Allies come to terms with Germans and Germany

In the crematorium courtyard, U.S. soldiers confront the citizens of Weimar with the corpses found there. This was the first photo of Buchenwald to be published; it appeared in the London Times on April 18, 1945.

In the crematorium courtyard, U.S. soldiers confront the citizens of Weimar with the corpses found there. This was the first photo of Buchenwald to be published; it appeared in the London Times on April 18, 1945.

German civilians loot a train carrying food supplies.

German civilians loot a train carrying food supplies.

As the Allies moved deep into Germany and began to encounter ordinary Germans many men were wondering about the contrast between ‘ordinary’ Germans and the war crimes that they were uncovering. The German population would soon become subject to a programme of de-nazification as the Allies took control of the administration of the country. In the interim period there was great uneasiness about how they should deal with Germans, how many of them were still dedicated Nazis?

Henry Swann a US Army doctor describes the situation in a letter home to his wife:

Apr. 19th

Germany

Darling,

Yesterday we were on the road all day. The country-side was clothed in a filmy haze which softened the bright sun-light. This part of Germany looks like a fairy-land. Little farms, with the apple and pear blossoms framing the red-tiled roofs, set in neat patterns over the gently-rolling green hills, broken here and there by a grove of delicate birch trees, or green pine. What a setting for the tide of human misery which thronged the road-side!

Liberated workers and freed prisoners of war, mostly men, but also many women streamed past us as we rode, like a movie reel. Russians, Poles, Italians, French, Dutch, and Belgians, dressed in scraps of uniforms, patched work-clothes, rags and tatters; carrying little or big bundles, or pushing little wheel-carts; tired and hungry; apathetic, sprawled out under the tress in little groups; trying to get back and away from the front. Many of them seemed dazed, almost uncomprehending. Others, who, no doubt, have not been imprisoned and beaten long enough to have their spirit broken, laughed and waved us on. Here was freedom at last; now remained only the long and perhaps devious way home. But most of them were thin, and old, and weary. They were as people in pain and yet asleep. What a parade of thwarted lives, of physical and spiritual agony, of human bitterness! A trickling column, two hundred miles long.

And past them in big lorries rolled the convoys of German prisoners, going back to their cages to loaf away the remainder of the war, safe and well fed. The prisoners ride, the liberated allies walk. There are good reasons, of course, but war is strange, isn’t it?

In the little farming towns where the war swept by and left them unscathed, the German people go about their business; fat, rosy-cheeked kids play and wave at us, though we wave not at them; women wash and shop, and chat, and watch the kind-hearted, soft Americans go by with scant concern; and saucy girls smile and wiggle just a little at the G.I.’s — girls who last night warmed the bed of an S.S. trooper. (Non-fraternization is more than a policy: – it is a military safeguard. Not a few G.I.’s have followed these Lorelei into their houses, and have met death and oblivion in the dark.) These apparently happy and unconcerned people view the straggling refugees with little interest and no compassion. It is, perhaps, of no importance, for are they not just slaves?

And from these little towns came the men who are paratroopers and gestapo boys. And these people who smile and wave and fly their white flags by day, by night are smuggling arms, concealing escaping prisoners and sniping at any unwary soldier.

The name of the town where now I am located I cannot tell you, of course. [He is referring to Gardelegen – where he was a witness to the aftermath of the massacre] But it will soon burn in the hearts of men along with Lidice and Lublin. The Germans perpetrated here a human massacre so brutal as to defy belief; the evidence is complete and irrefutable; and it chills the heart to see it. There is no human crime of which they are not capable! Some day, you will read the story in the papers; I hope they publish it far and wide, though I admit that although I have seen terrible things in this last year, I myself could scarce have the heart to tell you of it.

And so Germany lies a beautiful, apparently innocent, whore; outside, appealing and disarming; inside, disease-ridden, deceitful, and vicious. In the success of our armies and the prospect of a termination of hostilities in the near future, we have perhaps lost sight of our enemy. But here he is still, – sly, beguiling, arrogant, ambitious, and inhumanly cruel. Let some think that this war is over. It is just beginning! And if we are weak and sentimental now, armies will march again as sure as fate. We must not be fooled by their smiles, their folk-dances, their pretty country-side. We cannot afford another era of phony peace.

We are now with an Evac. which took over a big Nazi hospital. Very comfortable and quite civilian. For the first time in over a year, I have bathroom facilities with hot and cold running water. You probably never think what a luxury it is to be able to turn a handle and have hot water run into a nice clean white basin. One takes it so for granted, until you don’t have it. In Paris and Brussels there was no coal to heat water. Most English homes never had central water heating because of fuel shortage. And in Belgium and Germany, not many pipes carried water of any kind. So we turn it on and off, and wash our hands twice, just to enjoy the luxury of it!

H

The complete collection of Henry Swann’s letters 1944- 1945 can be read at the National Library of Medicine.

A hangar full of wrecked German aircraft at Schmarbeck airfield, Germany, 20 April 1945. In the foreground are Heinkel He 111 and He 177 bombers.

A hangar full of wrecked German aircraft at Schmarbeck airfield, Germany, 20 April 1945. In the foreground are Heinkel He 111 and He 177 bombers.

A Cromwell tank of 7th Armoured Division (the Desert Rats) on the Bremen-Hamburg autobahn, 20 April 1945.

A Cromwell tank of 7th Armoured Division (the Desert Rats) on the Bremen-Hamburg autobahn, 20 April 1945.

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