Jailed by American occupying forces, nationalist writer Ernst von Salomon encounters some “old Nazis”
Last month I started a new ARPLAN series, The Monthly Fragebogen, in which I post extracts from nationalist writer Ernst von Salomon’s post-War autobiographical best-seller Der Fragebogen. In this month’s excerpt from the novel we encounter von Salomon in prison, shortly after being arrested by US military forces in June 1945 for the crime of being a “security threat” and a “militarist.” von Salomon had never joined the NSDAP and had associated with members of the Resistance, like Hartmut Plaas and Harro Schulze-Boysen, yet this was not enough to avoid his arrest and placement first in the Kitzbühel prison, then in a series of concentration camps. This excerpt is the beginning of the long ending section of von Salomon’s memoir which describes his experiences of internment in these American-run prison camps, where he and hundreds of other German officials, soldiers, and National Socialists lived in abominable conditions. von Salomon’s description of the treatment he and others were meted out (which grows considerably worse following on from the section below) was intended to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the forces of Democracy and Liberalism, that they were neither against brutal interrogation techniques, nor against using internment to help locals settle personal scores.
The cell was quite large for one person and quite small for two. On either side stood wire beds on which were laid very repulsive, lumpy and incredibly filthy sacks of straw. But at least there was no latrine-bucket. My cellmate was a native of Kitzbühel, a tailor by trade, and he immediately offered to turn the worn collar of my summer coat when I was ‘outside.’ He had to serve a ten days’ stretch for having broken the curfew. He had been drunk at the time. Herr Bacherl [the prison warder] was a friend of his. Herr Bacherl had been a prison official even before the First World War. On the door hung a notice so faded as to be almost illegible, but the Imperial and Royal seal was still visible. Herr Bacherl seemed to be a persevering and at the same time adaptable character.
From downstairs horrible noises were again audible, coming from the interrogation room. My tailor knew all about it.
“It’s the other fellow now,” he said.
Apparently it was two parachute soldiers who were being ‘interrogated’ by the Polish-American officer. They had been arrested on a charge of using the syringes with which SS men could remove the ‘blood group’ tattoo-mark. It was the first time I heard about such things. The two parachute soldiers, who had been left here in Kitzbühel, were sent for alternately and beaten to a jelly.
Midday dinner was excellently cooked but there was very little of it. I requested Herr Bacherl that he convey my congratulations to his wife and my thanks for her excellent cooking. Should she need anyone to help her peel the potatoes, the young lady who had arrived with me had considerable experience of such work. Herr Bacherl seemed impressed and thoughtful.
I was very worried about Ille. I was shocked at how wrong her reactions had been. The first night in the Kitzbühel lock-up I slept extremely badly, and solely on account of Ille. The whole afternoon I had spent walking anxiously up and down, waiting to be interrogated, though I kept telling myself that this was most unlikely. The gentlemen were certainly in no hurry: such gentlemen never are.
My tailor was not particularly communicative. He had already been inside for a couple of days and hoped to be ‘remitted’ after five more. He said, secretively:
“Here in Austria you can fix anything.”
Herr Bacherl had an assistant, Walter by name, and he was an honest-to-God ‘resistance fighter.’ At first I imagined that he had been given his present job in order that he might keep an eye on that ‘forced Nazi’ Bacherl – but it later transpired that Bacherl was his father-in-law. I had frequently attempted to explain to Ille that most trouble inside prisons resulted from the way unaccustomed prisoners allowed the warders to treat them. This was the reason why criminals were usually quite happy in gaol, while intellectuals later wrote books about how they had been insulted. It was a great relief to me to find that Ille, after recovering from her initial shock, had regained her self-control. Even on the second day she had reached such a point with little Walter that she persuaded him to fetch me to her door. Through the old-fashioned key-hole I could see her seated on her bed, her arms clutched about her knees. She came to the door as soon as she heard my voice. Herr Bacherl had already proposed to her that she help his wife with the potatoes, and Ille had immediately agreed. Now, however, she was already angling for another job, one that would give her an opportunity of coming in contact with the Americans. She whispered that I need not be anxious on her account. Apart from this, Walter would serve as a link between us. Ille was all right.
