I want more Americans to understand
how deeply Germany feels a debt of gratitude
for America’s help in recovery after the war. This relationship, or friendship
and strong economic and political bonds, must form
the backdrop for any passing political disagreements.”
DAY – A GERMAN PERSPECTIVE”
Address delivered by Claus M. Halle on May 15, 1995
to the Rotary Club of Atlanta, Georgia
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Thank you so much, Collier.
All of us, who were there last June, will never forget the memorable
program that Frank Skinner and you arranged for the fiftieth
anniversary of D-Day. You may recall that prior to the D-Day
anniversary the Rotary office sent us all a card with three questions:
Are you a veteran of World War II?
If so, what was your rank?
and your military unit?
I wasn’t sure - as a German - whether I should respond.
But I did. Yes, I was in the War, and I was an NCO. As to “military
unit” I decided to also be truthful - no matter the consequences
- and wrote “the enemy”. Little did I know nor expect
that Frank Skinner, in his most gracious way, would dignify my
somewhat flippant reply by using my presence that day as an example
for the great uniting power of Rotary. His remarks touched me
deeply. I wrote him a note to thank him. Also, I pointed out
to Frank, that D-Day was not a day that Germans remembered. It
had been brought to our attention only by its anniversary celebrations.
In 1944 it was not until weeks after the successful landing
of allied forces, when the facts no longer could be denied, that
the German public learned about the invasion. By that time your
troops were well into France.
In contrast, VE-Day was experienced and is remembered by everyone
in Germany who was alive and old enough. It was Frank who suggested
that I should share my perspective of the events of that time.
And here I am. But what looked like an easy task, namely to
tell my story, has become more difficult than I thought. In recent
weeks a heated debate has evolved in Germany as to what the 8th
of May was at the time - and what it means today - and how its
fiftieth anniversary should be observed. It was Victory in Europe
-- for the Allies. It marked the unconditional surrender of the
German Army. It was the end of the war for Germans but not the
end of their suffering. It meant freedom for many and the beginning
of captivity and new oppression for countless others. It was
the beginning of peace, but it was also the commencement of the
Cold War. Whatever it meant for this or that individual, for
Germany as a nation and people it marked the total collapse militarily,
economically, morally and spiritually and, yet, it was also -
liberation. Theodor Heuss, the Federal Republic's first President,
said in 1949:
“This 8th of May 1945 will remain
the most tragic and the most questionable paradox in history
for each of us ... because we were redeemed and annihilated
How should one observe such an anniversary
then? It is not surprising there is a debate. Chancellor Kohl – in this debate – recently
stated that everyone is entitled to one’s own memories.
Here’s how I remember that time.
I was twelve years old when the war started in 1939. We lived
in Silesia, the most south-eastern province of Germany. The Polish
border was less than fifty miles away.
Those were exciting days for me and my brother.
We went to the railroad tracks and waved to the trains passing
by with soldiers, horses, trucks and tanks. They would win this
war, quickly and nothing would stop them.
Our parents did not share our enthusiasm.
On the contrary, they were deeply concerned, worried. War was
something terrible, they had been through it in 1914-18. My
mother had lost both her brothers and a brother-in-law, and
my father had also lost one of his brothers. On the fourteenth
day of the Poland campaign we received word that my cousin
Hans, a cavalry lieutenant, had been killed in action. His
body was brought home and buried at our town’s
churchyard. For the first time I realized how cruel war could
be. But it did not change my attitude. If anything, it made me
more determined to do my part in supporting the war effort. We
were all part of the national youth organization. The ten to
fourteen year olds were the so called Young Folks. After that
one advanced to the Hitler Youth, and at age eighteen was expected
to join the Party, the National Socialists, the only one there
was. Young Folks service was great fun. We got together twice
a week to play soccer or some other sports; or attended concerts
or a theater performance. On other occasions we would collect
recyclable materials and pick up used clothing and blankets for
the needy or participate in collecting money for one or the other
cause. And there were - of course - summer camps with hiking
and swimming and games and singing by a nightly fire. All the
things boys love to do. As we grew older, play and games turned
into training and drill and finally into pre-military bootcamp
like exercises. Looking back, it was a diabolically clever system
to get the youth of Germany prepared for war.
In 1940 Hitler turned north and west. Denmark and Norway fell.
Then Holland and Belgium, and by June most of France was occupied
by German troops.
