Has Satan taken on a human form?

By Benjamin Z. Kedar

August 6, 2004

Anyone who has seen Roman Polanski's film "The Pianist" remembers the scene in which a German officer listens to Polish-Jewish musician Wladislaw Szpilman playing, hides him in an attic in Warsaw and sees to his needs.

Anyone who has read Szpilman's book remembers that when the musician asks his savior whether he is a German, the latter replies emotionally: "Yes! And I am ashamed of this, after everything that has happened." Szpilman, who was afraid that if he fell into the hands of the Germans he would break down and reveal his rescuer, preferred not to know his name.

Thus it happened that only in the epilogue that Wolf Biermann added in 1998 to the new edition of Szpilman's memoirs, was it revealed for the first time that the German officer was called Wilm Hosenfeld, and some details about his life story were given. In an appendix to this edition some extracts from his diary for the years 1942-1944 were given, in which he condemned the horrors that he witnessed.

Biermann did not content himself with an epilogue. At around the time of its publication, Biermann called upon the German defense minister at the time, Volker Ruehe, to rescue Hosenfeld from oblivion and present him as a role model for the soldiers of the German army. Ruehe indeed ordered the German institute for military history to research the man's biography. The results of the institute's work were published recently in a large volume edited by Thomas Vogel.

It turns out that Hosenfeld left behind very extensive documentation: letters, diaries, professional impressions, chapters of memoirs and pictures. His five children carefully preserved all of these, though quite surprisingly they never saw to their publication. Vogel decided to put at the center of the book the documentation from the days of World War II (even so, with some excisions), and with respect to the earlier periods he confined himself to selected passages. Nevertheless the book makes it possible to follow the fascinating character of Hosenfeld, who is indeed deserving of a biography that is based on all his writings. Presumably in our era, when micro-history of "common people" has become a desired direction of research and "the other" has become a central character, such a biography will indeed be written. Likewise, historians like Ian Kershaw and Dov Kulka, who for years have been researching public opinion in Nazi Germany through secret reports of government agents, will see Hosenfeld's writings as a treasure trove.

Wilm Hosenfeld was born in 1895, the son of the principal of a village school. He studied at a Catholic teachers' seminary in Fulda near the village where he was born, served in the army in World War I and, during the period between the wars, worked as a teacher in a village, also near Fulda. The memoirs he wrote in 1917 while he was recovering from a serious injury testify to his integrity and his talent for narrative. He writes about the deathly fear that paralyzed him under a Russian bombardment, about the sense of release upon launching into the attack, about troubled dreams while sleeping in a trench, about his failed attempt to stop his men from fleeing and about how he crawled backward after he was wounded. His notes from his first days as a teacher indicate a considerable measure of nonconformity. He rejects the accepted method whereby, as he says, the teacher is a tyrant and the children are disciplined subjects, and he tries to make learning an experience that builds character.

Quickly dispelled hope

After Hitler's rise to power, Hosenfeld moved toward national socialism: In 1933 he joined the Sturm Abteilung (SA), Hitler's brownshirts, and the Nazi teachers' organization, and in 1935 he joined the Nazi Party itself. He admired Hitler's speeches, was thrilled by the annexation of Austria in 1938 and justified the occupation of Czechoslovakia a year later. However, he took a critical stance with regard to subjects that were dear to his heart. As an educator, he was opposed to changing Saturday from a regular school day to a day for the Nazi youth movement, and to accepting the principle that "youth should lead youth." As a Catholic, he came out at a teachers' conference against Alfred Rosenberg's book "The Myth of the 20th Century," and therefore his supervisor determined that he was "not 100 percent national socialist" and banned him from advanced studies.

In May, 1937, Hosenfeld wrote in his diary that in its fight against the Catholic education system, "the party puts into operation lies, distortions and vilifications and when this does not suffice - terror as well." He was angry because at a teachers' conference, not a single Catholic teacher stuck up for his opinion, and noted, "Nor did I. The cowards left me to my own devices, and why should I defend a lost cause?"

On November 12, 1938, three days after Kristallnacht, he wrote for the first time about Nazi deeds that did not concern him personally: "Anti-Jewish pogroms in all of Germany. A terrible situation in the whole country, with no law and order, and at the same time, outwardly, hypocrisy and lies."

