Friday, 17 April 2009

Learning from the Past

Wohlsborn, Thuringia, August 28, 2001: Today, in this little village of 520 souls founded in 1249, a ritual of great historical significance was played out before several hundred of its citizens as well as local and state authorities and a four star general in charge of the US Air Force in Northern Europe from Ramstein.

Fifty-seven years ago this day, the mayor pointed out, three young airmen parachuted from their stricken B-17 navigator Lieutenant Owen H. Jorgenson, radio operator John S. Spirodex, and tail gunner Donald H. Smidley. The second lieutenant got snagged in a tree as he fell and died. The radio operator and the tail gunner were shot to death by a Gauleiter trying to confirm his Nazi credentials.

All these people assembled because of the dedication of a former U-boat steersman, a retired 75 year old construction supervisor, one Hans Stadelmann who has been investing his retirement by honoring the American soldiers who helped defeat the Nazis in his native state of Thuringia. Ironically, the day the airmen were shot down was the same July 20, 1944 when Count Klaus von Staufenberg tried to assassinate Hitler.

General Gregory S. Martin quoted General Eisenhower’s credo that those who live under freedom must be eternally grateful to the young men they were honoring today. They are the ultimate victims who made the free lives we live possible. But Mayor Peter Thomas told of the reality that surrounded the death of those aviators.

Germany was in a hopeless situation. Economically and in manpower terms she was bleeding to death, and all reserves were used up. Women, children and men over the age of 60 years were all that remained in order to keep industry and agriculture alive. Millions of so-called foreign workers from enemy territory were forced to work under inhuman conditions. On all fronts enemies were approaching the German border. Day and night American and British Bomber Wings attacked German rear areas.

The people, who were frequently unable to protect themselves, were frightened. They were frightened about every day. They were frightened about news of the death of a father, a brother, or a son. They were frightened that public order would disintegrate and the foreign workers would take revenge on the population for the horrors they had suffered.

The Nazi Government and the Nazi Party reacted to this situation, both within Germany and against Germany’s enemies with increased terror tactics. Allied air crews were especially targeted to feel the People's Anger, as Goebbels called it. This encouragement to lynch so-called Air Pirates was not normally taken up by the civil population. When allied air crews were murdered, it was normally due to the actions of staunch Nazis.

In the incident at Wohlsborn, several eyewitnesses (their testimony collected by Hans Stadelmann) reported that the District Leader, a certain Hoffmann, shot the prisoners and they were buried without ceremony in Weimar. This ritual was an act of expiation for those American soldiers. Pastor Therese Rinecker gave a moving prayer about how she wished she could say we now lived in an era of peace, but there is Macedonia, among many other conflicts.

Christine Lieberknecht, president of the state legislature, thanked these young men for helping save us from the horrors of the concentration camps. For Thuringians the surcease from sorrow began with the liberation by American soldiers in April 1945 and ended six weeks later when the Russians assumed sovereignty. Then there were forty years of propaganda painting America as the Great Monster. Now only after the Fall of the Wall were we able to fully appreciate what those American soldiers did for us.

It was a fitting occasion, with a handsome travertine (the sacred stone of Thuringia) slab with the three aviators names carved on the broad face of the monument. At the gate, there was 71 year old Rolf Lange, retired machine engineer, with a hand made sign. How about the 1945 bombing victims in Weimar. Who will remember them? Why spit on their memory. Yes, Germany is a free country. And even at a solemn ceremony, the opposition was able to be heard.

How much different from Japanese prime minister visiting the war shrine. Allowing mendacious history books to prevail. Pretending, still, that Japan was really the victim in World War II. Just yesterday, a San Francisco supervisor was approached by the Japanese Consul to try to play down all the local Chinese clamor about the Rape of Nanking. Never happened. Didn’t do that. Alas, the Germans, and Mr. Stadelmann, veteran of three years as a steersman in a U-Boat, is pointing the way.

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