Saturday, December 19, 2009

Black Edelweiss

Black Edelweiss: A Memoir of Combat and Conscience By a Soldier of the Waffen-SS
© 2002 Johann Voss
206 pages

As the last coach slid by, it cleared the view of another train, a goods train as it appeared, slowly passing by the track behind the one next to the platform. Lost in thought, I noticed at first only the freshly-painted propaganda slogans across the wagons: WHEELS ARE ROLLING FOR VICTORY. Then, looking more closely at the wall of a wagon opposite me, however, I became conscious, with a sudden chill, of what seemed to ge fingers, yellowish human fingers clinging to a few square holes in the side wall; behind strings of arbed wire, I saw human eyes, dark and wide open, trying to catch a glimpse of the outside world. Stunned, I gazed upon the long row of wagons. Now and then one of those little hopes with fingers and eyes slowly shunted out of sight.
Strong as it was, the sight left me with mixed feelings. Vae victis! Woe to the Vanquished! Scum of the earth! Poor devils!  I hope they will be put to work in the field. This thought, however, also occured to me: Never must the dictatorship of the proletariat prevail in Europe. 

I opted to read this book to correct my ignorance of life on the Eastern front and to be able to connect a person's life to the Waffen-SS -- someone other than SS leadership. This is not the memoir of a concentration camp guard, although Voss does inadvertently encounter future Holocaust victims twice on his way to the front. The combat portions of the book are not particularly remarkable: Voss is assigned to a mountain infantry patrol in Finland and spends most of the war fighting alongside Finnish freedom fighters against the Red Army. After Finland signs an armistice with the Soviet Union and its troops become hostile to Voss's men, he and his company are tasked with fighting Americans but are captured quickly enough.

It is the book's "memoir of conscience" portions that strike me the most, for the book's initial chapters record Voss's experience during the early years of the war, detailing why he chose to support the Nazi regime. Voss is not a desperatly impoverished member of Germany's underworld that fed the Nazi party, nor does he espouse a desire to see Germany become the master of Europe. He believes in Germany, in the romantic ideals of earth, blood, and Christian duty -- but he believes in it in the same way that a Frenchman believes in France romantically, or as many Americans believe in America romantically. He comes from an educated, middle class family that nevertheless supports Hitler. What unnerves me is that they believe in him not dogmatically, but skeptically: they have extended conversations amongst themselves debating the truth value of his claims and the effacy of his approaches. They even criticize Nazi leadership while supporting it. Voss develops in much the same way: when enroute to the front  he passes by a group of Jewish prisoners waiting to be transported to the camps, he expresses dismay that anyone should be treated so poorly. The Germans in Voss's family are supporter of Hitler, but...they aren't bad, or even deluded: they're just wrong. The abuses of governments anywhere can thus be tolerated by the sanest of minds given the right approach -- a foreboding thought if ever there was one. Voss emerges as a man who believes in strong ideals, but believes in commitment to fighting for them.

Voss's "conscience" theme occurs throughout the book, typically in the sections set during his American imprisonment after the war but before Nuremberg, as the Waffen-SS was declared (via its attachment to the SS) a criminal attachment. He reflects on what he, his fellow soldiers, and his fellow citizens are responsible for -- wondering to what extent that they responsible for enabling Hitler. He ends the war with his friends and sweetheart dead and his family home destroyed, but with a clear conscience and an eerily calm sense of serenity about the troubled times ahead. It is for kind of reflection that I would recommend the book to readers interested in part of the German mind.

Have we been posioned by the radivcal fanaticism of our leadership and become an active instrument of the monstrous regime? Judging by what I read in the new German papers, the public response to the verdict is approval, if not satisfication. And what has become of our people in general?  Listening to my fellow prisoners' talk, it seems that only their own individual concerns and future matter; there is at best the indifference that results from a general weariness with all the horrible revelations during months of the trial. Defeating Bolshevism, defending the Fatherland and the Reich -- these objects of innumerable sacrifices -- seem to be of no interest anymore. Was all of that only a creation of propaganda without real bearing for the people? [..]

Our world has perished. A new world dawns, one in which our values are utterly discredited, and we will be met with hatred and distinct reserve for our past. Come on, I say, it's not without reason, let's face it! What counts is our future and what we are going to do with it. That is the terrotiroty where we will have to prove what we were really like, the territory of another probation. I only hope we will not be denied that opportunity. 

Yet there can be no release from our loyalty to our dead, from our duty to stand up for them and to ensure their remembrance and their honor will remain untarnished. They, like all the others fallen in the war or murdered through racial fanaticism, must be remembered  as a solemn warning never to let it all happen again. 

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