My tailor was indeed ‘remitted,’ but I was not alone for long in my cell. Suddenly a wave of arrests was upon us. Every half-hour or so the door would open and Herr Bacherl would bring in a somewhat bewildered contemporary. We had to get rid of our beds and lay straw sacks on the floor. That evening we were nine: a colonel of armoured troops, a lieutenant from Wehrmacht supreme headquarters, a Slovak ministerial councillor, a Kitzbühel governmental councillor, a police captain, two unspecified men who conversed in some east European tongue, and a man who announced that he was a doctor-in-chief. The military men knew at once how to settle down. The civilians, and particularly the foreigners, stood leaning dejectedly against the wall, and at night had finally to be urged to lie down on the floor with the others. ‘Like spoons in a silver-chest’ as the Colonel put it. No one knew why he had been arrested: the foreigners understood nothing, having, as they said, ‘placed themselves under the protection of the Americans’: the officers approved neither of the place nor of the system, maintaining that as prisoners-of-war they were entitled to be treated according to the terms of the Geneva Convention – a statement which produced, on the part of the police captain, a short but impressive laugh: the Slovak gentleman attempted at once to bribe Herr Bacherl, and indeed he was the first to be taken for interrogation, nor did he ever reappear. Herr Bacherl told us not to worry; he said nobody had ever been kept long in this prison.
The W.C. was half-way down the stairs. For reasons of simplicity Walter took us there in a body. Ille was engaged in cleaning the modest installation. This was her job, and she told me that only thus could she come into contact with Americans entering or leaving the prison. She had already given two of them a brief résumé of her ‘case,’ and both had promised to do something for her. They were, said Ille, from the CIC, but neither she nor I had the slightest idea what sort of a thing this was. Walter wanted to lock Ille into her cell again, but she stuck her foot in the door and asked me quickly what she should say when she was interrogated. I replied:
“The truth, of course, it’s the only way we can be sure not to contradict each other’s statements.”
This was Saturday, however, and there was no prospect of being interrogated before Monday. But Monday too passed and nothing happened.
The inmates of my cell were changed and I alone remained. The military men believed that after interrogation they would be sent at once to a prisoner-of-war camp; the foreigners were quite certain they would be set free, though when Herr Bacherl came to fetch them he informed them that they were simply to be transported ‘elsewhere’; the German civilians who had been interrogated were always returned to another cell.
For a few hours I was alone, and I enjoyed my solitude. Taken all in all we had been a most communicative lot, and bit by bit we had each told more or less his whole life story (including of course myself). It had not been very interesting. They were all educated men – the doctor-in-chief we took to be a professional confidence trickster – and like myself they all simply accepted the collapse in the same dumbfounded way that they had accepted the phenomenon of National-Socialism. They were all heartily glad the war was over and they were all horrified that we had lost it despite everything. When the soldiers spoke of the war they gave the impression that it had all been great fun, except in Russia. And the civilians seemed to think that National-Socialism had contained a great deal that was good, apart from its essential nature. All, including myself, regarded what had happened to the Jews and in the concentration camps as very filthy; all, including myself, swore that though we had our suspicions we had not known, and that there was nothing we could have done about it. (Only the ‘doctor-in-chief’ hinted that he had actually seen the inside of a concentration camp, but this we felt to be a confidence trick.) None of them had the slightest idea what would happen now, and nor had I. Each of them had a thousand explanations for what had happened, as had I, but none of us produced one reason that was sufficiently enlightening, neither they nor myself. It was not very interesting.
