Category Archives: Germans

World War II’s last European Battlefield

It began at 1am on April 5, 1945. Armed only with sharpened shaving knives and their bare hands, Soviet Georgians exacted bloody revenge on their German captors. While the Georgians quickly and quietly dispatched tens of Germans, some of the Wehrmacht men got to their rifles. The gunfire alerted the German gun crews on the shore batteries … who then traversed their weapons so they could fire inland. What followed was a vicious guerrilla campaign that lasted for weeks after VE Day…

Over 60 years later, as you approach the island on the ferry boat from Den Helder, you cannot even see the concrete bunkers that formed this part of Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall” . Today, Texel is a charming holiday destination better known for surf fishing and lamb wool than its grim history as the only battleground between men of the Red and German Armies on the Western Front.

Remnants of a German bunker are in the foreground

The restored Texel Lighthouse - remnants of a German bunker are visible behind the grass in the foreground

Although Texel’s sleepy villages with winding brick lanes and perfectly flat pastures with grazing sheep are occasionally interrupted by more “touristy” towns like De Koog, the island is mainly a peaceful – if windy – place.  It’s one of the only parts of the Netherlands where you can experience a sense of remoteness, so I was shocked to learn a battle was fought here in World War II.

I learned about Texel’s World War II history by accident. The island’s small airport hosts an aviation museum that advertises a special exhibition on “the Georgian Uprising”. The weather in North Holland is not always reliable, so we soon found ourselves at the museum during a spell of Dutch Summer weather (damp, windy, etc.).

German bunker at Texel airport. Bullet holes are visible around the gun ports

German bunker at Texel airport. Bullet holes are visible around the gun ports

Thousands of Soviet Georgians serving in Stalin’s Red Army were captured by the Germans in 1941 during “Operation: Barbarossa”. Starved and brutalized in German prison camps, many were eventually shanghaied into the German Army’s new Ostlegion (“Eastern Legion “). 800 of these Georgians were sent to Texel, where they improved fortifications, drilled, and made contacts with the Dutch Underground – the Orde Dienst.

Having been informed they were being sent to Berlin in a last-ditch defense against the approaching Red Army, the Georgians hastily came up with a plan. When the signal was given they would quietly kill their German comrades with sharpened shaving knives and bayonets, seize the German weapons and – with the help of the local populace – take out the gun crews of the shore batteries. Once the island was secure, they would then radio England so the Allies could land on the island.

As Murphy’s Laws of Combat state: no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Operation: Day of Birth was no exception…

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My Secret Obession: World War II Bunkers

There was an article last Summer about how some kid discovered some bunkers in Denmark that are in pristine condition. So awesome.

I don’t know what it is with me and those concrete bunkers built during World War II. When I’m driving along the French or Dutch coast, or through the Eiffel in Belgium, and I see those telltale right angles breaking through the tranquil countryside, I pull my car over and start climbing over the damn things like a little kid.

A fading memory

A fading memory - one of the German emplacements on Omaha beach

What is it about these decaying, stained and otherwise hideous concrete structures that make me so crazy? They violate an otherwise peaceful landscape. Local kids use these things to tag up, shoot up, or drink up and I reckon most locals want to forget them. Yet all I can imagine is what it must have been liked over half a century previous when these things were built. I guess it’s the knowledge that as I stand there, I’m at Ground Zero of the showdown that determined the direction of World history.

It’s like walking in the footsteps of giants.

Last Summer I found an amazing set of bunkers and gun emplacements on an island of the Dutch coast. Although a foot note in a side theater of the main conflict, the island of Texel (pronounced “Tessel”) was the scene of a vicious battle which earned it a few dubious – and grim –

distinctions …

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Rosenmontag and Super Tuesday

The post serves a couple of purposes:

1) To inform you that I partied like a Rockstar at Carnival in Cologne and Dusseldorf, which is why I haven’t been writing.

2) To provide a little evidence that much of the world really does seem to be following the US elections. Very closely.

The following photos were taken during the Rosenmontag (“Rose Monday”) parade through Koenigsallee in Duesseldorf (I apologize if they’re fuzzy of not framed properly but we were in a crowd and we were really really drunk):

Rosenmontagzug

 

Rosenmontagszug2

Not only is the primary process being followed closely around the world, but the above photos demonstrate that some Euro-pundits are far more astute than I thought. Keep in mind that these photos were taken 24 hours before Super Tuesday. Quite the augur when you think about how much money Obama raised shortly thereafter. (I believe it was $3 million in 48 hours.)

Funny thing is, a couple of German party animals from the Ruhrpot slapping together a grotesque parade float have a stronger grip on reality than most of the major European media outlets.

