Paul Ashford Harris

Travel Broadens the Mind

Perhaps you’ve seen the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, maybe the Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower? You might be tiring of the A380 to London or the Cruise Ship to Dubrovnik, the TGV to Paris or the Avis car to Stratford-on-Avon. Perhaps it’s time for a change.

In Flossenburg Concentration Camp, deep in the Bavarian countryside, it’s just before 6am on the morning of 9th April 1945. The arc lights are still shining, notwithstanding the sun has already risen on a cool spring morning. For the moment the camp is silent except for the barking of some stray dogs. The door opens into the yard and the diminutive figure of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, his feet and hands released from their manacles, is led out. He is naked, his nose broken and his body bruised by the battering he has taken during his interrogation. His feet drag across the gravel surface of the execution yard, which on this morning is situated in the courtyard of the detention barrack. He is greeted by SS guards lining his route to the gallows. They jeer derisively at this man who has been the head of the German military intelligence service, the Abwher, for the entire span of Hitler’s war and has been one of Hitler’s closest advisors, a man who has devoted his life to Germany from the moment of his entry into the 1stWW as a young naval officer in 1914 to this pleasant spring morning, a man who is opposed to everything that Nazism stands for.

Reaching the gallows he is quickly strung up by the neck. The executioner, rather than use one of his collection of regulation nooses, has used piano wire with the objective of ensuring that Canaris dies slowly, his frail body gyrating as the bench he stands on is kicked away and the wire bites into his neck and he is strangled.

Canaris, held in Cell 21, had developed a code which he shared with the prisoner in the next cell, cell 22, Captain Lunding, head of Danish Intelligence. The night before the execution Canaris tapped out a testament asking for a message to be passed to his wife Erika and his daughters. He also tapped out, “I am dying for my country. I have a clear conscience. As an officer you will understand that I did no more than my patriotic duty in trying to oppose the criminal madness of Hitler, who was leading Germany to its ruin. It was in vain as I know my country will go under, as I knew already in 1942.” Incredibly, Lunding survived to tell.

To the last Canaris had never changed his belief that everything he has done he has done in the service of Germany.

What did Canaris think in those last few moments?  On his way to the gallows his wife Erika and his daughters Eva and Brigitte would have been uppermost in his mind, but did he also derive comfort from his strong religious convictions, and from his unwavering belief that what he had done he had done as a true German patriot? Did he even perhaps think of his beloved dachshunds who had been his constant companions? Perhaps he wondered why he had been chosen for this particularly grim punishment given that members of the military, like Field Marshall Rommel, convicted of what Hitler considered treason, were usually given the option of a quick bullet in the head.

The morning of Canaris’ hanging he was followed by a procession to the gallows. There was Major General Oster, Canaris’ subordinate and passionate and all too vocal anti Nazis, who had finally under torture incriminated Canaris in the Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler. After that even Canaris’ wily web of defence could no longer save him. Then there was Judge Karl Sack and Captain Ludwig Gehre, Dr Theodor Strunck and Friedrich von Rabbenau.  All, like Canaris, were hung naked and all were subjected to the taunts of the S.S. guards.

Along with Canaris, the most controversial prisoner to be hung that morning was the gaunt figure of Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran Pastor. He had, without the slightest regard for his own safety, openly and vocally opposed the Nazis from the beginning. He had until now been saved perhaps protected by his fame throughout Germany and in fact most of Europe. Did he think of the tragedy of his family; his brother Walter, killed in action in the 1stWW, or his Uncle Paul, City commandant of Berlin, executed in August 1944? Did he wonder what happened to his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohanyi, executed by the Nazis, but at a time and in a place that was never revealed to his family? Did he wonder further about his brother Klaus, sentenced to death by the Nazis together with his other brother-in-law Rudiger Schleicher, just a few weeks earlier? Could he perhaps have had a premonition that Klaus and Rudiger would finally have their sentences carried out by being shot in the head on the Exhibition Ground in Berlin, near the Gestapo Prison, on 23rd April the precise day that the Americans liberated Flossenburg?

As he shuffled towards the gallows, Bonhoeffer stopped suddenly and knelt in silent prayer on the cold gravel surface of the execution yard. Even the S.S. guards fell silent for a moment. What did Bonhoeffer ask of his God, “Eli eli lama sabachthani?” “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me,” or perhaps just a request for a better place in the life hereafter for himself and his family?

What of the other players in this macabre drama? Of the unrelenting S.S. prosecutor Dr Walter Huppenkothen, who taunted his prisoners during their farcical trial. Each of the prisoners had been tried on a single day, the 8th April, the day before the execution.  Huppenkothen carried the order for the execution of all of the prisoners, signed by Hitler, in his pocket, making the so called trial nothing but a farce. Was this farce, to Huppenkothen, just another hum drum day justifying brutality that had marked his rise as a star in the Nazis Party? Did he think the trial would lend his actions legitimacy, if he ever considered that any legitimacy was required?

