Don't Mention The War!
Author: James Ellis
I recently interviewed my first German Second World War veteran for the Memory Project Archives. I must admit my initial preparation for the interview with Luftwaffe pilot Rudolf Walter was met with some trepidation.
In the 1970s British sitcom “Fawlty Towers,” actor John Cleese poked fun at post-Second World War British attitudes towards the war generally and Germany specifically. In one episode, Cleese’s character, the manic hotel proprietor Basil Fawlty, sustains a head injury and then makes inflammatory statements towards a group of German guests. The skit culminates with Basil goose-stepping around the room, a finger under his nose in a cheap British school playground imitation of Adolf Hitler. Not that I would make such an impromptu exhibition myself, but my trepidation was rooted in how a German war veteran, no doubt aware of this type of “humour,” would react to a British interviewer. I feared that he would be suspicious of my motives and therefore be reticent about sharing his experiences.
Rudolf Walter, 1943 and the Iron Cross he won in October 1944 Germany’s role in the Second World War remains a controversial and, for some, painful subject; the perpetrators of Nazi horrors are still being held accountable today. In 2011, one former Nazi was tried and convicted in Germany at the age of 91. Easily forgotten is that after the war tens of millions of Germans lost their homes and were disconnected from their families as a result of the Allied occupation of the country and then its division into western and eastern states. The least fortunate Germans lived under East Germany’s communist rule until 1989. Other Germans, their country shattered and divided, were forced to immigrate and start new lives in foreign countries. With this historical context as backdrop, the Fawlty Towers episode’s running gag “don’t mention the war” appears as much common sense as comedy.
My pre-interview uneasiness was completely unfounded. Mr. Walter (“Rudi” as he likes to be called) openly answered my questions and, unprompted, discussed extremely emotional and traumatic experiences. An Iron Cross recipient, Mr. Walter first served as a bomber pilot on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union before being transferred to fighter units as Germany neared imminent defeat. By the end of the war, he had lost his home (which was located in a region now part of Poland) and most of his family, including both parents. However, with the Luftwaffe aircrew casualty rate of 80%, Mr. Walter was one of the lucky ones. Rudi had survived when millions of Germans had not. Immigrating to Canada after the war, Mr. Walter left his old life behind him and started afresh, like thousands of new arrivals to Canada do every year. “I can’t complain,” he reminisces, “Canada has been extremely good.” In Canada, Mr. Walter raised a family and became a successful chemist, before retiring with his wife in British Columbia. “If we’d have stayed in Germany,” Mr. Walter adds, “we wouldn’t have gotten nowhere.”