War and Emerging Remembrance
German Veterans Begin to Add Narrative Piece to WWII
By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 24, 2004; Page A01
METZINGEN, Germany -- The shifting current funneled the landing craft toward the eastern end of Omaha Beach, where they disgorged men directly below Hein Severloh's camouflaged machine gun nest. He recalls emptying belt after belt of ammunition, raking the shoreline for hours as wave upon wave of American GIs struggled through the blood-red surf.
"I did not shoot for the lust of killing but only to stay alive," said Severloh, 81, a tall, soft-spoken man who said he must have shot hundreds of Americans on June 6, 1944. "I knew if only a single one survived he would shoot me."
For years Severloh told no one but his wife of what he did on D-Day. He said it was partly out of fear he would be labeled a Nazi and a killer, but also because fellow Germans didn't want to discuss World War II or hear about the experiences of army veterans. But over the past few years, historians, journalists and admirers have beaten a path to his farmhouse in this sleepy village in western Germany; Severloh has published a war memoir, been interviewed repeatedly by television, newspapers and magazines and been the subject of a televised documentary. He said he is gratified and amazed at the attention he has received.
As this country focuses on World War II more than 60 years after it began, Severloh's memories of the Allied invasion of Europe are part of an examination long suppressed by Germans. After decades of shame, fear and self-imposed silence, German soldiers and civilian victims are now venturing to describe their perspectives of the war. Beyond the traditional portrait of World War II as an epic battle of good vs. evil, the emerging view reveals a more complex narrative. Severloh's story has become part of the modern mix.
"We have new generations with new questions, and people are interested in what happened during the war without prejudging," said Johannes Tuchel, director of the German Resistance Memorial Center in Berlin, a museum devoted to chronicling opposition to Adolf Hitler's rule. "We see, we know and we accept that Germany caused the war, but for the first time we are looking at all the aspects of what happened."
Unlocking the Memories
Germany officially participated this year for the first time in commemorating D-Day alongside the United States, France and Britain. Other moments for reevaluation have included the 60th anniversaries of the July 20, 1944, failed assassination attempt against Hitler and the Aug. 1, 1944, beginning of the Warsaw Uprising, a savage 63-day battle against Nazi occupation forces that ended in a tragic defeat for Poland.
Recognition of these events follows a wave of books, television documentaries and articles focusing for the first time on German victims of the war -- both the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in the Allied fire bombings of major cities and the 13 million expelled from their homes in Eastern Europe. Next spring will bring celebrations of V-E Day -- Allied victory in Europe on May 8, 1945 -- and two films about Hitler that are expected to break the longstanding German taboo against portraying the Nazi dictator on-screen.
One reason for the renewed interest, analysts and historians say, is that members of the World War II generation are dying out, and people are keen to hear their stories firsthand before they vanish. Another reason stems from Germany's new role as a world power, with a more activist foreign policy and a willingness to dispatch peacekeeping troops to international trouble spots.
"If we want to participate in the world, we have to stand on firm soil as to the past," said former president Richard von Weizsaecker, 84, who also served as a young soldier in the German army in World War II.
Reinhard Hesse, the main speechwriter for Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's D-Day and July 20th addresses, said the anniversaries have marked Germany's coming of age as a modern democracy. While the lessons of World War II used to be invoked as a rationale for Germans to avoid military operations, Hesse said, they are increasingly cited as a reason for Germans to become more involved.
For many Germans, the past was another country, a dark place shrouded by anguish, introspection and resentment. Gerhard Beick and Lothar Nickel are combat veterans who were drafted at age 19 and served in the legendary Afrika Korps -- in North Africa under Erwin Rommel. They recall coming home after the war from prisoner internment camps to cities in ruins and people obsessed with day-to-day survival, expressing no interest for the returning soldiers or their experiences.
"No one cared to hear about it and no one asked," Beick recalled. "We had all suffered, an entire generation. We came back to a destroyed country, destroyed cities, and we were interested only in personal survival. We tried to forget the war as much as possible."
There was always an undercurrent of guilt and suspicion. Nickel recalled that when Afrika Korps members began forming veterans groups in the 1950s, newspapers would not publish notices of their meetings, fearing that the men were surreptitiously reconstituting their old units.
"In the minds of a lot of people, we were seen as old Nazis," Nickel said. "But we were just young people dragged into the war."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Gerhard Beick, left, and Lothar Nickel, were drafted to the Afrika Korps during World War II and recall coming home to ruined cities and uncaring citizens.
(Glenn Frankel -- The Washington Post)