Emerging From Their Bunkers

Germans are reflecting on their nation's defeat in World War II in more nuanced ways. Feelings of victimhood blend with long-held guilt.

By Jeffrey Fleishman

Los Angeles Times

May 8, 2005

BERLIN — Waltraud Sussmilch and her mother hid beneath a city of war and flame. They slipped out of a subway car, tiptoeing past drunken Russian soldiers and the bodies of raped German women. Her mother stopped and straightened the skirts of the dead. Sussmilch hurried out of the tunnel and into morning light, where blood trickled over bricks and smoke coiled in the sky.

"I recognized nothing," said Sussmilch, who was 14 years old and lived on Saarlandstrasse when Russian troops entered the German capital in the last days of World War II. "Not a building was left. You could hear the sounds of fire, like blown-up paper bags popping one after the other…. I kept thinking, how could the sun shine under such circumstances?"

Germany surrendered 60 years ago today, ending a war that killed as many as 50 million people, ravaged the map of Europe and added "Holocaust" to the lexicon of barbarity. Adolf Hitler had shot himself days earlier in a bunker. Allied soldiers handed out candy bars and cigarettes.

Left with incalculable tons of rubble and facing decades of balancing guilt and atonement, Germany became a nation on a psychiatrist's couch, suppressing any wisp of patriotism and experiencing denial and, finally, acceptance.

For years, the country refused to ponder the enormous suffering of its civilians. It did not question the morality of Allied bombings that ignited 1,000-degree firestorms in cities such as Dresden, where as many as 40,000 civilians died Feb. 13, 1945. But Germans today are articulating a more nuanced view that stretches beyond complicity in Nazism to show that many Germans were victims of the Third Reich — and of Allied air raids.

"Are the Germans now suddenly seeing themselves in a different light — as a community joined in suffering?" the magazine Der Spiegel asked in a recent issue. "Has the 'nation of perpetrators' become the 'nation of victims'? Has the chapter of self-chastisement now been closed?"

Generations of Germans have sought to navigate beyond their history. Persevering through the Cold War and building Europe's largest economy, a reunified Germany entered the new century an influential voice in international affairs. The country looked to globalization and began restoring a national identity; the war turned into something to be studied, not be shackled by. Even the new government buildings in Berlin were designed in sharp angles and walls of glass, a transparent architecture to imply that nothing dark will rise again.

But for aging soldiers and survivors, the past lingers like a sonata crackling from a gramophone.

"All my life I've had a bad conscience about what the Germans did," said Sussmilch, who recently published "In the Bunker," her recollections of Berlin under siege. "I felt as if I, myself, had something to do with it. Like many Germans, I believe I will feel guilty in my grave. But even if I would have known, I couldn't have done anything about it. You cannot know the times we were living in then."

A tall, vibrant woman with reddish hair, Sussmilch writes deliberate prose that seeks no sympathy when describing her own vanished neighborhood. "It happened and it's over," she said, sitting with her husband, Martin, who served with a tank division in the 1940s and was captured by American forces. "What is fair in war? Nothing."

The literature of German suffering was scant through much of the postwar era. There were some dramatic recollections, such as the Aug. 20, 1943, diary entry by Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen that describes a cardboard suitcase containing "the roasted corpse of a child, shrunk like a mummy, which its half-deranged mother has been carrying about." But stories of fires howling through alleys, melting corpses and swarms of flies descending in black waves upon mass graves were inscribed mainly upon memory.

A country that "had murdered and worked to death millions of people in its camps could hardly call on the victorious powers to explain the military and political logic that dictated the destruction of German cities," W.G. Sebald wrote in his book "On the Natural History of Destruction." Sebald discovered that many Germans "regarded the great firestorms as just punishment, even an act of retribution on the part of a higher power with whom there could be no dispute."

Historians have debated the air raids on Dresden and other cities. The Allies said the raids were necessary to destroy the battered German industrial complex and break the nation's will. But Germans have increasingly questioned this assessment, saying that Hitler's war machine had crumbled and that, in the words of former German President Richard von Weizsacker, it was "inhuman" to target tens of thousands of civilians.

Germans, however, are vigilant not to escape responsibility for the war, nor mar the reverence for the millions killed by Hitler. "Nie wieder," or never again, is a lesson memorized by schoolchildren. Yet, in a nation where the past so often spirals through the present, there are constant battles over memory. Berlin will inaugurate its Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe on Tuesday amid threats by neo-Nazis to march near the site in hope of instigating a new spasm of nationalism.