The non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, which Hitler
and Stalin had concluded in 1939, just before the invasion of
Poland, not only covered the back of the German army during their
western campaign, but had allowed the Soviets to occupy and annex
the eastern part of Poland and also to move into the Baltics
and engage Finland in a war.
In 1941 German and Soviet interests had begun to clash in south-eastern
Europe, and Hitler, with the west front quiet, decided to attack
the Soviet Union. Russia's preparations were still incomplete
and the German army again went from victory to victory. -- Until
1943, when the tide turned. The land was too vast, the supply
lines too long, the winters too cold and the Red Army too strong
On February 18, 1943, after the German Sixth Army had been defeated
at Stalingrad, losing 330,000 men, the Nazi government in Berlin
proclaimed TOTAL WAR. A short while thereafter the 16 and 17
year olds were called up to serve in anti-aircraft units on the
home front to free up - as they said - 100,000 soldiers. I was
about to turn sixteen, when I and all the boys in my class, accompanied
by a teacher, were sent to Stettin, a port city on the Baltic
Sea. We received the necessary training and manned a battery
of three anti-aircraft guns. We were supposed to attend class
right there in our quarters, but only, if there had been no alarm
or attack the night before. We averaged about two or three days
a week with some classroom activity.
The exciting part - of course - was the action at night, when
Allied aircraft often flew over Stettin on their way to Berlin.
Our only complaint was, that our 4 cm cannons did not have the
range to hit the mostly high flying enemy planes.
In early 1944 a major air raid on Stettin destroyed most of
the port and industrial facilities and half of the residential
areas. We finally had our opportunity and saw plenty of action
and our first casualties. Soon thereafter, still sixteen, I was
drafted into the Labour Service in Hamburg. We built and rebuilt
anti aircraft gun emplacements as the city was a more frequent
target for Allied bombings.
Three months later I was called up for military duty, back to
My basic training took three months and
was not nearly as tough as I had been told to expect. In fact,
the pre-military camp I was sent to as a fifteen year old had
been much more gruesome. I ascribe this to the fact, that our
drill sergeant was a humane person - although that sounds like
a contradiction in terms. He had been in the western campaign
and for two years and two winters on the Russian front before
being wounded. Now his goal in life was to prepare us, in the
best way he knew how, for combat and survival. My first - rather
short assignment - was with a special unit on skis in the mountains
of what is now Slovakia. After that I was enrolled in an officer
training course in Goerlitz, an old garrison town which today
is on the border with Poland. At the time, however, it was
almost Middle Germany. Meanwhile the Red Army had launched
its counter offensive and was steadily moving westward. The
Soviets had finally gotten relief, when the Allies landed in
Normandy and drew Germany into a two frontier war. On
the German home front the Allied air raids had taken their
toll. Much of the German industrial potential had been destroyed
and vital supply lines were interrupted. Gasoline and diesel
oil became the most scarce commodities, and if there were some
fuel stocks left, they weren't where they were needed. Most
aircraft therefore were grounded and large numbers of tanks
and trucks became useless. Despite this, the fighting and defense
efforts remained fierce. All remaining men from 16 to 60 were
pulled together to form the Volkssturm, a home defense unit under
the command of party functionaries, not the military. During
all this time the government’s propaganda machine would
feed Germans only information that would either boost morale
or stir up rage and indignation over enemy action.
we were totally isolated. Allied planes continued to drop their
fiery and explosive loads on cities and towns. With the Luftwaffe
more or less out of commission they enjoyed total air superiority
and now could fly during daylight hours using also fighter planes
to strafe anything that moved on the ground. In the summer of
1944 Hitler launched his "secret
weapon", the V1, later to be followed by the V2. Germans
had been made to believe that these flying bombs - once deployed
would quickly decide the war in our favor. That was not to be.
The two frontlines moved ever closer to the borders of the Reich,
and in October the Soviets overran several German towns and villages
in East-Prussia. The territory was recaptured two weeks later
but very few civilian survivors of the Russian occupation were
found. A massacre had occurred and the news evoked unspeakable
fear among all Germans. The atrocities of East-Prussia caused
the flight of millions of Germans not only from that region,
but also from Pommerania and Silesia. My parents, well into their
sixties then, left their home in January 1945 in snow and ice
with only what they could carry. On foot and occasionally on
horse drawn wagons they moved north-west always fearing that
the Russians might catch up with their trek of thousands. Weeks
later they ended up in Leipzig, where relatives took them in.
