Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Nazis

Complicity Part Two

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday February 17 2015.

Colman's Column3


Were those Germans unique?


Last week, I raised the question of how ordinary working class middle-aged men and women could embark on employment that involved the hands-on dirty work required by a programme of sterilisation, torture, shooting at close range and gassing of children, women, elderly people, disabled people,  Gypsies, homosexuals and Jews. The programme was planned by professionals such as psychiatrists and physicians and surgeons. The paper work was organised by middle class bureaucrats whose own teeth contained gold recycled from the mouths of the dead victims. Could it happen here or in England or in the USA, or were those Germans unique?



I have fond memories of a TV series I watched avidly in the early 1980s. There were, in all, 32 episodes written and directed by Edgar Reitz and the total running time was 53 hours and 25 minutes. The title was Heimat, which translates as “Homeland” but bears no relation to the American series of that name. The series eventually covered life in Germany between 1919 and 2000 by focusing on an ordinary family in the Hunsrück area of the Rhineland. Reitz claimed that he conceived Heimat partly in reaction against the American series Holocaust. Much of the success of Heimat as a West German television series was because of similar soap-opera qualities that made for the success of Holocaust. In Heimat, a small cast of well-defined characters enables us to identify with their suffering where statistics and documentation would leave us cold.

Twenty million people watched Holocaust when it was screened in West Germany. After each episode, a panel of historians answered questions from people phoning in. Thousands did so and many of them claimed that they were born after 1945 and had not previously known that their country had practised genocide. The German historian Alf Lüdtke wrote that the historians “could not cope” as they were faced with thousands of angry phone-callers asking how these things could happen or why they had never learned about them at school.


I recall that there was a pervading feel-good nostalgic charm about Heimat. How can this be when the period covered was one of horror and genocide?  The blacksmith’s son, Paul Simon, back from the war, builds the first radio in Schabbach. In 1919, Paul wins the hand of Maria, the mayor’s daughter. Ageing on screen from 19 to 82, though only 27-29 in real life at the time, Marita Breuer gives an astonishing performance. They have two sons, Anton and Ernst. The Simon family seems a happy. Then one day, in 1928, Paul just puts on his cap and walks away. Nobody knows where he has gone. Nobody knows why. Maria carries on bringing up the children.


A torch-lit march through the streets of the local town indicates that Hitler has come to power. Nobody in the Hunsrück seems to know quite how or why. There are now telephones and cars. Nazism, which presents itself in the city as the guardian of old German rural life appears in the countryside as a revolution of technological modernity.

The French Jewish writer Marek Halter alleged in an article in Le Monde that Reitz idealizes the war and trivializes Nazism. The century’s great and terrible events do  largely take place off screen. We see the sudden appearance of Nazi armbands in the village. A boy on a bicycle encounters a cheery soldier who is watching over the construction of what is clearly a concentration camp. An SS officer alludes guardedly to the Final Solution.

Did the Hunsrück villagers see more than these glimpses of Nazi barbarism? There was a somewhat irritating and arbitrary moving between black and white, sepia, full colour and one colour filter. It seems that the director’s intention with this was to underline that this is a film about what Germans remember and their memories are selective. They remember the 1930s as a golden age of prosperity in the countryside. Some things they prefer not to remember at all.



Milton Sanford Mayer (1908-1986) was a journalist from Chicago and author of twelve books. Mayer was a Jew. He lived in Germany before World War II and was a conscientious objector during the war. After the war, he went back to Kronenburg and lived with German families, interviewing ten people to get perspectives on the rise of the Nazi party. Those experiences informed his book They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45.