A few days before the outbreak of World War II, Hosenfeld, at the age of 44, was conscripted into a home front unit that a short time later was given the task of establishing, in Poland, a prisoners' camp and guarding its thousands of inmates. A sergeant who was put in charge of one part of the camp, Hosenfeld wrote about the prisoners with admiration, evinced empathy for their suffering, was impressed by their Catholic piety and expected a German-Polish reconciliation. In a letter to his son from September 30, 1939, he revealed how he saw the situation at that time: He justified the war against Poland, heaped praises on Hitler and hoped that just as he had determinedly enlisted Germany for the war, he would also enlist it for the peace that would last for 50 years.

But this hope was quickly dispelled: On November 10, Hosenfeld wrote to his wife that he had been shocked by Hitler's speech, as it became clear that what he intended was war. He also expressed the concern that the authorities were plotting to exterminate the Polish intelligentsia, and added: "How glad I was to be a soldier, but now I would like to tear my gray uniform to shreds. Must we serve as a shield behind which these crimes against humanity are taking place? The Wehrmacht is not to blame and it does not agree with all this, but we stand impotent on the sidelines and have to see all this." The distinction between the war criminals and the soldiers is a recurring motif in his writings, and he also repeated it when he was interrogated in Russian captivity.

When the war was going well for Germany in the spring of 1940, Hosenfeld rejoiced. In a letter to his wife from May 24, 1940, he called Hitler a genius; a month later he wrote that the war would be won by brutal force. He also hoped to be transfered to the front. He did, however, receive officer rank and in 1940 was posted to Warsaw, where he set up a sports program for soldiers serving in the city and its environs. His notes teach a great deal about the routine of the life of the Wehrmacht soldiers in the occupied capital of Poland and outside it, about the rumors that were rife among them and the jokes.

Shocked by the horrors

Hosenfeld witnessed acts of harassment of Jews and Poles and heard about the Germans' mass slaughter of Jews. These things enraged him. He condemned them not only in his diary, but also in his letters; it turns out that he was not afraid of the military censors. Moreover, he expressed his opinions in conversations with his colleagues: "an argument [took place] at lunch about the executions of Jews and prisoners," he wrote in his diary on September 12, 1941. He was, however, aware of the risk in this: On another occasion he summed up in his diary an argument about the extermination of the Jews that he and his commander had with an officer in Minsk, and added that immediately afterward, he felt that he had revealed too much and that he could be accused of subversion.

But his statements in condemnation of the acts of murder, as well as his repeated participation in masses at Polish churches and the ties of friendship that he developed with Poles, did not stir any reaction from the authorities. It turns out that a German officer was able to evince a considerable measure of nonconformity without being punished. It is worth noting that Hosenfeld mentions others who were also shocked by the acts of horror.

The letters and the diary testify to the analytical powers of the village teacher Hosenfeld. Thus, for example, he wrote in his entry of July 23, 1942 that he cannot adopt the prevailing opinion that Germany is close to victory, because tyranny is always short-lived and sooner or later the German methods of oppression will arouse a counter-response. "The urge to liberty is imprinted in every individual and in every nation, and it is impossible to repress it over time." Indeed, the information at his disposal relates only to Poland, and this only in a fragmentary way, but he assumes that what is happening in other countries is not essentially different.

The entries also make it possible to follow the movements back and forth in Hosenfeld's thinking. On that same July 23, 1942, he wrote in his dairy that reliable people had told him about the extermination of the Lublin ghetto and the murder of most of its inhabitants, and about the poisoning of Jewish men, women and children from Lodz and Kutno in motorized gas vans. And he added: "But it is impossible to believe all these things and I hesitate to believe them, and not only out of worry for the future of the German people that one day will have to atone for these monstrous deeds, but also because I do not want to believe that Hitler wants such a thing, that there are Germans who give such orders. There is only one explanation: They are sick, abnormal or insane."

It is possible that his inability to believe was related here with a certain degree of rhetoric, because on that very same day Hosenfeld wrote to his wife about the genocide of the Jewish people, its men, women and children, as an unprecedented fact in history. "Has Satan indeed taken on human form? I have no doubt that this is so." He is so ashamed that he wants to sink into the ground. But here, too, he makes a distinction between the criminals and the soldiers, and asks bitterly whether soldiers are dying at the front in order to allow the carrying out of the acts of slaughter behind the front line.

