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Were Nazi Soldiers Heroes?

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Nazi Soldiersby Jacob G. Hornberger

Have you ever noticed that Nazi soldiers, especially those who died in World War II, are never celebrated as heroes? Why is that? Didn’t they answer the call of their government in time of war? Didn’t they serve their country by loyally obeying the dictates of their government? Weren’t they patriots for their willingness to fight and die for their country?

I’m not talking about soldiers who committed war crimes or who participated in the Holocaust. I’m talking about ordinary German soldiers, many of whom were civilians before the war started, who fought Allied forces in North Africa, at the Battle of the Bulge, on the Eastern front, and elsewhere.

Why aren’t those Nazi soldiers treated as heroes? Didn’t some of them fight as courageously and heroically as British, Soviet, or American soldiers? Why are they not honored as heroes as much as Allied soldiers are?

Indeed, why aren’t German citizens during World War II honored for having come to the support of their government during a time of war? Didn’t the German people do what citizens are supposed to do? Sure, Germany ended up losing the war but no one can say that the average German citizen didn’t do everything he could to win the war.

Yesterday, the Washington Times went on the attack against MSNBC host Chris Hayes for questioning the automatic invocation of the term ‘heroes’ to describe American soldiers who have died in America’s many wars. The Times wrote:

The word “heroes” has been used to describe America’s fallen for more than 200 years. It’s not “rhetorically proximate” to justifications for war but a traditional mark of gratitude and respect for the sacrifice made by the person who was killed and the family members left behind. It’s a way of recognizing that regardless of how a person died, he did so in service to the country. It’s not a glorification of war but a solemn acknowledgment of sacrifice.

What’s not clear from the Times’ position, however, is whether the principles it enunciates apply only American soldiers or to soldiers in every country. Applying the standard set forth by the Times, would it be appropriate for Germans to use the word “heroes” to describe Germany’s fallen in the many wars in which Germany has been involved, including World War II? Could it be said that describing Nazi soldiers killed in World War II as “heroes” would not serve to justify World War II but instead serve simply as a mark of gratitude and respect for the sacrifice made by the German soldier who was killed and the family members left behind? Could it be said that this would just be a way to recognize that regardless of how the Nazi soldier died, he did so in service to his country? Could it be said that describing the Nazi soldier as a hero would not be a glorification of war but rather a solemn acknowledgement of sacrifice?

In other words, would the Times apply its principles regarding war, soldiers, heroism, and patriotism only to the United States or universally?

Or do they apply only to the winners? Do they apply, for example, to the Soviet Union, one of the winners of World War II, which was governed by a brutal communist regime during the war and for decades afterward, a regime that oppressed Jews and others and kept Eastern Europe under its iron boot for decades after the end of the war. Were communist soldiers opposing Nazi soldiers heroes for serving their government during time of war? Were they heroes for their willingness to die to ensure that their country remained under communist rule rather than Nazi rule?

Indeed, how would the Times apply its principles to the Vietnam War, a war that the United States lost? Surely, it would say that American soldiers who served in Vietnam or who died there were heroes, except perhaps for the ones who committed war crimes. Would it say the same about North Vietnamese communist soldiers or about the Viet Cong?

It seems to me that the reason that Nazi soldiers have never been honored as heroes is because the world has long held Germany to a different standard than the one that the Washington Times applies to the United States. Both German soldiers and the German citizenry should have made a critical examination of what their government was doing and realized that their government was in the wrong. On reaching that determination, it was the duty of the individual soldier to refuse to participate in the military, and it was the duty of the citizen to oppose his government, even in time of war.

Obviously, the Nazi government didn’t take that position. Its position was that it is the solemn duty of the citizen to come to the support of his government in time of crisis or war. The Hitler regime viewed the citizen who joined the Nazi armed forces as a hero for his willingness to fight and die for his country. The German people who supported the troops and the rest of the government were looked upon as patriots.

Isn’t that the same standard adhered to by many Americans with respect to America’s wars, soldiers, and citizenry?

There were some German citizens who said no. Among them were Hans and Sophie Scholl and the members of a secret organization called the White Rose. Their position on patriotism was entirely different from the official one. They felt that it was the duty of a citizen to make a critical examination of his government’s policies. That’s what the White Rose members did, and they concluded that the Nazi government was in the wrong. Thus, the White Rose group not only opposed their government in the middle of World War II, they also exhorted the German citizenry, including German soldiers, to rise up and overthrow the Hitler regime.

Not surprisingly, the German authorities considered the White Rose members to be bad people and unpatriotic Germans, which is why they executed them. Personally, I happen to believe that they were among the most courageous and heroic people in history.

In 1951, during the Korean War, Leonard E. Read, the founder of The Foundation for Economic Education, wrote one of the most thought-provoking essays ever written, entitled. “Conscience on the Battlefield.” In that essay, Read stated that from a moral standpoint, no soldier can ever escape the consequences of his individual actions during war simply by later telling God that he was following orders or loyally serving his government during time of war. It was incumbent on each soldier, Read stated, to make a personal determination as to whether the killing he was ordered to do was morally justified and could be reconciled with the soldier’s individual conscience.

In my opinion, Read and the White Rose people had it right. The genuine patriot stands and fights for his government when it is right and he refuses to support it and even opposes it when it is in the wrong. That’s the type of courage and heroism that enlightens a country, not the blind type of “my government, right or wrong” type of patriotism and heroism that afflicted Nazi Germany and that continues to afflict people in many other countries today.

Jacob Hornberger is founder and president of the Future of Freedom Foundation.


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