Has Satan taken on a human
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.