The SS [Schutzstaffel] is an umbrella term. Within the SS you had the Allgemeine SS [political wing], which is the original black-uniformed SS. Then you had the Gestapo [secret police], which was the grey-uniformed, leather-coated types; and then there was the Waffen SS [military wing]. The Waffen SS comprised almost a million soldiers. We were a branch of the armed forces and we were not a branch of the political SS in the sense, we were highly-motivated, young, idealistic Nazis. There’s no question in my mind.
You had to be one metre, 80 cm tall; you had to be physically healthy. Downstairs in my documents, I have my passport of ancestry. You had to prove that you were Aryan for three generations; and I had to prove, because I wanted to become an officer, that I had five generations of Aryans and I had that with me. It was an Aryan philosophy that was superimposed on the Waffen SS by [Reichsführer Heinrich] Himmler. Himmler was a nut. He was a biology teacher and he had a pseudo-scientific approach.
And so I immediately was transferred up to near a place called Monschau where the 1st SS Panzer Division was assembling for the Battle of the Bulge. I think you’re familiar with it. Well, we called it Operation Christa Rosa or Operation Christrose. The Americans called it the Battle of the Bulge and it was actually the Ardennes Offensive, 16 December . So I was in that until we ran out of ammunition and gas. The logistics were impossible because for the first week, we were very successful because the Americans couldn’t employ the air force: it was snowing and cold, and totally in favour of us. And that’s why we were so successful. But the minute the skies cleared, we just knew that for us, this was the end of it. And we not just only lost the tanks because we had no fuels, but no logistics were allowed to come through. We had orders not to move during the daytime and you can’t fight a war by just fighting at night. [laughs] So fortunately for me now, we blew up our own tank and then fought as grenadiers, soldiers.
Sometime early April, I was joined again with my division and it was the last group south of Munich that tried to delay the progress of the Americans, which we weren’t really successful in. And we didn’t really try very hard. I must say this: for the first time, I recognize that the commanding officers allowed people to desert, you know, or encouraged them to desert. And by the time we got to Reichenhall (Reichenhall which is near my hometown), we were down to about 400 people. You know, for a whole division, that’s a very small handful.
I was a, what they called, a melder, which means a messenger, on a motorcycle. And on 3 May, I was shot off from my motorcycle by an American armoured vehicle and I passed out. The next thing I knew, well, I came to, it was late at night and my buddies had carried me, but they had already had the plans the officer had given them and I asked them to drop me off in one of the alpine huts where I knew them and they left me with him. And these guys, the Austrians, all went across the mountains and went home. And that as the end of the war for me.
Hitler, to most of us, did the right thing at the time. Of course, none of us read the book Mein Kampf and none of us really listened to all the soothsayers who didn’t agree with him and I violently disagreed with my father on the issue of Hitler because he could sense what was coming because he was older. I was too young to sense that war was on the way and to me, he led us, not down the garden path, but he led us to worldwide recognition again; someone to be counted upon. We were trained up to become robots and idealistic robots.
We still had some brains that was undamaged, but it was used for only, how can we excel in what we’re going to do: fight; war; kill. They sharpened those skills in us; that didn’t sharpen the skills in terms of intellectual curiosity.
Once I came to Canada and I realized what it feels like to live in a society where there is no fear of anything, of being arrested for the way you think, then I started really to make it my business to read and read and read. I became a history teacher mostly because I was interested in ̶ is it true what they’re saying here? My students fortunately, I ended up making them historical skeptics. I said, everything you read, make sure you understand the frame of reference of what you’re reading. And the facts in history are rarely agreed upon. My first lesson would be, I gave them two accounts of the Hungarian Revolution and one of them was from Pravda [Soviet newspaper] and one of them was from Time Magazine. My God, there was only two things they agreed on [laughs] – that there were tanks there and there were people there on a certain day. Bingo. Everything else was different. So history is interpretation. As [Winston] Churchill said, history is the propaganda of the victor.