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."
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.