Interview with Untersturmführer Oswald Van Ooteghem, Flemish veteran of the Legion Flandern, war reporter and member of 27. SS-Freiwilligen-Grenadier-Division 'Langemarck' (SS-Jugend-Bataillon 27), 1998 phone interview.

Thank you very much for agreeing to speak with me. Our mutual friend said to make sure I ask you good questions. To start off, of course, I would like to know what attracted you to join the Germans, particularly the Waffen-SS? Also, can you explain how the process went to join the SS?

Oswald: Absolutely, I must say that it is nice to meet someone who has taken the time to greet my former comrades, you are thought highly of, it seems. It is nice that young men still have an interest in what we did and our history. And so, for my life story, I have to begin by saying I came from a family who loved our land. Both my father and mother were Flemish nationalists who instilled in me a love of our people and culture. Back then things were hard for us as we were seen as minorities in Belgium, and there was discontent that the main government did not want to listen to us. There was widespread poverty and unemployment, which everyone knows now, are the seeds of revolution. I went with my father to a German exhibition of architecture, which he was in. We both were very impressed by the Germans, how happy, free, and advanced they were under Hitler. I even saw the BDM [Bund Deutscher Mädel, or League of German Girls] girls practicing for a dance, and as a young boy I certainly wanted to join in. My father had to pull me away but not before one gazed my way and blew me a kiss.

So you see, Germany made a very good impression on me. Now if you fast forward to 1940, we were at war with Germany, who had occupied the country. We never saw them as the enemy, quite the opposite. They were very good to us, viewing the Flemish as brothers. When German soldiers came into the town, the leaders drank beer with them before they set off for France. Under the occupation our life improved, there was much work and the people were content. Of course the war was on our minds, but it appeared Germany would win. In 1941 Germany launched the attack on Soviet Russia in an attempt to destroy the Bolshevik menace once and for all. The Germans set up recruiting stations all over the occupied cities. I was studying to follow in my father's footsteps, but I also felt compelled that something must be done about the threat from the East. Many other young men and I went to apply to join the Flemish Legion. You had to file paperwork attesting to being free from crime or defects. Then I had to take the physical in Ghent, they looked all over for faults. Most young men who applied were denied admission.

Back in that time the SS was seen as the vanguard of a new order of European men. Only the best and brightest with untainted blood could be a part. They would not take anyone who had genetic faults, mixed race blood, or mental defects. You had to be tall, fit, and agree to volunteer. Once I learned I was accepted, I remember being very happy and running to tell my parents that I would soon be off to fight the threat of what was called then "Jewish Bolshevism." My father was happy, as he was a leader in the movement, and his comrades came to congratulate me. My mother I could tell was fearful. I must say that when I went in the legion, it was not part of the SS, which came later when Himmler united all the foreign volunteers under his leadership. You are aware men came from all over Europe to help fight, correct?

Yes, can I ask you how the Germans viewed having non-Germans in their ranks helping them fight?

Oswald: As you can imagine they were very happy to have us. The Soviet Union was a huge land to fight, larger than all of Europe combined. We needed everyone we could find. Even Swiss and Swedes came to fight in the SS, and we viewed everyone as a comrade. It was Himmler and the SS who realized first to recruit non-Germans, the army was elitist still and only wanted German blood. As far as the Germans, they never gave any indication of the old sentiments that are evident in Europeans. I even had Germans under my command later in the war, and they respected me like any other officer. Personally I think the Germans gave us more greetings since we were not German. They did not feel alone in the war and we let them know they had our support. When our trains were leaving for the East you should have seen the throngs of people coming to see us off. Hitler Youth, BDM, wives, girlfriends, parents, and political leaders, it was quite a spectacle. All through our journey we saw the people greeting us, and even in the occupied areas there were throngs greeting us. I never felt I was on the wrong side of things; of course today one must change his mind. The winner gets to tell the history, and choose who the sinner is. The truth is that many Europeans saw the danger from Bolshevism and rallied to Germany. I saw firsthand the determination of these volunteers.

I was close by the Spanish Legion and later Blue Division, where they were fighting. One unit of Spanish held off an entire Soviet army. I believe it was five thousand Spaniards held off forty thousand Soviets. They smashed a whole army; the field was littered with thousands of dead and wrecks. The feats of those under German arms are forgotten now, but were quite extraordinary. It was a true David versus Goliath fight, but the righteous side did not prevail. The Germans rewarded the loyalty of these volunteers with the same medals and decorations that German personnel received, there was no discrimination. Many of the foreign volunteers wore more medals than the average Germans soldier. A testament to the determination those who understood the fight had.

