hidden away deserter monument in Bremen

(Short Version of book)


Ludwig Baumann does not see himself as a hero. He had just been a young man with life in front of him; he had wanted to live, not die for a cause that wasn’t his. ‘Why should I go to a foreign country and shoot people who have never wronged me?’ he asks today, 64 years after the war that ruined his life finally ended. No, why should he?
A dark night in June 1942, two young men, both from Hamburg, deserted from their navy base in Bordeaux, France. ‘We realized that this was a criminal war, a genocide; we didn’t want to be soldiers; we didn’t want to kill.’ Next day the two friends were arrested by a German patrol at the nearby border to the unoccupied part of France, and, despite the fact they were both armed, Ludwig and Kurt let themselves be arrested without any resistance. ‘They found us suspicious, but as we had changed to civilian clothes, berets and all, they took us for unarmed Frenchmen and led us back to their headquarters for interrogation. It was a remarkable situation; they walked in front of us with their rifles hanging over their shoulders and we had loaded pistols in our pockets. We could have shot them, but we didn’t. No, we couldn’t do that! When we arrived at the custom office, however, it was a disaster. They quickly found out we were disguised deserters, and from here our path of suffering began.’
German deserters from the Second World War are forgotten victims of endless cruelty and persecution. No, there has not been much interest shown in the fate of those thousands of young ‘traitors’ who refused being used as tools in terror and genocide. They were tortured, and killed by Nazi war courts; they continued to be harassed by their post-war society till the day death finally ended their ordeal; and they are still totally ignored by the rest of the world, which always has met them with silence. No, cowards they were, filthy traitors letting down the fatherland and their own comrades. What else but contempt do they deserve? No wonder that powerful political figures, including Chancellor Kohl, valiantly fought for years against the legal rehabilitation and honouring of these men of whom today only a few still are alive.
In spring 2002 – after a strenuous struggle by the above mentioned Ludwig Baumann (now in his late eighties), the Greens, and the small socialist party PDS – a half-hearted law was passed in parliament with the thinnest of margins possible. In theory at least this changed the criminal status of some of these men (long after most of them were dead), but in the end what was it all worth? Even after this last step in a tragic struggle for justice, it means that ‘traitors’ – among them people sentenced for having deserted to enemy partisans or occupied countries’ resistance groups – are still seen, and will continue to be seen, as ex-convicts and criminals. In the end this means that present day politicians still acknowledge that Nazi war tribunals (and in extension the terror-regime itself) had a legal right to exist….
A military law showing no mercy was Hitler’s way to victory. He had learned his lesson from the Great War where ‘only’ forty-eight German soldiers had been executed – a ‘leniency’ he saw as reason for the final disbanding of the armed forces and shameful defeat of the fatherland. No, this laxness shouldn’t be allowed to be repeated, and it wasn’t. In Mein Kampf Hitler stressed that deserting should always be punished by death and more than willing military tribunals soon began to live up to his ruthless expectations. The toll at the end of the war was shocking: twenty thousand soldiers had been executed and thousands of others had died in penal battalions and concentration camps. They had all broken the oath of loyalty – not sworn to the German fatherland, not to the constitution or the people, but to Hitler’s person alone: ‘I swear to the Lord this holy oath, that I will show unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler, Führer of the German Reich….’ For such a breach of loyalty there was no mercy.
Erich Schwinge was one of the most influential military lawyers of his time, and according to him, the ever present threat of death was vital to make every single soldier an obedient and effective tool in the hands of the Nazis. Not only did Schwinge faithfully serve as an eager prosecutor and judge during the war, but he had written much of the very foundation for this judicial mass murder himself. What’s more: after the war he easily escaped the post-war denazification campaign and continued for years as a respected legal adviser right in the middle of the Bonn administration. None less than Heinrich Himmler(!) had once found one of Schwinge’s sentences too brutal and had intervened to the benefit of the victim. But, even that was not seen as a hindrance for a successful career in the post-war democratic Federal Republic. No, Schwinge had good friends where it mattered and continued as if nothing had happened; he even wrote the history of the war justice himself… and the white-wash could go on undisturbed.

