Don't Fraternize! Post-war American-German relations began 60 years ago. By Martin Herzog
Sixty years ago, American troops fought their way into Aachen. It was the first major German city to surrender to the U.S. Army. The Atlantic Times revisits the torturous beginnings of U.S.-German post-war relations.
Somebody shouted in German, "Anybody in there?" Then there was banging on the front door. "Go and open it," his uncle told him. "They will do you no harm, you are Dutch."
Slowly, Heinz climbed up from the basement where he had stayed the night with a handful of residents who had not fled from the oncoming American army. "Die Amis sind da!" The Yanks are coming! Word spread quickly through Venwegen, one of the many small German villages near the Belgian border. Most of its 450 residents had hastily packed their belongings, loaded them onto ox carts and headed eastward. Some 80 residents had decided to stay. But how would they be treated? German propaganda had portrayed Americans as monstrous killers.
Those who stayed did not really believe the stories, but then again, who knew? So they hid and waited, frightened and hoping. Again, they banged at the door. Heinz opened and saw a soldier, unarmed, but framed by two GIs on each side, their rifles lowered at the moment. "Hands up!" one of them shouted. The man in the middle, speaking German with an Austrian accent, translated: "You better put your hands up, boy, or you might catch a bullet." Heinz lifted his arms, clutching his Dutch passport as if it were a life-line.
"At that moment I only hoped that none of these guys would get nervous," says 79-year-old Heinz Vandeberg, 60 years after his first encounter with Americans. "They searched the house for German soldiers. I told them that they had all left several days ago. The GIs made it pretty clear that I wouldn't live long if I lied to them." This was September 14, 1944, two days after the American Forces first set foot on German soil. After the intense fighting on the coast of Normandy, the German Army was retreating quickly with the Allied troops at their heels. But once they entered the home territory of Nazi Germany, they advanced with utmost precaution. After so many years of bloodshed, no one knew what would happen on first contact with civilians. In France and Belgium, the allies had come as liberators. But here?
What the GIs had heard about the enemy was most disconcerting: The infamous Werewolves, organized terror and sabotage guerrilla units, were supposed to be hiding behind every tree and in every ditch, operating with the support of Germany's civilian population. As it turned out, for the most part the Americans had fallen victim to Joseph Goebbel's propaganda machinery, which had originally been intended to strengthen the German will to resist. "They asked us about Werewolf groups over and over again, but there weren't any. We were just happy it was all over," says Franz Vandeberg. "Soon the troops realized that there were no enemy soldiers hiding in the village. When they saw the children coming out of our basement, they relaxed and did not hesitate to pull out their rations of chocolate. We adults got cigarettes - not only one or two, but whole boxes! On the first day, we simply shook hands with them on every opportunity. They were so relieved!"
But those were civilians - the German army was still fighting. Aachen would be the first major city in Germany to fall to the American Army, but it didn't happen overnight. The ancient city, founded by the Romans, was surrounded. American troops were closing in from three sides. Innumerable bombing attacks since 1941 had left some 70 percent of the buildings damaged or destroyed. Most of the population had abandoned their homes, but powerful German units and about 12,000 infantry, including the Führer's personal bodyguard, defended the ruins of the city. In the lulls between the American bombardment, aircraft dropped pamphlets calling upon the fighting units to surrender: "Your city is surrounded... Before we launch the final offensive, be warned. There is only one choice for you and your city: Complete destruction or surrender with honor."
For six long weeks, there was no answer to this call. "What are they still fighting for? They must know that they have lost the war," the Austrian-American soldier asked Heinz in those weeks. Heinz shrugged. "They have sworn an oath to Hitler," Heinz' uncle replied instead. "They will fight until the Führer tells them to stop." But the Führer did not. Hitler demanded that his officers "defend Aachen to the last man standing." So, house by house and street by street, the 1st Army worked its way through the devastated city. In the course of those battles they lost more than 2,000 men, until finally the last German commander in the city accepted that he was utterly outgunned, and signed a document of surrender on October 21, 1944.
When the fighting in Aachen ended, the artillery outside Venwegen turned their sights on Hürtgen Forest, no more than five miles east. Every morning they battered at this broad patch of dense fir trees. They were preparing the ground for the infantry by demolishing the line of German units, which had mined the whole area and were now waiting in sturdy pillboxes for the oncoming wave of troops. The idea, says Paul Andreas, who served in the 28th Infantry Division, "was to surprise the Germans by going through the woods instead of advancing toward the city of Cologne across open country." He calls it "a strategy invented by lunatics."
The main attack was launched on November 2, 1944. It began with a one-hour artillery barrage of 12,000 rounds, or 3.3 detonations per second. Paul Andreas remembers: "What was to happen during the next six hours is beyond the most gruesome description. Those of us who survived did so only by some miracle... That marvelous, beautiful forest had become a haystack with giant logs lying on each other in all directions. The artillery was supposed to soften up the enemy for us, but instead it made everything miserable. The Germans had built bunkers in the woods and covered them with logs and dirt. The shells had done little damage to them. We had to crawl and jump over fallen evergreens... And we had to face the Germans, who were firing at us." The 28th Division counted 6,000 casualties in this battle alone.
