When my brother and I were growing up in the 1950s, my father would not buy German products. In the 1960s, when the Volkswagen Beetle and flower-power mini-bus were popular, we were told never to buy German cars because Germany was never to be forgiven for the Holocaust and World War II. In the 1980s, my father visited Germany on a European tour and was amazed that Germans seemed to be normal people. When he spoke to people in Yiddish, a German dialect spoken by Eastern European Jews, they could understand him, and when they spoke German, he could understand them. I’m not sure how he reconciled his two views of Germany. Maybe it was just that time had passed.
I traveled in Germany in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic. I had never been there before. I think it was partly because of my father’s instructions about Germany when I was a child. The Germany I found was nothing like the Germany of World War II books and movies. Felicia and I went hiking in Swiss-Saxony and spent a few days in Berlin, a very cosmopolitan city. Berlin had very prominent exhibits on the Nazi rise to power and on the Holocaust. More so than in the United States, Germans know the danger of forgetting. We also visited the Sachsenhausen concentration camp just outside Berlin. It was mostly for political prisoners so it was not as horrific as the death camps, but it was frightening enough.
This year Felicia and I visited Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, the site of the June 1944 allied invasion of Nazi occupied western Europe. Along the coast there is a well-kept American cemetery for the thousands of soldiers and sailors who died in the assault and the ensuring battles. On the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc there are remnants of fortified German bunkers that were captured by a heroic assault by American Army Rangers at the cost of heavy casualties. The visit to the American cemetery, featured at the end of the 1998 movie Saving Private Ryan, remains very solemn.
The owner of the B&B where we stayed recommended that we visit the German cemetery at La Cambe as well. It is the largest German war cemetery in Normandy with the remains of over 21,000 German military personnel. Most of the Germans buried here died between June 6, the day of the D-Day landing, and August 20 when the Battle of Normandy ended. The youngest was sixteen years old.
There are monsters buried here. SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann, an avowed Nazi, was responsible for the massacre of French villagers at Oradour-sur-Glane, four days after the allied invasion. SS troops under Diekmann’s command slaughtered 642 people, mostly women and children.
But there are also boys here, drafted into the army, to defend Germany as it faced defeat with Americans landing in France and the Soviet Army rapidly moving towards Germany on the Eastern Front. These boys are not very different from American boys buried a few miles away. We saw the grave of Oberschütze (rifleman) Heinz Fuhs who was born on November 6, 1924 and died July 24, 1944. He was nineteen years old.
War gives full reign to monsters, but most of its victims, on all sides, are boys drafted into its armies and civilians trapped in war zones.