Berlin, February 15, 2006
Got up in good time and had a wander round Hamelin, which is a lovely town. The streets around the old centre are lined with ageing and crooked houses with â€˜1623’ inscribed on them (or some such date). Curiously, though, most of the windows had been double-glazed. Later, when I mentioned this to Sarah she laughed and said that was typically German. It wouldn’t be allowed to happen with listed houses in Britain, that’s for sure.
We travelled to another town nearby where we were going to interview a former member of the 16th Waffen-SS. Again, he and his wife were charming and we spent much of the day there. He feels very strongly that it is important for men like himself to be able to tell their side of the story and so that was why he was willing to talk to us. Later, he rang a friend of his who lives in Austria and asked him whether he would mind talking to us as well. But his friend said no. The Austrian police had recently raided his house and confiscated all his papers; from now on, he was saying nothing – he had his family to think of. So too did my man: he asked me not to mention the town where he lives or even use his real name, which I promised not to do. After the war, his childrens’ teacher said to them, â€˜Do you know your father was a criminal?’ But was he? It didn’t seem the case to me. He had been in the division’s pioneer battalion, which had not been involved in any of the massacres. And the Waffen-SS were quite different from the police wing of the SS. I asked him why he’d joined the Waffen-SS in the first place and he answered quite reasonably, I thought: he had been in the Hitler Youth, as had virtually every German teenager at the time, and when recruiting units came round he had been impressed by the Waffen-SS because they were the elite and he wanted to serve with the best. Afterwards, when we eventually reached Berlin once more, I recounted this back to Rachel. â€˜I hope you’re not about to become the new David Irving,’ she said. No fear of that, I assured her, but this week has made me think that the vast majority of young men fighting in the German armed forces back then seemed very much like the majority of young men fighting in the Allied armed forces.