The ten interviewees included a janitor, soldier, cabinetmaker, Party headquarters office manager, baker, bill collector, high school teacher, high school student, policeman, Labour front inspector. “These ten men were not men of distinction,” Mayer notes. “They were not opinion makers…. In a nation of seventy million, they were the sixty-nine million plus. They were the Nazis, the little men…”

Mayer said he liked these people and they became his friends “They did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now [in 1951]. None of them ever knew, or now knows, Nazism as we knew it, and know it; and they lived under it, served it, and, indeed, made it. And none ever thought Hitler would lead them into war.” Before Hitler, most had no jobs – as they saw it Hitler provided employment. All ten interviewees agreed that Nazi rule brought them economic success, bound them patriotically and politically into a coherent cultural unit, restored the nation’s pride and gave all Germans renewed reasons for hope in the future.

All Germans already had permission to hate Jews. All benefited from the system. To be identified as an outsider or as a dissenter could mean social exclusion or even disappearance into a concentration camp, or a bullet in the head.



Richard Grunberger was an historian and teacher who was born in Vienna in 1924 and died in London in 2005. His monumental, but immensely readable, Social History of the Third Reich gives a detailed sense of the warp and woof of everyday life in Nazi Germany.

Grunberger argues that, after the social disorientation of the depression years, an infantile regression took place with unhappy adults wishing to return to the womb of community and conformity. This obliterated most of the normal social and political conflicts. “Their eager acceptance of this situation stemmed from misconceived notions of corporate self-interest, chauvinistic delusion and… subservience tinged with masochism”.

Life-long Democrat voters convinced themselves that National Socialism was the panacea they had been looking for all their lives. Whole professions such as the civil service and teaching felt an overwhelming compulsion to join the Party. After the 1933 breakthrough, there was a great surge in party membership. Older hands referred to this bottom layer as the “March violets”.

Even those who were not converted in their hearts would anxiously understand that mere passive avoidance of rebellion would not suffice. “The majority’s meddlesome conformity ensured that those of doubtful allegiance to the regime lived in a state of unceasing fear of anonymous informers, sometimes with an element of auto-suggestion”. The regime created a culture of denunciation. Every citizen enjoyed equality of opportunity for laying information against his social superiors. “This harnessed a vast reservoir of personal resentment and spite to the purposes of the state.”

The regime harnessed all areas of governance and polity to ensure that citizens conformed. “Under the Third Reich the institutions of order expired as surely as those of freedom”. The courts treated right-wing terrorism lightly and there seemed to be tacit establishment approval of conspiracy theories that blamed Jews for defeat in the war and every problem of the Weimar Republic. In 1937, the Ministry of Justice determined that for the purpose of “intensive interrogation” beating was permissible if a doctor was present. Some courts objected to confessions gained under Gestapo torture but Hitler overruled them. Because of indoctrination at school, (much “education” was regurgitation of propaganda handouts) and in the Hitler Youth, the young tended to be more conformist and even fanatical than their elders.

The business community was solidly behind the regime. IG Farben (Interessen-Gemeinschaft Farbenindustrie AG) a chemical industry conglomerate did particularly well under the Nazis, expanding its work force by 50% and its profits by 150%. Two-thirds of the Reich Office for Economic Expansion were IG Farben men. IG Farben supplied large quantities of Zyklon B to the gas chambers. At the Nuremberg Trials, 13 executives were imprisoned for terms ranging from one to eight years for their roles in the atrocities.

Workers were also induced to support the regime through new houses and cheap holidays- in 1938, 180,000 Germans went on cruises. The press, the cinema, the theatre all gave the population the same propaganda message. There was little protest from the churches.

Although few Germans shared the leaders’ rabid anti-Semitism, their image of themselves gained definition through the contrast with the Jewish anti-type and accepted Jew baiting as an integral part of the system, which was beneficial to themselves.

Grunberger writes: “In the entire history of the Third Reich no single body –civic, academic or even religious- ever made use of such opportunities it had for publicly protesting against the regime’s inhumanity.”

Götz Aly


In a recent book, German historian Götz Aly asks the question in his title Why the Germans? Why the Jews?  With the subtitle Envy, Race Hatred and the Prehistory of the Holocaust. Aly argues that even if most Germans did not initially agree with the Nazis’ virulent anti-Semitic views, they signed up for a “criminal collaboration” between the people and their political leadership because it brought them economic and psychological benefits.