The little village of Vossenack lay at the center of the fighting and switched sides more than 30 times. Fighting in the bell tower of the village church took place with spades and fists. For the next three months, this area southeast of Aachen became the slaughterhouse of World War II. War correspondent Ernest Hemingway called it a "Passchendaele with tree bursts," referring to the horrific Battle of Ypres in Belgium during World War I. An estimated 12,000 German and 50,000 American soldiers - out of 120,000 - died in "Hürtgen Hell" due to fierce German resistance, dark forest terrain, disastrous weather conditions, and, above all, catastrophic military misjudgment of the situation. When the Military Government (MG) took over administrative power in occupied areas and official relations between deployed forces and the civil population began, it was under the shadow of these terrible losses and fanatical resistance by some German troops.
MG set up rules for the civil population as well as for the troops, but often lacked the power to enforce them. Paul Bernard Henze served as a Member of the Static Detachment for the area of Monschau, ten miles southwest of the Hürtgen Forest. "In spite of these rules, a large part of the troops somehow got the idea that in Germany, the army could take possession of anything it pleased with no formalities whatsoever. We were continually tracking down furniture, cars, radios and stoves that had been carted off by soldiers... A considerable amount of looting by American troops was reported, and there was already a good deal of cow-shooting. Military government was usually powerless to track down and apprehend the offending troops."
Apart from settling issues with their own soldiers, Paul Henze and his colleagues faced yet another delicate challenge: They had to cooperate with experienced German civil servants, most of whom had been serving the Nazi state. A diary entry by Paul Henze reads, "They always try so hard to assure you they never had any real Nazi sympathies. They probably really didn't, but they aren't quite sure themselves." American politicians were not sure how to best administer post-war Germany. Henry Morgenthau, secretary of the treasury, suggested stripping the country of its industry and converting it into an agricultural nation. That made sense to a lot of people afraid that Nazism could not be wiped out and an industrialized Germany would always be a threat. But it was not practical. Soon it became clear that a country the size of Germany and situated in the middle of Europe could not remain in a "goat-pasture state," and Morgenthau's plans were abolished.
But if the Germans were to be allowed back into the ranks of the Western World, Nazism would have to be driven out of them. Paul Henze writes, "Morgenthau's influence was felt in many military government directives. From then on, denazification was to be ruthlessly strict."
It was the official policy to make clear that the Americans were not coming as liberators, but as an occupying army: "It should be brought home to the Germans that Germany's ruthless warfare and fanatical Nazi resistance has destroyed (their country)... and that the Germans cannot escape responsibility for what they have brought upon themselves."
Troops received the strict order not to mingle with Germans. The official Policy on Relations between Allied Occupying Troops and Inhabitants of Germany, Paul Henze recalls, "...forbade all types of contact between German civilians and Allied soldiers, except for necessary official business."
Signs were put up around US Army camps that read "Don't fraternize!" A typical radio spot on the Allied Forces Network said, "If in a German town you bow to a pretty girl or pat a blond child... you bow to Hitler and his reign of blood... you caress the ideology that means death and persecution. Don't fraternize!" "By the end of September 1944, the soldiers weren't talking to us anymore, they didn't greet us anymore," Heinz Vandeberg recalls. Troops coming in from Belgium showed no signs of friendliness whatsoever. Wherever they confiscated homes, it became customary to smash the furniture and kick it out onto the street. All former German soldiers had to show up at the local army headquarters and were deported to prison camps. Several men were arrested for suspected espionage activity. Heinz Vandeberg was detained for feeding his neighbor's pigeons. He was accused of using them as couriers to send out crucial information to the German army. Two weeks later, he was released.
The early restrictiv policies could not be upheld for long. They conflicted with the needs and interests of both the Americans and the Germans, who suddenly found themselves in an uneasy coexistence. The non-fraternization ban was regularly bypassed by ordinary troops. Directives from the home front clashed with the situation behind the actual front lines. The Pocket Guide to Germany, which was handed out to the troops, illustrates the inconsistency of the policy of non-fraternization. It warns the GI intensively never to fraternize, yet contains a guide to conversational German. Especially the interaction between GIs and young German "Frolleins" was something no directive could stop. "German girls were ready, willing and good-looking - and furthermore they were the only ones available," says Paul Henze. "Nothing short of physical force could keep the Americans away from them."
Fighting in the Aachen region was over by February 1945, and the front shifted eastward to the Rhine. In another three months, the Allies would reach their ultimate goal, the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. But even beyond the end of the fighting, American troops and their commanders remained torn between occupation and fraternization, between mistrust towards an aggressive nation and the desire to cooperate with its people.
Radio journalist Martin Herzog, a native of the Rhine region, specializes in historical writing and works for such radio stations as WDR, Germany's largest public radio broadcaster.