I found them there, almost by coincidence, two months later,
when my unit had been moved - had marched, I should say - in
the same direction. We had jokingly concluded that women and
children and officer cadets were being evacuated.
Our destination was to be further north, though, somewhere south-west
of Berlin. There, our entire class was hastily promoted to non-commissioned
officers and sent into combat. We were part of a newly assembled
army corps named after General Wenck, whose assignment was to
prevent the Soviets from encircling Berlin. My platoon was equipped
with handheld anti-tank weapons and bicycles, normal requisitioned
civilian bicycles. Needless to say, we did not get very far in
rough terrain, but the bikes were helpful in moving us from the
east front to the west front and back. By then the lines were
only 30 to 50 miles apart. I happened to be on the west front,
facing what I believe was the American 9th Army, when their expected
attack one morning did not come about. They had dug in and were
not even returning our fire. They had probably reached their
predetermined position, but we assumed that an armistice had
been reached and rejoiced. Those of you, who have been in a war,
know how rumors thrive in the trenches. We heard, that the Americans
would not advance any further, but would provide us with fuel
and supplies to enable us to beat the Russians back into their
borders. Hitler was dead and this had changed the Americans'
attitude toward us. We were ready to go again. A few days later,
back at the east front, one evening it became suspiciously quiet
just after dark. No more shooting. Then we heard the Russians
singing and shouting, it appeared as if they were getting drunk.
They were. We sent a small commando unit and captured one of
their guards to find out what they were celebrating. He was surprised
we did not know: Effective 1 AM tomorrow, May 9, the German army
had unconditionally capitulated. The war was over.
This was good news -- and it was terrible. We would be taken
prisoner by the Soviets in a few hours and transported deep into
Russia probably Siberia, a predictable fate of forced labour
in the poorest of conditions with little hope for survival. After
some deliberation we decided to head back west and try to reach
the Elbe river which was only a few miles away. The Americans
were on the other side and we just had to get there.
I don't remember how long it took us. I know we had to cross
several smaller bodies of water, but finally we got to the river.
While we had stayed together so long, there were about twenty
of us, from now on each one was on his own. Some decided to walk
along the shore hoping to find something floatable to help them
across. Others - I was one of them - thought it better to get
away from the Russian side immediately.
The water was cold and the current strong.
So we swam and drifted a long way downstream in the dark. When
I thought I had finally reached the other side it turned out
to be an island; a good place to catch one’s breath,
Three others had come ashore at the same
point. While walking around we found an old metal skiff. It
was too small to carry us, but very suitable for all four of
us to hang on to while drifting downstream and pushing toward
the Western shore. When we climbed out of the water we were
dead exhausted but happy. We looked for a barn, crawled into
the hay and fell asleep instantly. Three months earlier, at
Yalta on the Crimaen peninsula, President Roosevelt, Prime
Minister Churchill and Marshal Stalin had come together, mainly
to talk about anticipated post-war issues.
They agreed that Germany should be disarmed, demilitarized,
de-Nazified; and that German industry was to be decentralized.
Also, democratic political institutions were to be established
by the occupation forces in their respective zones. Most other
matters concerning Germany were left for future meetings. The
question of territorial amputation of parts of Germany had been
discussed on previous occasions. The initial reasoning was of
a strategic nature. By cutting off East Prussia, for instance,
German borders would be made shorter, reducing friction with
Poland and making it strategically more difficult to invade the
neighboring territory. Later the element of punishment and retribution
entered the deliberations.
In 1944 Henry Morgenthau, secretary of the treasury, had submitted
a plan to President Roosevelt that foresaw Germany being stripped
of heavy industry and returned to an agricultural society. Some
of her territory was to be given to Russia, Poland and France.
Others dissuaded the President from adopting the proposal.
Nevertheless, much of the plan reappeared in the results of
the Potsdam Conference in 1945. Germany was to lose approximately
one fourth of her territory to Poland and the Soviet Union.
The magnitude of the redistribution was initially opposed by
the Western Allies. Stalin, however, refused to give up the eastern
half of Poland, which the Soviets had annexed earlier and Poland
had to be compensated with German territory to her west. The
German population living there and in other eastern regions was
to be resettled which would solve any future minority problems.
Programs for reparations were also agreed upon at Potsdam and
subsequently led to massive dismantling of German industry. The
dismantled plants were shipped mainly to the Soviet Union. On
May 9 of 1945, however nothing of that was known to us.