The German and British press seem to be unconditionally kissing Obama’s posterior. His encomium as the “black JFK” was a bit too much for me. As far as Hillary goes, the Dutch have been loving HRC for years. (Strong women with short hair go over well here.) My Dutch in-laws are trying to register a proxy vote for her via Yours Truly.

So you read and hear a lot about Obama and Hillary, but not too much about the Republicans. If you’re lucky, you read something on McCain. There is so little coverage of the Republicans it’s not even funny. (In all fairness, there was little coverage of any other Dem candidates besides HRC and BO anyway – even at the beginning of the campaign.)

A German friend of mine (who’s former GSG-9, actually) summed it up best; he “doesn’t care who wins, so long as it’s not a Republican”. There’s an excellent blog called David’s Medienkritik that comprehensively catalogs the German media’s choleric coverage of Bush, Republicans, and America the “Wild West” (full of gun-loving, conservative, fat people, etc.). It sheds a lot of light on where these opinions come from. I only wish someone did the same with the BBC World Service; every third item is about how Bush sucks because of Iraq. The other two items are that break up these items are usually i) the latest warnings about global warming, and ii) Israeli oppression of the Palestinians.

I must say, watching Dutch, German, and English television, I’ve been surprised by the extent of the coverage and – dare I say it – the general fascination with the presidential primary process, especially in Iowa and New Hampshire. Listening to the anchors (and my wife), no one seems to believe that such powerful people have to kiss the ass of the “lowliest” farmer or pipe-fitter in such unrefined surroundings (churches, schools, people’s living rooms, etc).

I suppose that says something about European history/culture as well.

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On the Trail of the Kaiser’s Soldiers in Africa

Namibia Road Trip – Day #9: Ludertiz to Aus to Seeheim

On the road to Sesriem I’d picked up a locally printed book (“Mein Lieber Andreas! Treue Seele!”) that contained diary entries, recollections, and photos donated by German soldiers who’d been stationed in German Southwest Africa from the early 1900s until 1919 .

It held an interesting collection of details of daily life, which collectively gave a very rich picture of Namibia 100 years ago. The diary of one officer, a certain Unterzahlmeister Andreas Ohlsen, recounted his 1907 deployment route from Luderitz to the inland town of Keetmanshoop.

Schutztruppe Pad

above: A German map of the Ludertiz – Keetmanshoop route circa 1912

We followed his exact route nearly 101 years to the day.

Our Pad

above: The same route today. Note the Restricted Diamond Area (“Sperrgebiet”) to the south. The Namib Naukluft is to the north.

Naturally, this book contained quite a few memory holes. The diary entries were mostly fond recollections of soldierly bonding rather than details of their genocidal campaigns against the Hottentot and the Herero. I don’t think this was for political reasons. None of the horrors of war were present in their recollections. The losses of comrades-in-arms were glossed over. Their time in the POW camp in Aus sounded more like boarding school hijinks than 36+ months of purgatory in the desert. (I had to appreciate the story of how they secretly distilled schnapps – so-called “Kraal-Schnapps” – under the noses of the British guards.)

This wistful nostalgia was also colored with tragedy of another kind, as some of the Schutztruppe veterans writing in the book in 1943-44 were living in Koenigsberg. No doubt they were killed by the Red Army or had to evacuate only a few short months after fondly recollecting balmy African nights ’round the campfire singing dirty limericks.

Reading the experiences of these tough old soldiers humbled me a bit as I prepared for the day’s drive. I had over 200 miles of driving in front of me, and only two-thirds of it was on paved roads. I wasn’t looking forward to it, to be sure, but I felt guilty about wanting to complain.

Up until 1915, German soldiers arrived in Luderitz normally via steamship from Hamburg. After the damp climate of North Germany, I suppose the desolation of the Skeleton Coast and surrounding moon rock of Luderitz must have been a shock. In Luderitz they received their orders.

Once the Schutztruppen received their movement orders, the first leg of their trip inland would be via passenger steam train to Aus. The railroad track still runs parallel to the present-day B4 highway, but passenger train service stopped years ago. The final few miles of track to Luderitz were gone, but we could see where the tracks should have been; the embankment was still there, and it looked as if new ties had been lain. Perhaps the freight service would be resumed soon? In the meantime, a gaggle of five ostriches stood guard by the precious raw material left to lie unattended in the desert sun.
Our bakkie wasn’t terribly aerodynamic, so I expected we weren’t much faster than a steam train a century ago. In 1907 though, the rail ended in Aus and they had to switch to horseback. From Aus, we would leave the Schutztruppe in the dust.