The condemned youngster was forced to wear heavy iron night and day. ‘The rattling is still in my ears’, Ludwig says, as he remembers his days in the clutches of evil. After ten long months in a death-cell, every day fearing it might be the last, the pardon suddenly was announced, and, via a concentration camp, Ludwig was transferred to the infamous military prison Fort Zinna in Torgau. Here he was forced to watch executions of other deserters and today these abhorrent memories continue in his dreams, as they do – and especially did – in so many of his fellow sufferers.
Ludwig, however, was not alone. The background often differed, but many a young man left the bandwagon after understanding what it was all about. From an early age, Peter Schilling – growing up in a Prussian vicarage – was taught unlimited respect for ‘authority’; many ‘truths’ were never to be questioned was the message. Granddad was proud of his three sons, who all had been decorated for their valiant efforts for Emperor and fatherland during the Great War. A devout Christian he was, the old patriarch: God-fearing, upright, pure in mind, yes, straight from a storybook of the typical stereotype. No, he was not a Nazi supporter, but still, the Führer was always part of grace before meals and to challenge figures of authority was for granddad the same as blaspheming the will of almighty God himself. Five of his grand-children lost their lives on the battlefields of the Second World War, and his prayer in response was: ”Lord, I thank you for having accepted these martyrs of the fatherland.” Is it surprising that the teenager Peter – influenced by this – willingly and voluntarily joined the armed forces? Probably not. No, he couldn’t wait for the call-up; he wanted desperately to be part of the campaign, convinced that the world would be healed by listening to the German soul. Very soon, however, Peter, hardly more than a boy, learned that this German soul was no different from a screaming Goebbels and the Nazis’ hysterical crowds of supporters; he had had enough; he decided to leave.
Peter deserted because of his conscience, but granddad saw it differently; for him it was cowardice: it was treason. Rather than bringing such shame upon the family he would have preferred the boy bravely ripped to shreds by an enemy bomb. No, there was no pride in making his own decisions, escaping over the border to Switzerland and joining the French resistance to fight his own fatherland. The fact that this fatherland was a fascist dictatorship, about to destroy much of the world, was no excuse.

Helmut Kober’s youth was different; early in life he was led down the path of free thinking. ’Make your own decisions; do not let anybody suppress you’, his dad kept telling him. Growing up, Helmut’s home had been imbued with values based in the spirit of humanism and from those he never deviated. No, from the very beginning and fully in line with his parents teaching Helmut opposed the regime for which he had been conscripted to serve: throughout the war he secretly fought with posters and flyers to enlighten his comrades about what they all were involved in. As the opportunity came, the radio-telegraph operator finally deserted to the enemy, and from there he continued as a radio broadcaster to encourage German troops to escape the Nazis. This act of treason earned Helmut a death sentence in absentia by Judge Schwinge’s colleagues – frustrated they couldn’t get him in person.

Unlike so many others, who died miserable deaths in the penal battalions at the eastern front, Ludwig Baumann miraculously survived even that ordeal after being wounded in Ukraine at the end of the war. Shortly after, Christmas 1945, he was back home, but the deserter couldn’t cope with his life; he couldn’t cope with the discrimination; he couldn’t cope with the contempt. Like so many others Ludwig was destroyed in his soul; his life was in tatters. It was indeed difficult being back in society, as those who had refused to be part of the war of terror now appeared to disturb the repression of the recent past. Hitler’s comrades in arms had almost overnight been changed in to the children of the new chancellor Adenauer’s economic wonder; hence, there was no time for shame or self-criticism. In this equation the deserters were simply a nuisance.
For others life was easier: The conservative political union CDU/CSU fiercely defended the war judges; yes, they happily invited their brown friends to continue their march under new flags, and cries for justice were denounced as libel campaigns and simple witch hunts. This way blood-judges like Schwinge were allowed to write the history, assisted by influential people like Franz W. Seidler, professor at the War College in Munich. Seidler happily followed the road laid out by the Nazis, stating the deserters were nothing but lesser mortals from dysfunctional families. These statements fitted well into the post-war view of these men. The opinion was, and is, that all who had been killed had been so after proper court hearings according to legitimate Nazi laws….