Now I was alone, and I paced up and down my cell thinking of Ille, who was sitting twenty feet away, her arms about her knees. Herr Bacherl flung open the door and pushed two men into the cell. Did I say men? They were a couple of giants, great strapping fellows, mountains of bulging flesh and pulsing blood, in a word two Tyrolean peasants. They wore hob-nailed boots and green stockings and short, leather trousers with broad, embroidered belts and green jackets. One giant had a great aquiline nose and was in general the archetype of pure Nordic German. Spitting, he strode across to the window and seizing the bars rattled them, breathing heavily. The other giant, who ran to breadth rather than height, with swelling biceps that threatened to split the sleeves of his jacket, lowered himself on to a bed, and glancing about him said shyly:
“The shame of it! Oh, the shame, the shame!”
The tall one turned about. Suddenly he buried his face in his hands. I thought that now he would begin to cry. But when he let fall his hands I saw that he had forced back his tears like a man. Then he sat down on the bed beside the broad one. They gave each other a meaningful nod, then they glanced at me and gave me a meaningful nod, then the tall one nodded again and said:
“The shame of it!”
There they sat, the two giants, their work-worn hands hanging between their knees, their shoulders slumped, lines of misery about nose and mouth. They both wore a little moustache, a Hitler-moustache.
The door opened and a man walked in – ‘Ah ha!’ thought I, ‘the third of the trio.’ He looked exactly like the other two, except that he had no moustache and that in his hand he carried a key, the key to the cell. Behind him stood a respectful Herr Bacherl.
The newcomer favoured me with only a rapid glance and then looked at the other two, who had risen expectantly and now approached him, their shoulders slumped. The man gave them both a meaningful nod, and said in the same, rough, hoarse, Tyrolean voice:
“It’s you! You’re the ones! You!”
The tall one, bending forward and staring curiously, asked:
The man said:
“Are you the mayor?”
“Yes, that’s me.”
The man said:
“I know nothing about you. But that one – that’s the baker!”
The broad one leaned forward, still staring intently, while the tall one gripped his heart and sighed deeply. The broad one said:
“You,” said the man. “Everyone knows about you. You lout! You’ll get a bashing! A proper bashing! And you deserve it!”
The man raised the key in a menacing gesture and cried:
“You insulted God Almighty!”
The broad one shrank into himself, his head buried between his shoulders, and protested:
“It’s not true! It’s not…! That’s not what happened… it wasn’t me… it was somebody else…!”
The man nodded, a thoughtful nod, pregnant with meaning:
“You’ll get a bashing, the pair of you. A bashing! Don’t you know who I am?”
“H’m…!” said the other two.
The man nodded:
“I’m the inspector. In ‘thirty-eight you fired me. You fired me! Nazi louts! But now, now I’m back…! A bashing is what you’ll get, a bashing!”
He nodded and was gone.
The tall one sank on to his bed with a heavy sigh. He buried his face in his hands and groaned:
“It’s the end! It’s the end!”
The broad one stared at me and then began to talk to me in his rough, harsh, Tyrolean accent. I understood enough of what he said to grasp that he was the baker and had been the district group leader of the town where the tall one had been mayor. One day when he was drunk, quite unusually drunk, something must have happened, something he could no longer quite recall. Anyhow he had ‘removed’ God Almighty – in the form of a Crucifix – from the parish hall, had smashed it, and thrown the pieces on the fire, in brief, well, that’s what must have happened…
From downstairs came the sound of blows and screams. I had already grown used to this – for there were interrogations held each day save only Saturdays and Sundays. But my two Tyroleans pricked up their ears. I nodded at them and said, in a heavy, meaningful voice:
“Somebody’s getting a bashing!”
“Beaten up?” they asked breathlessly.
I nodded, and they too nodded like mandarins. Then they swallowed, the way men swallow, unusually strong and bashful men, who will forcibly hide their weakness. This amused me, but at the same time I found my amusement distressing; it was cheap, for I knew that I should never be beaten up. I felt really sorry for the two of them, they were at the end of their tether. I began to talk to them. They answered all my questions at once and eagerly in their rough, hoarse, Tyrolean accent, of which I only understood every other sentence. But this half was interesting enough, considerably more interesting than what my former ‘educated’ companions had had to say. They were both National-Socialists at the time when the Party was illegal in Austria. They had both sat in Schuschnigg’s concentration camp at Wöllersdorf in 1938 (and both knew my book Die Geächteten [The Outlaws], which had circulated ‘illegally’ in that camp). When they discovered who I was they showed such genuine delight that I felt ashamed. Yes, they were old Nazis.