In  a previous book, Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State, Aly argued that the Nazi regime bribed and corrupted its subjects by offering  material gain wrapped in the idealistic guise of equal opportunity and social harmony for the German Volk . This was done through minimal taxation on Germans, the exploitation of the occupied territories and the slave labour of their inhabitants, and the confiscation of Jewish property throughout Europe. Many benefited directly and materially as Jewish jobs and property were  redistributed.

Aly exposes the involvement of self-proclaimed a-political technocrats who went on to success in the post-war world. One theme of Aly’s work has been to suggest a significant continuity between the Nazi era and post-war Germany. Many of the crimes committed in Nazi Germany were not the sole responsibility of ideological fanatics but  of the educated elites of German society whose “rational” outlook and approach to problem-solving were similar to the approach of Germany today.

Could It Happen Here?


As Goering said: “the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

It is easy enough for outsiders to exaggerate the actual relationship between man and state under tyranny, but from the inside, it is always made to seem justified, normal and seamless. As Matthew Hughes wrote about atrocities committed by British police and soldiers in Palestine:

“Servicemen were guided by a legal system that meant that they could accept the premises of their government that allowed for brutal actions, and they could do so with all the energy of good bureaucrats obeying orders—hence the phrase ‘banality of brutality’ in the title to this article, a tilt to Hannah Arendt’s study of Adolf Eichmann.”


Suffering at Wars’ Ends

This article was published in The Nation on December 11 2011.

War is hell and the suffering goes on after wars end.

Over the past few years, there have been many books describing what happened at the end of the Second World War. The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War by Ben Shephard was published in April 2010. After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation by Giles McDonogh was published in July 2007. The Struggle for Europe by William Hitchcock was published in January 2003. Walter Laqueur’s books on post-war Europe came out in 1992. John Roberts, Norman Davies, Mark Mazower and Richard Vinen, David Calleo, and last but not least, the late, great Tony Judt, have produced strong analytical work examining Europe’s future in the light of what its 20th-century past reveals.

Scholars have had 67 years to assess the six years of World War Second. Sri Lanka has only had just over two years to come to terms with nearly 30 years of internal war.

In 1945, the Allies had to deal with 10 to 15 million DPs (displaced persons) – concentration camp victims, foreign workers and slave labourers and destitute Germans. The UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was set up to deal with DPs. Shephard is sympathetic but also describes incompetence and political manipulation. Some UNRRA functionaries made mistresses of Polish DPs. Others engaged in crime.

Lasting havoc

One thing for DPs to do after years of deprivation was to get blind drunk. Two thousand people died from alcohol poisoning in two months after war’s end. Many DPs reacted to freedom with sexual abandon. At Wildflecken DP Camp in Bavaria, the Virgin Mary in the “Holy Manger” Christmas show had gonorrhoea. The birth rate in DP camps rocketed.

Not everyone was ready to debauch. Richard Wollheim, later a distinguished philosopher, was tasked with organising a dance party for British soldiers and female survivors in Bergen-Belsen. The party ended in mayhem, with panicking women expecting nothing but more torment from uniformed men

“Resettlement” was not an easy task. Shephard describes American soldiers dragging terrified Russians and Ukrainians to assembly points. They were often being sent in open cattle trucks to their deaths in Russia or Yugoslavia. British soldiers, sometimes with tears in their eyes, had to force about 70,000 people who had, in many cases already suffered terribly under the Germans, to go back to a more horrendous fate.

World War II aftermath

McDonogh describes the rape and pillage that went with Red Army “liberation” of Eastern Europe. Native populations turned on ethnic Germans with frightening ferocity. Whole communities of Germans, up to 16 million, who had lived outside the Reich for generations, were violently uprooted. Old men, women, and children were forced to march westward, or crammed into cattle cars in which they sometimes froze to death. The most conservative estimate that 600,000 German civilians were killed at this time is still high. The savagery was comparable to what the Nazis had inflicted. Schools and public buildings became torture centres. Up to 15,000 Germans were held at Strahov soccer stadium in Prague, where the guards amused themselves by forcing thousands to run for their lives and then machine-gunning them.

