The Black Legend of Andorra

I stumbled across the legend of Andorra for the first time when I was investigating the routes across the Pyrenees taken by fugitives fleeing from Nazism. In case you don’t know it, Andorra is a tiny little country like Lichtenstein or Monaco situated just in the middle of the French-Spanish border. Gifted by a wonderful mountainous landscape, now it is a prosperous shopping paradise and ski area.

Andorra in the Pyrenees

The legend about Andorra was nourished by veiled allusions that never resulted in any name in particular. The allusions circulated sotto voce, at times with a certain knowing ghoulishness, as when an Andorran girl whispered to a friend of mine who was gliding across the white mirror of the Pas de la Casa on his skis,

“Hey, do you know you’re skiing over bones?”

All the rumours pointed in the same direction: that during the tragic years of the Second World War, when thousands of victims of Nazism defied the elements and crossed the Pyrenees, some of them came up against something in Andorra that suddenly interrupted their flight. Something very shady. There were tales of murders and massacres. Of long-forgotten mass graves. Of dead people who were still lying under the rocks and snow. Of Jews. Of gold and jewels purloined from the desperate. Of unscrupulous guides who murdered or abandoned those who had trusted them with their lives.

Andorran landscape

In those days the lives of many people had no more value than the soles of their shoes. Unscrupulous guides there must have been all along the Pyrenean mountain range. But for some reason the black legend seems to dog the small Andorran territory in particular.

Without a press and cut off by the snow for most of the year, the extreme ideologies that left their mark on the 20th century, whether left-wing or right, had no opportunity to take root in Andorra, which during the war maintained its neutrality. It was the foreigners with their strange languages who came down the mountainside from time to time, exhausted, frightened and hungry, who would remind the Andorrans that on the other side of the imposing wall of rock a savage war was dismembering Europe.

In Andorra smuggling, be it of goods or of people, was not a crime and was possessed of a long tradition. But before the war this activity did not prevent it from being a notoriously poor region, except for the odd hereu or pubilla who was lucky enough to inherit a herd of goats or a good field of tobacco. All the above had nothing to do with the touristic and commercial Andorra that emerged later on and which defines the image of the Principality today. In fact, the country’s sudden economic rise has helped foment the Legend, which is to a large extent nourished by the fabulous fortunes that some Andorran families amassed during the war itself. Fortunes that, according to the persistent rumours, in some cases had come from the plundering of the Jews they were meant to guide.

Andorra today

The publication in 1977 in the Spanish magazine Reporter of the salacious article by Eliseo Bayo, “The killing of Jews on the Spanish border,” helped foment the legend.

Eliseo Bayo, Reporter

In his lengthy article, Bayer claimed to have found some of the wells into which the fugitives had been flung, indicating locations, providing names, showing skeletons, and causing a huge ruckus that shook the whole of Andorra—to the extent that the Andorran police embarked on a vast operation of collecting examples in the Principality and throughout the whole of Spain. At the time it was the only measure the Andorran authorities adopted. They never went in search of the mass graves nor did they test the veracity of the article, even if only to disprove it.

In his article Bayo stated that “a fear of reprisals means that those who know something keep their mouths shut.” According to various sources, the guide that showed the graves to him and his team in 1977 appeared dead at the foot of a cliff shortly afterwards.

Andorra was one of the few European territories that the war totally bypassed. Could it be that it was precisely here that the killing of innocent civilians was systematized? And if so, how many dead people are we speaking of? Two Belgian couples, who’d been murdered near Estany Negre, as the former smuggler Quim Baldrich said recently in the Channel 33 documentary Boira negra? “We screwed the women and then killed them,” the perfidious guide admitted to him at the time. In the same programme another two ex-smugglers, Enric Mélich and Joan Català, offered similar testimonies.

Notwithstanding the time that has passed, the black legend goes on casting its sinister shadow over the valleys of Andorra. And this despite the fact that the Andorran historian Claude Benet has long clamoured for a thorough investigation of these rumours, if only to scotch them once and for all:

The time has long since passed to try and find the guilty parties, but it could still be ripe for history to unearth certain truths. Almost all the democratic countries have made, or are making, a great effort at consciousness-raising through programmes to recovery historical memory, and notwithstanding still strong susceptibilities and ever prevailing fears the silence about these facts is now intolerable.

