Chapter 48

2018 – Final Reckoning

M

artin died in 2012. His wife Leni had died a year before. You will probably have already realised from their photos that their story, Iron Crossed, is based solidly in fact.

It is seldom nowadays that one has access to first-hand accounts of dramatic historical incidents by people who actually took part in them, but that is precisely the oral history from which Iron Crossed originated. For it derives from extensive tape-recorded interviews with the main characters of Martin and Leni (aka Marlene) made by their daughter Renata during 2000. In these recordings Martin and Leni tell their stories, spanning their lives from pre-WWII Hitlerite Germany to post-war multicultural Australia, where, as you have read, they had to face hardships of a different kind – the tough migrant experience of forging a life in a new country.

If you want, you can actually listen to some of the interviews. We have posted several excerpts, with accompanying translation, on the 'Iron Crossed' section of the second author’s website: philjohnrose.net. There you can hear Martin describing the events leading up to the failed Brandenburger attack on the Estonian Island of Ösel in 1941, where the gliders are forced to circle the island and thus forfeit the element of surprise over the Russians (chapters 13 & 14). You can also hear him describe how he got shot by a Russian sniper in 1943 when adhering to army protocol after the attack on Roslavl airfield (chapter 20). And you can hear him talking about the surrender to the Americans in 1945, where Martin’s Alpine Division is told in formal language that they are free of their oath of allegiance to Hitler (chapter 26).

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We never get to know our parents properly, do we, most of us? Get to understand everything that made them … well, them? They too were young once; they too had hopes. They succeeded, failed; were frustrated, happy, sad. They fell in love – or lust – and out. Did bad things; did good things.

The past is a foreign country where people do things differently (as The Go-Between famously begins), and by the time we are old enough to realise that there is more to mum n dad than just mum n dad it may be too late to ask them "what was it like when …?" and discover their stories.

But, there are foreign countries and there are foreign countries. The gap separating the war generation from those that came after is not just one of increasing time, which might still permit, perhaps, some understanding; it is also a qualitative discontinuity. The experiences of the war generation were so utterly different from our own that we cannot possibly comprehend, even with the help of oral histories like the present book, what the war generation really went through.

For a start, it would be naïve in the extreme to believe that we have, in Martin’s and Leni’s narratives, a balanced sample of all their experiences. There were several times during the recordings that Martin hesitated and then, with a "I don’t want to talk about that", ceased talking. Clearly, some experiences remained too painful to remember or narrate. These they have taken with them to their graves.

There are other indications that the sampling is unbalanced. Martin’s narrative, for example, is not short of the odd amusing anecdote. The reader should be aware that this is regarded as a common mechanism for helping the recollection of a traumatic past. We hope it is abundantly clear that Martin’s story was anything but fun and games. Never, ever, forget that Leni and Martin belonged to a generation that was cheated, lied to, abused and violently coerced by a brutal, and brutalising, system that brought death to millions. Try not to judge, therefore. Very few of us are Sophie Scholls. You probably have all too good an idea of how you would have coped under such a system.

If you are looking for a moral, perhaps the book’s real message is an existentialist one. It tells how, once allowed to take responsibility for themselves, Leni and Martin were able to live a full and valuable life, working hard to give their children a future in freedom, in a much better world than they had been born into. That is a kind of heroism, is it not?