I have always been interested in the religious views of the SS, as it is a common belief that the SS was anti-religious. Did you find this to be the case?

Oswald: No, not at all, I came from a Catholic family, like most of my comrades. The Waffen-SS was a military formation, not a religious one, so religion was not at the forefront of the idea. There was absolutely no interference that I saw in anyone's religion. I believe all of National Socialist Germany adopted a separation of the state and church, but were friendly to Christianity. After all, the whole reason we fought was to safeguard Christian Europe and its people. Just like today we were under attack from forces who wanted to see our culture and religion disappear. I can say that freely and with conviction, the SS was pro-religious and never gave us any problems. Of course there were some who had no time for god, or were part of the Nordic pagan cliques that were popular. We had a father in my unit who was sanctioned to meet all of our spiritual needs, although he was not called an official priest. He would grant confession and communion to all, regardless of being Catholic or Protestant.

[Above: SS Langemarck recruiting poster.]

Can I ask what it was like on the Eastern Front?

Oswald: Well, that is something that is hard for me to speak about. It was pure hell on earth. I was on the north front by Leningrad, where I was wounded. As I mentioned, the Soviets had vast manpower where we were outnumbered many times over. We could shoot down a whole company during an attack, but they just brought up 10 more. In many cases we had better weapons, medical care, tactics, and convictions. This was not enough in the end, however. They stopped the Germans in 1941, which we did not really understand; we thought Stalingrad was only a setback. We came to the thinking it would be over soon, in this we were wrong. I saw things in the east that made me hate war, and to see the futility of it. The idealist in me made me stay in it, as I knew we had to finish this fight to keep Europe free. I saw the women soldiers fall, which haunted me. They were mostly used as supply, medical, or runners, but some fought as soldiers. I met one who was captured when her supply truck made a wrong turn and then got stuck when they tried to back up. They quickly showed a white flag and were brought to our lines. They had blankets, food and petrol cans, which we needed badly. I still see her today, she looked dirty, but had blond hair in braids tucked into her cap. She looked just like any European girl. She had fear on her face and some of the men went out of their way to make her smile. She was put by a fire to warm up, and given coffee with some soup. The interpreter told her she would be sent to a women's camp and that if she wanted she could petition to be released to serve in an auxiliary unit.

The Germans allowed many prisoners to join the fight against Stalin, which is never mentioned today. Hearing his words she seemed to perk up, and began speaking to him and our leader. Of course not being around many women in the field all of us crowded around, until the Spieß [(German military slang name (literally "spear") for the Company sergeant major] put us to work. They said she was from the Urals and came from a farm family. She was pressed into service because she was from a large family who could spare her. That was of course what our interpreter told us. Most of my time in the east was trying to stay warm, and free from bug bites, in the summer they were very bad. This area was wet and marshy and ideal for them. We were mostly in static positions, and had to endure Soviet attacks. The weather was more of our enemy at times.

How did you see the civilians treated by the Germans?

Oswald: Very well, and that is in all areas I was in. In Poland it is said things were very bad for them. I never saw that at all, and I stayed in Warsaw once. The Poles seemed happy and were living life like there was no war. I know there was rationing, like all over Europe, but I still saw food fairs in Warsaw, dances, and carnivals. The same in Russia, the people who did not leave with the Soviets welcomed the Germans as liberators and friends. The Germans, and that includes us volunteers, were very kind to the people. In many cases we had to stay with them in their homes. Some were made of straw and not too fancy, but they had warm stoves. The children we always felt sorry for and hoped the war would pass them by. They would often come to try to sell us food stuffs or warm weather clothes. One enterprising family got a hold of Soviet uniforms and would try to sell them to us. We thought that was odd to do, as we could just grab them off fallen soldiers if one was so inclined. Looting from the dead was not something we were permitted to do however, though some snuck and took items they needed. Our doctor traded some care and food so he could give them to prisoners who were lacking warm clothing. So much for us abusing the prisoners as it is said today.

The only time I saw civilians get upset was when they were forced to work on a project like repairing a road or having to help bury the dead. A call would go out for volunteers and if not enough came forward then they were picked. They were paid either in money or extra food and never forced to work for free. I can attest to that as I saw it with my own eyes. We had to bury Soviet soldiers after an attack, and we were short on men. People from a local village were recruited to help bury them. They were the enemy, but we showed them respect as soldiers. They were cursed by not having any standard identity discs. They either just had written information on them, or they crudely marked utensils, or anything they could scratch information on. The civilians would often put up markers that would say Soviet soldiers rest here, but could not be identified. It was terrible work, but it had to be done as the fallen could not be left out. Our comrades were always removed to the rear for a service and buried in honor cemeteries.

