German deserters executed by a Nazi firing squad after the Nazis had surrendered!
Last September I wrote a post on my blog titled “With Apologies to Paul Verhoeven” that took a new look at the conclusion of his 2007 film “The Black Book,” one in which the Nazis executed a deserter in newly liberated Holland. Although I am willing to believe the worst about the allies, I found it hard to believe that they would have permitted the Nazis to assemble a firing squad after their army had just been defeated. Not long after dismissing the ending of “The Black Book” as over the top (Verhoeven, after all, has never been accused of excessive restraint), I learned that he was basing his ending on a historical incident, as recorded in “The Myth of the Good War”, by Jacques Pauwels. Pauwels wrote:
[I]t is a fact that many captured German units were secretly kept in readiness for possible use against the Red Army. Churchill, who not without reason had a high opinion of the fighting quality of the German soldiers, gave Field Marshall Montgomery an order to that effect during the last days of the war, as he was to acknowledge publicly much later in November 1954. He arranged for Wehrmacht troops who had surrendered in northwest Germany and in Norway to retain their uniforms and even their weapons, and to remain under the command of their own officers, because he thought of their potential use in hostilities against the Soviets. In the Netherlands, German units that had surrendered to the Canadians were even allowed to use their own weapons on May 13, 1945, to execute two of their own deserters!
My post prompted Zoltan Matheika to recommend “The Fifth Day of Peace,” which he described as “a fairly good (IMHO) Italian-Yugoslavian movie from 1969 about the death of those two German deserters.” I finally got around to ordering it from Netflix and concur with him that it is “fairly good.” I also read military historian Chris Madsen’s account of their execution that is available here.
The “Fifth Day of Peace” was originally titled “Dio è con noi”, God is with us in Italian–a stronger title that evokes Bob Dylan’s “With God on our Side.” Directed and written by Giuliano Montaldo, it is in full accord with Pauwels and Madsen’s analysis of a West that was beginning to see the German army as a potential asset against Soviet power. Montaldo’s leftist credentials are fairly well established. He was an apprentice to Gillo Pontecorvo, the director of “Battle of Algiers” and started out as an actor in Carlo Lizzani’s “Achtung banditi!,” a 1951 film that celebrated the Italian anti-fascist resistance. Montaldo’s best-known film is the 1971 “Sacco and Vanzetti,” scenes from which appear in Peter Miller’s documentary of the same name.
The two German deserters in Montaldo’s film are Ensign Bruno Grauber (Franco Nero) and Corporal Reiner Schultz (Larry Aubrey). Grauber is depicted as driven half-mad by the war and the strait-jacket of military service. He is the quintessential anti-authoritarian personality, evoking Jack Nicholson’s Randle McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Despite his refusal to conform to the expectations of the Third Reich, he is not really political. Throughout the film, he rants at the Nazi brass and their Canadian captors. He is the prisoner of the Nazis, while they are the prisoners of the Canadians. In keeping with the historical record, Montaldo accurately describes the Canadians as relying on the Nazi brass to keep order within the detention camp.
Reiner Schultz is much less the rebel. He continues wearing his uniform long after Grauber has ditched his and when the two of them are commandeering a Dutch farmhouse at gunpoint in search of food, Schultz destroys a radio that is blaring news about the allied victory. Even when Schultz proclaims his innocence in a Nazi court martial, that is not enough to assuage the judges who condemn him and Grauber to death by firing squad.
Captain John Miller, the Canadian officer in charge of the camp, is played by Richard Johnson, a veteran of B movies and serviceable in the role. Miller is in a constant battle with Col. von Bleicher, his Nazi counterpart, over who is in charge. Von Bleicher insists on retaining a strict military hierarchy in the detention camp, even though the Canadians see them more as prisoners. When Miller tries to assert his authority over one or another matter, von Bleicher organizes his men in protest. When von Bleicher argues that he should be allowed to execute the two deserters, Miller will hear none of it. He only relents under pressure from a British General who advises him that there are new enemies from the East that must be defeated. Communist subversion rather than Nazi territorial ambition is the new challenge.
Madsen explains why the Canadians were so anxious to accommodate the Nazis. The relationship of forces was not so heavily in favor of the allied victors so that they could reduce to German army to a herd of atomized prisoners. He cites a military report titled “Surrendered Enemy Personnel [SEP]“:
[I]n view of the very large numbers of GERMAN troops now surrendering ARMY COMMANDS are authorized to place such troops in the status of “Disarmed GERMAN Forces” as contemplated by paragraph 2″C” and other pertinent paragraphs of ECLIPSE memorandum No 17. Under provisions of the foregoing memorandum these GERMAN forces will NOT be characterized as “PRISONERS OF WAR”. After disarmament these surrendered German units may be kept organizationally intact and to the extent deemed advisable and practicable by ALLIED COMMANDERS required to administer and maintain themselves.
Madsen also makes clear that the Nazi troops were being held in reserve against the Soviets:
[K]ey British figures maintained secret plans for the enormous number of German prisoners of war. On 1 December 1954, Prime Minister Winston Churchill clarified, in the British House of Commons, the situation at the end of the war: “No trouble could in any case have arisen with the Soviets unless they had continued their advance to a point at which they forced the breaking out of a new war between Russia and her Western allies . . . we should certainly in that case rearm the German prisoners in our hands.”86 Churchill and other important officials in the British government remained distrustful of Soviet intentions; again and again, the Russians appeared to disregard the terms of the Yalta Agreement. Thus, in Churchill’s view, surrendered German troops, kept in existing German military formations, represented a safe card for the British position. In the event of new hostilities, vanquished German units and British military forces would have combined against an offensive Red Army.
While I can recommend “Fifth Day of Peace” (the US title, by the way, is a reference to the fact that the Germans were executed five days after the German surrender) as an antidote to the feel-good nostalgia of Ken Burns’s recent PBS documentary and Stephen Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”, one only wishes that director Giuliano Montaldo had based one of his characters on Rainer Beck, whose story might have been an inspiration for a movie unto itself. Beck was not the typical Nazi soldier. He was both a Jew and a social democrat, although Masden does not really explain how he managed to keep his identity a secret from the German brass. Masden writes:
Beck perhaps maintained the strongest reasons for rejecting German military institutions. From Hitler’s ascendency to power in 1933, the Nazi regime had persecuted his family. The reasons were obvious: Beck’s mother was Jewish, and his father, Max Emil Beck, a decorated World War I veteran, was compromised by a position as Social Democratic police president of Gleiwitz during the Weimar Republic. When Beck was drafted into the Kriegsmarine in 1940, he already possessed an overt hostility and contempt for the National Socialist state. Upon meeting his fugitive sister in 1941, the young man despondently declared: “If I wear the German uniform I am a bastard. If I don’t wear it, I am a bastard just the same.” Strong anti-Nazi views dictated Beck’s eventual departure from the German armed forces. The arrival of Canadian soldiers in Amsterdam seemingly promised a new beginning from a dreadful past.
Unfortunately, holding strong anti-Nazi views at a moment when the Cold War was being launched was no protection against the executioner’s bullet.