Earlier this year I attended a press screening for Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” a film about the Dutch resistance during WWII. The main character is a beautiful young Dutch-Jewish singer named Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) who decides to fight the Nazis after they kill her parents. She hates the Nazis so much that she is willing to risk her life by becoming a spy and infiltrating their headquarters. But she almost decides to refuse the assignment after learning that it involves seducing the German commandant so as to learn crucial information about the enemy’s plans. Nothing would be more difficult than pretending to love somebody as evil as a Nazi officer.
It turns out that the officer is not the typical goon out of central casting. SS-hauptsturmführer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) does everything he can in his power to make life bearable to people living under occupation. Furthermore, he repeatedly intercedes on behalf of captured resistance fighters to make sure that they are not tortured or executed. After Rachel Stein, who has adopted the Dutch name of Ellis de Vries, gets a job as a singer inside Nazi headquarters, she wastes no time getting Müntze into bed and extracting information out of him. In the process, they fall in love with each other. It is harder for her to give into her feelings after what she has gone through, but decides that Müntze is different.
Eventually the Nazis learn that she is a spy and prepare to execute her. If Müntze was only lukewarm about Nazism to begin with, whatever residual loyalty he had to the regime goes down the tubes when he learns that the woman he loves is about to be murdered. He decides to desert from the German army and blend in with the civilian population alongside Rachel Klein, who has also put the fighting behind her. He calculates that his risks are minimal since the allies have begun to take control of the Netherlands and the Nazi army is on its last legs.
Thomas Müntze and Rachel Stein
At this point in the film, something takes place that seemed so far-fetched that I decided not to review the film. As many people must be aware, with films such as “Total Recall” and “Robocop” to his credit, Verhoeven does have a knack for going over the top. I don’t mind verisimilitude going out the window when it comes to science fiction, but WWII deserved better.
Verhoeven portrays the Nazi army as remaining in uniform and in arms under allied occupation, something that seemed far-fetched to me to begin with. But I slapped my head and say “Unbelievable” under my breath after what happened next. Müntze is recognized by a Nazi officer and arrested. After a Nazi court martial finds him guilty of desertion, he is shot by a firing squad. While I was aware of ex-Nazi officers being used against the USSR after the war ended, I had never heard about such an unlikely scenario. After nearly 5 years of brutal fighting, why would the allies allow the Nazis to retain such power?
It turns out that Verhoeven was right. This did happen.
Over the past few days I have been reading Jacques R. Pauwel’s “The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War,” a book that Bill Blum recommended a while back:
Which leads me to recommend a book, “The Myth of the Good War”, by Jacques Pauwels, published in 2002. It’s very well done, well argued and documented, an easy read. I particularly like the sections dealing with the closing months of the European campaign, during which the United States and Great Britain contemplated stabbing their Soviet ally in the back with maneuvers like a separate peace with Germany, using German troops to fight the Russians, and sabotaging legal attempts by various Communist Parties and other elements of the European left to share in (highly earned) political power after the war. This last piece of sabotage was of course very effectively realized. Stalin learned enough about these schemes to at least partially explain his post-war suspicious manner toward his “allies”. In the West we called it “paranoia”
I decided to take a look at Pauwels’s book in order to write something about WWII prompted by Ken Burns’s PBS series and by Clint Eastwood’s 2 movies about Iwo Jima from both the American and Japanese perspective. I have had it up to here with WWII nostalgia and was looking for ammunition against it in Pauwel’s book.
In the chapter titled “An Anti-Soviet Crusade Together With the Germans,” Pauwels mentions that Admiral Dönitz offered his services to the allies in a bid for a new war against Bolshevism. While the allies never took Dönitz up on his offer, they did decide to keep the Nazi army intact. Pauwels writes:
[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!
A search on Proquest for NY Times articles referring to the execution turned up nothing, but a google search did. Professor Chris Madsen, a military historian now at Canadian Forces College, a military academy, wrote an article for Canadian Military History, Vol. 2 (1993): Issue 1 titled “Victims of Circumstance: The Execution of German Deserters by Surrendered German Troops Under Canadian Control in Amsterdam, May 1945.”
On the morning of 13 May 1945, five days after the formal capitulation of Hitler’s Wehrmacht, a German military court delivered death sentences on two German naval deserters, Bruno Dorfer and Rainer Beck. The trial occurred in an abandoned Ford assembly plant on the outskirts of Amsterdam, a site used by the Canadian army for the concentration of German naval personnel. Later that same day, a German firing squad, supplied with captured German rifles and a three-ton truck from the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada and escorted by Canadian Captain Robert K. Swinton, executed the two German prisoners of war a short distance outside the enclosure. Dorfer and Beck were among the last victims of a military legal system distorted by the Nazi state. At the time no one, Canadian or German, questioned the justice of the event.
Good war? My foot.