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1. UNCONDITIONAL SURRENDER
The news of the German capitulation reached us by radio deep in the Czechoslovakian mountains, east of Liberec. We had been up there for almost a month, holding an important pass, waiting for the Russians to come. But as the days went by, nothing disturbed our positions and even the local partisans refrained from engaging us in a major skirmish. Unusual stillness blanketed the peaks and the valleys—the sort of sullen tranquility that, instead of relaxing the mind, only charges it with tension. Strange as it may be, after five years of war and hundreds of engagements with the enemy, both regulars and insurgents, we were in no condition to bear the quiet of peace. Of all the natural human functions which we had once possessed we seemed to have retained only those that were important for our immediate survival: to eat, to sleep, to watch the woods—and to pull the trigger.
None of us doubted that the end was near. Berlin had fallen and Hitler was dead. Military communications had long since broken down, but we could still listen to the foreign broadcasts, including those of the victorious Allies. And we knew that our saga would not end with the capitulation of the Wehrmacht; that there would be no going home for the tired warriors of the vanquished army. We would not be demobilized but outlawed. The Allies had not fought only to win a military victory. Their main objective was revenge.
The last dispatch which we had received from Prague eight days before had ordered us to hold our positions until further orders—orders that never came. Small groups of haggard German soldiers came instead. Unshaven and hollow-eyed troops who had once belonged to every imaginable service in the Wehrmacht—the SS, the Luftwaffe, and the SD (Security Service). Among them were the surviving members of a decimated motorized infantry brigade, a Luftwaffe service group, a panzer squadron left with only two serviceable tanks; there were also five trucks of a one-time supply battalion and a platoon of field gendarmes. The remnants of an Alpenjaeger battalion had survived the retreat all the way from the Caucasus to end up with us, near Liberec. We were all waiting for a last sensible order, the order to evacuate Czechoslovakia and return into Germany. The order to cease hostilities came instead.
For us, deep in hostile territory, the news of the armistice sounded like a sentence of death. We had no one to surrender to except the Czech guerrillas or the militia, neither of which recognized military conventions or honor. Up to the very end we expected to be ordered back to Germany before the weapons were laid down. We could expect no quarter from the partisans—we had killed too many of them. As a matter of fact we could expect no prisoner-of-war treatment from the Red Army either. The truck drivers of the supply battalion might be pardoned but not the Waffen SS, the archenemy. In a sense we felt betrayed. Had we known in advance that we were to be abandoned to our fate, we would have withdrawn despite our orders to stay. We had taken more than a soldier’s share of the war and no one could have accused us of cowardice.
For five long years we had given up everything: our homes, our families, our work, our future. We thought of nothing but the Fatherland. Now the Fatherland was nothing but a cemetery. It was time to think of our own future and whether our beloved ones had survived the holocaust wrought by the Superfortresses during the last two years of the war.
Our headquarters had ordered us: “Stay where you are and hold the pass.” Then our headquarters returned to Germany. Like the Roman sentry who had stood his guard while Vesuvius buried Pompeii, we too remained soldiers to the bitter end.
We had survived the greatest war in history, but if we were to survive peace, the most bloodthirsty peace in history, we had to reach the American lines two hundred miles away. Not because we thought much of American chivalry but at least Americans were Anglo-Saxons, civilized and Christian in their own way. Around us in the valley were only the Mongolian hordes, the Tatars of a mechanized Genghis Khan—Stalin. I had the notion that it was only a choice between being clubbed to death by cavemen or submitting to a more civilized way of execution.
To reach Bavaria and the American lines we had to cross the Soviet-controlled Elbe. We were still confident of our own strength. We had survived more hell than could possibly wait for us on the way home. German soldiers do not succumb easily. We could be defeated but never crushed.