In Aus circa 1907, German soldiers would be kitted out with food, water, weapons, and horses for the long trek to Keetmanshoop. They would form into a column, with mule-pulled wagons in the middle. At that time, hostilities with the local Herero and Hottentot weren’t quite at an end, so armed escorts were a must for any convoys carrying precious supplies further inland.

It was slow going on horseback. Water breaks were essential in that brutal heat. Additionally, the tracks they traveled on were not much more than ruts. Breakdowns were frequent, and wagons carried reserve wheels for this contingency. If an axle or more wheels broke, the wagon was offloaded and left behind as firewood for the next convoy.

The route followed a series of watering holes that had been converted into proper water stations with camp sites and hitching posts. It was critical to reach the next Wasserstelle before their existing ration ran out. I suppose the urgency of reaching the next station kept them focused.

In the account of Unterzahlemeister Ohlsen’s journey, it took a mule train over two weeks to reach Keetmanshoop. That’s over two weeks of riding in extreme heat. That’s two weeks of sleeping on hard ground. Two weeks eating by campfires, nights standing watch, and keeping weapons cleaned and maintained.

We covered that same distance in a truck in less than three hours.

And I still complained about my sore ass from the springs in my cushioned seat.

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Commonwealth War Graves in Namibia

Namibia Road Trip – Day #9: Aus

Aus graves

I’m a big military history fanatic, so I leapt at the chance when I saw a sign indicating a Commonwealth Military Cemetery outside Aus, Namibia. Even my wife’s usual objections were quickly overcome, as it turned out to be an unusual monument to a catastrophic historical event.

What made this Commonwealth Grave site unusual was that:

1.) Few of the dead were killed in action.

2.) The cemetery contains both German and Allied dead together.

Unlike the United States, which either transports its war dead home, or – in special situations – lays its Fallen to rest in land donated by Allied nations (e.g., in France or the Netherlands), the British Empire always interred it’s dead where they fell. Since the they were very busy ensuring the sun never set on the British Empire, they fought in some very remote locations. This little cemetery near the mining town of Aus, Namibia certainly falls in that category.

The sign indicating the cemetery was on the paved B4 “highway”, but it lead us over the usual winding track made of jagged rocks, loose boulders, and dust. Our truck slid sideways as we negotiated our way up an arroyo that angled 45 degrees.

“Are we going the right way?” My wife fretted.

“Sure we are,” I pooh-poohed her. Actually, I had no clue if I was correct. As we fought our way up out of the arroyo, I couldn’t even see where the road continued, or even if the road continued.

Sure enough though, we came over the top and we spotted a small cemetery amongst twisted fencing and scraggly trees…

Aus Grave 2

A professor of mine in college once quipped that World War I was nothing more than a re-shuffling of the international pecking order. Apart from providing an opportunity to decimate a generation of young men, the Great War also allowed the Triple Entente (i.e., Great Britain) to relieve the Central Powers (i.e., Germany) of any valuable colonies they might have possessed. When hostilities broke out in 1914, Commonwealth troops poured into Namibia from South Africa. They were met by the Kaiser’s men. The Schutztruppen.

The Kaiser had only posted a token force in German Southwest Africa. After a few skirmishes, the Schutztruppen surrendered en masse to the South African troops in 1915. They spent nearly four years in captivity in a camp hastily erected outside Aus.

During their time as POWs, the German soldiers were industrious; they manufactured bricks – originally to build better accommodation for themselves, but later for profit (they sold the bricks to the South Africans!), they put on plays, and they even distilled schnapps. I read one first-hand account of the German’s schnapps still being discovered by a teetotaling guard who confiscated the equipment. The men didn’t wait too long before resuming production, albeit more discreetly.

Upon the cessation of hostilities, German Southwest Africa was handed over to Great Britain (who already controlled surrounding South Africa, Bechuanaland, and the two Rhodesias), and German soldiers were forcibly “repatriated” back to Germany in 1919. But, the Germans did leave around 60 men behind. They still rest here in this Commonwealth Cemetery.

Death came to Aus in 1918, but not at the end of bayonet. The Spanish flu didn’t discern between nations, and I counted roughly 60 German graves and 60 South African graves. I found a number of markers showing that the men died within days of each other in October, 1918. Friend and foe weren’t buried together out of some fraternal gesture; I doubt the authorities had much time for “proper” segregation of the dead, not with so many bodies waiting above ground in the ruinous heat.