The Americans set up PWTEs (Prisoner of War Temporary Enclosures) which make Menik Farm seem like Club Med. In the spring of 1945, some 40,000 prisoners died of hunger and exposure in the 12 open camps containing a million men. The Americans had burned their kit, so they had nothing to protect them from the elements.

The British and Americans also set up Direct Interrogation Centres to find major war criminals or subversive activity. Their function soon changed to gathering intelligence against the Russians. Prisoners were tortured by guards with scores to settle. Methods are familiar today from their use in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan and CIA centres all over the world: savage beatings, starvation, deprivation of sleep, and removal of clothing. Men were kept standing for hours. Many never came out alive.

Despicable punishments


At Schwäbisch Hall, near Stuttgart, Americans used methods similar to those employed by the SS in Dachau. Prisoners endured long periods in solitary confinement. Men were led off in hoods and lifted off the ground to convince them they were about to hang. When the Americans set up a commission of inquiry, they found that, of the 139 cases they examined, 137 had “had their testicles permanently destroyed by kicks received from the American War Crimes Investigation team.”

NGOs such as Human Rights Watch were strongly critical of GOSL’s decision to keep civilians in IDP camps. More extreme sections of the Tamil Diaspora accused the government of having a genocidal agenda and referred to extermination camps. David Begg, leader of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, took time off from watching his members lose jobs and welfare benefits as the Irish economy went rapidly downhill, to take an interest in far-away Sri Lanka. He claimed that 1,000 people were dying every week in concentration camps.

The UN Refugee Agency reported that there were around 16 million refugees and 26 million IDPs in the world at the end of 2008. In recent years it has been increasingly tasked under the UN’s humanitarian reform process with assisting IDPs.

War is hell and the suffering goes on after war’s end. Some wars just do not end.

Today, 63 years after the foundation of the state of Israel, five million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency) services.


The Army’s Hewers and Drawers – The Story of the Pioneer Corps.

The Pioneer Corps was the stuff of jokes.

A motley collection of ineffectual blokes

Dredged into the army by war’s hunger for bodies.

Clerks and light labourers, intellectuals and incapables.

Too short or too tall. Weak in the head, too modest,

Or bright to be an officer. Unfit to fight. Fit to clean stables.

Cleaning up after the proper soldiers. Tidying the war.

The above extract from a poem I wrote in memory of my father illustrates the view of the Pioneer Corps propagated by comedians and ‘proper’ soldiers. Like thousands of others, my father gave thanks to the country that gave him a home and employment and family by enlisting in the armed forces in Britain’s hour of need.

Michael Young, in his influential book The Rise of the Meritocracy, took an unflattering view of the Pioneer Corps.  He claimed that the morale of these ‘hewers and drawers  … these dull-witted men’ was spectacularly increased ‘when the stupid were kept together… and they were no longer daunted by having superior people to compete with.’  In fairness to Young, it should be noted that his intent was a satirical critique of how the cult of IQ measurement was creating a smug ruling class and a demoralized lower class.

Nevertheless, one must challenge the view that the Pioneer Corps was merely a dumping ground for mentally-challenged labourers. My father had little formal education but was witty, astute and well-read. Among the ranks of the Pioneer Corps were the artist Sir Edward Paolozzi, the dramatist Christopher Fry, the writer Alfred Perles, Professor Jack Cowan, founder of the Architectural Science Review, Hans Coper, the sculptor and potter and the Olympic athlete Sidney Wooderson.

The word ‘pioneer’ derives from the 11th century French word paionier, which has links with the Spanish peon and the word ‘pawn’ for a chess piece. Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary links it with ‘pedal’ and ‘pedestrian’. From the 15th century ‘pioneer’ has meant a foot soldier who prepared the way for the army. From around 1605 it acquired the added meaning of a person who goes first or does something first. It was first used as a verb in 1780.

