“Deserters” review

“Deserters” review


by Lars G. Petersson
Danish Resistance Museum Publishing, 2005
also published as “Hitlers Fahnenflüchtige”, chipmunkapublishing, 2012

Annette Bygott

In Germany during World War II, a careless remark, an anti-war entry in a diary, a kind gesture towards a Russian prisoner – all could be viewed as ‘aiding the enemy’ and prove fatal. An act of self-mutilation by an under-age conscript, nerves shattered by heavy shelling, this ‘crime’ too sufficed for the death penalty. Over 20,000 deserters and war resisters paid the ultimate price at the hands of the Nazis’ cruel war judges and executioners. As Hitler put it: “Soldiers may die; deserters shall die.”

For decades these victims were denied due recognition. Germans who had refused to fight Hitler’s war did not feature in the post-war public debate at home or abroad and their stories did not catch the attention of historians. Lars Petersson’s book sets the record straight, telling three different stories of desertion based on his interviews and extracts from the men’s memoirs. Some revelations will shock. While those handing out the draconian sentences thrived in post-war Germany in prestigious positions, and while the German officers who had plotted to assassinate Hitler soon gained honoured status in national memorial services, deserters continued to be despised as traitors and cowards. The author explores this injustice and reveals the tense struggle when attempts are made to unveil a first statue to ‘The Unknown Deserter’ or to place a memorial wreath.

The English version was published before the German Bundestag finally granted all categories of deserters their long overdue rehabilitation in 2009. The German version brings the record up to date.