Despite persistent economic problems and high unemployment, there is little chance that far-right political parties will gain widespread support. One seldom hears "German" and "pride" in the same sentence. The war is too large a specter for such revival, even if historical facts are sometimes parlayed into euphemisms. A recent Forsa poll, for example, found that 80% of Germans prefer believing that they were "liberated" rather than defeated May 8, 1945.

"The process of memory is not finished in Germany," said Susanne Kiewitz, a historian overseeing an exhibition of 200 letters written by German soldiers in the 1940s. "Sixty years after the war, there are only a few people left who actually experienced it. We have maybe five more years to get their memories. We are at the threshold between biological memory and scientific historical memory."

Reinhold Skoecz estimates that his infantry division marched 1,200 miles from Poland into Russia between 1940 and 1945. He was shot in the leg in 1943; shrapnel sliced his jaw two years later. At 85, he is a well-built retired shop teacher with a trove of carved elephants. His hair is the same sandy brown it was when he posed for his army portrait. He visits classrooms whenever he can to tell students his story.

"We started the war and pushed all of Europe into tragedy," he said, unfolding a map in his apartment and recalling his battles in the swamps of Belarus as he advanced toward Moscow. "There can't be too much enlightenment on what happened. It's bitter and sad for us Germans, but we have to face it. I just don't want to be perceived as this old guy talking about an old war."

Skoecz was banned from a local soccer league after refusing to join the Hitler Youth corps. He was drafted into the army soon afterward and, like many Germans who witnessed anti-Semitism in schools and in their jobs, says he was unaware of the atrocities by the Nazis. It wasn't until he read newspapers in a Russian POW camp in the late 1940s that he says he learned of the Holocaust.

"We thought the Jews were just being sent east to dig ditches and build bridges," Skoecz said. He paused. It was useless to seek words. Then he added: "We damaged the continent, but over the years we Germans have become accepted again. But we shouldn't open our mouths too much to try to play the 'big guy.' We should be modest and keep quiet."

Harri Czepuck's German artillery unit fought the Red Army south of Berlin near Frankfurt an der Oder in the spring of 1945. Russian forces pressed in from the east and north and circled the capital and the German ranks collapsed. In the region around Halbe, the remains of German soldiers are still being found in scattered fields and forests and given proper burials.

"Our food ran out around April 20," said Czepuck, a retired journalist with a prodigious library in his home. "Everyone wanted to move west toward the Americans. No one wanted to be captured by the Russians. When our fuel ran out, we confiscated horses from local farmers to pull the cannons. But the Russian planes came and strafed the horses. We couldn't move the artillery, but we could eat the horses. Then we had cows pull the artillery, but the planes came again, so we ate the cows."

Czepuck worries about today's Germany. He thinks it's too materialistic, too consumed again with being the biggest and strongest. He calls it the "German disease." He contemplates his boyhood, when a strange man with a stubby mustache rose to power on mesmerizing rhetoric.

"It's complicated," said Czepuck, a broad-faced man with silver hair. "I went to a high school heavily influenced by the Nazis. They were sometimes stronger than my father's influence. I always tried to sneak around the Hitler Youth. But how can you sneak around the draft? Sometimes as a young man, you don't know what courage is. Is it courageous to join or not to join? At 17, how could I imagine what war was? It sounded like an adventure."

Sussmilch, the Berlin survivor who wrote "In the Bunker," has questions of her own.

"Who does God listen to?" she said, sitting with her husband near a bowl of cookies and a copy of her book. "As a child, I prayed to God for no air raids in Berlin. Then I imagined a British girl out there far away praying her war prayers. Who does he listen to?"

More than 10,000 people hid in the bunker where Sussmilch, her mother and brother ran after their house was bombed. They were quickly ordered to leave the bunker and escape through the subway tunnels before the underground was flooded to prevent Russian tanks from navigating the rail lines. Thousands clattered through the darkness.

Russian soldiers appeared in the tunnel one night. They took away wounded German soldiers and gathered women on a platform. Sussmilch and her family hid in a subway car.

"They forced the women to drink alcohol," she said. "Their voices didn't sound human anymore. You wouldn't believe what they did with the bottles. It was a night you couldn't imagine."

In the morning, the women, their skirts hiked up and swastikas carved in their thighs, lay dead on the platform. Sussmilch and her family crept past them and toward the light.

Sussmilch's mother would later die in a mental hospital; her brother would disappear to start a new life.