War and Emerging Remembrance
One of the most abiding controversies centers on the failed assassination attempt against Hitler by military officers and civilians led by Col. Claus von Schenk Stauffenberg. In the first decade after the war, said Winfried Heinemann, a historian with the German army's Military Research History Institute, many Germans viewed the conspirators as traitors who had violated their personal oath to Hitler. At the same time, the communist government of East Germany depicted the plotters as right-wing reactionaries who sought to kill Hitler to save their own necks when it was clear the war was lost. But in later years, the conspirators came to be honored as shining examples of German resistance in a manner that seemed to suggest their actions absolved other Germans of complicity with Hitler.
The popular view has evolved to the point where a recent poll in Der Spiegel, a weekly magazine, showed that 73 percent of those polled felt admiration or respect for the plotters and 10 percent expressed disapproval or contempt. This year's solemn anniversary ceremony, held in the cobblestone courtyard where Stauffenberg and three of his fellow conspirators were executed by firing squad on the night of the failed coup, brought together dignitaries and more than 100 relatives of the four executed men.
Schroeder's speech sought to connect the German dissidents with resistance movements in Poland, France and the Netherlands, saying these disparate groups constituted the first seeds of modern European unity. But he acknowledged that in Germany, the resistance constituted a very small minority.
One of those in attendance was Georg Freiherr von Loe, a high school science teacher in his early fifties whose grandfather was one of hundreds of conspirators executed after the plot failed. Von Loe said that he had not attended previous commemorations but that his feelings of guilt now that the older generation is passing and his attempt to deal with questions from his children compelled him to make the six-hour drive from his home in western Germany, along with his wife and two of his children.
He and his family found the experience both moving and disturbing. "We have not slept well these last few nights because we have been discussing it," he said. "We need time to process what we have experienced."
A Killing Machine
Severloh took 40 years to begin to process what happened to him on Omaha Beach. He had taken up a concealed position on the eastern side of the beach along with 30 other German soldiers, and he recalls watching the horizon turn black with dozens of ships and landing craft racing for the shore. His commanding officer, Lt. Bernhard Frerking, had told him not to open fire until the enemy reached knee-deep level, where he could get a full view.
"What came to mind was, 'Dear God, why have you abandoned me?' " he recalled. "I wasn't afraid. My only thought was, 'How can I get away from here?' "
But rather than run, Severloh slipped the first belt of ammunition into his MG-42 machine gun and opened fire. He could see men spinning, bleeding and crashing into the surf, while others ripped off their heavy packs, threw away their carbines and raced for the shore. But there was little shelter there. Severloh said he would occasionally put down the machine gun and use his carbine to pick off individual men huddled on the beach. He is still haunted by a soldier who was loading his rifle when Severloh took aim at his chest. The bullet went high and hit the man in the forehead.
"The helmet fell and rolled over in the sand," Severloh said. "Every time I close my eyes, I can see it."
Severloh said he was the last man firing from his position. By mid-afternoon, his right shoulder was swollen and his slender fingers were numb from constant firing. When a U.S. destroyer pinpointed his position and began to shell it, he fled to the nearby village of Colleville-Sur-Mer, where he was captured that evening.
In Severloh's telling of D-Day, there are few heroes and several surprises. The German occupiers had warm relations with their French farm hosts before the invasion, he contends. Lt. Frerking, who died on D-Day, was an honorable man who spoke fluent French and once gave one of his men 10 days' punishment for failing to help an elderly French woman with her shopping bags, Severloh said. The U.S. invaders slaughtered farm animals and soldiers, he said, yet that evening he and his ravenous U.S. captors shared a baguette.
Severloh said he first told his tale to an inquisitive correspondent for ABC News during the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984. But the real breakthrough came when an amateur war historian named Helmut Konrad von Keusgen tracked Severloh down. Von Keusgen, a former scuba diver and graphic artist, said he had heard from U.S. veterans about the machine gunner they called the "Beast of Omaha Beach" because he had mowed down hundreds of GIs that day. Severloh confessed he was that gunner. Von Keusgen ghost-wrote Severloh's memoirs, published in 2000, and still visits him regularly.
The two men contend that Severloh might have shot more than 2,000 GIs. That's an impossible figure, according to German and American historians, who say that although the numbers are far from exact, estimates are that about 2,500 Americans were killed or wounded by the 30 German soldiers on the beach.
"My guess is yes, he helped kill or wound hundreds, but how many hundreds would be hard to say," Roger Cirillo, a military historian at the Association of the U.S. Army in Arlington, wrote in an e-mail. He added: "Omaha is like Pickett's Charge. The story has gotten better with age, though no one doubts it was a horror show. Men on both sides were brave beyond reason, and this is the sole truth of the story."
Hein Severloh said he takes no pride in what he did, but telling his tale has given him a sense of relief.
"I have thought about it every single day that God gave to me," he said. Now, he said, "the pressure is gone."
Researcher Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this report.
© 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)