Hitler’s Lesson from the Great War and Sönke Neitzel, a German History Professor at LSE

Hitler’s Lesson from the Great War and Sönke Neitzel, a German History Professor at LSE

The tourist brochure I picked up at the railway station welcomed me heartily to Torgau, a small town in eastern Germany. ‘May we invite you to a thoughtful journey through the renaissance,’ it said before listing a number of historical events that had taken place here – ranging from visits by Tsar Peter the Great and Martin Luther to the end-of-the-Second World War meeting of American and Soviet troops on the bombed bridge over the river Elbe. It ended: ‘Have a look yourself, Torgau has more.’

Yes, I knew it had more; that was why I had chosen to come, though I knew it would bring me no pleasure. In fact I was frightened of this town. I feared coming here; I dreaded what a visit to this place might do to me; my intuitive sense was of impending doom.

At first sight, however, Torgau’s immense beauty didn’t fit the ugly picture I long ago had painted in my mind: a centre of torture, a site deeply connected with brutal Nazi war-courts and relentless Second World War persecution of disobedient soldiers and war-refusers. No, the judges and executioners were long gone. Still, this was it, the site where justice had merged with terror, the epicentre of the biggest judicial mass murder in human history.

He was well into his eighties at the time, the man I met shortly after, at the mid-town castle courtyard. Ludwig Baumann had been one of approximately 30,000 German soldiers sentenced to death by military courts during the war, and, though in the end, as a result of a number of miraculous circumstances, he escaped with his life, the memories of Torgau had never stopped haunting him: they had been with him night and day for more than half a century. Still, despite the pain every visit would bring with it, this man had repeatedly returned to the place that had become synonymous with his life’s suffering. Coming here was part of his life-long struggle for rehabilitation, peace and dignity.

For safety reasons, the supreme Nazi military court moved from Berlin to Torgau after the war started, and, as two of the major military prisons had already been established there, that re-location turned the small town into the capital of Hitler’s war ‘justice’ and bestowed on it a significant role in Nazi Germany’s war of aggression. It was the last step in a process whose roots could be traced back to the previous European catastrophe, the ‘Great’ War. What had taken place there inspired the new leadership to take precautions to prevent what they had come to see as the major cause for the humiliating German defeat: lax morale among the Emperor’s troops. Internal resistance and slackness within the armed forces have to be nipped in the bud and for that project stern military justice is needed, Adolf Hitler concluded. The dictator had been aware of this need for tougher methods ever since he himself served as a corporal in the First World War. Inspired by what had taken place there on both sides of the trenches, he made up his mind about what to do with potential deserters and conscientious objectors. In fact he had been inspired by the British, and what he had learned would in the coming war have lethal consequences for thousands of young compatriots.

‘Those who are not with us are against us,’ Hitler famously claimed, but he had been much more specific than that. In his prison cell after the failed coup attempt in 1923 he wrote in what would later become the infamous Mein Kampf: ‘If one intends to keep cowardly men to their duties, then there is only one option. The deserter must know that his desertion will have exactly the same consequence as that which he is trying to escape. At the front you can die, as a deserter you shall die.’ His perception of what had led to the Fatherland’s painful defeat in 1918 was clear and now he proclaimed: ‘Only one state has never made use of the articles of its existing war law and this state disintegrated. This state was Germany. This laxness shall not be repeated!’ From 1914 to 1918 the German war tribunals had ‘only’ sentenced 150 men to death, and out of them ‘only’ forty-eight (seventeen deserters) had been executed. In those facts he found the reason for the humiliating defeat. Hitler’s idea was that the German war courts during the ‘Great’ War had been much too lenient and forgiving. This, according to the future dictator, was the reason why German soldiers had lost their morale and in the end the war. The opposite, he claimed, had been the case on the enemy side, and that had finally made them successful.

Whether or not the sheer number of troops killed by their own comrades on order from above actually had decided the First World War is questionable, but Hitler was right when he compared war court statistics: the numbers of sentenced and executed British soldiers were both roughly ten times higher than those of their German counterparts, if we compare only those countries. If we would include all the Triple Entente forces, the difference between the two sides of the war would be massive. I do not have those numbers, so we will leave it there, as the figures we already have speak for themselves.

During the First World War, 3,080 men from British and Commonwealth troops were sentenced to death by war judges. ‘Only’ approximately ten percent of them, 346, were finally executed, but that still dwarfed the German figure, enough to inspire Adolf Hitler and, in his mind, justify his theories. Here it is important to stress that we are talking about a war fought mainly by the underclass on behalf of the upper class’s imagined needs for territorial expansion and power, unlike the war that was to follow, which primarily was an act of genocide based on an extremely evil ideology, supported and made possible by the German armed forces and its military conquests. Still, and this is my point, when getting down to details about how ‘cowards’ were treated, it is not difficult to find similarities. As this story, more than anything else, is about ordinary people being exploited as pawns in the elite’s belligerent game playing, we must never forget that no side has a monopoly on malignity.

