Triumph And Tragedy

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On one side of us were millions of gallons of water, lapping a few feet from the jeep’s wheels, and on the other side was a long drop to the river gorge below. As we started across, the lieutenant announced that our engineers had said that the dam was safe, that most of the dynamite planted in it by retreating Germans had been removed, and that wires leading to the remaining charges had been cut. Apparently he had picked up this disconcerting information at the morning briefing. His remark was supposed to be reassuring, but it had the opposite effect on me. I had a momentary vision of a gigantic explosion, of men, machines, and tons of water plunging to the gorge below. I wanted fervently to get off this monstrous pile of concrete.

But then I looked at the tree-lined opposite bank, and in a moment more pleasant thoughts occupied my mind. In a political sense that bank was part of Germany, but in reality it was in another country. I had very romantic notions about Austria; I had always thought of it as a very beautiful, idyllic place, and its name brought to my mind other pleasing names: Strauss, Mozart, Hedy Lamarr, the Danube, the Alps, Vienna, Salzburg, the Tirol.

In a few minutes we were safely across the Inn River. And here a strange, surprising, and very pleasant reception awaited us. There was no town, only woods, but hundreds of people, mostly women and girls, had lined both sides of the road, waving, smiling, cheering, and throwing flowers in our path. Apparently they had learned of our imminent arrival from the reconnaissance troops and had walked here from a nearby town, carrying armfuls of flowers.

We were stunned. For the past two months German civilians had met us with silence, occasional weeping, and sullen, hostile stares. What a startling, refreshing change! It seemed unreal, dreamlike, and I experienced an eerie feeling of déjà vu. I knew that conquering Roman legions had sometimes been greeted in this manner, and I had a very real vision of the Teutonic ancestors of these people greeting victorious Romans two millennia ago.

My déjà vu passed, and in a moment we all had recovered from our surprise, and we began smiling and waving in return. It was a beautiful, sunny, slightly cool spring morning. Many of these Fräuleins , in their colorful dirndls and peasant blouses, were extraordinarily pretty. The war was nearly over, and the retreating Wehrmacht seemed to have disappeared into thin air. It was hard to feel animosity toward anyone.

As the pleasant sounds of our unexpected welcome faded behind us, we picked up speed and continued southward. We had apparently lost all contact with the retreating German forces. We came out of the woods lining the Inn River and saw spread before us a countryside of breathtaking beauty. It was an area of rolling hills, green patches of woods, sunlit fields, hamlets, and farms. The sweet smell of newly cut hay perfumed the air, and in the distance a great range of the Alps rose majestically above the lesser hills.

Years after the war I would wonder how this beautiful little country, this fairy-tale land, could have produced two of the most evil men in history, Adolf Hitler and Adolf Eichmann—one a mad, hypnotic demagogue who plunged the world into the worst war in its history and the other his lieutenant, who supervised the extermination of millions of people, who planned and directed the rail system that funneled those people to the death camps, and who helped develop the chief means of those mass murders, the gas chamber.

Hitler had been born in Braunau, not far from where we were right now. Eichmann came from Linz, a picturesque town about sixty miles east of Braunau, also on a river, the Danube. In 1945 few people in Germany, and fewer still outside, had heard of Adolf Eichmann. He seemed to have deliberately kept a low profile, avoiding publicity and avoiding being photographed. It was as if he had instinctively known that he might someday become a fugitive.

 

In late afternoon we pulled into the hamlet where we would spend the night. For nearly two months Headquarters Battery had spent almost every night in a different town, in the homes of civilians. We saw no reason to change this practice now, even though we were in a more friendly country. As we had done in Germany, we simply picked out houses we wished to occupy and evicted the inhabitants. But we did try to be a little more polite now that we were in Austria.

In Germany we simply knocked loudly on the door of a house, and when someone timidly answered, usually a woman or an elderly man, we would hand that person a piece of paper. On the paper was a typewritten paragraph in German, stating that the occupants had ten minutes to get out, taking with them whatever they could collect in that time. If we were in a generous mood, we sometimes gave them more time. If we were in a bad mood, we sometimes gave them less.