The pioneers would go in advance of an army preparing roads and trenches for the oncoming warriors. The idea of using a group of soldiers whose main function was to provide the army with labour rather than to fight goes back many thousands of years. In the Old Testament, Nehemiah, chapter 4, verse 17  contains the words ‘Of them that built on the wall and that carried burdens, and that laded: with one of his hands he did the work, and with the other he held a sword.’

There were pioneers in the English garrison at Calais in 1346 and pioneer contingents under their own officers attached to the Artillery in 1600. Pioneers would go in advance preparing roads and trenches for the combatants. The Labour Corps, formed in February 1917 was the precursor of the Pioneer Corps. Before that the army relied on French civilian labour. As the need for labour grew, the British government sent labourers to France in1915 in a force that included 38,000 Chinese, 10,000 Africans. By 1918 there were also 300,000 prisoners of war and contingents from Fiji and Egypt.

In 1918, the Labour Corps acquired its badge which became the emblem of the Pioneer Corps – the piled pick, rifle and shovel.

They often had to carry out their tasks under heavy fire and in the spring of 1918 took up arms and fought the German army when the need arose. 2,300 men of the Labour Corps were killed between May 1917 and the end of the war.

In September 1939, groups of reservists were formed into Works Labour Companies. The next month they became the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps and in November 1940 the name was changed to the Pioneer Corps.

Pioneers were enlisted from Ceylon, Mauritius, Seychelles, Basutoland, Bechuanaland, Swaziland, East and West Africa, Cyprus, Malta, India, Syria and Palestine. In North West Europe, Free French, Belgian and Dutch companies were formed.  Over 10,000 Germans, Austrians and Italians were recruited, earning the Pioneer corps the nickname ‘The King’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens’.

Among these ‘aliens’ were many uprooted by the rise of the Nazis. In 1916, Kurt Lewin volunteered for the Kaiser’s army. In 1939, he fled anti-Semitism, made his home in Britain and, in 1940, enlisted in the 74th company of the Pioneer Corps.

Ignaz Schwarz arrived in Britain in 1938 from Vienna and became Sidney Graham. He joined the Pioneer Corps and volunteered for hazardous duty.

Emeritus Professor HJ (Jack) Cowan, the world’s first Professor of Architectural Science and founding editor of the Architectural Science Review came to Britain from  Glogau in  Silesia, was interned and deported to Canada. He was given a choice of staying in Canada or returning to England. He chose the latter and joined the Pioneer Corps. He spent the war dismantling mines and was seriously injured on 1st January 1945,

Helmut Rosettenstein was born in Koenigsberg and came to Britain in March 1939. He became Harry Rossney, and joined the Pioneer Corps before serving with the Graves Restoration Unit hand-writing names on the temporary crosses in post D-Day Normandy that eventually became Commonwealth War Graves.

Geoffrey Perry was born Horst Pinschewer and grew up in Berlin, before coming to Britain and joining the Pioneer Corps. In May 1945, he and a British officer called Bertie Lickorish encountered an odd-looking figure in a forest near the German border with Denmark. It was William Joyce, ‘Lord Haw-Haw’. ‘I shot him in the bum,’ said Perry.

The Italian father of Sir Edward Paolozzi, the distinguished painter and sculptor, creator of murals on London Underground, was interned and then sent to a camp in Canada. The ship was torpedoed and Paolozzi lost his father, his grandfather and an uncle. Paolozzi himself was briefly held in an Edinburgh jail and after his release returned to the family’s Leith ice cream parlour to help his mother. He advanced to Edinburgh College of Art, but was conscripted into the Pioneer Corps in 1943.


Christopher Fry, the verse dramatist and screenwriter, was a profoundly religious man, whose opposition to war led to him being advised to join the fire service by TS Eliot. Fry said that he had no head for heights. The poet told him to concentrate on basements. Fry joined the Pioneer Corps, working on the Liverpool docks during the Blitzes, as well as in London.

