Interview with Horst, a veteran of the feared Totenkopf-Division. He fought in the invasion of France, on the Eastern Front and in the hellish battles in Hungary near the end of the war.

How did you come to join the SS?

I was a member of the 3./SS-TK-I.R.2 under the command of Fritz Knöchlein, and France 1940 was our baptism of fire. I was one of many from the class of 1920 to join the SS right out of studies. I volunteered for the SS and was assigned to the 'Totenkopf Standarte' due to my schooling in law and order.

Where were you assigned?

I enlisted in January of '39 in the SS-TV [SS-Totenkopfverbände] and underwent months of training. Later I was assigned to the barracks in Dachau and guarded the prisoners there for a short time on a temporary basis. I can attest that, contrary to what is commonly told now, the camp was a place where prisoners were well treated and cared for. I had many interactions with prisoners, who were mostly old communists from the Kampfzeit [Time of Struggle] days who would not cease their activities or who committed crimes against their fellow compatriots. I met Theodor Eicke on several occasions and witnessed him on more than one occasion give gifts to the prisoners such as cigarettes, books/papers and once during a holiday, allowed them to have wine in excess where many became quite happy, should we say, which was somewhat funny to watch. Never did I in my short stay in the camp see any abuse from the guards, there were complaints that other prisoners mistreated those they did not like. If they were found out, they were removed and sent to other camps. The prisoners knew they were there to be rehabilitated to fit into the new Germany; those who refused were resigned to make a home in the camp. I spent all of 1939 training in Dachau and the surrounding areas.

How did you receive news of the war declaration?

The English declaration of war came as a big surprise. The Führer made it very clear, even in the very beginning that his main goal was to reunite German lands that had been taken away by the Allies in the first war. Our press reported on many stories regarding the sometimes-trying conditions of our fellow Germans who lived in the occupied areas. Again, the Allies tell a very different story, mainly that we only wanted "lebensraum" [living space] and so we attacked every country we could just to steal land. I am afraid the truth is much different. The Polish Corridor was such a simple issue that it amazes me still that Poland would not work with Germany to come to a mutual agreement. We know now that both England and France were in their ear telling them to refuse all our requests, all the while border raids and attacks on ethnic Germans were still going on. So in 1939 when war was declared there was a feeling of sadness, but at the same time a feeling that now we will be able to deal with these problems for the last time.

What was your first action in the war?

We trained and did exercises with the army, even when France invaded parts of the border, we were only allowed to train as our superiors felt we were not combat ready. There were quite a few accidents in the beginning by the mostly young inexperienced soldiers of Totenkopf. In May 1940, I was promoted to SS Rottenführer, and two days later we were moved to the border, we knew we would soon see action against France. On May 10, our forces attacked but we were made to stay in reserve, angering many of us, who wanted to help our comrades. On May 15th, we saw what was said to be English bombers heading to bomb a German city nearby. To all of us this was a new kind of war, where planes could deliver such destruction, and we were hoping they were only targeting military areas and not our civilians. On May 16th, we were told to advance, finally, and entered Belgium, moving very swiftly. We saw the results of war almost everywhere, downed planes, shot up vehicles, the dead and many refugees. There was a strange feeling I noticed that seemed odd for a combat unit. Many of us were very scared of what lay in front of us. We knew we were outnumbered by a large number and, except for very few NCOs who served in the first war, this was our first taste of real fighting. I recall that the first action was when the French ambushed our lead elements from the side.

They were completely taken by surprise and suffered enormous causalities and the sight of so many wounded comrades was sickening. Our lack of experience showed, as very soon after the British attacked us. Our whole division was moved up but failed to halt these attacks. I would like to tell you something important, as it relates to how we treated enemy personnel who surrendered. One of our old NCOs pointed out that the wounds some of our men had, seemed very severe. He pointed out that during the first war the British used illegal bullets that were hollowed out or reversed to cause more injury, as opposed to a solid bullet that would many times go through flesh without leaving large holes. This was against the rules of war, agreed upon by all nations who took part. This caused us great anger towards those we regarded as our racial relatives. It was reported back to our leaders to be on the lookout for this type of ammo and that anyone who possessed it should be brought to our leaders.