[Above: Oswald Van Ooteghem (left) and comrade. Click to enlarge.]

You ended up becoming a war reporter, and later an officer. How was it being a reporter?

Oswald: Yes I was, it was called the propaganda company. I have to say it started for me because of a bad wound. This sent me back to the Reich for a stay in a Graz [Austria] hospital. I was very well cared for, and my comrades and family came to see me. I was offered a chance to do non-combat work and it made sense to take it. I was told that showing Europe the war and what was happening at the front would be very important work for the final victory. The war was starting to turn for us, and I was tasked with documenting life at the front, and behind the lines. I remember my mother was very happy to have me out of the hard fighting. What I did not tell her was that I was still at the front; I was just not firing a weapon. I had a camera and would take photos and write about actions I witnessed. I was also chosen for officer school in the Waffen-SS. The SS looked for talent, not class structure in choosing officers, so it was an honor for me. It felt odd that I, as a foreign volunteer, was placed in command of Germans later in the war. As I mentioned to you the Germans of that time made no distinction of nationality, we were all fighting on the same side as brothers. Even Himmler was adamant about that, he spoke to us in 1944 and declared that there was no German, Dane, Flem, or other race, we were all Germanic Aryans fighting for a better time.

Something I have always been curious about is the claims regarding war crimes and executions leveled against the Waffen-SS. Could I ask for your opinion about these claims and if you feel they are true?

Oswald: My sir, I do not usually care to delve into this topic, however since you vouched for, I will say just a small piece here. Many of us have been persecuted for our beliefs and our service. I can tell you that I in no way was ever a part of any executions, nor did I witness any. The Soviets have spun tales that just will not die, even with its destruction. Now that Europe is free of the threat the truth should be told, but the people who know the truth are all dead. Those who are still alive are too scared or simply do not care, it opens up bad things if one speaks out. I say one must be careful these days to not sound as if they were wishing for Hitler to be back. I know it is said crimes were committed all over the occupied areas by Hitler fanatics, but I have not seen this. I am not saying they did not happen, I remind you, only that I did not see them. My comrades have told me that they did not know anything about them as well, but many were threatened after the war to admit to things.

Some men did admit to seeing the killings of civilians and prisoners, but I am not so sure this was accurate. Many people just wanted to be done with it all and get back to peacetime lives. In some cases it may have been better to admit to seeing something that they never really saw so they could be left alone. This of course is speculation but is founded on research I have done. I have never met a comrade who has admitted they saw crimes or killings, and it would have come up in talks. One must be careful with this topic, those who control the media can take a photo for example of soldiers in German helmets standing by what appears to be fallen civilians and say they were killed by the Germans. The average person does not think anything different. A case in point is the famous photo taken in the east showing a soldier appearing to aim a rifle at a mother holding a child. The average person takes it as proof of the evilness of the soldier. What they do not know or understand is that the truth is far different. The bigger photo shows what appears to be a burial that has come under attack. I know this because a comrade was there documenting a partisan crime. While doing so a small band attacked the group, killing a woman, and German soldiers returned fire driving them off.

This is my experience in this, photos are misrepresented, supposed eyewitnesses lied, and false stories are printed from lying soldiers. You add this to the chaos and disease shown at war's end and you can see why people were easy to fool. On the other hand we did see Soviet crimes against the people. The partisans were very cruel in that they would kill anyone who aided us in any way. They sowed terror among the populations where they were active. I can tell you I saw this in action when a whole family was shot down simply for trading eggs and butter with German units. The partisans put a note on them saying they were traitors to Russia, all were shot, even the children. It is whispered now by the old people who witnessed these things, but they will not speak out to tell these stories. History does not record the absolute cruelty that was faced at war's end. Millions died at the hands of the victors of the war, yet all that is brought up is the supposed crimes of "Nazis." That makes it all correct, I suppose. An eye for an eye, I hear the television say that those who fought for Hitler were cruel animals and had to be treated as such. Even the women and children were not spared from what was viewed as just retribution. This is why war is so terrible and should never be thought of as anything else.

[Above: Here is a rare overprinted fundraising sheetlet from late 1944. This was produced with the overprint 'LANGEMARK' to commemorate the formation of the Assault Brigade Langemark. Only 3600 sheetlets were made.]

[Above: A young Oswald Van Ooteghem faces himself many decades later. He would become a politician, first a member of the People's Union, he served in the Senate from 1974 to 1987 and in the Flemish Council from 1980 to 1987. He died in 2022 at the age of 98.]

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