roared through the middle of the river. The bridge had been blown up, after all. […]

We had to get off at Barbis and continued on foot, proudly aware that by ten o’clock in the morning we had completed at least a whole day’s journey. […] We marched blithely on, when suddenly a rather unpleasant-looking American guard stood in the middle of the road and yelled at us: „Stop! Please passes!“ This time we handed him our RAD identity cards. He looked at them disdainfully and yelled, „No one can pass!“
We played dumb, pretended not to understand and wanted to move on. But then the guy got angry, reached for his gun, pointed it at us and what else could we do but think of retreating with a heavy heart. How sweet if it went on like this with the patrols. He had tried to make it clear to us that without a passport we wouldn’t get any further and would have to go back to where we came from: „So, off to Berlin,“ we said resignedly and traipsed back again, wisely to the next house corner. There we disappeared behind the gate and found ourselves at a beautiful manor.
We decided to go and see the lord of the manor. Maybe he knows a hidden route! We went into the manor house and suddenly found ourselves face to face with the lady of the house, who made a very nice and refined impression. We briefly told her our situation and she immediately knew what to do. She helpfully led us through a secret back exit, between the meadows and barns, onto a small meadow path that meandered past the forest behind the post. We stooped and crept along quietly, feeling uncomfortable because it was generally said that people who wandered without a pass had actually been loaded into American wagons and dropped off again at their point of departure. […]

Soon we saw Silkerode ahead of us. As soon as we reached the edge of the village and looked around for a post, we were surrounded by a horde of about eight men. All of them looked terrible and stank of booze and – as I noticed straight away – they were Polish. One of them had a police armband and demanded our identity cards. We thought it was illegal, because we were unfamiliar with drunken guards, and wanted to pass. […] They understandably did not believe our statement that we were coming from the previous village and wanted to go to the next one (Zwinge). They had to arrest us because we didn’t have a pass. Everything, of course, was said in broken German and in an insolent tone. […] Now they told us what the arrest would be like. We would be allowed to sleep in a chamber at the baron’s (obviously they had occupied the estate), and they wanted to keep us company. Of course we were looking forward to that! The whole thing was so nasty and the drunken guys were getting closer and closer to us that we didn’t know what to do. […] They had the power on their side, and maybe the „right“ too. It was an abominable situation. But then came unexpected deliverance. The head lout still had my identity card in his hand, looked at it and said, „Beautiful girl“, which I eagerly acknowledged, hoping that the guy would be distracted by such nonsense. Suddenly he said, „What? You in Beuthen?“ That’s were the card had been issued. „Me too Beuthen, nice town.“ Like a drowning person, I clutched at this straw that had flown to me so unexpectedly, and I still don’t know today where I got the presence of mind to suddenly shout out loud all the Polish curses I knew and all the other vocabulary to go with them. […] All at once, peals of laughter all along the line. They slapped their thighs in delight. I immediately asked, „Can we move on?“ Gracious gesture and „Go on!“, amid constant laughter. The ring was broken and we were out. […]

From far away we could still hear the guys having fun. I’m sure I’d pronounced everything half wrong, but the main thing was that it had helped. Sometimes there are crazy coincidences. Nevertheless, we were now a little bitter. We had to let ourselves be controlled by such people and could not slap them in the face for their impudence. On the contrary, we had to play up to them so that they wouldn’t harm us. […]

The country road became more and more scary for us and we decided to avoid it completely from now on and only walk through woods and fields in order to carefully avoid any posts. […] At one time we had to laugh heartily. As we crept around a corner of the forest, we heard a noise. A rakish-looking soldier was kneeling in front of us, not looking to the right or left, and when we curiously stepped closer we saw that he was cutting thistles with dedication and perseverance. When he noticed that we stopped in amusement, he looked up and sighed with relief: „Oh, just harmless tramps too. I thought an American patrol was coming. I’ve been walking all across Germany for a week and a half, cutting thistles, and I want to get as far as Bavaria. Mostly I walk at night, and when I walk in the daytime and hear footsteps, I get out my pocket knife and cut away. So I go from village to village with an armful of thistles and just grumble at the posts, „I have to find thistles for my geese!“ I’ve walked hundreds of kilometres like this, no one holds me and my thistles.“
We laughed uproariously at this curious idea. The soldier turned out to be a former officer. We hiked together for a short distance, but before the next post we separated, because four thistle gatherers must have looked suspicious. By the way, we met many more such tramps, who, as harmless peasants, wandered all over Germany with shovels and rakes, thistles and dandelions.