Our front stabilized against the Allied attacks as the Luftwaffe was able to fight off fighters and bombers, and deliver devastating blows to the British. In spite of being outnumbered, we again started to advance and noticed the amount of prisoners started to increase. We were disheartened to see many non-Europeans forced to fight for their colonial masters. It trickled back through the ranks that when interrogated they did not want to fight against us, and only wanted to go home to their families. However, some of the Africans turned out to be quite ruthless and savage, we would later find out.

[Above: Men from the tank regiment of the SS division 'Totenkopf' somewhere in France posing in front of their Pz.Bf.Wg.III Ausf.J '? 001', 1942. Note the death's head painted on the tank behind the shoulder of the soldier third from right.]

It has been claimed that your unit and division committed some very bad war crimes against French civilians and Allied soldiers. Do you have any comment regarding your side of the story?

I do. One must remember things are not always what they seem, or what the other side reported. The victor of a war gets to tell the story. I was always told that during the first war civilians actively resisted the German army against all rules of war, forcing some units to use force to stop it. We were in the same scenario in 1940, and I blame the British. They told the civilian populations that we were going to kill them all and burn their babies, so it put a fear in them that made them want to resist us. Some would take shots at us from afar, some hid in barns, houses, even sacred churches. Many a German soldier was felled by a civilian who attacked them. We even heard of a Luftwaffe bomber crew who was murdered after they bailed out. Any guilty parties that were caught, identified by eyewitnesses, or turned in, were shot on sight, as any army would have done. We did go to great lengths to make sure we were not killing innocents, or destroying property needlessly. This order came down directly from Eicke who was our division commander. Any of our soldiers who were caught harassing, or looting civilians was dealt with harshly and I was told a couple of SS men were executed for looting.

I personally saw Belgian and French civilians who had been shot by retreating British and French soldiers. I witnessed a frantic French woman who came up to our CO; she said Negro soldiers who said they were shooting all German sympathizers had taken her husband away. We found him and five other French men dead 2 km from the town. One was a German citizen I remember. We were told that when we take any Negro prisoners to bring them to the CO to see if the killers could be identified. We processed many prisoners during this time. A funny story that I witnessed was a black clad Rabbi and his family who were trying to get to the coast to escape the war; they made a wrong turn around Cambrai and drove right into our lines. He got out and asked in perfect German if he could be pointed in the right direction, in which one of us said "hell is straight down Rabbi, and the devil waits for you." He had the look of terror in his eyes, then we all laughed, and he was relieved. He asked if we maybe could spare some water and we gave him some and sent him on his way. Our senior NCO, in a sad tone commented, "Their brethren started this war, then they get to flee to safety."

I remember the weather was fairly warm, and we were in constant action now as the Allies were retreating but also making small counter-attacks that seemed to always be against Totenkopf. Regarding one of the main accusations against my company was the Le Paradise "massacre" and I was there. I have been asked about this many times, and if you tell the truth, no one wants to listen. I have been threatened with arrest and trial by Bonn because I state nothing illegal happened. Our day started with orders to advance against dug in British positions on several farms. Almost immediately the wounded seemed to have horrendous open wounds, one young soldier had his arm almost completely taken off due to an expanding or exploding bullet. Our leaders were enraged, and believed, again, that the enemy was using illegal bullets. I did not witness this as I was running orders to another unit, but the British put a white flag of truce up and when a group went out to see what their terms were, they were shot down and murdered, which was a war crime. Our orders were to then wipe out any resistance and we let them have it with our very limited resources. My unit was tasked with attacking a farm, and as the bullets flew, my NCO who was in the first war said he could tell the British were using the backwards bullets as they made a hissing sound as they went by. We finally broke their resistance as their ammo was used up. We saw the white flag again, but the last trick caused the British more causalities this time as soldiers would shoot first, then accept the fake surrender after. Our officers had to order us to cease-fire.

The British indeed were ready to give up in all the positions they occupied. All of our companies came forward to search and disarm the British. I was told to gather and search a group who had defended some woodpiles and foxholes. They did not speak German, but I spoke English. They looked just like me and made me think why are we fighting each other? They seemed very defiant and dejected, not wanting to listen to my instructions, which angered me. My NCO came up and asked what was going on, I told him they were giving me a hard time, he then pulled out his P08 [pistol] and pointed it at one of them and asked if his pride was worth dying for, as refusal to comply is punishable by death. They all immediately took off their kits and unloaded their pockets. During the questioning of prisoners, I happened to be sitting by a makeshift interrogation table and when asked if British soldiers were using altered bullets the same answer came back, no, all ammo was standard British military issue. There is always one who breaks down, and this soldier stated that his senior NCO was a first world war veteran, and told his men that hollowing out or reversing bullets made them better at bringing down the enemy. Battalion commanders were brought in to hear his testimony, and it was written down. A commander from another company asked him if he knew if it was against the rules of war to use this technique, he stated yes, and when asked if his other comrades knew, he stated yes, as they joked about being locked up if caught, or shot. The company commander, who was not [Fritz] Knöchlein, conferred with his officers and I heard him give the order to round up all prisoners and bring them to the back of a farm building to sort this out.