All day long Captain Ruell of the artillery had been trying to reach the headquarters of Field Marshal Schoerner. No one acknowledged his signals but finally he did manage to contact General Headquarters at Flensburg. I was standing close to him and saw his face turn ashen. When he lowered his earphones he was shaking in every limb and could barely form his words as he spoke: “It’s the end…. The Wehrmacht is surrendering on all fronts…. Keitel has already signed the armistice…. Unconditional surrender.” He wiped his face and accepted the cigarette which I lighted for him. “The Fatherland is finished,” he muttered, staring into the distant valley with vacant eyes. “What now?”
Suddenly it dawned on us why the Russians had refrained from forcing the pass. The Soviet commander had known that the war was about to end, and he did not feel like sacrificing his troops only minutes before twelve o’clock. But he was aware of our presence in the neighborhood. Within six hours after the official announcement of the German capitulation, Soviet PO-2’s appeared overhead. Circling our positions the planes dropped a multitude of leaflets announcing the armistice. We were requested to lay down our weapons and descend into the valley under a flag of truce. “German Officers and Soldiers,” the leaflets read, “if you obey the instructions of the Red Army commander you shall be well treated, you will receive food and medical care due to prisoners of war, according to the articles of the Geneva Convention. Destruction of war material and equipment is strictly prohibited. The local German Commander shall be responsible for the orderly surrender of his troops.”
Had our plight not been so bitterly serious we could have sneered at the Russians quoting the Geneva Convention, something the Kremlin had neither signed nor acknowledged. The Red Army could indeed promise us anything under the articles of the Convention; it was not bound by its clauses.
The following morning our sentries spotted a Soviet scout car as it labored uphill on the winding road to our positions. From its mudguard fluttered a large white flag of truce. I ordered my troopers to hold their fire, and called a platoon for lineup. Everyone was shaved and properly dressed. I wanted to receive the Soviet officers with due respect. I was astonished to see the car stop three hundred yards short of our first roadblock, and, instead of sending forward parliamentaries, the enemy began to deliver a message through loudspeakers.
“Officers and soldiers of the German Wehrmacht…. The Soviet High Command knows that there are Nazi fanatics and war criminals among you who might try to prevent your accepting the terms of armistice and consequently your return home. Disarm the SS and SD criminals and hand them over to the Soviet authority. Officers and soldiers of the Wehrmacht…. Disarm the SS and SD criminals. You will be generously rewarded and allowed to return home to your families.”
“The filthy liars!” Unterstürmführer Eisner sneered, watching the Russian group through his binoculars. “They will be allowed to return home! That is a good joke.”
It was amusing to note how little the enemy knew the German soldier. After having fought us for so many years, the Soviet High Command should have known better. Cowardice or treason was never the trade of the German soldier. Nor was naïveté. They had called us “Fascist criminals” or “Nazi dogs” ever since “Operation Barbarossa.” In the past they had made no distinction between the various services. Wehrmacht, SS, or Luftwaffe had always been the same to Stalin, yet now he was endeavoring to turn the Wehrmacht against the SS and vice versa.
The loudspeakers blared again. Eisner pulled himself to attention. “Herr Obersturmführer, I request permission to open warning fire.”
“No! Nothing of the sort, gentlemen,” Colonel Steinmetz, the commanding officer of the small motorized infantry group protested. “We shouldn’t fire at parliamentaries.”
“Parliamentaries, Herr Oberst?” Eisner exclaimed with a bitter smile. “They are sheltering behind the flag of truce to deliver Communist propaganda.”
“Even so,” the colonel insisted. “We may request them to withdraw but we should not open fire.”
Being an officer of the Wehrmacht, Colonel Steinmetz had no authority over the SS. He was, however, a meticulously pedantic officer and much our senior both in rank and age. I did not feel like entering into futile arguments, especially in front of the ranks. Trying to avoid the slightest offensive quality in my voice I reminded him that I was in charge of the pass and all the troops therein. Even so the colonel stiffened at my remark and said, “I am aware of your command, Herr Obersturmführer, and I hope you will handle the situation with the responsibility of a commander.”