(Renate Umbreit & Irmgard Erbslöh: Raus aus diesem Hexenkessel)


No, this won’t become a regular series; I’m just re-watching some old movies in my Marta Hillers collection that are very little known and even harder to find these days, and so I thought I’d write a bit about them.

In contrast to Kein Platz für Liebe that simply has not been made available on DVD, Jungens (1941) is a positively banned film in Germany. Why? Because of its supposed Nazi propaganda. Personally, I don’t think it’s a very good film, but then, I’m not the target audience.
Anyone who has read either my biography of Marta Hillers or its abridged English translation on this blog probably remembers Robert A. Stemmle, a popular film director and a friend of Marta’s. Stemmle liked to do films about and for children; he had started out as a teacher, after all. He also very often chose social issues as a central theme in his films. Both feature heavily in Jungens. As was also his custom, Stemmle did not employ professional child actors in Jungens, but rather picked boys on location, even for leading roles.

So, what is Jungens about, and where does the propaganda come in? And where, more interestingly, does it not come in?
First off, it seems a little late for propaganda in 1941, in the sense that is implied. Being released this late, in a way the film rather becomes a critique. I don’t know the reasons for it, but in order to make sense as propaganda, the film would have had to be released years earlier; it probably is set in the mid- to late 1930s.
Hellmut Gründel, a leader in the Hitler Youth, gets transferred to a small village in Eastern Prussia as a school teacher. Arriving there, he quickly learns how backward and caught in almost feudal structures the place still is. The inhabitants, mostly fishermen, are poor and being kept indebted to the local bigwig, Ottokar Waschke. The HJ group Gründel is supposed to lead lacks the most basic things, and Waschke is doing his best to prevent them from assembling at all. So what we have here is really a state vs. corrupt landlord situation. It is also a question of child welfare.
Gründel gets to work, organising his youth group as well as local support for them (and thus for the government) which, of course, quickly brings him into conflict with Waschke. While the villagers are slowly finding ways of freeing themselves from their dependence on Waschke – this is quite the „socialism“ part of National Socialism and would not be out of place in a DEFA movie – , there’s also a detective story going on, aimed at the young audience. In the end, of course, Waschke gets arrested, the villagers are free and the boys have a bright future ahead of them. Ah, well.

Is Jungens propaganda? Yes. We see beautiful HJ parades, and the organisation is portrayed as a force for good, especially in that impoverished, rural environment. But like I said, the larger theme is really the social issue. And if you leave out the swastikas (and a few nods to sex appeal and humour), the whole plot is almost comically reminiscend of DEFA films from the 1950s and 1960s – which, of course, were also massive propaganda fests.

Voices from the past: From Berlin to Thuringia, Part 4

We talked with the farmer for quite a while. He was a splendid fellow. Especially when he told us that when the English wanted to tear down his Hindenburg picture, he yelled at the officers: „It’s not the man’s fault that there’s a war on. The picture stays up!“, we would have liked to shake his hand. […]
We then turned on the radio. On the German Hamburg station we suddenly heard: „This is England – this is England!“ Our hearts cramped and we could have howled with rage and indignation. The news brought reports of the capture of Göring and Kesselring. Goering had testified that Hitler had sentenced him to death. Hitler himself had fallen. Other stations said he had committed suicide, others announced his escape. When the English national anthem was played loudly and audibly after the news, I left the room. I could not have borne to hear it. […]

Tired and battered, I woke up the next day. The previous evening seemed like a bad dream. […] How often during these days I had to think of Walter Flex, who in his „Wanderer“ lets Gottfried Keller speak, who wrote almost consolingly about the dying of a people: „The thought of the heroic death of a people is no more terrible than the death of a man by the sword. Only dying is ugly in men and in nations. But when a man has received the fatal shot that rends his entrails, let no one look at him. For what comes then is ugly and no longer a part of him. The great and beautiful, the heroic life is over. So it must be when a nation has received its death-blow in honour and in greatness, – what comes afterwards, no one may attribute to its life any more. It is no part of it!“
Our nation has received its death blow in honour and greatness. Not just now, perhaps years before, and it is now mortally wounded. The dying is horrible. One should not look. And yet, doesn’t one hang on to the last breath of a person one loves unspeakably, still full of hope that life will triumph? I don’t know whether our people will have the strength and the will to pick themselves up again and return to life in unspeakable pain. A sick body that only keeps itself upright with narcotics and is closer to death than to life is horrible. […]

Once again we were glad and grateful for this hospitality and said goodbye very warmly. First we headed for the nearest cobbler, for my soles were hanging down like rags. I stumbled with every step and had to throw my legs like Old Fritz at the parade of honour to keep my soles from buckling. The old cobbler took pity on me and nailed the soles back on: „It’ll hold for a day,“ he said consolingly. […]