The POW camp itself is now gone, replaced by a farm and small dwellings. I found only a few crumbling walls and nothing else. It stood on another hill facing the cemetery. The cemetery itself could have been considered “unsightly” alongside a “proper” cemetery; there was no grass, and no flowers. But there was a sense of order in there not known to the surrounding countryside, if only because someone had swept the dust prior to our arrival. A few iron crosses were crumbling, but more than a few of the Commonwealth graves had fresh flowers on them, possibly laid by descendants living in South Africa.

Seeing those flowers helped stave off the overwhelming sense of futility and loss I usually experience in a military cemetery. These men didn’t die defending their country. They fought on land that wasn’t even theirs. These men didn’t fall in battle. They died of disease. No movie or novel has been written about this sideshow to a greater conflict that was ultimately a “reshuffling of the international pecking order”, and only a preview of the horrors to come.

There had no glory save what their surviving family and concerned citizens choose to bestow upon them.

Aus graves #3

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Luderitz, Namibia: Fossilized Colonialism

Namibia Road Trip – Days #8 and 9: Luderitz

Luderitz Bucht

Luderitz Harbor – note the Germanic weather vane

Luderitz surprised almost as much as Swakopmund did, but for converse reasons. Whereas Swakopmund surprised me with its dominant German culture, Luderitz surprised me for its lack thereof.

I mean just look at the name: Luderitz. Can you get any more German than that? A look at a street map and all the names were German. I even found a Goeringstrasse! (Although I learned after we’d departed that this street fortunately referred to a former Commissioner of Southwest Africa, and not the mad Chief of Hitler’s Air Forces.) Naming a street after the prominent Nazi was such an act of defiance I simply assumed that Ludertiz would absolutely totally overshadow Swakopmund with its Teutonic swagger.

Wrong again.

The road to Luderitz was yet another strip of bulky black asphalt laid across a strip of lifeless white. To one side was the Namib Desert, to the other, the Restricted Diamond Area (“Sperrgebiet”). The only sign of life was the occasional ostrich or wild horse. The desert disappeared and the road then wound its way through a craggy, harsh terrain. The asphalt disappeared under skeins of sand slithering across the road. Strong gusts of wind beat at our truck. I could best compare the site to a harsh moon, or better yet, the lifeless planet LV-426 from my favorite flick. I know it sounds overly dramatic (or nerdy) to compare an African climate to a science fiction film, but I’m absolutely on the level when I say it was the spitting image, right down to the howling winds.

Rather than arriving at well manicured homes as in Swakopmund, we drove past a township situated on a barren hill. There were no municipal gardens, no orderly grid of streets. Unlike the Swakopmunders, the Luderitzers had never never been able to beat the grounds into a with the sense of order I’m sure they desired. Rough moon rock jutted out everywhere, reminding the locals just how tenuous a grip their civilization had there.

Luderitz slum

A not-so-Tuetonic Luderitz

Our accommodation was a German guest house. We navigated through sand streets (no paving here) and found the home ensconced behind high walls capped with cast iron fencing crowned with spikes. On all sides were “non-German” residents who didn’t bother with such extreme security measures (although they all had bars on their windows too).

Our host was a real, fifth generation Suedwester originally from Windhoek. He was a jovial chap and quite comfortable conversing in German (accent-free, of course), Afrikaans, or English. His wife greeted us in German; she spoke little English and no Afrikaans. (She was actually a German immigrant.) I couldn’t imagine how solitary her life was being unable to speak to anyone outside of their little enclave.

As if to underscore her solitude and helplessness, the neighbors across the street began to blast some awful Whitney Houston music from a parked car. I could see in her eyes the desire to whip out her Gesetzbuch and lob it across the street. But she had no power there. They had no power there.

Hard to believe that a steamship company once ran a regular route between Hamburg and Luderitz.

“Ja, it’s the end of the month,” she lamented, “and they tend to get very rowdy. You must be very careful if you plan on walking around tonight.”

They?

Our expectations of an orderly and Germanic Luderitz were further shattered when we visited the supermarket the next day. Back in Swakopmund, their Super Spar was as big as any supermarket in the US; the sparkling aisles in could easily accommodate three carts side-by-side piloted by enormously posteriored housewives – without their sweatpants even brushing. Swakopmund even featured a bakery, deli counter, butcher, and snack bar.

The Spar in downtown Luderitz was tiny. Sickly fluorescent bulbs flickered above us as I pushed my creaky cart over bumpy and ripped linoleum. The narrow aisles were crowded with shoppers. Instead of a deli counter, they had only N$ 5 heads of lettuce still covered in dirt and wormy tomatoes. Men stood idle outside.

I did meet a few German Luderitzers the next day, but never on the street. They were all like my German hostess: waiting behind their walls and watching German television on the satellite. Waiting to hand over the rest of the city to the native sons.