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The fact that this book is anchored in Martin’s and Leni’s narrative makes it, we think, incumbent upon us to specify the main areas where we have deviated from the content of that narrative. Our main principle was to include stories which we were able to tie-down reasonably well historically, for example Ösel (chapters 13-16), the siege near Orel (chapter 18), the fight with partisans near the Roslavl airfield (chapter 20) or the capture of the American jeep in Italy (chapter 24). Thus we have had to omit a few parts of the narrative, the time and location of which we were not able to determine with sufficient accuracy. For example, Martin’s war record which we obtained from the military personnel archives of the government agency in Berlin (Wehrmachtsauskunftsstelle http://www.dd-wast.de/en/home.html) is extremely sketchy. It provides information on the units he was assigned to and where his injury was treated, but the dates and localities of his deployment are vague (e.g. ‘middle Russia’), and do not allow one to determine exactly where he was and when. His record does not specifically mention his Ösel deployment at all, for example, possibly for reasons of secrecy. According to Martin, following retraining after the Ösel assault he was deployed first to the south of Russia before heading northwards, but we have not been able to ascertain where in the south. Therefore we have described the Orel siege as his first ‘Russian’ incident. Another episode we have omitted is Martin’s participation in the battle around the Velikiye Luki encirclement. (Velikiye Luki is a town about 550 kilometers west of Moscow. The Germans had occupied it in mid-1941, as part of their invasion of Russia. The Russians retook it after an encirclement that took place in the winter of 42-43, but we have no exact dates for Martin’s involvement in this.) In April 1943 Martin was awarded an infantry assault badge (Sturmabzeichen) which may have related to the Velikiye Luki battle (this award is another thing we have omitted). It is from the Velikiye Luki part of his narrative that we took his description of being fired on by the Starlinorgel which we included in the Orel siege story.

The primary oral history source recordings have been checked, and augmented a little, with material from additional research. Of particular use among the voluminous literature on WWII were: Stephan Zweig’s chapter ‘Incipit Hitler’ in his Die Welt von Gestern (1942), Ian Buruma’s (2013) Year Zero, and Richard Evan’s (2003 – 2008) Third Reich trilogy. We found two descriptions, both without references, of the first attempted glider landing on Ösel narrated by Martin. The much more detailed one, with a map, is in Tim Lynch’s (1988) Silent Skies – Gliders at War (pp. 153-155). It agrees well with Martin’s narrative except it states that the landing occurred without loss of life. You can hear on the web that Martin contradicts this when he says "Haben wir schon in der Luft Verluste gehabt – we sustained losses even while we were still in the air". Franz Kurovski’s (1997) The Brandenburger Commandos – Germany’s Elite Warrior Spies in WWII also has a short paragraph, but no new information, on the failed Ösel mission (p.116).

Among the historical-fictive literature on the Brandenburgers (so-called Romane nach Tatsachen), we found Herbert Kriegsheim’s (1958) Getarnt Getäuscht and doch Getreu very useful. It is a battalion commander’s very readable fact-based account, in the form of a novel, of Brandenburg operations in several theatres, with also a brief paragraph (p.309) on the Ösel failure. We have plundered it here and there for ideas that obviously preoccupied the writer – for example the moral question of donning your enemy’s uniform – and for some details in our narrative, especially the Brandenburger recruiting scene in chapter 11. Will Berthold’s (1977) Division Brandenburg is another so-called fact-based novel which covers similar ground.

The web also of course has much information on the Brandenburgers (try googling: Wikipedia Brandenburgers). Apart from the inevitable mystique surrounding their covert 'warrior-spy' operations they have also attracted attention because of accusations of war atrocities – google for example Brandenburg Kriegsverbrechen or brandenburgers war-crimes investigations. Some of these crimes are associated with the war against the Russian and, later, the Italian partisans, and involved the execution of prisoners: a fact of partisan war practiced by both sides. Martin acknowledges that he did not expect any mercy from the Italian partisans. In narrating his encounter with the partisan group in Italy (chapter 26), where he pedalled for his life on punctured tyres, he said “wenn sie mich geschappt hätten, die hätten mich … finished. Die hätten nicht viel gefragt – if they’d caught me they’d have … end of story. There would have been few questions asked.” 

On the Westwall, where Martin worked as a carpenter to build the dragon teeth, we found Germany’s West Wall, by Neil Short and Chris Taylor (2004), very informative. You can easily find more information by googling Siegfried Line or Westwall

The Bonegilla Reception and Training Centre described by Leni is an important part of modern Australia’s migrant past (google it on Wikipedia's Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre or Bonegilla Migrant Experience). Bruce Pennay’s (2012) Sharing Bonegilla Stories contains some more positive accounts of the place, to balance Leni’s; and the current centre’s pamphlet So Much Sky also repays a read. A small part of the centre is preserved and can still be visited. It’s worth it.