In the middle of the eighties, as the German peace movement celebrated its heyday, Ludwig Baumann finally dared to leave his social hiding and entered public life. The new generation, for which unquestioned discipline was not first priority, had given him the strength to stand by what he had kept hidden in his soul for over forty years. His own generation wished to forget, but now he wouldn’t let them off the hook that easily. Ludwig had refused to fight for Hitler, but, as head of a new association of Hitler’s few surviving deserters, he would fight for his and his dead friends’ dignity; and most of all he would fight for a peaceful future, free from abuse of young people in criminal warfare.

It was a hot day in June 1992; war had returned to Bosnia and a visitor watched a train passing the station in Subotica. It was full to the brim with people, and armed guards carefully patrolled the tracks. They ordered him to clear out but not before he briefly managed to get close enough for a short conversation with several men who leaned themselves out of an open window. ‘Muslim villagers from eastern Bosnia,’ they whispered hastily to him. They were now on their way to the Hungarian border, forced in to exile.
Closed goods wagons and armed guards, mass arrests and deportations, all made it impossible to escape the echo from The Third Reich. Here, a half-century later, we see him again: the dictator seducing a whole people. Here again we see him massacre his neighbours, using his submissive youth to carry out his dirty work. He was called Hitler yesterday and Milosevic, Saddam Hussein or something else today, but back he is, the same old story once again.

Refusing to butcher fellow human beings, deserters and war-resisters had fled the Yugoslav army to seek refuge in the rest of Europe. They had not wanted to be part of a genocide as war again had broken out in the Balkans – but only to be met with contempt and orders to go back. I can hardly say I was surprised; experience had told me not to be. As a prison nurse a few years before I had seen hundreds of Iran-Iraq war-refugees packed in to filthy jail-cells in Copenhagen. Their crime? They hadn’t looked forward to being blown up by mines, being maimed in the holy name of the fatherland, and shoot and kill others for the same reason; they had all felt dislike and contempt to those they had fled – the Iranian Ayatollah and “President for life” Saddam. But did it really matter? No, an escape from a dictator’s armed forces does not give any right to protection or a decent reception, as in itself it does not give the person refugee status. These men thought they had come to heaven and freedom but quickly found out the truth.
The world obviously has no time for deserters even if a growing number of those definitely would make this planet a much safer place to be. We all profess to hate bloodthirsty dictators, but still happily dismiss those who actively refuse to serve them. Today, as at least Milosevic and Saddam are gone, the rest of us rightfully should search assiduously for the truth. Did they act in isolation or are there others who now rightfully should help carry their burden of guilt? What about those of us who sent their deserters back to fight for their countries’? Should we face our part of the responsibility for assisting these murderers to keep hold on these men, these unwilling tools in flesh and blood without whom crimes against humanity never would have been possible? These men in the end had to do the dirty work, and some of them we had returned after they themselves thought they had escaped their tormentors. Yes, we all helped the dictator by letting his deserters and opponents down, and by continuing to turn our backs we will go on supporting him – no matter in what disguise he might turn up.

Drenched in sweat my old friend woke up with a jerk. Again someone was banging on the cell door; uniformed guards had come to take him out to be shot. No, not tonight… but maybe tomorrow. A nightmare repeats itself night after night, even today, more than half a century later. In sleep the memories come to life; he’s unprotected, he can’t cover himself. In sleep Ludwig Baumann is back in the military prison Fort Zinna – and again a defenceless victim at the mercy of Hitler. This is the deserter’s trauma: this is his lifelong, nightly hell. It will never let go of its victim.

Reviews in Danish Newspapers:

Ludwig Baumann and the Unknown Deserter