I woke up that morning from the nudge of a beautifully polished
brown army boot belonging to an American GI. He took the handguns
we had carried in our pockets across the river and encouraged
us to get something to eat at the farm where we were. Apparently
his unit had withdrawn to the nearest town and he and two others
were left behind pending repair of their truck. One of my comrades
was a mechanic. He fixed the engine problem and an hour later
we were on our way to the nearest POW camp. The one we were brought
to was an open gathering area where some 70,000 German soldiers
had come together within days. It was just impossible to get
sufficient food and water there over night. So for a few days
we were pretty hungry and I was grateful for the last meal I
had had at the farm compliments of our first American friends.
After a week or so we were distributed to other, more organized
camps with registration and interrogation. When my turn came
I was told that I would be released because I was only seventeen.
Upon further examination of my German army ID the officer in
charge saw that I was an NCO. He would have to check with headquarters
whether the discharge orders for under eighteens also applied
to NCOs. I understood.
It took a little over two weeks for the answer to come down
through channels and it was positive, I would be released. My
army ID was checked again and it was noted that I was now eighteen,
three days after my birthday. The discharge order did not apply
to eighteen year olds. I understood. It was my first brush with
We were moved two more times to other camps and then put under
British control when the occupation forces exchanged territories.
During these first weeks in POW camps we were made aware of
what really had happened in Germany and in the territories under
German occupation. We heard and saw pictures of what the Allied
troops had found when they reached the concentration camps. We
learned - when the world did - that millions of Jews were starved
and killed in gas chambers.
We realized that these were not isolated atrocities committed
by some irresponsible individuals but were ordered and organized
and supervised by the very leaders that we had looked up to.
By our oath of allegiance, had we all become criminals ourselves?
We wondered - and we were ashamed.
The relief of having survived the war was being overshadowed
by fear of the future. Would we ever be able to raise our heads
again and say with pride that we are German? I had hoped one
day to go into the diplomatic service of my country. No longer.
These revelations of Nazi crimes had a profound impact on the
German people. An impact that is still being felt today. It is
also at the root of the debate over the observance of the anniversary
Yet, the immense suffering - after the war - caused by the expulsion
and flight of fifteen million Germans from eastern territories,
of whom, it is estimated, more than two million perished, and
the starvation that followed in the remaining Germany, due to
the devastation of the land and the influx of refugees and expellees,
were perceived by Germans as unjust and inhumane nemesis.
Looking back, though, we Germans must keep in mind not to confuse
cause and effect.
In these dreadful early years Americans were the first to reach
out to Germans. Your CARE packages became a symbol of hope and
saved many from starvation. European recovery lagged way behind
expectations, causing America concern. At the same time relations
with the Soviet union had deteriorated and a starving and desolate
Europe could become vulnerable to the communist ideology.
The Marshall Plan was born. It was a self-help
program based on American financial assistance and European
cooperation. Germany was included and although she received
less than half the amounts allocated to England or France,
the biggest results were to be seen in Germany. During the
Berlin blockade in ‘48 and ’49,
Americans again came to the rescue. And Germans have not forgotten.
John McCloy, the first American High Commissioner in Germany,
is fondly remembered to this day for his leadership in laying
the political and economic foundations for reconstruction and
The latest proof of American support for Germany was delivered
by President Bush in 1990, when he unhesitatingly endorsed Chancellor
Kohl's plan to reunite Germany.
With the unification of Germany and the
freeing of Central and Eastern Europe, forty five years after
the war, new relevance has been given to “Victory in Europe” Day.
I see it as a day to celebrate, - to celebrate the victory of
democracy over tyranny, - the victory of freedom over oppression
- all that America fought for - all that America stands for.
One final look back to 1945: I managed to get away from the
Brits and made my way to a little town in Westfalia, where I
had attended elementary school and had relatives. I was able
to reunite the family there, enrolled in a special course for
veterans to get my baccalaureate, survived the bleak years that
followed and in 1950 joined the German subsidiary of the Coca-Cola
Company as a trainee. The rest is Coca-Cola history.
Now, that I am retired and less busy, … I am devoting
more … time and resources to the promotion of American-German
relations. Our two countries have so much more to learn about
each other and from each other.
And let me say in conclusion – I feel very
strongly – taking
history into account and everything I have experienced in my
life on both sides of the Atlantic -- that there is nothing more
important for peace and prosperity in our hemisphere than the
friendship between America and Germany.
Thank you so much for letting me share my views with you.