“I’m an old Nazi,” said the baker, “and that’s what I’ll go on being!”
Then he gave me a meaningful look. They were proud to be Nazis, and even now they were firmly convinced that everything they had done had been right – except perhaps the business with God Almighty, but then the baker had been drunk at the time. They regarded the end of the National-Socialist régime as an unspeakable tragedy, not only for themselves but for the whole of their parish, for the Tyrol, for Austria, for Greater Germany; a misfortune so unutterable that nothing could ever put it right. They knew that the hope and meaning of their lives were now over, that this was the end, period, finished. I tried to persuade them that it was not so. (“Life goes on.” – “Change is surprisingly rapid.” – “In five years, mark my words, it will all seem quite different.”) They shook their heads and murmured about ‘the Blacks’ and muttered about ‘the Reds.’ The Blacks and the Reds, these were the crux of their ideas. Austria had two enemies who fought for possession of the country, both equally strong, equally perfidious, equally irreconcilable – their mutual struggle had poisoned Austria, had destroyed Austria. To end this had been the National-Socialists’ wish, and everything that the National-Socialists had done in Austria had been better than the struggle between Blacks and Reds. Now, they said, now it was beginning again, the fighting, the struggle which must destroy their country. And they said this not sneeringly but with a deep regret. Such was their theory, a simple theory, far too simple to argue against. For them this theory applied to the whole world – and they were right, they were damnably right! Nor did they have any doubts, nor were they smug that they knew the truth.
The door opened and a man came in, a great lump of a man who looked exactly like the other two. He also wore mountain boots and green socks and leather trousers, and he also had a little moustache. But the moustache was not quite the same; it was a bloody scar. The man’s face, a broad, fleshy face on a bull-neck, was puffed and swollen, his ears torn. He stood there and nodded heavily to the others.
“They beat you?” the two men asked together, jumping to their feet.
The man nodded, infinite bewilderment in his swollen eyes, and pointed towards the floor. He had been mayor of another town. Now he sat beside me, on my bed, and told me his story in his rough, hoarse, Tyrolean accent.
The Americans had arrested him at work, at work in the fields. They had taken him to a Polish camp, where he had had to run the gauntlet. Then the Americans had made him shave off his moustache with a penknife. Then they had brought him to the prison where a young, blond officer with a red-and-white band around his cap had beaten him about the head again – we had heard the noise. He imagined that this officer with the red-and-white band must be an Austrian émigré, but I told him that he was an American Pole.
The other two stared at him, fascinated. The baker flexed his powerful arms and cried in his rough, hoarse, Tyrolean voice that he wouldn’t let them beat him, anything else except that. He asked in his loud voice why the mayor had not defended himself – but the latter simply let his heavy, wounded head fall on to his chest, and then, in that position, shook it slowly in a gesture of denial. In this painfully impressive way he showed us there was no sense in resistance, no sense and no possibility – and the silent gesture was extraordinarily convincing.
I now said loudly:
“But God damn it, to see you people, tough as oaks, arms like hammers, chests like bronze, legs like steel – and you behave as though a few blows meant the end of the world! Don’t you ever fight at home? At a dance, or when you’re drunk or when you have a bit of an upset about a girl?”
The new arrival stared at me. Then, blowing out his chest, he said:
“Oh, that’s not it! The beating… it’s not that that hurts, not that…” Then, striking a tremendous blow on his chest which reverberated like a bronze gong, he said, “It’s what it does to your soul! Your soul!”
And the other two looked at him, and at me, and at one another, and nodded heavily.