American cars roared past us all the time. Some waved, some shouted, and it would have been easy to get a ride for a while. But the three of us all had our own opinions about that. Suddenly, a little Yankee car drove up. The officer looked at us with great interest, looked back again and the car had already disappeared around the next bend. I said, „Either the guy feels sorry for us or he thinks we are suspicious.“ When the little car suddenly reappeared at the corner of the forest and headed towards us, we were of course strongly inclined to assume the latter and thought up suitable excuses in a flash. There, the car stopped! The officer got out, came towards us… bowed chivalrously and smilingly gave each of us a packet of chocolate: „Here you go!“
We were so flabbergasted. We had at least expected to be arrested that we reached out speechlessly and answered him with an astonished, „Thank you!“ […] „If we were consistent, we would have to throw the chocolate into the ditch,“ I stated dryly and took a hearty bite of this delicacy. Yes, if…
Shortly before Bönnien, we were once again at the end of our tether and limped and stumbled along with difficulty. At the entrance to the village there was a potato truck, and we immediately asked the driver if we could come along. Yes, as far as Bockenem, three kilometres further on. […] Up there was already a merry band of people. Most of them were German soldiers who had escaped from captivity and were now making their way home with self-made papers and false identity cards. They were, of course, in a brilliantly good mood and told of their experiences. […] One by one, they pulled out their fake papers and proudly showed them around. Every single ID was expertly examined and praised with appreciative grins. […]
Then one of them slowly and almost solemnly pulled his Iron Cross out of his uniform pocket and stroked it a few times. „This has to go home with me,“ he said with a smile. „My mother has been looking forward to it for years. She hasn’t seen me with it yet. Outside the front door, when no one sees it, I’ll put it on. I want her to receive her son with the Iron Cross. That’s what she’s always wanted.“
Another pulled out his close combat medal from some hiding place, a third confessed to having been an officer. Our hearts leapt at the sight of these men. In contrast, when I looked at the American soldiers, lanky and casual, standing guard with cigarettes in their mouths and girls in their arms, or going to fetch their food with steel helmets and submachine guns, never alone, always in groups, because they were afraid of Werewolves and the SS, I loved our dashing German soldiers all the more.
In Bockenem we shook hands, wished each other good luck and marched on to Bornum.

(Renate Umbreit & Irmgard Erbslöh: Raus aus diesem Hexenkessel)

Kein Platz für Liebe

A little while ago, I re-watched Kein Platz für Liebe (1947), a movie from the Trümmerfilme era. I am quite a fan of that short-lived genre. Depending on the subject matter, the films can be stark and depressing, or they can be incredibly optimistic. What they have in common is, of course, the setting – post-war, destroyed Germany. The ruins you see are quite real. The slimness of the actors is not due to any beauty ideal but to very little available food. And the stories are stories of that time. If you have the opportunity, check them out! I would include in the genre US productions such as The Big Lift, A Foreign Affair and Decision at Dawn, filmed on location. Among the German productions are Die Mörder sind unter uns (Hildegard Knef’s – or „Neff“’s, as her English stage name is… and no, the two names sound nothing alike – great debut), my personal favourite In jenen Tagen and Marta Hillers‘ film Die Kuckucks.

Kein Platz für Liebe features Marta’s friend Bruni Löbel, who would go on to star in The Big Lift (and that is an interesting story in itself), as the female lead. And the story, as harmless as the film is to a modern audience, is basically about sex! (In those early years, DEFA was still quite liberal in its productions.)
Monika and Hans meet during the war when Hans, a soldier, is in Berlin on holiday. After ten days, just before Hans has to return to the front, they decide to get married. Now, I don’t know if that was a thing in other countries, but the German army offered a procedure called Ferntrauung – remote marriage. Meaning the partners were not together, but did their part of the ceremony at their respective authorities‘ office. Well, Monika and Hans get married in this fashion, the war continues and ends, and Hans goes into captivity, all without the young couple ever seeing each other again. Now, two years after the war’s end, Hans has been released and returns to Berlin to find out if his wife is still alive.
She is, and she’s living in a tiny one-room flat with her grandfather, grouchy former actor „Zerberus“ who strongly disapproves of her strange marriage to a man she hardly knows, having given up a promising acting career in the process. (Monika now runs an „exchange“ where people can swap items – a legal form of the black market that was really the only working economy in Germany at the time.) Monika and Hans are happily reunited, but now there’s the question of married life. Despite Hans‘ insistence that three years have been more than long enough to wait for his wedding night, there’s – as the film’s title says – simply „no room for love“. Their attempts to find a place to be alone in bombed-out, overcrowded Berlin lead them to many absurd and comical adventures.

