REED HOME Gryphon icon
Feature Story
reed magazine logoAutumn 2009

Ottomar's Odyssey by Robin Cody

While attacking in a wedge formation, Ottomar saw his first Russian T-34 tank on his left, about 80 meters away. “When the Feuer frei call was given,” he writes, “I fired at the bottom of the turret—a hit. The enemy tank reversed. I fired another round—another hit. That did it, my first kill but no time for celebrating. Another tank moved into position to engage us. I saw its turret swivel, a flash of the gun, and then the impact on our tank. We were hit! We were still mobile, and we moved to get out of range.

“Where were we hit, I wondered?”

Otto mature

When Ottomar finally learned the truth, “I felt the most monstrous betrayal.”

Ottomar climbed out of the tank to inspect the damage. He was curious. Ottomar is curious. He can’t help it. Running now on sweat and adrenaline, smelling gunpowder, his ears ringing, he climbed out of the tank and an enemy machine gun bullet ripped deep into his right arm. Crewmates pulled him back in, the driver reversed, and another Panzer covered their retreat.

Ottomar’s war ended in a field hospital. His wound was his ticket home. “The doctor, a major, tended my arm. He addressed me as Junge, an insult. I thought I was not a young boy. I was a soldier wounded in battle.”

Anti-Jewish propaganda had been ubiquitous and open, abhorred by his church and almost certainly understood—but not talked about—at home. What did Ottomar know about concentration camps?

“I knew that people disappeared and did not return,” he says. “My bishop was taken away. By the time [1936] I enrolled in elementary school, there were no Jewish students in my class. But of the horrors and mass murders I knew nothing.”

After Germany’s surrender, Ottomar found himself einen Schritt voraus in the wrong direction. He was cut off from the rightness of his cause, untethered from his very reason for excelling. The loyal soldier had a lot to learn, and fast.

He learned that an uncle, a Frankfurt merchant, had poisoned himself rather than report for transportation to a camp. He learned that another relative, a medal winner at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, had fled with his Jewish wife to South America after opening a letter from Hitler that congratulated him and recommended divorce. He heard true horror stories from an older friend, Kurt Dreschler, who returned from a slave labor camp. Dreschler, the son of an Aryan father and a Jewish mother, had been producing the V-Rockets that terrorized England.

“My bishop came back alive, liberated from a concentration camp. He was a broken man,” Ottomar says. “It just enraged me. I learned all these terrible things. I felt the most monstrous betrayal.”

Looking back on it, Ottomar wonders. “The madness!” he writes. “How was such a moral purge possible? In the Twentieth Century? After the Age of the Enlightenment! After Goethe and Schiller, Bach and Beethoven!”

That’s an overarching, rhetorical kind of wonder. We’re all amazed at that. About what happened to him, Ottomar doesn’t wonder at all. “The accomplishments of the Third Reich,” he writes, “were paid for with a Faustian pact with the devil. A split personality existed in many of us. Two souls dwelled in us.”

Back in Ulm, Ottomar followed the Nürnberg Trials, where Nazi leaders stood to answer for crimes against humanity. He was furious that the big dogs—Hitler and Goebbels, Himmler and Goering—escaped justice by committing suicide. “We followed these trials with uneasy feelings,” he writes. “Here was a trial which somehow put all of us on trial. Were we all guilty?”

Well. In a way, yes. A collective guilt—unfair to some—trails everyone who went along. A culture of massive power and huge momentum had derailed and hit the world head-on. The train wreck of National Socialist ideology was so catastrophic that reasonable people still conflate “German” with “Nazi” when considering any individual who rode that train. We can’t get over it. I try to get over it. I was an American soldier in Germany, 1968-70. My wife and I lived off the base and spoke a little German. I got to know pretty well a big-hearted, lazy, gemütlich World War II vet named Werner. Werner had participated in the last century’s most terrifying example of flag-waving certainty. At the local Gasthaus, he liked to tell war stories. Werner survived the wreck but did nothing I know of, later, to make the world a better place. Werner, if you ask me, is stuck with it.

Others. . . It’s not so simple. How did they get caught up in the madness, and what have they done since?

News hit the papers and CNN recently that Günter Grass—Günter Grass!—had served in the SS. The hue and cry missed one crucial point: Günter Grass grew up to write The Tin Drum.

reed magazine logoAutumn 2009