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Maastricht University

‘Lucky Victims’. German-Speaking Emigrants as Soldiers of Occupation in Germany after the Second World War

Arvid Schors, University of Cologne

In April 1945, the concentration camp Ahlem near Hanover in Germany was liberated by American troops. A 21 year old American sergeant wrote down his impressions at the time: The prisoners seemed to be ‘skeletons’, and their slimmed-down limbs made an almost surreal impression on him. The American was well aware of his ambivalent role as liberator: ‘You are free now. I, with my pressed uniform, I haven’t lived in filth and squalor, I haven’t been beaten and kicked.’ The gulf between the Allied savior and the captives could hardly have been more contradictory: ‘[Y]our face is 40, your body is ageless, yet all your birth certificate reads is 16. And I stand there with my clean clothes and make a speech to you […]’.

Such reflections are, therefore, first and foremost documents marking distinction: On the one hand, there is the American soldier who is perhaps helpless towards this misery, but in control of his own destiny. On the other hand, there are the broken victims of National Socialist extermination policy who have been deprived almost of their humanness and have practically lost all their agency. If one further considers the specific background of the American soldier, this encounter not only constitutes a remarkable episode, but marks a turning point – an incisive role reversal – for the history of the twentieth century. For the American soldier was no other than Henry Kissinger, the later U.S. Secretary of State. He was born in Germany in 1923, but had been able to escape to the U.S. in 1938 where, in 1943, he had gained American citizenship. As a consequence, in this incidence a former German Jew was confronted with the fate that would have awaited him in all likelihood had he not been able to flee from his native country in time.

Kissinger’s account from 1945 is especially vivid because of his later prominence, yet its relevance goes further: As a leitmotif of self-interpretation, his testimony is quite typical for a whole cohort of German-speaking emigrants with similar experiences since 1933. Tens of thousands of them, born around 1915 in Germany (and Austria), had to leave their home countries as young men owing to Nazi persecution. Until the end of the war, many of their relatives had been murdered. Their world was turned upside down once again when, later on, many of them became soldiers in the U.S. and the British military, going through a remarkable process of transition: While they had been stigmatized as outsiders in their native countries and had become at first powerless victims of their exile, the Allied occupation in Germany (and Austria) since 1944 allowed them to return in the uniform of the victors. As a result, and in light of their special knowledge and language skills, they acquired influential roles within the occupation. Furthermore, they were oftentimes more influential than their formal rank would reveal, and shaped the transition from war to peace and the post-war order. In this brief time span, these ‘lucky victims’ (Hans. A. Schmitt) evolved from powerless bystanders of their own fate to influential actors with personal agency. By following their intricate, yet transnational trajectories, it becomes possible to shed new light on the interaction between occupiers and occupied. For one thing, in comparison to the situation during their enforced escape several years ago, the power relationship towards German mainstream society during occupation had been turned on its head. For another thing, their return home to what, in many respects, had become an alien country to them was characterized by strong ambivalences. Finally, their internal stance in regard to other soldiers in the Allied armies of occupation and their superiors was sometimes contested.

These emigrants in question experienced reversed power relations in many ways and shades during occupation: Some met old tormentors again, now opportunistically begging for mercy or even special treatment. Others were irritated by the indifference towards their own fate that some old acquaintances showed them. Yet many used their special knowledge and their influential positions to prevent (former) Nazis from declaring themselves innocent – from smaller Nazi sympathizers during the daily life of occupation to higher-level perpetrators during official inquiries of the occupation powers that they were involved in (ranging from information control to denazification interrogations up to war crime trials).

Contrary to what one could reasonably expect (and comprehend), in practice, revenge played a subordinate role for the emigrant-soldiers in their dealings with German society. This does not, of course, mean that such desire for revenge did not exist. More often than not, however, they did not act on it (or only in a quite restrained way). Instead, several of them – in a broad spectrum from an almost apologetic attitude to highly pragmatic motives – became mediators between the occupation forces and Germany society, seeing clear-headedly the grave deficits of German society as well as its underlying potential for progress.

An important variant of such encounters that make visible the shifting roles and role reversals under a magnifying glass are gender relationships: Some of the emigrants just experienced them as superficial sexual contacts, (purposefully) undistinguishable from the ones other soldiers of occupation engaged in. Others used these intimate contacts and their knowledge about German sensitivities to find out more about the word on the street, extending not only their work in military intelligence into the bedroom, but also their role as mediators. In some cases, these relationships became more serious, often accompanied, however, by ambivalent undertones that then could even entail antisemitic stereotypes. This points to the limits of the idea to conceive the emigrant-soldiers of occupation as powerful actors alone. Put differently: Even ‘lucky victims’ could still remain victims or could be revictimized in subtle ways. As the focus on these emigrant-soldiers of occupation discloses: Role reversals and metamorphoses are not necessarily permanent or absolute. Rather, as I would argue here, this should be seen as a gradual analytical concept, changing over time and under different circumstances.


Photo credits:

Cover picture: Five Jewish survivors pose for a U.S. Signal Corps photographer in front of Block 2 in the Hannover-Ahlem concentration camp, a sub-camp of Neuengamme.
Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park

Arvid Schors is Assistant Professor in International History, University of Cologne, Germany.