Most of the photos for Iron Crossed – and also the documents, including the original awards of Martin’s 1st and 2nd class Iron Crosses – come from the personal collections of Martin and Leni and their relatives. We have reproduced some photos with permission from the Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archives) – who were very quick and efficient in answering our inquiries – and others from the web. We have made every effort to source the other photographs properly, but will be glad to rectify any omissions if notified! Of course, although we have received help from many sources, we alone remain responsible for the content of the book.

As is often the case with oral histories, the amount of recorded material was too great to include every single thing Martin and Leni talked about, and we had to decide what to include and what to leave out. Martin quite often recalled things in considerable detail. For example, he had a lot to say about the Oberfeldwebel who led the platoon supposed to take the glider assault troops off Ösel (chapter 14); or the old captain who had a sudden attack of lice on the train (chapter 23); or specific incidents during training; or the logistics of how the company was kept fed. He also expatiated on perhaps the slightly less engaging details of potato and turnip cultivation in Saxony when he was a child. We left such things out because we did not think they ultimately contributed to the story. (If for any reason the reader wants to know more, we will of course be delighted to hear from you!)

So, perhaps the best way to treat this book is not as unadorned historical fact. It was never meant as that; and the notion of historical fact probably only exists on the macro-level of historical narrative anyway. Treat the book rather as a personal story: the story of Leni and Martin, as they told it to their daughter.

Also, although Martin and Leni of course are true names, most other names are best treated as fictitious, with the usual caveat of coincidental reference to individuals living or dead

And, yes, Ellie is true.

 

he was awarded an infantry assault badge

Certificate for Sturmabzeichen Silber awarded Martin in April 1943, possibly for participation in the 42-43 Velikiye Luki battle. The designation silver indicates various types of engagement with the enemy, including three infantry assaults, or hand-to-hand combat. The signature is of lieutenant-colonel (Fritz) Jacobi, commander of the 3rd Brandenburger Regiment.

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We have received much help in writing this book. 

We first have to thank two German friends for an astonishing amount of advice and information on a wide range of relevant matters, including writing many letters of inquiry on our behalf to German federal and local archival agencies, and a very careful aural check of the recording excerpts on the web. They have indicated, for professional reasons, their wish for anonymity, which is a pity because we have so much to personally thank them for. Well, they at least know who they are!

We have also benefited from the still vividly detailed and often humorous recollections of Rolf Stelzer on what it was like in post-war Germany immediately after surrender; and what it was like to work on the Snowy Mountain Scheme way back in the early fifties. Rolf, who has just celebrated his 90th birthday, was also a German carpenter and the baby of the group working on the Snowies. He met Martin on board the MS Skaubryn to Australia, where he became, and remained, his close friend.

We would like to acknowledge the help of Frau Foth-Müller of the Federal Archives in Berlin. She spent considerable time retrieving very useful dates from the meagre information available in what is left of Martin’s military record.

Thanks also to Michael Weaver for critiquing an early version of the book and offering his professional journalistic advice – and not least for suggesting our title!

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We believe personal histories like Iron Crossed are valuable, not only for their individual, but also their vicarious significance. Many, many others of the Australian war-and-imigrant generation will have shared experiences similar to those described in this book, and thus a single history like this can become representative of many. Oral histories have an immediacy lacking in generalised historical accounts. They are how History’s grand narratives are fleshed out. They are important also because, of course, they recount where YOU came from. Indeed, one of the reasons we wrote the book was for Martin and Leni’s grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.

We hope you have enjoyed Iron Crossed – perhaps it will encourage you to make your own recordings, and recount your own histories, for future generations!

 

Renata Rose & Phil Rose

Canberra, Australia, 2018.

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