Claude Benet, 'Guies, fugitius i espies'.

Intolerable because, among other things, the sinister black legend also unwittingly ends up besmirching those who do not in the least deserve it, like the extraordinary heroes in the Principality who out of ideological conviction or pure humanity risked their lives smuggling fugitives across the mountains, men like Francesc Viadiu, Francesc Areny Naudi, the aforesaid Baldrich, Mélich and Català, or other lesser known figures like Josep Ibern, Salvador Calvet or Joan Peremiquel.

There is a crying need to investigate things more fully. If the legend is true, there must still be anonymous graves in the mountains, graves that deserve a more dignified fate. And if the legend is false, the truth will help us have done with it once and for all.

Did you know all this? Do you have any information to offer? If so, you can do so by adding a comment or by writing directly here.

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Concentration camp of Ruhleben and World War I

It has always seemed to me an injustice that World War I has been virtually eclipsed in our collective memory because another even worse war came along. When we talk about “concentration camps” we immediately think of places like Dachau or Buchenwald, forgetting that there were many other forgotten names like Elsenborn or Soltau, which came to receive a total of eight to nine million combatants, equivalent to a total of ten percent of all forces mobilized in the war.

But not only fighters were imprisoned: also foreign residents of enemy nations. One of the most notorious civilian camps was Ruhleben, near Berlin, designed specifically to accommodate English prisoners. Originally it was a racetrack with eleven stables and capacity for 27 horses in each: they just had to replace the horses by prisoners. They were between 4000 and 5000, according to estimates, mostly British.

Concentration camp of Ruhleben in 1918
Concentration camp of Ruhleben in 1918 (via ruhleben.tripod.com)

One of its involuntary tenants was the Irishman William O’Sullivan Molony, arrested in 1914 at the gates of the British Embassy in Berlin when he was only seventeen.

Wiliam O'Sullivan Molony in 1915
O’Sullivan Molony (1915) (via pw20c.mcmaster.ca)

According to Molony in Prisoners and captives, Ruhleben –which in German means something like quiet life– had to be a very singular place. The prison population consisted largely of sailors captured at sea or in German ports, but also golf and English teachers which coincidentally lived on German soil at the time of the outbreak of the war. According to the attitude shown on photographs, some of the prisoners could just be coming out of a London select club, if it were not for the rope that fixed their pants to their skinny waist.

Life at the camp was terribly monotonous, so culture flourished everywhere in its various manifestations. (The rise of culture at camps and prisons is something that will never stop to amaze me). Sport was part of it, as war caught dozens of British professional footballers in Ruhleben. Special lessons for sailors about Shakespeare or literature classes for Grimsby fishermen emerged spontaneously in the camp, even a “school of bacteriology.”

Inmates taking lessons at Ruhleben
Inmates taking lessons at Ruhleben (via ruhleben.tripod.com)

In Ruhleben there was music and theater, artists clubs were born, inmates played dominoes with homemade chips, carved figurines and drew. Molony, for example, became familiar with Rudolf Steiner through an anthroposophist prisoner and studied the teachings of the Tao with the help of someone called Murehead. A Yemeni named Hamed Saleh taught him to read Arabic and recite the Quran, while the engineer Luboff allowed him to master Russian enough to read Dostoyevsky in the original. In short, abruptly deprived of their daily duties, Ruhleben prisoners had established a distinctive and frenetic alliance against boredom. Molony admits that under ordinary circumstances, subject to a conventional vital code, neither the Taoist master would have had that power of conviction, nor someone like the Yemeni could have a big influence on the course of his existence.

However, sometimes culture also came to exercise a sinister power over these individuals, who submitted to her like a lover, passionate and entirely:

I shall never forget the gloom that settled upon us after seeing Ibsen’s Master Builder acted on our stage. Such influences as these were intruders, some friendly and invigorating, others very disturbing; certain plays and certain music sustained us beyond all belief, whereas others unmanned us and brought us at times to the brink of hysteria.

Furthermore, in Ruhleben

everything was undeniably ugly. The effort, though bold and even majestic, could not reconcile the real state of things. It was a make-believe town built outside the madness, with which Ibsen would have been delighted. It was a monster sustained by the inventive genius of its small builders.

Still, it is hard not to feel some kind of envy at the strange and unwanted opportunity to live with that monster, despite the lousy food, which worsened as did the German front, the longing for the outdoor life and the constant desire of freedom that pervaded all its inhabitants.

