On May 8th, 1945, the formal acceptance by the Soviet Union and the Western Allies of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender marked the end of World War II in Europe. During the years of the War, most of Europe was under Nazi occupation. As a rule, we look at occupational regimes through the eyes of the oppressed, and World War II is no exception – in Greece lasted from April 1941 until the Autumn of 1944 and in Crete and some Aegean islands until May 1945. It is thus rare that we come across analyses examining the War from the perspective of German soldiers, meaning in this case another point of view that is largely overlooked in history books.
Greek News Agenda talked* with WW-II historians Valentin Schneider**, who gave us an in depth look from the perspective of certain German soldiers through their correspondence while they were stationed in Greece, and Iassonas Chandrinos who provided us with relevant information from his research about the German Penal Battalions in Greece.
Historians Iassonas Chandrinos and Valentin Schneider
Perspectives within the German Army obviously ranged from absolute Nazi indoctrination to its opposition and in few cases active support of the Greek population, with instances of soldiers taking up arms and joining the Greek resistance, who, it should be noted, formed a minority, but whose contribution should not be overlooked.
What the letters contained
A good part of the letters sent by German soldiers from Greece contains little or nothing of relevance: These are mostly letters where they ask their families about their wellbeing and other trivial things in general. It was important for them, Valentin Schneidernotes, to maintain a feeling of everyday life, even if they were far away from home. Moreover, they were in need for contact with women in their life, be that their mothers or wives. There are also complaints about the hot weather in Greece as well as mentions of illnesses on because of it.
As Valentin Schneider stresses letters from Germans soldiers provide a reasonable measure of the extent of their indoctrination into Nazi ideology, to the degree that the language used could not, in a sense, be faked. In order to understand the importance of letters we should note that during the years 1939-1944, a total of 30 billion letters was sent from and to German soldiers (we have no statistics for 1945). The soldiers obviously do not talk about the most horrific things they see in the war as they try to keep the war away from their families. They do write about some of the war crimes extensively, but not all; some are hidden and some are put into different words.
The existence of a letter from a soldier who was a medic in the unit responsible for the massacre of Kalavryta is also known to us: In this letter, written only a few days after the incident, there is no direct mention to the massacre but the soldier writes that he went swimming with his unit even though the letter was sent in December, while he also talks generally about the horrors of war. According to Valentin Schneider it is possible that this letter is an attempt by the particular soldier to speak indirectly about the incident, trying to sort it out in his mind.
In the letters written by the German soldiers we find no clear references of them being against the actions they were taking. They mostly complained about their Italian allies and their change of stance in the war. But a good measure of seeing how soldiers felt about the war is to see their letters after the 20th of July 1944 when Claus von Stauffenberg attempted to assassinate Hitler. Many soldiers stationed in Greece were saying they felt betrayed since they were actively fighting the war while others who were sitting behind desks tried to kill their Fuhrer.
The image of Greece
Many of the letters talk about the country itself. Before coming to Greece, most German soldiers already had a certain image of Greece in their minds, which was mostly through the lens of their classical education, since Ancient Greek and Latin formed part of German education. This image came complete with notions of perfection as depicted in the great flawless classical sculptures of white marble that glorified beauty and strength, power and the divine, and their expectations were disappointed when they were met with reality. Some even tried looking for the models of the marble statues they saw in European Museums. Many believed that the ”noble blood” of the Greeks had been corrupted by the Slavonic invasions in the Middle Ages as well as Oriental influences. Of course there were others who fell in love with Greece and even encouraged their families to come and live in Greece after the war had ended. Some of the Germans with a higher level of education tried to shape a new opinion about Greece by coming into contact with locals and even organized weekend expeditions to archeological sites, even excavations.
A few cases of support to the population
As noted earlier, support from German soldiers towards the Greek people was minor. According to Valentin Schneider, a small number of officers did provide little things to the locals during the Great Famine but the German soldiers thought they already had it hard with the war and did not want to add hunger to their problems. It is worth noting that some of them did not know the true extent of the famine and believed that people begging for food in the streets was something common in Greece. Also, while some officers and soldiers did try to create amicable relations with the locals outside the framework of political collaboration, this did not mean they weren’t German patriots and didn’t fervently believe in ultimate victory.
The most well-known example of help by Germans to the local Greek population would be Dr. Hans Löber, a German navy surgeon who was stationed on the island of Milos during 1943-1944. Dr. Löber used the area’s girls only school to house a hospital for the people of Milos. There never was a surgeon on the island and it was next to impossible for the locals to travel to Athens for proper medical care. We happen to know of a local who was operated by Dr. Hans Löber at the age of 3, saved from a otherwise inevitable mutilation.