In Soldiers and Civilians, the writer and friend of Henry Miller, Alfred Perles, born in Vienna in 1897, to Czech Jewish parents, described working in the Pioneer Corps in London and  testified to the liberation of losing all that he owned when a bomb destroyed his London house. He felt newborn in his khaki battledress in Oxford Street, an unknown soldier. He was protected from all curiosity, malevolent and benevolent. ‘Only I knew that I had just lost all my terrestrial goods. It did not matter. After all, I had lost nothing essential. As a matter of fact, all I had lost was essentially inessential. All of a sudden, I realized that all one possibly can lose must needs be inessential.’

The Corps handled all kinds of stores and ammunition, built camps, airfields and fortifications, cleared rubble and demolished roadblocks, built roads, railways and bridges, loaded and unloaded ships, trains and planes and constructed aircraft pens against enemy bombing.

On 6 June 1944, 13 Pioneer companies landed with the first allied wave and a further ten companies with the second, making a total of about 6,700 men ashore by the end of the day. The first Pioneer party landed 20 minutes after Operation Overlord had started. By D-day + 79, the complete Pioneer Order of Battle, consisting of over 68,000 officers and men, had been brought to France. The Pioneers who arrived with the assault troops landed ‘wetshod’, which meant a long wade ashore in full equipment. Some had to swim ashore from grounded craft. This would have been traumatic for my father who was born and brought up by the sea but never learnt to swim.

Some, including my father were recruited for burial parties. My father escaped without serious injury but for the rest of his life suffered from anosmia – he lost his sense of smell. The last smell he remembered was of the rotting corpses of young men at Caen in Normandy. The pioneers bivouacked in fields, in severe weather, working long hours with little rest. Conditions were hazardous because of minefields. Over 2,000 British personnel, serving with the Corps, and nearly 6,000 of other nationalities lost their lives.

By May 1945 The Pioneer Corps was probably the largest Corps in the Army with 12,000 Officers, 166,000 British and 400,000 Commonwealth Personnel, as well as being responsible for a civilian labour force of 1,074,000 and a Prisoner of War force of 173,000.

A grateful nation recognised the Pioneers’ contribution to victory and in November 1946, King George VI renamed it the Royal Pioneer Corps.  Pioneers later served in many conflicts around the world. In 1993, the Corps lost its separate identity when it was merged with several other units to become part of the Royal Logistics Corps, although there are still currently two specialist pioneer units within that corps.


Many commentators, including some on the left, have concluded that there is something rotten in the state of Britain today, particularly with elements of the nation’s youth, and have suggested radical remedies. Deborah Orr, in The Independent, believes that respectful attention should be given to the suggestion by actress Brooke Kinsella that one way of tackling the extreme anti-social behaviour that devastated her family when her young brother Ben was stabbed to death, might be to bring back national service


In a report published by the Centre for Policy Studies think-tank, Tom Burkard, who was a corporal in the Royal Pioneer Corps, and is now  director of a children’s charity, proposed that ex-military personnel could be excellent teachers and improve discipline and learning in schools. His proposal was backed by the former chief of the defence staff, Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank, who said that it could offer an antidote to problems of youth knife crime, drugs and violence.


Perhaps there is room for a new Pioneer Corps dedicated to moulding troubled British youth into responsible citizens through community service. As long ago as 1945, John Rawling Rees noted that the health and crime records of the Pioneer Corps compared very favourably with the best units in the field and that service in the corps had a therapeutic effect on soldiers who had displayed delinquent behaviour. About 18% of the National Service men in the Pioneer corps in 1952 were illiterate but the Corps had a good record of teaching them to read.

Perhaps the Pioneer Corps could, even today, help young people cast off their old selves and don a uniform of public service.

The Corps motto translates from the Latin as ‘Work conquers all’. Would a new Pioneer Corps benefit British society today?


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