Showing posts with label SS Panzer division. Show all posts
Showing posts with label SS Panzer division. Show all posts

10 February 2016

Ardennes 1944

David Edgerley Gates


It can't be late-breaking news that I read a lot of history, anything from the Peloponnesian War to building the Brooklyn Bridge, and I read out of curiosity, for background, and more or less to please myself. It doesn't always have a specific aim or application, but lately it's been WWII.

I'd read Antony Beevor's FALL OF BERLIN, and Max Hastings' ARMAGEDDON, about the last year of the European war, and it
was natural to pick up ARDENNES 1944, Beevor's new book about the Bulge, and then Hastings' INFERNO. I topped it off with Paul Carell's SCORCHED EARTH, which covers the German-Russian campaigns, 1943-44. You could pretty well say I was played out by this time, enough already. Fatigue sets in. You hit a wall. Your sympathies flag.

Then an odd thing happened. I began to see a storyline. Not just a theme, or a situation to hang a plot on, but the whole thing, soup to nuts. This is unusual, and I figure other people have much the same experience. Something catches your attention, maybe in your peripheral vision, and you tell yourself, Oh, that's a hook, or an interesting set-up, a landscape, or a springboard. Very rarely do you get handed the spine of a complete narrative: three full acts, ready to go. What caught my eye was what came to be known as the Malmedy massacre, a group of American POW's murdered in cold blood by an SS unit, Kampfgruppe Peiper, a spearhead of the Adolf Hitler division.

If you look at the Order of Battle in the Ardennes, and the German dispositions, although von Rundstedt was nominally in command, the main assault components weren't regular Army, the Wehrmachtbut SS armor. (There was also a black op led by commando legend Otto Skorzeny, with Germans masquerading as American GI's - more bark than bite, even if it created suspicion behind American lines.) The point here is both in France, in 1942, and on the Eastern Front, in '43 and '44, SS were shadowed by Einsatzgruppenthe death squads assigned to kill Jews and Gypsies, and Soviet political officers. This was no accident. SS officers and men later tried to establish the fiction that they were Soldaten wie andere auchor soldiers like any other, but their actions in every theater of war were criminal. 1st SS Panzer in western Ukraine, over two days in December 1943, killed two thousand Russians, and in that time, took all of three prisoners.

We notice a pattern. Yes, the Red Army killed German soldiers after they'd surrendered (so did the Americans and the British and the French, for that matter), but the Germans made it one with their policy of reprisals, the execution of civilians as well as combatants. This is different - I think in a qualitative way - from the industrialized Nazi effort to eradicate the Jews, which actually hemorrhaged men and materiel that could have gone to the war effort. It's something else, even though take no prisoners is counterproductive. Men on the losing side fight harder. Surrender isn't going to save them. There's a bitter dynamic at work here.

So where, you're asking, is the story I was talking about? I'm not ready to put out on the first date. Still, the bare bones are there without my giving it away, you take care to read between the lines, The story's about payback. And it's not morally ambiguous, either. It has a simple satisfaction, the elemental working of Fate, weighed in the scales.

The curious part, as I said, is that it just presented itself, in one piece. I even wonder if it's too obvious, too shapely, too finished, but there could be surprises in store. We'll have to see what happens in the telling. I've got a title for it, too, which is usually a good thing. We writers can be a superstitious lot.

One other thing. If you choose to base a story on actual events, you have to be careful not to play them false. There were real consequences. Real people died. Other bore witness. A war was won, or lost. History was in the balance. 'You don't spoil a good story for lack of the facts' - an expression I've used before, but in this instance, the story's not invented. Where invention comes in, is in reinhabiting something that really happened. You owe history, and the dead, that much responsibility.