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“Where’s Wilhelm?” – 24 Hours in Swakopmund, Namibia

Namibia Road Trip – Days #5 and 6: Swakopmund

DSWA War Monument

German War Monument in Swakopmund, Namibia. No doubt they were facing Herero women armed with sharpened mango slices…

The Brauhaus is one of the “real” German beer halls in the Teutonic Brigadoon of Swakopmund. It’s located in an outdoor shopping mall reminiscent of a German Altstadt (“Old Town”) and sitting there, I felt I could have been any traditional restaurant in Germany. The place eventually filled up with what I assumed I was a mix of locals and German tourists.

I was wrong.

Speaking to our waiter, I learned that all the Germans in the place were Namibians; there wasn’t a single German tourist among them (not from Germany anyway; German Windhukers, however, love to take their Summer vacation in Swakopmund).

This impressed me immensely. The German Southwest Africans were cut off politically from Germany in 1915. Despite being on their own for almost a century, they’ve been able to successfully maintain their language, culture, and society through a lot of tough times. They’ve only had television as a cultural, lingual, and informational link with Germany since the dawn of home satellite service, but they don’t look or sound any different from, uhm, German-Germans.

I detected no accent whatsoever amongst those I spoke to. Our B&B hostess explained that some German-Namibians do mix in Afrikaner words, especially those whose ancestors arrived speaking Plattdeutsch (a dialect spoken in Northern Germany that incorporates a lot of Dutch words), but she also knew a few locals who, 100 years on, still had perfect Bavarian accents.

“Bavarians,” she snorted. “They are a special exception.”

“Lady, you don’t need to tell me that. Believe me.”

As much as I love to poke fun at ze Germans (be they in Germany or Namibia), they’ve done an amazing job in Swakopmund:

1.) The streets are all paved and immaculate.

2.) The grass lawns of the municipal parks (two of ’em) are thick and well-watered.

3. ) They’ve constructed what look to be the first bike paths in Africa(!)

4.) The boardwalk and beach are spotless and safe.

We even did an early morning jog on Day #6, and were joined by a number of other runners and residents walking their dogs. The bike paths were being dutifully utilized by old women on three-speeds wearing gaily-colored crash helmets.

Swakopmund had German schools, German social clubs, a chamber of commerce, a radio station (right next to the Super Spar!) and all other possible social mechanisms to keep their cultural coherence. (I would be even more impressed at the Swakopmunders’ successful efforts after I visited Namibia’s other “German” city of Luderitz – where the local Germans have failed miserably to maintain themselves.)

What really threw me off kilter in Swakopmund was that the local Germans proudly sport the colors of the Kaiser’s Germany: red, white, and black. In Europe, these colors and the Kaiser’s flag have been co-opted by Neo-Nazis to get around explicit bans on swastikas and other Nazi symbolism. (With its impressive eagle and iron cross, the Kaiser’s standard is adequately militaristic for Neo-Nazi purposes.) In Swakopmund however, I saw it readily on t-shirts and bumper stickers. One portly gentleman even walked into the Brauhaus sporting a reproduction Suedwester slouch hat (kind of like an Aussie outback hat) with a red, white, and black cockade. He also had an amazing beer gut. (We couldn’t stop staring. He stuck it out like a badge of honor!)

Window #1 Window #2

“Collect the Whole Set!” Germanic bumper stickers for sale in a Swakopmund store. The rider in the slouch hat (top right) is the German Monument in Windhoek. The eagle sticker (lower right) says “I’m Proud to be a German”.

It was a kind of pride or nationalism that you never see in Germany today.

In one of the municipal parks, there stands a war monument to fallen German soldiers. It’s an impressive monument with two larger-than-life figures. I assumed the monument commemorated German dead from World War I, but was surprised to read a plaque with the names of soldiers who’d all fallen in 1904 and 1905. That meant these guys were killed fighting Hereros and Hottentots. At least one of them was killed during the final slaughter of the Herero during the Battle of Waterberg.

There’s no monument for the Herero dead here. There’s nothing to commemorate the Hottentott POWs that all perished from the flu during their internment by the Germans. Although these facts and the Herero genocide haven’t fallen down the memory hole in Germany (the German government apologized publicly), they seem to have here in Swakopmund.

No living German-Namibians carry war guilt from the Second World War, and the Herero genocide aside, I don’t blame today’s Swakopmunders for their ethnic pride. You can’t successfully maintain a coherent society in a physical and cultural oasis without being fiercely proud of your culture and your history – warts and all.

So there will never be any stigma attached to the red-white-and-black here. Not so long as it’s a question of survival.

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