Resistance from German Soldiers: The case of the Penal Battalions
According to Iassonas Chandrinos, the most dynamic form of support by German soldiers to the Greek people would be from members of Penal Battalions (Strafbataillon). As the War progressed, the need for more military personnel grew accordingly, and increasing military losses compelled the German Army to seek reinforcements from the ranks of the incarcerated. Thus the decision was made to use soldier and civilian prisoners in Penal Battalions especially for use in high-casualty operations, such as clearance of minefields and hard labour tasks, as well as garrison and anti-partisandutiesin occupied countries. The fittest who survived could be then used as regular soldiers in combat battalions in the field. This obviously did not come without risk, on account of the presence of subversives and political prisoners, who were either socialists, communists or simply against Nazi rule. To keep resistance in check, officers of these units were people of trust who monitored their men closely and used the most trustworthy of the criminal offenders in their battalions for information on possible signs of resistance. In Greece, where they were sent for garrison and anti-partisan duty, these battalions were known as ”ΤάγματαΑνεπιθύμητων” (Battalions of the Unwanted).
Anti-Nazi activities in Greece
These Penal Battalions were stationed in many European countries (France, Italy, Belgium, Albania, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria) and moving position from time to time. In Greece, their presence was disproportionate in comparison to other European countries, with battalion numbers being as high as 17 at a time. Each battalion consisted of some 1,000 soldiers, meaning that, at some point 17,000 of these soldiers were stationed in Greece.
According to Iassonas Chandrinos, these units were mostly stationed close to the shores of the Peloponnese, Western Greece and the Greek islands. They were never near warzones, as they were generally poorly armed and their fighting abilities were consequently limited; there was also a good chance that many of these soldiers would desert. Cases on record indicate soldiers deserting and joining the Red Army when these battalions were stationed on the Eastern Front. Greece was not on the frontline, and due to the placement of those units, it was easier for them to be controlled.
Information and figures regarding desertions indicate that these soldiers either attempted or wanted to escape to the mountains where they could join the Greek resistance. These endeavors were an almost impossible task, for chiefly two reasons: Firstly, there was distrust between the locals and the German soldiers claiming to be enemies of the Nazis. It took a considerable amount of time and effort for mutual trust to build between them. Secondly, the outlawed Communist Party of Germany (KPD) did not support desertions, preferring that its members and supporters propagate their ideas among their compatriots within the battalions and lead an armed revolt when the time was right.
Given that the Ανεπιθύμητοι (Unwanted) were not likely going to desert on account of Party orders (although limited instances are on record), their help to the Greek Resistance consisted mainly of information about enemy routes, supplies, weapons and espionage. This information went through particular local channels and onto Greek resistance fighters. Their contribution was thus crucial. Almost 200 of these German soldiers were arrested and most of them executed in Greece. As it became more evident that the tide of the war had turned againstNazi Germany, more desertions were taking place by the end of 1943.
Although there can be no certainty about exact numbers, there are reasons to believe that around 400-500 of these soldiers joined the Greek Resistance, given that many of them had been forced into service in penal units precisely because of their anti-Nazi activities or political beliefs. Falk Harnack and Gerhard Reinhardt, German Resistance activists and members of one such a penal unit, deserted their battalion and fought with Greek partisans as part of the ‘Anti-Fascist Committee for a Free Germany’ (AKFD) they co-founded, and worked closely with the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS). The AKFD consisted of former Wehrmacht soldiers and was modeled after the anti-Nazi National Committee for a Free Germany that was formed in the Soviet Union by KPD members who had fled Germany following the ban on the communist party.
Another interesting fact is that the soldiers of these battalions managed to publish newspapers and proclamations (in German), chiefly on the Greek mainland.
After the War
The story of the Garrison Battalions doesn’t end with the end of German occupation in Greece on October 1944. Most of them followed the retreat of the German Army and later surrendered either to partisans in Yugoslavia or to the Red Army that was marching to Berlin. After declaring their politics, they managed to gain positions of influence as propagators in anti-nazi organisations or as communication channels between the Red Army, Tito’s partisans and the thousands of German prisoners that were trapped in Yugoslavia.
In Greece, some of them were present in the events known as Dekemvriana, a series of clashes that occurred between December 1944 – January 1945 in Athens, when Greek government forces, aided by the British, fought against Greek left-wing resistance forces who had been their allies in the war. According to Iassonas Chandrinos, it is worth noting that when the Greek Government compiled the list of war criminals after these events, the list also consisted of German and Italian deserters who were to be arrested and tried as war criminals.
Some of the soldiers in ‘Garrison Battalions’ that didn’t follow the German Army’s retreat or took active part in Greek Resistance activities, surrendered directly to the British. According to testimonies, the British treated these soldiers as war prisoners and even held back their return to Germany. These soldiers believed that this was a deliberate action, since the Allied forces did not want them returning to Germany out of fear that they would propagate socialist or communist ideas upon their return. Although we have no information as to when most of these soldiers returned to Germany, we do know from information given to us by Mr. Chandrinos that the last of them arrived in Germany in 1947, via Northern Africa and Great Britain.
*Interviews by Marinos Tzotzis
**Valentin Schneider will be speaking at the Athens Centre’s event ”Occupying Greece – The German soldiers’ perspective” on May 10th.
Left: AFKD Central Commitee members; Right: German ELAS fighters (54th bataillon)