I was ordered along with my platoon to start searching for stragglers along the perimeter of the farms so I did not see what happened exactly, but the British maintain men of the Totenkopf, led by Knöchlein, murdered these men. I distinctly remember that we only captured a handful of Tommies, nowhere near the 100 or so that is claimed. Most had already been shot down due to the fighting, and some I saw shot down as they tried to surrender, but the fake surrender incident sealed their fate. Our medics treated many, many wounded Tommies, I saw this myself and was slightly angered that we were using our small amount of medical supplies on enemies who had tried to kill us with illegal bullets. A comrade told me later that the prisoners had been turned over to the Army, but a few were executed as they admitted using dum dum ammo [armor piercing rounds which expand on impact] on us. We were witness to many French who claimed the Allied soldiers were looting and killing anyone who was German, or pro-fascist. Bullets that seemed to cause much greater damage than normal were hitting our soldiers. The Allies were telling civilians that we would kill, rape, and torture them when we arrived, just as they did in the first war, causing them to fire on or sabotage our soldiers. We were angry with our enemy, and believed them to be acting in a manner that was against the laws of war. Therefore, if indeed they were executed, in my mind, it was justified as they committed crimes that caused unnecessary suffering and damage to our soldiers and property.

After this incident was over, we moved on, the Allies had long been broken and surrendered in mass. Negro soldiers, who had been accused of illegal killings, even killing German prisoners, were executed after field investigations were conducted. We were saddened our French brothers were forced to allow these unprofessional soldiers in their ranks. The Allies call these war crimes, but when circumstances were reversed, they did the same thing. Reminds me of the glass house axiom [Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones]. Our army dealt out swift justice to those who ignored the rules of war. It is argued that we didn't give lengthy trials with lawyers present, but we couldn't, we were trying to bring quick justice and fight a war, all while trying to get the civilian population to not harass us and let us help them rebuild.

[Above: A selection of 'Totenkopf' knights. Like many SS men, their handsome elan, confidence and courage was in sharp contrast of their Allied enemy. Click to enlarge.]

What was a summary of the rest of your service?

After duty in France, we were moved back to the Reich to fix issues with training and equipment for most of the beginning of 1941. We did not know it but we were also preparing for the attack on the Soviets. In the opening stages of the war, we were all surprised at the vast amount of men and material in Poland and the Baltic states, which supported the claim that Stalin was planning an attack against us. We were taking thousands of prisoners, many of whom then volunteered to help us, either in the ranks, as cooks and helpers, or as paid workers in the Reich contrary to Soviet propaganda. We called the ones who stayed with us "HIWIS" [short for 'Hilfswilliger', an auxiliary volunteer], and never had a problem with them as far as I saw. My division became trapped at Demjansk [Russia] and fought off attack after attack, but survived.

Overall I must say the Soviet soldier was cruel and ruthless, filled with a hate that his political officers had instilled in him, both man and woman. Our wounded were shot, prisoners murdered, some in horrific ways. Our leaders told us to remember the civilians; we were trying to win their hearts so they would help us in this gigantic fight, where we were vastly outnumbered. We are accused of great crimes against the Soviet people, but the truth is far different. We went out of our way to ensure, again that we were not destroying lives or property needlessly. The partisan that operated in our rear would go into a village (sometimes in captured German uniforms I might add), terrorize the people, kill and loot, then disappear. Many times these partisans were staunch Soviets or Jews. When caught, they were tried and executed without mercy, as they showed none to their victims. I remember one incident where a young woman went into a local hospital and gave lethal doses of drugs to wounded soldiers in a small town I can no longer remember. She killed three soldiers before being caught. It turned out she was a Jew, she was tried, and hung as a terrorist by local police. I was a spectator to this and wondered what makes people so evil.

