From Email: Quintus Dias to Group, Friday August 1 year of 2014. Reprint by Permission.
It was 1968. The war in Vietnam had erupted into awesome fury with the dramatic film coverage of NVA and Viet Cong attacks on the symbol of American power in Vietnam, a stunning assault on the US Embassy in Saigon and attacks on American bases all over Vietnam. I was on the Orient Express on my way from Germany to Spain. I had just left Munich very much inebriated after an all night drinking session with former German soldiers who had fought the Russians and Americans during the World War Two, twenty-three years previously.
I was on a European tour after having left the military, visiting friends and family in Germany and in Spain.
I had decided to tour Bavaria once again, after fondly remembering all the wonderful people and places, when I had been there as a very young boy. Back in those days I was fluent in German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese and had a great time talking with Europeans as I made my way from Denmark through Europe by bus, and by train.
Europeans, especially Germans were very upset about America’s involvement in the Vietnamese war. They were polite, but very critical of America. They felt it was not a just war and that we were acting like Nazis or communists. Germany and Europe retained very grim memories of both political groups and for very good reasons…everybody in Europe during the Russian or German wartime occupation of Europe lost relatives to brutal occupiers.
I decided that to avoid trouble it would be better to conceal my identity from inquirers. Thus, I was an Argentinian one moment, Portuguese the next, and Canadian the next.
That worked until hungry and at loose ends in Munich, I walked into a bierkeller and ordered up. As the night progressed, and after having polished off my sausages and several beers, I was invited to join a group of older Germans, who were drinking and enjoying the local fare.
We soon hit it off, speaking English and German as the mood struck. I learned that all of my new friends had served as German soldiers during WWII and had fought both the Russians and the Americans. They were now civilians and although cooks, electricians, and machinists, they still retained deep and very bitter memories of the war.
They asked me about the Vietnamese war, why America was in it, and if I had been in the military. Well, that started things. They all told me what they had seen in the war and had done. They did not hold back and the conversation got grim and dramatic. A couple of them had tears rolling down their faces over memories of those lost in the war…Kameraden.
I told them about half my high school class and my best friend getting wiped out in Vietnam. They nodded, and then it got very quiet as we reflected on the blast of war. After a moment, I told them I had seen Germany as a child and recalled Germany blasted to bits. I remember the women stacking bricks and badly dressed people with baskets rushing here and there, and never looking up from the ground. I told them that I had seen the scores of night dead from starvation on the streets, and the police carrying them to trucks to be driven away.
They ordered more beer. The Germans treated me like a wayward son and began to counsel me, until we discussed specifics of the war. I reproached them over their conduct in Russia and Poland. That got a reaction.
Dieter, the older man, nice looking, in his mid-forties wagged his finger at me and then proceeded to inform me that they were German soldiers not Nazi sonsabitches that shot women and children out of hand. The group eyed me warily, obviously wondering if I knew the difference. Then Dieter added that they had arrested SS men for atrocities, tried them on the spot and then shot them all down for war crimes. They despised the SS and Nazis and prosecuted them for atrocities when they could. It caused a lot of mutual hatred and deep divisions between ordinary soldiers and the SS. Dieter mentioned the Gestapo had arrested their CO and he was never seen again.
I got a blistering for what US soldiers did to German towns and civilians when on the attack in Germany. One of the men informed me that a US battalion had given the defenders of his own town five minutes to surrender and if not in compliance or if any holdouts fired on them they would level the town. He said they had tried, however some SS men opened fire on the Americans. The Americans immediately responded by ringing the town with assault guns and then leveled the entire town, and then attacked and shot everyone and everything left alive, including dogs and cats.
I was pretty drunk by that time. The story reminded me of what my bros had told me about combat in Vietnam, firefights that dragged on for days, women with baskets heaving grenades at them, as they marched up to a village and the enemy mingling with civilians and refusing to surrender.
So, like an idiot, I smarted off and told the guy from the German village “tough shit, so sue me.” The silence and the glares emanating from the group spoke volumes. Dieter grimly countered by throwing in my face MY LAI and said that American troops who had massacred the villagers at My Lai were no different then their own SS killers.
That made me hot. I said Americans were not Nazis. Dieter waved me quiet, ordered another round and then let me have it, real good. He said in effect, as I tried to cool off that the Germans had not seen the reality of the Nazis at first. Nobody had imagined the brutality of the Nazi regime until war broke out in Europe. Dieter said the Germans, desperate and hungry after the Great Depression had ravaged Germany were eager, perhaps too eager to believe Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. He then underscored that the Germans had given much to the world, were for the most part honorable people and nobody’s fools. And yet, arrogantly, I smarted off quipping that the Nazis and what they had done in Europe could never happen in America.
The Germans offended, stiffly stood. The pleasantries were over. Dieter paid my bill, shook my hand and wished me well with a short little bow. He strode off with his friends, then turned back and took me by the shoulders. I could feel his stout fingers dig in. He said in a low voice that Germans like him were proud of Germany, but ashamed they had allowed themselves to be deceived by Hitler. “Ami, what happened in Deutschland can happen anywhere… And it will happen one day in Amerika, when your own Nazis come singing promises. Do not let that happen.” And then, Dieter was gone.
I wanly realized that I had been an asshole. I did not realize how much of an asshole until I began to pay attention to what was happening in America with the advent of the Bush I regime and the successors. Ruefully, I knew that our own Nazis had come to America, and were singing songs that I had been warned about. Dieter had been right, it was happening in America, and I had been too goddamn stupid to know it.
I am sorry Dieter… I should have listened better.