Today, you need some knowledge of history to really appreciate the happenings that for the audience at the time would have been quite familiar – the crowd at the grocer’s, the rich guy with his car, the curly kale field in the Tiergarten, the door to where part of the house had been, Monika and Zerberus‘ attempts to hide cookies in each other’s pockets, the subway scene, the problems with the rooms to rent…
In her autobiography, Bruni Löbel recalled the filming of the summer bathing scene (when Monika and Hans meet for the first time) in the icy cold DEFA studio in February 1947. Brutal – the winter of 1946/47 was one of the longest and coldest on record, which, in combination with the destruction and lack of basically everything, led to a high death toll in Europe. In Germany, it acquired the name of „Hungerwinter“.

Of course, Kein Platz für Liebe ends happily. Monika and Hans get their little place, and we can safely assume that they’ll make their marriage work. It’s not a demanding film, just light entertainment – and yet, it is the hard time in which it was produced that makes it a valuable historic source, almost a time capsule, for us today.

Voices from the past: From Berlin to Thuringia, Part 3

As soon as they were gone, Luckchen and I lay down in the ditch, closed our eyes and couldn’t go on. We were completely exhausted. All we could do was sleep, sleep, we had no other thoughts. It didn’t matter to us that the ground was completely wet. But we got into trouble with Erbslöh, who got us back on our feet with the words that we could perhaps still manage the 100 metres. When we asked the people recommended to us – with great difficulty we found out the name Alpers and that they owned a shop – for some straw for the night, we got a flat „no“ from them. Erbslöh wanted to leave again, but I was so exhausted that I begged – something I had never done before – and with success. We were tolerated, even if not treated overly friendly. So much had already been stolen from them by „such people“ as us. I just said that the most we would do was leave them something. Under other circumstances, we would have left on the spot. But we were even served jacket potatoes with mustard sauce and milk. […]

We soon went to sleep. In the cowshed, a ladder went up to the hayloft. The man became very friendly and promised to wake us up at half past five on the dot the next morning. There was a milk cart here again that could give us a lift. Then he comforted us by saying that his Frenchman would come by at night to his bunk room, but he was reliable and we need have no fear. Only looting could possibly happen. He couldn’t protect us against that, but we knew that. The Frenchman then came back and said something about „friends“. In any case, it was enough for Luckchen to get scared and wait half the night for a load of guys to come up to the loft with us. […]

In Mellendorf we were dropped off in front of the dairy, where there was an endless queue of milk cart. There was also a dense crowd of people who had realised that a milk cart was the only means of transport in the Lüneburg Heath at the moment. Almost all of them wanted to go to Hanover.
To Hanover? No. Cities, especially big cities, were out of the question for us once and for all. We had become city-shy since Walsrode and had decided to bypass Hanover to the east. The rough direction was: Burgdorf – Lehrte – Hildesheim. We waited patiently and succeeded. A nice driver took all three of us in his cart all the way to Bissendorf. The first thing he did was to give us his breakfast, the second thing was to entertain us so nicely that we couldn’t stop laughing. […]
Our new friend had taken a former soldier with him and a long whip. He said alone and without a long whip one could not dare to drive on the lonely country roads. But when he noticed our nervousness, he calmed us down in a touching way: We had survived the worst. Now it would get better. He then told us about his farm. The foreigners had also behaved there in that fashion and now they [the villagers] had organised a self-help group. All the men and boys had beaten up the foreigners so badly that they crept out of the farm gate like beaten dogs. When they [the foreigners] fetched weapons and reinforcements, the splendid farmers drove the intruders out again. Since then, their village had been an oasis of peace.

(Renate Umbreit & Irmgard Erbslöh: Raus aus diesem Hexenkessel)

Gerhard Wasner: The lost years

Further research managed to fill in several of the gaps in Wasner’s CV, as last seen in my blog post on him. And some fill-in it was, let me tell you… (I will publish an updated version of the post eventually, but there are still some leads to follow up on.)
I never believed in the „collective guilt“ nonsense, and I also never believed in the related „all SS men were criminals“ nonsense. But as far as that idea goes, Gerhard Wasner just *might* fit the description. I know of no war crimes that he was involved in, and I suspect nobody will ever know, but his post-war record… well, that’s a different beast. The court files of petty offences are seldom preserved, yet by a great stroke of luck (one of the two key ingredients to successful research) some old prison file cards have survived. And they tell quite a story about Gerhard Wasner. They might also explain his frequent change of address over the years…!
I still haven’t solved the Ludwigshafen puzzle, but perhaps there is still hope.