Four years later, when the inmates of Ruhleben returned home, perhaps spiritually enriched, but also emaciated, malnourished, sick and frightened by a world whose rules had been forgotten, they were received by their people with contempt. Unlike the dead and mutilated in the trenches, they had not fought for their country. In a culture still marked by outdated ideals of heroism, Ruhleben became for many a source of shame. That was how this and many other  fields of World War I were forgotten. Since the eighties, slowly, some historians have decided to rescue them.

(Translated from Spanish by Valentina Turchi)
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Nazi masses and the call of nature

I am sure you will immediately recognise the following image:

You are right: it comes from the best-known example of propaganda in film history: Triumph of the Will (1935) by Leni Riefenstahl. It shows, in a way that is still overwhelming, thousands of petrified human beings in masses exploited as part of a pleasant but empty geometric design. They are turned into a “closed crowd” as defined by Elias Canetti in his famous book Crowds and Power:

The closed crowd tries to set and create its own limited space; the space it will fill is assigned. It is comparable to a container whose capacity is known into which liquid is poured. They are only few access points to this space are numbered and you cannot enter it in any which way.

The Nazis liked to imagine the Communists, however, as a chaotic and irregular “open crowd”, with the implicit threat of unstoppable growth. This is how they would portray Communists in their films. Over and above the Bolshevik chaos, Nazism proposed the closed order of the domesticated masses.

The fascination we feel when we see those images of disturbing geometric beauty, the strange giddiness of knowing that each of those dots is a human being like ourselves, makes us overlook a series of reflections of a more rational nature. For example, and sticking to Canetti observation that “they are only few access points to this space”, that is, to the closed crowd: Have you ever stopped to think how such human agglomerations were technically organized?

Fortunately, there are some witnesses, though only few, who have informed us of that. For example, the exquisite Polish Count Antoni Sobánski, who attended as correspondent at the celebrations of May 1st 1934 in the vast camp of Tempelhof in Berlin. Here you can see a picture of the site taken on the same day, just hours before being filled it up:

Camp of Tempelhof

Sobanski explains us:

Each group has a “parade plan” with the time of the first meeting, the exact route of the parade, the place and time of meeting with other groups… So it is for the breaking up of this huge circus of two million people. There was no jam, but like everything in life has a price, the price to pay for an incident free radial parade toward Tempelhof was that it lasted from seven in the morning until one in the afternoon. At that time the place was completely covered, but the speeches were not going to start until four. For civilians, waiting at least three hours under unbearable heat without being able to sit on the floor is not without its problem, especially when one does not expect a special show, but only a series of speeches.

Well, at this point, are you thinking what I’m thinking? Indeed, when you have to train for hours in the rigid structure of a “closed crowd”… What do you do if you have to go to the bathroom?

Sometimes luck is generous and in this case we can count on, at least, one testimony about this issue. I mean the Bolshevik and expressionist writer Franz Jung, now almost forgotten, who was able to experience closely the first major mass celebration of the Third Reich, on May 1st 1933, which took place three months after the brand new chancellor Adolf Hitler had used the Reichstag fire as an excuse to get rid of political dissidents. At that time there were still a few terrified labor unions which were forced to participate in the “two million strong circus” described by Sobanski. And naturally, since they were so scared, the night before they had drunk a lot of beer. Can you imagine it? Moreover, that year on May 1 it was cold and the streets were full of the muddy remains of the spring snow. Read it in Jung’s words:

The organization had miscalculated the number of toilets. Or maybe it forgot all of them. In addition, the columns of unionists were squeezed between the SA and the SS, so that it would be impossible for them to leave; on the other hand, the organizers would have prevented any such attempt. The night before, many celebrated discreetly the farewell: farewell to union, party, socialism… And they did this with beer and schnapps, in their favourite bars. The thing is that the consequences were beginning to show. The shivering participants in the celebration were unable to contain their physiological need to urinate, so they wet their pants and marching boots under the sound of drums, trumpets and flutes….Sieg Heil! …Heil Hitler!

The next day, by the way, on May 2, 1933, free labor unions ceased to exist in Germany.

