Sunday, February 2, 2020

Who Were the Heroes Of World War II?

Heroes Can Come in Unexpected Places

Josef Schulz incident in Serbia
In a very unusual incident, Wehrmacht soldier Josef Schulz (or Schultz, shown with an arrow at left) refuses an order to execute 16 suspected partisans at the Serbian village of Smederevska-Palanca on 20 July 1941 (some sources say 19 July).
Who is a great war hero? Well, I take a different view of this than others, I suppose. I’m not interested in who killed the most people or who led his troops to glorious victory. All of that is well and good for them, but I’m more interested in real moral courage, not just someone excelling at their job.

To me, a war hero is someone who does something personally courageous. That means it is completely against the grain of the times and the views of his peers and colleagues. The hero ultimately is proven right - though it may not be of any personal benefit to him. In essence, it is someone who sacrifices greatly to try to help other people.

There is heroism in small deeds, personal battles that don’t seem to matter in the grand scope of history - but they do. They matter because they reaffirm our humanity and give us hope.

Let me give an example to show what I mean.

War crimes of World War II
German troops raise their rifles to execute hostages in Kondomari, Crete, 2 June 1941 (Franz Peter Weixler, Federal Archive Figure 101I-166-0525-39).
This was the case of the man who wouldn’t shoot. There are issues of proof with this incident and whether or not it happened at all has been debated for sixty years or more.

During the summer of 1941, everything seemed to be going well for Germany. Its soldiers were grinding their boot heels into conquered peoples all across Europe. This included a series of savage executions of civilians on Crete and in Serbia. There was a growing partisan movement throughout the zone of occupation and the Germans were determined to stamp it out. They thought they had the answer and were ruthless in applying it.

The answer was retaliation. So, to prove one point or another, the Germans rounded up groups of old men and other locals from local villages. These people did not know why they had been selected, but there was no appeal. They were lined up in front of trees and rocks and buildings and gunned down. All of this was sanctioned, even ordered, by higher-ups. For instance, temporary commander General Kurt Student in Crete issued standing orders for retaliation against civilians who had resisted recent Operation Mercury, the German invasion of Crete. These killings pretty much went without incident. The victims were gunned down, buried, and usually forgotten by the world.

Josef Schulz incident in Serbia
Josef Schulz.
One of these massacres took place on 20 July 1941 within the barracks of Smederevska Palanka, southeast of Belgrade, Serbia. There, 16 "partisans" were collected and prepared for execution. Often in these operations, locals were just rounded up, called partisans, and shot. There were quotas to met and the correct number of executions had to be reported to soldiers.

Everything was proceeding normally until a soldier of the 714th Infantry Division, later identified as Josef Schulz (or Schultz), refused to participate. Schultz, lined up with the firing squad, suddenly dropped his rifle and shouted, "Ich schieße nicht! Diese Männer sind unschuldig!" (I will not shoot! These people are innocent!).

This did not phase the officer in charge of the executions. The executions took place anyway. Schulz's commanding officer simply put Schulz in the line with the partisans. The soldiers then immediately shot Schulz and the others dead and buried them.

Josef Schulz incident in Serbia
This is believed to be a photograph of Josef Schultz at the scene of the execution in Serbia. Comparing this with the known photograph of Schulz, I'm not entirely sure, but there are similarities. Even if it is not, it shows the types of victims at such executions.
The incident in Serbia was completely forgotten until the early 1960s when two German weeklies published some photographs of the incident. This led a West German Bundestag member, Wilderich Freiherr Ostman von der Leye, to identify the person on the photographs as Josef Schulz. There is serious disagreement as to whether the person in question was Schultz, but that the incident happened with a Wehrmacht soldier and that the photographs are genuine is accepted. The exact details matter... but they really don't.

Josef Schulz did not win any battles. He did not shoot down any planes, he did not sink any ships. All he did was make a personal statement. Not long afterward, the Wehrmacht decided that such summary executions by firing squads were “bad for morale” and ended them. Engineers under the direction of Reinhard Heydrich dreamed up more “efficient” and impersonal methods of execution in concentration camps. These methods removed the "human factor" that went wrong in the Schulz case and others like it.

There were incidents like this throughout World War II and in other wars. Some are remembered, many are forgotten and their memories buried with their victories. Judge for yourself whether men like that are heroes. Maybe I’ve at least caused you to think a little deeper about what a “war hero” is.

Kandanos sign 3 June 1941
A German sign at the site of the 3 June 1941 Kandanos, Crete, Massacre (one of two such signs, each with separate wording) which reads: “Kandanos was destroyed in retaliation for the terrible ambush murder of a paratrooper platoon and a half-platoon of military engineers by armed men and women.” About 180 people were executed in the Kandanos Massacre. (Segers, Hermann, German Federal Archive, Bild 101I-779-0003-22).


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