Five things you probably didn’t know about World War II Germany
Being a re-enactor attracts many questions, especially if you’re a Second World War re-enactor. While many people may not understand what I do, and some even criticize it, it is something I have become quite passionate about.
I’ve always loved military history, especially the two World Wars. Re-enacting is living history; it’s a way for me to get closer to what I am most passionate about. What was it like to be a German soldier? From what is it like to sleep in a foxhole or to dig a trench, to doing extensive research into what made them tick, is something I find incredibly satisfying.
Naturally this has always been met with opposition; “But the Germans were all Nazis” or “They caused the Holocaust” and while this is true, I’ve always devoted my time as a re-enactor to try and help educate people to see past the stereotypes. Because of this, I’ve created a little list of little known facts about the Germans during the war, which I’ve frequently used to stun and shock when asked about my impression.
ONE: Not all German soldiers were Nazis
This has to be the most common misconception people have about the German army – that they were all Nazis. Saying that every German soldier was a Nazi is like saying that every current serving Australian soldier is a Liberal. The German army had roots in strong Prussian tradition, and part of this tradition was that every soldier was to reject any political ties. In the Wehrmacht (the German army), it was illegal for any soldier to be affiliated with, or a member of, a political party, including the Nazi party. People, of course, argue against this with, ‘the German uniform has a Swastika on it’, and this is true. However, people often forget or ignore that the Swastika was the official flag of Germany at the time. It is also worth mentioning that between 1933 and 1945 there were more than 25 assassination attempts on Adolf Hitler’s life, with nearly all the attempts made by German army, and even SS, officers.
Throughout 1944, the German U-Boat U-862 sailed around the coast of Australia, sinking American ships in Sydney and Fremantle. Launching from a U-Boat pen in the Japanese occupied East Indies, U-862 sailed down the coast of Western Australia, across the Great Australian Bite, around the coast of Tasmania then up to Sydney and across to New Zealand. There is an urban legend in New Zealand that while U-862 was secretly docked in the port of Napier in New Zealand, members of the crew snuck ashore and stole fresh milk from a farm. Whether or not this is true, we’ll never know.
THREE: The German army had Chaplains
I’ve seen first-hand the expressions of shock and disbelief when people see a man dressed, not only in a German uniform, but in the uniform of a Wehrmacht Chaplain. This is quickly followed by comments such as, ‘The Germans didn’t believe in God’ or ‘The Germans weren’t religious’. This is false. During the 30s and 40s, 95% of the German population were Christian, and during that time many Wehrmacht soldiers continued to belong to their churches. Even on their uniform, their belt buckles were inscribed with ‘Gott mit uns’, which translates to ‘God is with us’. Germany had a strong tradition of appointing Catholic field Chaplains in the army, and this continued throughout the Second World War. Hundreds of photos exist of German soldiers participating in field services conducted by Chaplains, and many civilian accounts exist of German soldiers taking part in mass at the local church.
FOUR: Foreign Volunteers in the SS
It is ironic that the Waffen-SS, an organization that prided itself on its German radical heritage, would eventually end up recruiting soldiers from all over the world to fight for Germany. At first, the Waffen-SS only allowed volunteers from acceptable European origins, such as Dutch, French, Danish, Norwegian and Belgian backgrounds. However, as the war progressed, so did the SS ‘Foreign Legions’ which would eventually include Latvian, Estonian, Ukrainian, Muslim, African, Indonesian and even Indian soldiers fighting for Germany against the Allies. The Waffen-SS even had British volunteers, who formed the British Friekorps.
FIVE: Operation Paperclip
Following the conclusion of the Second World War, many people believed it was the US that led the world’s technological advancement. This may or may not be true, but any and all success and progress that the US had following the war was because of one thing – German scientists. Nazi Germany was the pioneer in innovative technology such as, jet fighters and rocket science and while this may have come too late to help them in the war, the US was desperate to acquire this knowledge. The process of retrieving this knowledge came to be known as Operation Paperclip, a covert operation launched in 1945 with the aim of recruiting as many German scientists, technicians and engineers as possible before the Russians. Operation Paperclip was tremendously successful, with over 1500 scientists recruited, transported and employed in the US. In fact, most of the research relating to the Saturn V rockets and the Apollo spacecraft, came from Wernher von Braun, the scientist who had designed the V1 and V2 rockets.
Mitch Henson is a World War II Re-enactor with Army Group South. He is also studying history at university.