Two German soldiers come to grips with their past
FÜNFHAUSEN, GERMANY — When World War II veterans Friedrich Paarmann and Wolfgang Gribkowski tried to find funding to erect a simple memorial for comrades they lost in a fierce battle east of Berlin more than 60 years ago they were rejected at every turn.
"They thought we wanted to romanticize the war," says Mr. Paarmann. "We just wanted to remember our friends."
Few could blame Messrs Paarmann and Gribkowski for wanting to commemorate the 1945 battle at Seelow Heights that killed more than 47,000 soldiers on all sides. But the two were Wehrmacht soldiers, charged with the virtually suicidal mission of holding the coming Belorussian front before it descended on Nazi Berlin. Fighting for Adolf Hitler not only left battle scars but forever changed the way they were allowed to publicly recall those battles.
"The American or British [soldier] was always able to talk about his deeds without finding himself in a moral dilemma," says Hilke Lorenz, author of the book "Continue to Live as if Nothing Happened?" "You had parades. We have secret meetings."
After World War II, Germany made lamenting and scrutinizing the damage that fascism dealt Europe and the rest of the world a national project. The 60th anniversary of the end of war Sunday has been preceded by hundreds of documentaries and newspaper articles covering Nazi atrocities.
In 1945, Paarmann was part of a group of 1,500 soldiers charged with breaking the Soviet line. More than 800 were cut down, or injured, or went missing. After getting hit in the head and neck with shrapnel, he spent a day playing dead among corpses before crawling away at night.
Gribkowski, too, was injured at Seelow Heights. A sense of duty had led him to enlist. Like Paarmann, he spent the following decades struggling with his war experience. But unlike Paarmann and the majority of returning soldiers, he talked with others about it.
A Jewish professor of his in Hamburg, a concentration camp escapee, helped Gribkowski come to grips with his decision to fight for the Wehrmacht. After he became a psychology teacher in Germany's postwar army, he passed the professor's lessons of tolerance on to the next generations of German soldiers. "It would be good if people in the future dealt with history more objectively - that they don't see everything in black and white," says Gribkowski.
In 1999, he joined a group of survivors from Paarmann's regiment. They now meet every four weeks to reminisce over dinner, and talk of educating future generations.
In 2003, they were finally able to build their own memorial, with the help of private funds. "Not forgotten" reads the beginning of the inscription, in bronze letters on black African granite. At the bottom, so that their intention isn't misinterpreted, are the words "Pray for peace."