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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries


I trailed the Race Marshal into Bamberg this afternoon after a 60 km ride through hills in the bright sunshine. En route, I listened to the thrum of a wind farm as I ate my Drei im Weggla - a Franconian speciality, a roll with three sausages. For some reason, the fact that we like sausage sandwiches as much as Germans do put me in mind of the American Civil War when Union and Confederate Armies were camped close to each other on the eve of battle. As the campfires burned, their respective bands started to play. After a while, the bands took it in turns to play tunes - both armies were in earshot. This pre-battle concert ended with Union and Confederate renditions of Dixie – a song loved by both North and South. So, on this day, it made me think of another song shared by soldiers at war – Lili Marlene. One can generalise about what May 8th, 1945 meant in Germany: cities of rubble; Soviet troops on a rampage of vengeance; so many soldiers in captivity or traumatised or wounded or never to return; food and medicines in short supply; a flourishing black market where cigarettes were the only hard currency; no mail or telephone; and all these problems exacerbated by the 14 million displaced Germans returning to the shrunken homeland. A wave of suicides swept the east with the arrival of the Soviets: one thousand in the town of Demmin which only had a population of 15,000; 10,000 women in Berlin alone. Following the final performance of the Berlin Philharmonic, Hitler Youth stood at the exits with baskets offering cyanide capsules to the faithful. For many dedicated Nazis, the meaning and purpose of their lives had gone: Durkheim called this phenomenon anomie, the loss of a framework of values that took away the moral basis - however warped - for peoples' lives. Germans called the desolation, and still do, Stunde Null, zero hour. For decades after the war, they saw themselves as victims not perpetrators and that did not really change until 1985.

Willi Brandt at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial in 1970 (c)

According to Susan Nieman, Director of the Einstein Institute in Potsdam: "It took an extraordinarily long time for West Germany to make any serious attempt to face the Nazi past ... the iconic picture of postwar Germany was Chancellor Willi Brandt on his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial in 1970. What most foreigners don't realise is that many West Germans hated that gesture of Brandt's. They thought it was wrong … the much more common view in West Germany was not atonement or repentance for having been a perpetrator, but self-pity for having been a victim."

It was not to be until 1985 that the general sentiment can be said to have shifted under the questioning and pressure of the 60's generation. On 8th May that year, the President of Germany, Richard Karl Freiherr von Weizsäcker gave a speech that included this:

Most Germans had believed that they were fighting and suffering for the good of their country. And now it turned out that their efforts were not only in vain and futile, but had served the inhuman goals of a criminal regime. The feelings of most people were those of exhaustion, despair and new anxiety. Had one's next of kin survived? Did a new start from those ruins make sense at all? Looking back, they saw the dark abyss of the past and, looking forward, they saw an uncertain, dark future.

Yet with every day something became clearer, and this must be stated on behalf of all of us today: the 8th of May was a day of liberation. It liberated all of us from the inhumanity and tyranny of the National-Socialist regime.

Nobody will, because of that liberation, forget the grave suffering that only started for many people on 8 May. But we must not regard the end of the war as the cause of flight, expulsion and deprivation of freedom. The cause goes back to the start of the tyranny that brought about war. We must not separate 8 May 1945 from 30 January 1933.

There is truly no reason for us today to participate in victory celebrations. But there is every reason for us to perceive 8 May 1945 as the end of an aberration in German history, an end bearing seeds of hope for a better future. Individuals, of course, remember their own experiences of that day. Christa Ludwig, the mezzo-soprano, for example, remembers that: “The Americans came shortly after my 17th birthday. They ... camped in a field. I ran there to collect the cigarette ends. My grandfather … took the tobacco out of the stubs and rolled cigarettes out of a piece of newspaper. I also remember my mother drinking a Nescafé for the first time. She felt terribly sick and vomited. “ Back to Bamberg - and someone who was not there to witness the end of the war but who is still celebrated in Germany is Count Claus Philipp Maria Schenk von Stauffenberg. A son of one of the oldest aristocratic Catholic families of this region and a former member of the Kavallerieregiment in Bamberg, he was central to resistance in the Wehrmacht and led the abortive coup to kill Hitler.

Messerschmitt ME109 (c)meirion harries

Another Bavarian to influence the course of the war was Willi Messerschmitt whose ME109 fighter was the second most manufactured aircraft in history – 34,000 were made. His design was superior in several respects to the Spitfire: fuel injection meant his plane could dive and climb when the carburettor-fed Spitfire would stall; the supercharger he made meant faster climbing; but on the flat, the Spitfire had a tighter turning circle and could get behind the Messerschmidt in a dog fight.

Flying Fortress - an incredibly robust aeroplane (c)wikicommons

One of the Luftwaffe pilots to fly a ME109 was Oberleutnant Franz Stigler. On 20th December 1943 he was at his airfield dealing with engine problems when telephone calls came in of a damaged Flying Fortress trying to escape at low level. Second Lieutenant Charles Brown, USAAF, had taken off from RAF Kimbolton with his squadron of Flying Fortresses on a mission to bomb the Focke Wulf factory in Bremen. The air defences were phenomenal – 250 anti-aircraft guns and scores of fighters. Brown's bomber was leading in the squadron and was soon hit, one engine crippled and another damaged. His plane inevitably slowed and then dropped out of formation. Twelve fighters attacked and while they failed to shoot the bomber down, they did hit a third engine and kill or wound all the crew - including Brown himself, who was shot in the shoulder. With no oxygen system, he was forced down to low altitude and at this point, the fighters went off in search of other prey leaving the Flying Fortress to the guns of the Atlantic Wall. Oberleutnant Stigler got back in the cockpit and soon caught up with Brown's bomber. Through the rents in the air frame he could see that the crew were either dead or injured and so he did not shoot. Instead, he tucked his Messerschmidt in close to the Flying Fortress so that ground-based guns of Bremen and the Atlantic Wall would not fire. He tried to signal to Brown to fly to neutral Sweden where the crew could get medical treatment, but the 'farm boy from West Virginia', as Brown described himself, was determined to get back to his British base. As they flew beyond the range of German guns, Oberleutnant Franz Stigler dipped his wings in salute and returned to Bremen, where he said nothing, knowing that he would be executed for sparing American airmen. Brown, however, back in Kimbolton did tell his superiors - but he was ordered to silence: they did not want 'any positive sentiment about enemy pilots'. Brown, whose life had just been saved, commented, 'someone decided you can't be human and be flying in a German cockpit'. It was Stigler's humanity that led Brown to track him down after the war. They met finally in 1990 and remained friends until they died within months of each other in 2008.

On this historic day, the Race Marshal has booked us into the Kachelofen, the Tiled Stove, and preordered its splendid Franconian speciality, a Farmer's Pancake - roast meat, liver sausage, liver dumplings, sauerkraut and fried potatoes. After 60 kilometres of pedalling …

Christa Ludwig sings Morgen -

Here Susan Neiman suggests lessons Americans might learn with regard to slavery and racism from the German experience:

Swedish metal band Sabaton's album Heroes references Stigler's heroism in the song No Bullets Fly -

And here is a film by Sabaton about the Stigler/Brown story that includes interviews with Stigler and Brown:

And Lili Marlene (not sung by Dietrich) -

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