Maybe those who were in charge of organizing the massive event would learn from their mistakes of the last year, since, according to Sobanski, on May 1, 1934 there were toilets. Coincidentally, that year it was very hot:

The monotony and monochrome image of the mass is interrupted by twelve or sixteen gigantic tents with the fluttering flag of the Red Cross. They form a checker board pattern alternated with the towering concrete toilets, which recall bunkers of Verdun. This image confirms that man does not live by the word. Neither of the first aid centers are decorated. Apparently, more than 4,000 people needed medical assistance. From what I could find out, about a thousand people, by falling unconscious, suffered broken arms or legs, especially on the wrists and ankles. And according to what I have been told, in the camp of Tempelhof six or, according to others, nine babies came into the world. Naturally, most emergencies were due to fainting caused by heat.

Camp of Tempelhof, 1st Mai 1935
Sobanski, however, refers to civilians who came to Tempelhof as spectators. They were a relatively “open” mass, drawing on canettiana terminology. Perhaps, though with great effort, civilians could escape the build up. But what about the thousands of uniformed “closed crowd” that had to keep the line for hours?

I don’t know about you, but I am no longer able to see pictures of the striking geometry of Adolf Hitler “closed crowd” without imagining what pictures cannot show: a revolting smell of sweat and urine.

Quite a symbol, it seems to me.

(Translated from Spanish by Valentina Turchi)

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Tanks and baby prams

My mother, who lived through the Second World War as a child, remembered that at about fifty meters from the train station of her native village of Westfalia, there was a placard hanging from a bridge in a very visible way. That placard read as follows:

Panzer rollen für den Sieg.
Kinderwagen für den nächsten Krieg!

The Tanks advance for the victory.
Baby prams for the next war!

Obviously, the English translation does not include the original rhyme, an extremely catchy couplet. If we ignore for a moment the content, we might even say that it is cheerful, like the chorus of a children’s song.

Photo: Daniela Häring

It is well known that the Nazi authorities did their best to promote the birth rate among the German population in order to promote the German breeding “of good blood” with racial eugenics purposes, but also to have a healthy and young population that could repopulate the new “living space” that had been forcibly wrenched from the occupied nations. Obviously, everyone whispered that there was at least a third reason: the mass production of meat to feed a war whose dimensions were topping the imaginable. But, could the Nazis be so cynical as to announce with fanfare on a placard this terrible purpose? And the Germans, were they already so indoctrinated to accept the mission of bringing children into this world with the sole purpose of sending them to the war?

I never believed it possible that the Nazi officialdom would dare to expose itself so ideologically in that way. I thought that my mother’s memory had conjured up a placard with a sentence full of black humor arising from the German civilians. I imagined them whispering this couplet secretly to each other in order to mock the pompous “Mother’s Day” that the Nazis had elevated to the category of a national holiday, endowing it with power speeches praising motherhood and brightening it up with Hitler Youth choirs. In one of these parties my grandmother was officially awarded the “Mother’s Cross”; in this case the bronze one, as she had given birth to only six children. In these curious Olympics, the silver medal was for the progenitor of 6-8 children, and the gold was for the ones that had achieved 8 or more. My mother says that my grandmother threw the cross away as soon as she received it. It is a Pity. I confess that I would have liked to examine it closely.

I kept wondering, then, about the truth of this statement, until I found the testimony of a man named August Justus, from a town in Lower Saxony called Wispenstein. Justus reminds us of the mobilization of 1939. The stations were full of family members saying goodbye with a handkerchief to the young soldiers departing to the war, and almost only military trains were on the move. Justus says that the locomotives and coal wagons had the slogan:

Räder müssen rollen für den Sieg.
Kinderwagen für den nächsten Krieg.

That means:

The wheels must roll for the victory.
The baby prams, for the next war.

As you can see, the version is somewhat different from what my mother remembers (the tanks disappear), but the second verse, the most terrifying, remains unchanged. With the aggravation that this witness places the statement as early as 1939, when the war had just begun.

But the baby prams sentence must have been added spontaneously, after all. In June 1942, when the supply to the Wehrmacht on the Eastern front had become a major problem, the state railway company of the Reich began an advertising campaign designed to avoid the use of the train by the civilians as much as possible. The main campaign slogan was Räder müssen rollen für den Sieg (‘The wheels must roll for the victory!’), and with it was the intention of raising awareness in the German population about the huge strategic importance the train had acquired.

