- Historic Sites
“The So-called Charge Was Murder”
A young GI making the journey from war to peace, and from enmity to friendship, finds amid the most tremendous change smoldering embers of an old tyranny
June/July 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 3
I spent a week at the house, sleeping in Karl-Ludwig’s room while he stayed with a neighbor. I rented a car for two days and we took trips, once to the grave of Luise’s father, which she had never had a chance to see before. She had always spoken of him with reverence. He had been a teacher. In the last months of the war he had been taken into the army, where, old and not well, he had contracted a disease and died. By his grave she spoke of him to his grandchildren he had never known and then sank to her knees. It had been pitiful to take him into the army, she said. “Why did they do it?” she asked brokenly.
Four years later, in 1964,1 was back again. I had quit newspapering and written a book the great good fortune of which commenced a career that would never again see me take a regular job. My time in Europe could be as long as I wished, and there was a new Jaguar to pick up in London. I had a raft of writing assignments, including one for this magazine on the haunted and graveyard-strewn Western Front of the First World War 50 years after troops began to march and guns began to fire. Through late summer and into the fall I tramped the former lines, did research on other stories. Then I made for Augsburg and the family’s new house in the city’s suburbs, where I took residence in the basement, occasionally going off on research trips.
We went out to bountiful meals each Sunday and took a four-day drive through Switzerland, the first time the girls were out of their country and the first time they ever stayed in a hotel. Three months passed. It was very pleasant.
Winter was upon us. The children and their friends and I had great mass snowball fights. I had been in Europe more than half a year when I announced I’d be sailing off to the French Riviera to spend some time there before sailing with the car from Cannes. On my next to last day Luise asked, “Would you like to meet an SS officer who has not changed at all since 1945?”
“SS officer not changed since 1945? Yes.”
“We can go tonight.”
After our light dinner—in the German manner the main meal was at midday—Karl and Luise and I drove to the man’s house, which was similar to theirs, brick with a little rear garden. I was introduced to Herr und Frau Schubert. “I am very glad to meet you, Mr. Smith!” our host said, in almost accentless English. His wife, I soon saw, did not speak a word of the language. We sat down and chatted. Slightly overweight but with quick gestures and physical vivacity, Mr. Schubert was an enthusiastic speaker who ended many of his sentences with an exclamation point. His wife poured coffee into lovely old cups. The days were gone when the PX’s Chase & Sanborn, or Maxwell House or whatever it was, con- stituted a great treasure. Mrs. Schubert produced an unending flow of really magnificent, vastly caloric pastries. Ten years earlier, when Luise served the evening meal, there had been nothing like that.
“Your English is the best I’ve ever heard in Germany, Mr. Schubert,” I remarked with complete truth. Even his slang was perfect.
“Well, thank you. But then, for seven years I had absolutely nothing to do but study it.”
“Nothing but study English for seven years?”
“Yes. I was imprisoned by the Americans. I wore the red jacket. Do you know what that means?”
“Mr. Smith!” he said. “Germany was at war! You are a historian. You will be interested in these matters and understand.”
I did not.
“Ah, well. Prisoners condemned to die wear a red jacket.”
He was looking at me expectantly. I asked the obvious question.
“Ah!” he cried. “For nothing! I was condemned for nothing!”
“But what was the charge?”
“The so-called charge was murder.”
“The murder of whom?”
“Some Jews, Gypsies, partisans, and so forth.” His wife urged me to take some more pastries. They were wonderful, I told her.
“So you didn’t murder anyone then?” I asked.
“Murder!” He laughed derisively. “Never. They were killed, but not murdered.”
“How were they killed?”
“This was where?”
“In Russia. We had the job of guarding supply lines. Jews, Gypsies, partisans, and so forth used to harass us, and we had to deal with them, you see.”
I was thinking of the trial procedures I had seen as a reporter. “There must have been one specific, indictable incident,” I said.
“Oh, yes. It took place at—” He named a place I had never heard of and that I have forgotten.
“How many were shot?”
“Oh, around 20, 22. Around that.”
“Well, how were they shot, these 20 or 22?”
“They dug a trench, and we used two light machine guns.”
“Did you handle one of the weapons?”
“No. I was an officer, Hauptsturmführer . Captain.”
“You gave the order?”