What then of Dr Otto Thorbeck, the Judge of the Court, sent from Nuremburg to preside over this sham? What do we make of his roll? Did he sit down in a comfortable chair in his room the evening after the executions, and get up to close the window to keep out the light sprinkling of ash which was blowing in the wind over the camp and was all that remained of the bodies? The ash had drifted over the camp from the chimney above the crematorium in which the victim’s bodies had been incinerated, and had covered guards and prisoners alike. Perhaps he tucked into some hearty Bavarian cooking and a bottle of chilled South German Riesling, preserved from dwindling supplies. Could he have enjoyed a pitcher of good Bavarian beer, while sharing a joke with the camp commandant Max Koegel, who had assisted him at the trials?

What must have gone through Thorbeck’s head? Did he feel content, congratulating himself that he had done a good day’s work, that he had upheld whatever solemn oaths he had taken when he was admitted as a lawyer, that he had done his duty as a Judge, notwithstanding that the accused were given no defence and that he must have known that Huppenkothen carried the execution orders?

Did he treat fellow Judge and Advocate General of the Army Karl Sack with haughty disdain, or was he ashamed, as he sentenced him to death?

One wonders if he could possibly not have given consideration as to the way his actions might be perceived by the victorious Allies when the war ended. Everyone in the camp would have been listening to the American artillery firing a few miles away; a constant reminder that the end was fast approaching. His Fuhrer was surrounded in Berlin by the Russians, his authority gone. These men had no need to fear retribution. Authority had ceased to exist. The Americans in fact overran the camp less than two weeks later. Thorbeck was only 33, his life in front of him. Did it not occur to him to come up with some legal device to defer the executions and give himself some chance of justifying his actions after Germany, inevitably, surrendered? Was he religious and did he wonder how he might be greeted, in due course, by his God. Did he confidently expect the words of Matthew 25.21,“well done thou good and faithful servant,” would apply, or on deeper reflection, did it not come to him that, as sure as God made little green apples, he was destined, with his colleagues, for the hottest place in hell?

Flossenburg is hard to find. The camp is built in a pretty valley, near a small but pleasant hamlet in Bavaria close to the Czech border, but there is little in the way of signage as if, unlike Dachau, it were best forgotten. It was primarily a work camp catering largely to the Messerschmitt Company. Prisoners, entering through the front gate, would have seen the words “Arbeit macht frei” or “work makes you free” stencilled in large gothic lettering. They were there to labour in the Nazis cause but in reality the prisoners were exploited, tortured and in many cases simply worked to their deaths. The workers would return to camp each night carrying the bodies of any who had died, so as to ensure the numbers in at night matched the numbers out in the morning.

The camp was dedicated to so called “criminals” and “antisocial elements”, political opponents of National Socialism, homosexuals, Sinti and Romanies (gypsies), prisoners of war and jews.  The large majority of prisoners came from Poland, the Soviet Union, Hungary, the Czech Republic and other European countries. By 1945 there were 15,000 crowded into the camp, originally a granite quarry. In March all but the important prisoners were ordered on death marches, mainly towards Dachau, fleeing from the advancing Americans.

At least 30,000 prisoners did not survive Flossenburg.

Commandant Koegel hanged himself in 1946. Thorbeck and Huppenkothen received short gaol sentences.

It is 2013 and the trees are a rich luminous green in the early spring sun, as they must have been in April 1945. A few small finches are flitting through the trees, whose branches now hang over the old perimeter security fence.  A pair of ravens sit on the roof of the exhibition centre, black as burqas. A man is raking leaves in the distance but the rust coloured administration building is apparently empty. Only two prisoner’s barracks remain standing, the kitchen and the laundry. The other 19 barracks plus the infirmary and detention barrack have been demolished. The laundry now contains a comprehensive display which nowhere backs away from the truth. It sits next to the exercise and execution yard and above the burial grounds, the “Cemetery of Honour.” From the higher ground a tunnel with ramp was constructed to deliver bodies more efficaciously to the crematorium, which contained a room for dissection and incineration. The valley runs away below the crematorium, which is next to the “Pyramid of Ashes”. Next is the “Square of Nations”, which bears the memorials, carefully tended, to the over thirty nationalities that died there. The Chapel, “Jesus in the Dungeon” sits silent. Next to it is the Jewish memorial, stark and compelling, architecture which the Jews have had all too much time and practice to perfect. Both are to the left facing down over the valley. Most of the time there is no one much about. The camp remains as a memorial, hardly remembered when compared to larger or more notorious camps, except of course by those whose attention has been drawn there seeking the fate of relatives or who, for whatever reason, remember the events of 9th April 1945, barely a month before the final cataclysmic conclusion of the war in Europe.

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