Räder müssen rollen für den Sieg
Via www.geheugenvannederland.nl

The population promptly added cynically the second verse to this slogan that was affecting their mobility. Spurred by the consciousness of being used by Hitler for his imperialist ambitions, the most daring Germans secretly added it with paint to the placards which used to hang on the wagons or in the stations. Therefore, it was a popular graffiti at the time that the traffic of besmirched wagons helped to spread.

After all, in October 1944 when the Volkssturm was convened and the elderly and teenagers were recruited desperately to defend what remained of the Reich, there were jokes circulating like this one:

-Now they have confiscated all the baby prams.
-Why?
-Because they are going to call up those born in 1943!

(Translated from Spanish by Javier Senra)

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Bruno Manz and Jewish conspiracy

There are numerous autobiographical testimonies about World War II and the Third Reich. The memoirs of former generals or soldiers engaged in telling their hardships and feats from a heroic perspective abounded for a time in German language. Many of these authors were perfectly willing to accept that Hitler was a tyrant who dragged Germany to disaster, but not to give up pride in their exploits during the war, which they considered legitimate. Giving up their pride would have meant accepting the terrible absurdity of the adversities they had passed through. Is it not too high a price for those who had left the best youth in the battlefield? After all, our psyche requires us to be able to give meaning to our suffering, even if this meaning has to be fabricated.

With the advent of May 1968, the European mentality experienced a turning point that ended this attitude. Thereafter, the former heroic testimonies could only be self-published or appear in small publishing houses with a more than questionable political affiliation. The heroic discourse was gradually becoming a stale and reactionary attitude, which was inappropriate in the new times. In return, the victims’ testimonies, a genuine literary genre with its own rules which had been formerly unnoticed, proliferated and spread more than ever. A new desire to be a victim, which was replacing the old pride of being a hero, began to emerge: in some extreme cases impostors appeared describing in great detail stories of survival in the concentration camps which they had never experienced. I may return to this in a future entry.

But the kind of testimony that has always shone eloquently for its absence is the unrepentant Nazi, despite the fact that a high percentage of the German population of 1945 consisted of them. The reasons for this absence are in and of themselves and are undoubtedly related to an unacknowledged feeling of shame. However, we can barely count with direct testimonies of someone who recognizes himself as being deeply convinced of the truth of the Nazi worldview. It amazes me all the more that one of the most valuable testimonies of this type rarely appears in the endless bibliographies about Nazism and still does not even have a German translation. I’m referring to A Mind in Prison, the extraordinary memoirs of the German-born physicist Bruno Manz, published in 2000.

Cover 'A Mind in Prison"

As the title suggests, Manz’s mind was imprisoned by the ideological and propaganda machine of the Third Reich, but also by the strong convictions held in his home. His father had always been an assured Nazi, and the deep love that the child felt for him facilitated inoculation of his ideological venom. It was easy for the Hitler Youth to do the rest. Later, the handsome soldier Manz ended up becoming an enthusiastic teacher who was responsible for, among other things, the indoctrination of Wehrmacht soldiers in Nazi ideology.

Old Bruno Manz

Apparently, Manz was lucky not to be directly involved in violent crimes; however, he was undoubtedly an ideological criminal, a truth about himself that he finally accepted with all its bitterness. The book also describes with unusual honesty the disturbing ideological liberation process he had to face after 1945. Among other things, and though it took him several months, he ended up being forced to accept that the death camps were not a mere invention of Allied propaganda. Finally freed from his mental prison, in 1957 Manz emigrated to The United States and settled in the country of the former enemy, taking American citizenship. Ironically, he worked as a physicist in the missile development program of his new country.

Manz said that, as in many other German homes, in the entrance of his house in Dortmund there was a kind of domestic altar. Set in the middle was the Nazi flag; on top, a portrait of Hitler, and on either side pictures of Goebbels and Göring. Is there any better proof of how the National Socialism was a political religion?