`Partners to the guilt'

Hosenfeld himself, of course, was one of the soldiers. The very next day, on July 24, he joyfully informed his wife and his children that he had been promoted to the rank of Hauptmann (captain), and on the following day he wrote in his diary that if it were true, what was being bruited around town, that is - that the Jews were being taken to something like crematoria where they are burned alive - then it was not an honor to be a German officer and it was impossible to continue to bear the burden. "But indeed all this is insanity, it is impossible." Further on, he tried to explain to himself why the Jews were not resisting, he condemned as an act of folly the use of Ukrainian and Lithuanian police who did not know how to keep the extermination secret, and he wound up by saying that there was no doubt that the Jews were disappearing - the way they were being destroyed was a secondary question.

Four days went by and Hosenfeld went back to discussing in his diary "the unbelievable crime of the slaughter of the Jews." But this time he emphasized the pragmatic dimension in his diary. In his opinion, the crime was proof of Hitler's blood-soaked dilettantism, because of which he was ignoring international public opinion and adding sworn enemies to his existing enemies. Only six days earlier Hosenfeld did not want to believe that Hitler had ordered the murder of Jews, and now he was presenting the murder as exemplifying his failed way of ruling.

An entry from August 13 describes acts of horror in the Warsaw Ghetto, about which he has heard from a Polish merchant who went there to do business and was shocked by what he saw and heard. Hosenfeld adds: "It is impossible to believe all these things, even though they are true. Yesterday I saw two of these beasts in the tram. They were holding whips in their hands when they came out of the ghetto. I would like to throw those dogs under the tram. What cowards we are, wanting to be better and allowing all this to happen. For this, we too will be punished, and our innocent children after us, because in allowing these evil deeds to occur, we are partners to the guilt."

Statements like these, and even sharper ones, are repeated again and again. For example, in Hosenfeld's description of the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, he sums up: "Because of this horrifying mass murder of the Jews, we have lost the war. We have brought upon ourselves disgrace for which there is no atonement, a curse for which there is no reprieve. We are not worthy of mercy, because we are all partners to the guilt." Hosenfeld's Catholic faith is very much in evidence here.

Against this background, it is easy to understand that Hosenfeld tried to aid persecuted Poles and Jews, and also to help a communist German soldier, who had been in the concentration camps. He employed some of them in the sports stadium that was under his command. In his interrogation in Russian captivity, he later gave the names of four Jews he had saved - among them "Wladislaw Szpilman, a pianist in the Polish Radio orchestra."

In August 1944, the Polish revolt broke out in Warsaw, and Hosenfeld, who was now the deputy intelligence officer at the local Wehrmacht headquarters and interrogated rebels who had been taken prisoner, tried in vain to obtain for them the status of prisoners of war. In a letter to his wife from August 23, he expressed his admiration for the rebels' "fierce patriotism," but also his regret about "the stupid manner" in which some of them had found their way to the underground, and wrote that "we cannot sparethem." However, he did try to save some of those who were interrogated, and according to his testimony in Russian captivity, he personally sent 20 to 30 who were suspected of aiding the underground to detention camp. As he wrote to his wife on August 23, "I am trying to save anyone who can be saved." The first part of the sentence was chosen by Vogel, the editor, to serve as the title of the book.

In the middle of January 1945, Hosenfeld was taken prisoner by the Russians. In his interrogation he described his activities in detail and accused a list of German officers of war crimes. Vogel obtained the transcripts of the interrogations and they appear in the book. In his letters to his family, which are full of quotations from the Scriptures, Hosenfeld mentioned the names of the people he had saved. Some of them, including Szpilman, indeed tried to intervene on his behalf, but to no avail. In 1947 Hosenfeld suffered his first stroke and thereafter spent long periods in the infirmaries of the prison camps. He continued to hope that he would be released, but in 1950 a military court in Minsk sentenced him to 25 years' imprisonment because of his activity guarding Polish prisoners of war in 1939, and because of his participation in suppressing the Polish revolt in 1944 in Warsaw.

It is quite possible that the integrity that distinguished him in his interrogation worked against him. In any case, Hosenfeld was transferred to a sentenced prisoners' camp in Stalingrad. His health deteriorated and he died in August of 1952.

"Wilm Hosenfeld - A German Life Story" is what the editor, Vogel, called the extensive essay that precedes the letters and the diary extracts. This is a title that could be deceptive. Indeed there is a danger that the nonconformist Hosenfeld, who was sentenced by a Soviet court as a war criminal, will be taken up by the German armed forces and presented as a quite typical example of the officer class. Most unfortunately, this was not the case.

"Wilm Hosenfeld, Ich versuche jeden zu retten: Das Leben eines Deutschen Offiziers in Briefen and Tagebuchern," edited by Thomas Vogel, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1,994 pages, Munich, 2004 29.90 euros.