I do not know whether Hitler ever knew of the following case; I think not, but, if he had, it could have been used as a perfect teaching example for his future system of terror justice. On the Somme on 26 November 1916, British troops in thick mist came under heavy mortar fire. Sergeant W. Stones went out on a patrol with a lieutenant and suddenly came face to face with the enemy. The lieutenant was shot dead and Stones ran back to raise the alarm. In the panic he had lost his rifle and, though he had escaped the pursuing Germans and made it back to his own lines unhurt, this would in the end cost him his life. As it was discovered that he had returned unarmed, he was arrested for ‘shamefully throwing away his weapon’, court-martialled, sentenced to death and executed by his own comrades in arms.

As also the Second World War finally came to its closure, it was clear that the Nazi war courts had lived up fully to the Fuehrer’s expectations – though it hadn’t helped bring the country victory this time either. Twenty thousand of those who had refused to serve Hitler had finally been executed; thousands of others had been forced back into penalty battalions and had there been used as cannon fodder. All this Ludwig Baumann had been through; as if helped by a number of miracles he had survived, and here he was, embracing me this sunny morning.


Ludwig, now 92 and a life-long campaigner for his comrades’ rehabilitation, 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.
On 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 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.’

Kurt died in a penalty battalion, but Ludwig survived. His ordeals, however, didn’t stop. As was the case with all others in the same position, after the war he continued to be harassed and discriminated against by his fellow citizens and state. It was said, these men were cowards, filthy traitors who had let down the Fatherland and their own comrades.

But it wasn’t exclusively the unforgiving society that caused years of suffering. Alright, Ludwig Baumann, the last known surviving deserter, had been spared death, but he had never managed to escape from his memories; they are with him day and night all these years later. Every night the Nazis are still knocking on his cell door; every night in his dreams he still fears it is his last. Torgau was the centre of his terrorized youth, and for Ludwig it remains the symbol of the criminal war that ruined his life. Here he had been held prisoner; here he had witnessed the executions of others and here he had worn shirts with small holes in the front and big in the back – telling the fate of men wearing them before him. And here, sixty years later, in May 2004, he still had to fight for his life and dignity.

The democratic state of West Germany did nothing to ease that pain: on the contrary. For decades after the war, the hate knew no limits. And it wasn’t just locally: powerful political figures, including Chancellor Kohl, fought for years against any attempt to legally rehabilitate these men. The opponents were strong, were to be found on all levels, and they were many. Despite all talk about criminal Nazi aggression and holocaust, in post-war Germany the few surviving deserters, whether in east or west, lived and died in a society that saw them as traitors of the Fatherland. It didn’t matter that Nazi Germany was that Fatherland and still doesn’t for a lot of people. We can see that in the political process that followed, largely thanks to Ludwig’s persistence.

A half-hearted rehabilitation law in 2002 didn’t change much – the world kept its silence, and, because of exemptions to the passed legislation, fifty-seven years after the war the German parliament still refused to rehabilitate (let alone honour) those men who had, according to the judges, committed war treason – treason against the idea of Nazi aggression. The deserters were rehabilitated by a small majority in the Bundestag. 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 worth? Even after this last step in a tragic struggle for justice, it meant that ‘traitors’ – among them people sentenced for having deserted to enemy partisans or occupied countries’ resistance groups or soldiers who had helped ‘unworthy’ individuals such as Jews – were still seen as criminals. This meant present day politicians still acknowledged that Nazi war tribunals (and by extension the terror regime itself) had had a legal right to exist – while the Nazi perpetrators, shortly after the war ended, were allowed to thrive in post-war Germany, returning to work in politics, law and the military as if nothing had happened.

One of them was Erich Schwinge. He had been 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 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 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. Schwinge was no exception, only one Nazi out of thousands who continued successful careers in law, politics and military in Konrad Adenauer’s West German post-war success story.

However, not least on that background, Ludwig would not accept that some victims were excluded from legal rehabilitation. The struggle continued, and, thanks to the small socialist party Die Linke, another bill was introduced in the Bundestag. As part of that process, on 5 May 2008, the parliamentary committee responsible for the preparation of the law proposal had arranged a hearing, and this way the stage was set for yet another, for Ludwig, painful confrontation. In order to fend off any attempt to posthumously rehabilitate these ‘traitors’, Angela Merkel’s conservative party had called in expert help from military historians obviously willing to say whatever necessary to have it blocked. One of them was Sönke Neitzel, professor in history and well known expert commentator on German TV history documentaries.

Neitzel presented an individual example in order to build his case against a blanket rehabilitation. His point was, and we have heard this view expressed many times before, that an act of treason would have endangered the lives of German soldiers. In order to win the argument, the professor referred to two marine officers who had revealed to the enemy (the British) all they knew about a top secret acoustic torpedo. Astonishingly enough, according to Neitzel’s opinion, this torpedo, the T-5, was a defensive weapon. Because of the disclosures, which had been given during interrogations, the allies had been able to take precautions against this highly effective (‘defensive’) weapon.

As had happened at the same hearing with another expert’s statement, a history professor on the opposite side of the argument challenged the witness’s contribution and subsequently disclosed something quite remarkable. As had been the case with his colleague, Professor Neitzel could not, against all academic rules, present any kind of evidence for his claim that the two submarine officers had been sentenced for war treason. This man, who obviously saw it as a despicable act to inform the allied forces fighting Nazi Germany about new highly effective torpedoes, now teaches students at LSE in London.


Lars G Petersson