Nazi domestic altar

Well, now let’s listen to the valuable testimony of Manz:

The picture that represented the Führer was a technically inferior photograph of his profile that my father had bought at Nazi headquarters. From the very beginning my father was unhappy with this picture, but he put up with it for want of a better one. The stumbling block was the Führer’s shaggy hair, which was dotted with mysterious spots that looked quite unnatural and created the impression that the photograph had been tampered with. […] Apparently the Goebbels propaganda was also unhappy with the Hitler photograph, for it suddenly ordered the picture to be withdrawn from all shops and showcases. But no explanation was given, and that’s when the rumors started. The Stürmer, we heard by the grapevine, had launched an investigation, yet its findings were so sensitive that they could not be printed. They could only be transmitted by word of mouth, and then only to the most trustworthy. In this way, we eventually learned the “truth”. The pathetic photograph of Hitler was a sinister fabrication of the Jews. With great technical skill, they had woven all sorts of Jewish faces into Hitler’s shaggy hair, thus putting him on notice that they were still calling the shots. Now our eyes had been “opened.” Turning the picture around and viewing it from all angles, we “saw” a whole array of Jewish faces laughing and scoffing at us.

I was stunned. I am not sure whether my father took the affair as seriously as I did, but it was he who dug even deeper into the sinister plot. As the commotion was already cooling down, he surprised us at the dinner table with a view that tingled my spine. Turning Hitler’s profile upside down, he showed that his ear became a Jewish nose, his lower jaw turned into a bald forehead, a strand of hair was transformed into puffy lips, and so on. Now I was really frightened. If the Jews could penetrate the inner sanctuary of the National Socialist Party, was there anything they could not to?

The sudden withdrawal of Hitler’s photograph, which had a strong impact on the German population, was with no doubt due to image control measures of the Ministry of Propaganda. Trade with Führer portraits had become a big business, so images of poor quality proliferated. This was to be avoided at all costs. Moreover, Hitler’s personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, had exclusive photographic rights to the dictator. Any of these reasons amply explains the confiscation of the image referred to by Manz, without resorting to a conspiracy theory.

But in modern western civilization, conspiracy theories always had a big success. The extraordinary effectiveness of their argumentative mechanism has always fascinated me. By constructing false causal links, a conspiracy theory allows us to mark as true something that is nothing but a prejudice, a fear, an irrational hatred or mere suspicion. There is always a conspiracy theory that will allow us to claim a rational attitude and a logical scrutiny to cover feelings that would embarrass us if we showed them in all their naked irrationality and primitivism. Conspiracy theories even allow us to be proud of our superior intelligence. After all, it was us who knew how to see Jewish faces in the image, where other ignorant mortals only see mere spots formed by chance.

Rare and valuable testimonies like these, though anecdotal, allow us to come closer to the mental mechanisms of horror. What matters is not so much to be aware of the tragic consequences of barbarism, but the simple and effective cognitive mechanisms that, at any given time, can make us a barbarian. In this sense, Manz has given us a priceless testimony.

(Translated from Spanish by Valentina Turchi)

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The Auto Execution of a French Captain

Johann Conrad Friedrich, a soldier and adventurous man also known as “the German Casanova” and author of some fascinating, although hard to find memoirs entitled Forty Years in the Life of a Dead Man (1848-49), tells the following story:

The captain of a Napoleonic regiment troop, famous for being valiant and a good soldier, brought his company together to perform skeet shooting drills at a square. However, before the practices began, he ordered his men to form a circle around him; and in a dramatic speech, he instilled in them that the first and most sacred duty of a soldier is unconditional obedience toward his superiors no matter what they might order. After all, the weight of the responsibility falls ultimately on them.

After that address, he ordered his men to line up again and charge their weapons, performing diverse routine operations afterwards. In a given moment, he stood in front of them and in a single breath, he blurted: “Ready, aim, fire!!!” Immediately after, his body fell lifeless on the ground. Two thirds of his men had shot. Only the remaining third had enough reflexes and conscience to stop in time and not pull the trigger.

Reconstruction of the 'Vieille Garde' (via legardeimperial.tumblr.com)

The story of this captain caused sensation and was quickly spread by the press of Napoleon’s enemy countries, especially England. In France, however, censorship stopped it, although the spreading of rumors showed its efficiency as always.

Many of the soldiers that had shot their captain immediately lamented their actions, but they alleged not having enough time to react. The impulse to obey an order was faster (and easier) than their thought process. After some time, it was revealed that the captain had decided to execute himself in this way because the Legion of Honour Order, which he expected to obtain a long time ago, was granted to his rival. “It is difficult to believe —Johann Conrad Friedrich comments— that such an insignificant thing, a little toy made of a little ribbon with a little cross, was able to prompt a sensible person to commit such stupidity”. Even more, we may add: The captain also used as a toy the conscience and loyalty of all his men.