I was a part of the misery of the 1944/45 battles in Hungary, we at times were outnumbered 100 to 1 by the enemy, they had complete control of the air, and for the first time I saw US warplanes attack us. Our flak always managed to get one, as they attacked in mass. I remember seeing a US fighter shot down and got to go look for the pilot. He sadly did not make it, he was still in the cockpit when we found him, must have been hit by our Flak-Rgt. We did not have time to give him a burial as we could hear gunfire not far away so back into the fray we went. It was during this engagement with the Soviets, in February 1945, an artillery barrage wounded me quite badly. I was hit in the back, legs, and hand. I was taken to a recovery hospital in Bischofshofen [Austria] in which it seemed like there was no war. I stayed there until June of '45. Because I had been heavily wounded, the Allied soldiers left me alone, not even caring that I had been in the SS. I heard later that my division had surrendered near Klagenfurt and was then handed over to the Soviets where many were murdered. I did not recover until mid-1946, so I escaped the Allied witch-hunt.

I was able to return home, and given passes as a surrendered German soldier for free travel and for what little food there was. Germany had been bombed so bad that our entire infrastructure was gone. No water, medical facilities, sanitation, or electricity. Many people were sick, and the release of concentration camp inmates who were carriers of typhus prompted a medical emergency that the Allies were hard pressed to stop. Many people died in the months right after the war, there was no law or order. Communists were able to settle old scores, Germany was turned back into the Weimar Republic, with its drugs, prostitution, immorality, and hopelessness. The black market criminals came from all over the world feeding on German women, taking "favors" in order to give them bare living necessities. The Allies, to their credit, did step in and allowed us to reorganize our police, in which I was able to enlist, and we immediately began cracking down on the rape of our nation. At this time, I started hearing from the population of the crimes of the Allied soldiers. The looting, rapes, and terror, especially from the Soviets. I was one of the lucky ones, as my fate was to be wounded and avoid what so many of my friends and comrades went through at the end. One friend I had from the beginning came back from Soviet imprisonment in 1955, ten years after the war. Held solely because he served his nation. The stories he told of the camps were shocking to hear.

I was able to stay as a police officer working closely with the US Army, and even met some officers who seemed sorry that they had to fight us. One spoke to a group of us in August of '46 and indeed made statements that he was sorry he had to fight us. He said he could see now the US fought on the wrong side and destroyed the one nation who could have ended communism. He spoke about General Patton, who reminded me of Eicke in every way, from what I was told about him. I could see he really cared about his soldiers. What stood out also is how he took command of the situation in southern Germany and started to help the population rebuild and recover. He freed prisoners, halted the harassment of former National Socialist members, and took care to ensure the Red Cross had freedom to work. It was far different from what was happening in the Rhine area in which millions were interred in make shift camps where many thousands are said to have died. I am grateful to have survived, when so many did not. Had it not been for that Soviet rocket salvo, who knows what could have happened?

Do you regret serving in the SS after seeing all that has been written?

Not at all. In his closing statement Rudolf Hess told the victors at Nürnberg, that even if he could go back and change his life, he would not, because he served a higher power. I too feel the same way. We Germans had twelve years under a true government of the people's will. We were blessed with a standard of living, for the first time in history, where the common man could enjoy a true life of happiness. The National Socialist government erased debt, immorality that destroys nations, bad medicine, shame, and the lop-sided Jewish control by this tiny minority over a whole nation. I felt, and still feel like I was part of a holy order of men who were chosen to stand and fight for the future of our people. I joined the ranks of not only Germans, but men from all over the world who understood that sometimes you must fight to have the rights you so desire. The British, guided by their Jewish masters, forced a fight on us, just because we wanted to be our own masters, and live life the way we wanted to live. Germany from 1933 was a place where beauty was all around, in the people, the children, and the cities. For the first time we felt truly at peace and close to our creator, almost like a heaven on earth.

The SS was the vanguard of a new way of thinking, a "back to our roots" type of mentality, which meant throwing off some religious "progress" which holds that the Jews are our God's chosen people. This caused problems with our church leaders, but it had to be done. So in short, no I do not regret being an SS man, and serving my country in one of the greatest forces that ever walked the earth. I would do it again without a second thought.

[Above: Exhausted men of the 'Totenkopf' Division. Some of them still had the energy to smile, despite their dire situation.]

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