It takes only a small news item to trigger an avalanche of thoughts, followed by more than enough words to fill yet another blog item. This time it is a 2-line news bit in October 2014 that Germany was offering free university education, not only to its own citizens but to foreigners like us who pay more than we can afford in our home countries. Obviously the German economy outshines ours.
My emotions towards Germans, from disgust to admiration, will always be associated with my experiences, good and bad, especially those years I spent fighting them.
We humans are a queer lot. We enter this hostile world naked and helpless, dependent on others who preceded us to raise, nourish, and educate us. Our world fluctuates between Heaven and Hell and remains a war and poverty zone for far too many. We have a habit of cruelly destroying what others have built with great effort and ingenuity. My varied experiences include:
In the 1930s I was a school boy in Ontario, Canada, both in 2 large cities and a couple of small towns where I learned from scores of veterans of the Boer (South African) war and WWI. I was also an ardent stamp collector with worldwide correspondents including German, found through UK magazines, so I did have a fair knowledge of world affairs, highly encouraged by my parents. I knew that Germans, like many of the rest of us, behaved differently towards different people. Their colonial record in black South West Africa was terrible while their rule in Polynesia (known as the Irishmen of the Pacific) was so good that it was adopted by the Australians and New Zealanders who took over these islands after WWI. In Europe Germans tended to look up to those west of them and down on those to the east. But, I could also tell you about the immense effort it took to defeat them in WWI. Flying intrigued me so I knew the careers of the 45 world air aces with 35 or more victories, finding that 17 were German, 8 Canadian, 7 British, 5 French, 2 Irish, 2 Australian, 2 South African, 1 Belgian, and 1 Austro-Hungarian. But the horrors of WWI made me very anti-war and I wrote school essays on the subject.
I feared the rise of dictators and war parties in Italy, Japan, and especially Germany. I did feel our guilt in paving the way for Hitler who was to become a curse on both us and the German people. WWI reparations forced by the US then Britain and France totally ruined the German state, making Hitler appear at first to be a saviour. I knew that, if these aggressors were to be stopped, it would be boys like me who would have to do it.
The flow of events swept me into the RCAF stream of Observers (navigator, bomb aimer, gunner), ending up in Bomber Command. I loved the mathematics and physics of astronomy, cartography, meteorology, and all the other components of flying. I hated the task I was assigned: suffering 59% casualties while killing some of the 600,000 civilians our bombs claimed. Some argued we could only get at the guilty by eliminating the innocents in the way. Wars are like that.
Exposed to Luftwaffe raids in some 8 UK locations I was appalled at the destruction and the loss of lives that were to total 60,400 with many more wounded. Yet the Luftwaffe launched only 29 raids large enough to include over 200 bombers that carried mainly incendiaries and bombs under 500-pound weight. We (RAF, RCAF, RAAF, RNZAF, USAAF, plus Rhodesian, Polish, Czech, Free French, South African squadrons) dropped 3.4 million tons with bombs weighing up to 4,000 pounds each, at a cost to us of 100,000 young men, 125 of whom were cherished friends of mine. The small portion of the massive destruction we caused that I saw while I was plodding westwards in February 1945 fleeing the Soviet advance made me ashamed of being a member of the human species. On this "Long March" German farmers, preparing to flee themselves, offered us food and water as well as overnight shelter from the bitter cold.
Not content with leaving Germany a pile of rubble with millions of bomb craters, the victorious Allies tore off 25% of Germany to compensate Poland for their lands the Soviets retained. Forced evictions caused at least 3 millions deaths and years of misery. Then there was wholesale looting of German industrial assets, joined by US, UK, and Soviet teams hunting down German brain power to enhance their post-war military, industrial, and space programs. Millions of German POWs were used as forced labour including my POW guards who had been kind to us. It was not until 1949-52 that Germany was to receive $1.4 billion in Western reconstruction loans, not gifts. Then Germany had to endure the East-West split until 1990-91 when reunited and allowed to become fully sovereign.
It was in 1955 that Germany was allowed to join NATO (to help with the Soviet threat) and I was to greet at an RCAF pilot training school in Ontario the first group of some 300 cadets of the new Luftwaffe and integrate them with Canadian and other NATO trainees. What a surprise to discover that among this group was the high school flak gunner that inflicted sufficient damage on my Halifax to result in it being shot down. We became friends and he left me with two large charcoal drawings of Bavarian pubs that still grace our recreation room. These German cadets were led by Major (now B.Gen) Roderick Cescotti of immense war experience. We became life-long friends and he and his wife Otti, whom we had entertained in Ontario, entertained us for a week in 1987 in their Bavarian home. I have copies of five of his published books.
The score of civilians, mostly women and teenagers, who captured me, 30 March 1943, after I was among the 17% who survived being shot down, were all curious and respectful as they marched me off to the police who were also respectful as I was taken to the Luftwaffe also true gentlemen. Except for a few ugly encounters with Gestapo and SS sub-humans, all of the Germans I encountered during 800 days as a POW were humans of the better type. They treated us respectfully when conditions were severe for all of us. Our liberators were not so kind. Our commandant, Oberst Lindeiner-Wildau, a WWI hero, had treated well all those assigned to his care including Soviets and Jews. The Allies locked him up considering him a war criminal. For 2 years he was unable to see or help his destitute wife who had been bombed out by us. One of our likeable guards was shot when he stepped out of line among a group of POWs. He was trying to offer his services as an interpreter.
So, it is with great pleasure that I see Germany rising from what was to be forever an agricultural state to be the power house of Europe with a military that threatens no one while accepting blame, and making reparations for, the Holocaust - and without whining about the treatment it received or the lands stolen from it.