Légion d'Honneur (via military-photos.com)

Conrad Friedrich still does not have the precise expression for the core of this anecdote. However, we do. It’s called: Due Obedience. This is an expression that acquired a sad popularity in the eighties related to the crimes of the Argentinian dictatorship and which remained valid as an unanswerable legal defense until the International Military Court questioned it as such in the Nuremberg process.

What do you think you would have done? Would you shoot? Perhaps. After all, the desperate captain did not jeopardize anyone’s life but his own. And he did it by his own will. Nevertheless, it does not cease to amaze me that a third of the squad managed to inhibit their impulse and bear in mind just on time that the fulfillment of that order originated from an ilicit act.

(Translated from Spanish by Diana Patricia Harmon)

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Zarah Leander and the Leibstandarte SS

Do you know Zarah Leander, the attractive woman in the picture?

Zarah Leander

Probably not. However, everybody in Germany over the age of fifty would know exactly who she is. Not surprisingly this beautiful Swedish redhead was the quintessential movie star of the Third Reich.

There were many changes that the unfortunate year of 1933 brought to Germany. One was the final imposition of the “star system” into the German cinema standards, previously designed and successfully used in the film industry by none other than “the enemy” of Hollywood. Once a star had been created, a program was imposed that was meticulously crafted with every detail. That program included how she should dress, the parties she should attend and, of course, what to say and omit from the press. Zarah Leander was the perfect product and a satisfied victim of this system. It is said that when Frau Leander went shopping at a department store, the managers kicked all of the clients out of the building and closed the store just for her. Swedish and therefore endowed with a note of the “foreigner” exoticism, but without thereby ceasing to be an “Aryan”, in the Third Reich she could indulge in playing roles traditionally opposed to the ideal image of the German woman, becoming an innocuous but necessary object of desire and identification.

Her success was remarkable. But Zarah Leander had her own skills, including her extraordinary contralto voice. Unfortunately, the Nazis knew how to use her for their own interest, more so, when the war ceased to be a corollary of wins for Germany and civilians began to confront it’s ravages.

Everyday life may seem to us now greyer and tougher than it seemed before. In times like these, it is even more necessary for the State to do it’s utmost  to compensate the situation and provide the people with the entertainment and relaxation that now more than ever they are entitled to claim. Without optimism you cannot win the war, it is as important as the guns and rifles.  

(Joseph Goebbels in November 1939, two months after the invasion of Poland).

Zarah Leander became, so to say, the vocal “guns and rifles” of the German optimism, with meaningful titles in her songs, such as “Not for this will sink the world” or “I know that one day a miracle will happen ” these two incorporated in the musicals from her film Die grosse Liebe (‘The Great Love’, 1942):

Decades after the war, the sentimentally optimistic song with its jaunty chorus still buzzed the melancholy moments of that generation of German women. My mother, unaware of its ideological context, used to put it on the record player whenever she felt discouraged, attributing to it miraculous capabilities to resolve a problematic situation. That’s how I also learned to appreciate it as a child, before I knew who this woman with a sensual mellow voice and Scandinavian accent really was.

Now that you have seen the scene, have you paid attention to when Leander appears surrounded by dozens of extras dressed as angels? Have you noticed anything unusual? Look carefully:

Not yet? Look again:

Don’t you think that these starlets are a bit too ugly to accompany a star like Leander? Here you can contemplate them a little more closely:

Figurante 2

You are right: They are men! Leander not only had some extra pounds (an aspect that producers tried to disguise with clever tricks), but she was also abnormally tall. At that time the producer did not have girls with those proportions, that could deceive the eye of the spectator, available. So they resorted to the extreme of hiring disguised men.

The chosen men certainly met the requirements of slenderness and height: they were nothing less than members of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, the “elite of the elite”, born from the praetorian guard of Hitler, educated for combat through the hardest procedures and directly subject to the orders of the Fuhrer. Men like these you see here, clumsily dressed as transvestites, were responsible for the first mass murder of Jews in Italy, named the “slaughter of Lake Maggiore”, or the indiscriminate liquidation of war prisoners at the massacres of Malmedy and Wormhout. In these photographs, for once, we are given the rare opportunity to laugh at them. Enjoy it!

(Translated from Spanish by Javier Senra)

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