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Of Soldiers and War Criminals, Good vs. Bad and The Choices We Make

A German Life
courtesy of author

Of Soldiers and War Criminals, Good vs. Bad and The Choices We Make

(based in part on my reading of A German Life by Bernd Wollschlaeger, M.D.)

Author's Note-I would ask a favor of readers, that you read this piece together with an earlier “pre-review” as I called it. Here is the link: http://www.examiner.com/article/the-truth-will-set-you-free-and-allow-you-to-forgive-yourself?cid=db_articles

As discomfiting as its acknowledgement is and, as much as we might like to refuse to concede its possibility, we cannot. We cannot because its occurrence, though rare, remains a fact of human being.

The indwelling of the yetzer tov (good inclination) and its dialectical twin, the yetzer hara (evil inclination) the dual capacity for "good" and for "evil" that resides within the human species, its existential skeleton if you prefer, does not, however, empower them to actualize themselves either singly or jointly. They enjoy no such independent power of action but are entirely dependent on the free will choice(s) of their hosts.

It is, however, possible for a human being to actualize both his good and evil inclinations, compartmentalizing each one from the other as with multiple personalities. The result? A man who is a "good father" for his children at home while killing someone else's children 'at work'. There is an abundance of examples of this monstrous phenomenon from the ranks of the SS personnel who served as "guards" in the camps or who worked within the einsatzgruppen who followed the entry of regular German troops into Poland after the German invasion of September 1, 1939.

'As human beings, are we all capable of committing acts of unspeakable depravity? Are there no good men among us anymore? How are we to recognize them?' The "good man" is he who refuses to let his evil inclination overtake his ability to distinguish "right from wrong", "good from bad." We would prefer that such opposites repel each other. Sadly, they needn’t.

German officers assigned to concentration camps routinely lived with their families in secluded areas well-shielded from the ghastliness to which the officer/father/husband returned each morning. The very fact such accommodations existed reflects an official awareness that such duty was psychologically demanding for which the presence of family: one's loving wife and children might prove helpful. Further research, I suspect, would reveal that the children of German soldiers and officers did not know what their fathers did at work.

In his A German Life, author Bernd Wollschlaeger's story is a confirmation of that suspicion.

Bernd Wollschlaeger was born on May 9th,1958, thirteen years and two days after Germany surrendered to the Allies, marking an end to the European theater of the Second World War. Growing up in postwar Germany, "I had been unaware of my father's past. This was far from uncommon." (p.15, A German Life)

During the politically tumultuous years of the sixties and seventies, when young Bernd was about to emerge into a world-around which Arthur Reinhardt Wołlschlaeger could not have possibly wrapped his mind-wherein unrestrained intellectual curiosity replaced the statism of the recent Nazi past, when "following along" meant "getting along" but only at the cost of one's integrity-even encouraging children, members of the Hitler Youth, to inform on their parents and the jackboots of the goose-stepping, robotic faithful no longer meant security but repression, it was within this time frame that Bernd Wollschlaeger worked doggedly to uncover that which his father and mother had kept from him.

Driven to understand Germany’s role in having precipitated the war in Europe, its guilt and responsibility for the deaths of millions of civilian non-combatants, Jews and non-Jews: Poles, Russians, Gypsies, the mentally ill, homosexuals, Catholic and Protestant clergy ... Why so much talk about Jews? Why were they so persecuted, so blameworthy? Bernd's own voracious appetite to read as much as possible fed his hunger to understand the alarming discrepancy between his father's Hitlerian version of German history and the dreadful truth that would free him of his father's Prussian past just as it once so powerfully appealed to Bernd's father and paternal grandfather, Reinhardt Wollschlaeger, when they were young, untarnished men for whom honor, loyalty and service in defense of the fatherland were the pillars upon which everything else in life was supported.

Does a man who pleads "I was simply following orders" deserve any leniency? What is his claim? What does he hope to make you believe? His claim lies hidden beneath his unspoken admission of having done that of which he stands accused. That he is a man without a moral compass. That little girl he shot reminded him of his daughter whose image flashed in his head before he pulled the trigger. Had he been ordered to shoot his daughter, would he have done so? Barring any mental pathology, probably not. Despite his denial, he does have a moral compass which he chose to ignore. Such a man is a war criminal. Like him or not, Arthur Reinhardt Wollschlaeger was a soldier.

Did he withhold the truth of the full extent of his knowledge from his son about the Nazi pursuit of a war of annihilation against the Jewish people? Yes, he did in his confession to Bernd about the latter's Uncle Karl, described by his brother Arthur as a “communist sympathizer” who was a prisoner in Dachau. Urged by Bernd’s mother and his father's sister, Aunt Ursel, Arthur traveled to Dachau to obtain Karl's release.

“Yes, I knew about the camps,” he told Bernd but could not free himself from the bogeyman, the Jews.

Named for his father Reinhardt, Arthur Reinhardt Wollschlaeger was a highly-decorated German officer and patriot who in the years prior to and during the Second World War "did more than serve, of course; he served with devotion, pride and stubbornness". It was he who led the attack on Orel, Russia about which Bernd remarks was “the only first-hand information he ever shared with me” that “he proudly told me over and over”- a man who so completely identified with the "world according to Adolf Hitler" that he considered his award of the Knight’s Cross “the ultimate achievement of his entire life” which Hitler personally pinned to his uniform.

What happened to Bernd's father when there was no more war happens all too often with our own veterans who, upon conclusion of hostilities, cannot fathom what they will do in civilian life. Many turn to addictive behaviors with which to exorcise the demons that haunt them but invariably fail; others to infant, child, spousal abuse and beyond.

Dr.Woolschlaeger's book, A German Life, has led me away from the "us vs. them" approach to history-one that too often reduces complex, meaningful stories to a sequence of useless stereotypes and shallow observations. If for no other reason than that, I heartily recommend A German Life to all serious students of the human story.