Interview with Reinholt Schl[...], veteran of the elite Hohenstaufen SS Division, SS-Pz.Gren.Rgt. 20. Served on the Eastern Front, Normandy, Arnhem and the Ardennes. Germany, 1988.

Thank you for allowing me to meet with you; can I start of by asking how you came to be a member of the former Waffen-SS?

Reinholt: Right, first you must have a history lesson. The SS was formed because Hitler had a bad habit of fighting with his enemies. He would be the first to throw a punch and strike those trying to stop a speech. One of our training people was an old guard who was with him in Munich and told many stories. He was convinced to finally build a bodyguard unit to help keep his enemies in check. These men were strong, good fighters, and loyal. Himmler built on this idea, and created a special force within the party framework. The SS was born and became a very special group where only the best in Germany could belong. When war broke out the Waffen-SS was formed to be an elite fighting force. This is where I came in. I was called to duty in the good times, which was when Germany was winning on all fronts. We were filled with euphoria of victory and that nothing bad could possibly happen. I received my notice while finishing my time in RAD, and I wanted to get a jump on things so I went to the SS recruitment center and asked to be taken.

They loved guys like me who came to them without being told to. I was accepted, which back in those times it was still tough to get accepted into the SS, but not as tough as it was before the war. Later on you see, they took anyone they could get, even Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine guys were placed into our ranks with no choice. Early on however the Waffen-SS was still a very elite group, and I was very proud to wear the sigrunen on my collar and the death's head on my cap. After the training period I was posted to the replacement unit of the Hohenstaufen Division. This new division was enjoying training in France, and all of a sudden sent east. It was a most unpleasant surprise for us.

What was life like in France for you being the occupier? Did the people seem resentful and distrustful?

Reinholt: I think by then the French had gotten used to us being there, they knew we meant no harm to them, so life went on. I will say that the rationing was hard on the people it seemed. I heard them complain a lot about food being in short supply. We stayed in our quarters mostly during the week, but we had weekends free. The girls would make a point to dress up nice for when we were free. Some of the married men would stay to themselves but others of us enjoyed the clubs and the company. I remember the feeling that going out gave; it put the war out of our minds. We could go eat, enjoy a movie, or just sightsee. The war did come to France at times, the enemy bombed French cities and the children were removed to the country to protect them, but for the most part it was quiet. We would see the fire brigades training in the country for a mass bombing event and we saw German firemen helping them.

Did you ever see acts of sabotage or resistance?

Reinholt: Not early on when I was there in training, but during the Normandy fighting there was some. When I was there early on, as I said, life was good and I saw no animosity from the people. That does not mean none was happening, I just didn't see it. When I read papers today they present a picture that most French were engaged in acts of resistance, but I find that hard to believe. The people were very friendly and helpful; they knew we were mere young soldiers who didn't want to fight with them. There was a respect you could say. We were proud we had beaten France in a war, but we also had no hard feelings. We willingly bought from them, and helped them if needed. I never saw any instances where a French civilian was having trouble with a German. We never looked down on them, and there was none of this racial talk where we were a superior people, like people who were not even alive then are saying. We viewed them as fellow Europeans where we may not always see eye to eye but there was no hate. I must say to you that of course there were cases where civilians were talked into helping our enemies, and enemy agents who snuck into the country.

I know from reading that when caught these people were at times hastily tried, and even in rare cases shot on sight. I heard once from a former comrade who said he saw this. During the move up to Normandy there were some acts of sabotage from either Allied agents, or civilians acting with them. He said they rounded a wooded corner and a tree came down and shooting started. Then they ran off. A sharp eye saw them running and a pursuit was done where they were caught. It was a mix of women and men who admitted felling the tree to slow down the advance and kill soldiers. They were all shot on the spot, which was against regulations. The commander just said they were guilty and there was no way to take them for trial. This brings up of course a moral dilemma, as they were entitled to a fair trial but were shot on sight. I believe this comes from long years of war. You look at the Laconia order; a U-Boat was attacked and bombed while trying to help civilians. Because of repeated attacks and breaches by the Allies, at times we may have had to act hastily when dealing with these bandits. History tells me that the Allies did the same things to civilians who acted against them, but they won the war so their crimes do not matter. There is a saying that goes like this: "The winner of a war not only gets to write its history, but to also cover up his foul deeds."

You mentioned you served on the East Front. Can I ask what it was like for you, and how did you view the Russians? Did you see acts of resistance, or deal with partisans? Did the Russians seem to favor Hitler or Stalin?

Reinholt: Ah yes, I was on the East Front; most all of the Waffen-SS was in the east at one time or another. I remember how expansive it was, it was endless rolling hills and open spaces. When I arrived in the east, it was the wet time, and I remember all the mud. It was hard to move anything; it was not uncommon for men to manually move trucks through the mud. It was melting snow, and rain on top of the melt that made the roads impassable. We had to go for hours before we could rest and warm up. We faced a Red Army then that was both in shambles and fully remade better than in the beginning. Stalin had taken two years to build the Red Army back and it was in 1944 that new units came to the front. I saw both the ragtag soldiers and the new ones. It seemed like they used the east soldiers as fodder, and rebuilt first class units with western men. We would see women serving at the front too, which caught me by surprise. My first prisoners I saw were women supply soldiers who our unit surprised on a road and took prisoner, getting a bounty of food. They all were very polite, I remember, but one did point to our runes and mimic she did not like it. We fed them and allowed them to warm up before being removed to the rear for processing. I must say we treated them very well, even forgetting they were actually soldiers trained to kill us.

Our division had a good showing in the east, where we punched through Russian lines and freed trapped forces, our Panzer korps was victorious. We held open the retreat lines and with this action built a good reputation. Ivan learned to respect the men of Hohenstaufen. As for the people, I can tell you that the east stood out to me as being quite modern from what I saw. I saw Kiev, Minsk, and other cities. The life in the cities was going on as if there was no war. I saw the people going out shopping and enjoying what city life they could. I even was able to see a bit of a movie, while waiting for a train to come in that was delayed for hours. There were lots of children that would come to the station and try to make money shining boots, selling trinkets, or food. I found the people very friendly and willing to help Germans even in 1944. I don't know why the papers say differently today, the people had no reason to fear us, and we didn't fear them. Of course there were pockets of bandits in the east, and due to the vast expanse of area they were hard to catch. They would prey on the small outposts like train switches, supply depots, hospitals, and civil organizations. Their goal was to make life hard for both military and civilians behind the lines. I have heard stories that they wore captured German uniforms and went into friendly villages and killed many of the people making them think it was German forces searching for bandits, turning on them and executing them to make examples. Then they would see people come to them to get revenge.

I know this is why so many of the bandit groups ended up fighting each other, because someone would inevitably find some kind of deceit and turn on them. I know this was talked about during and after the war. It was cruel business dealing with these people and from what I know we had many Russians helping us hunt them. If it was not for these rascals and the weather, Russia would have been a nicer place to visit, as the people were very nice. I was not in the East for a long time but the little time I had I saw a lot. I know that Stalin and his cronies sent all people of German descent to gulags or the polite term was 'resettlement camps'. I heard this from speaking to men who were there in the beginning. The people begged German soldiers to help find loved ones taken by the secret police. Many mass graves were later found with bodies of many victims. There were large areas of the East that Stalin cleared out forcing the people to move. Hitler did the same thing in a sense; he removed many Jews and others who were thought to be trouble for Germany. Ironically they were removed back to the east from where they originally came to Europe. Then they joined with Stalin to fight against us, they formed many of the bandit cells later in the war. I arrived in the East right after Christmas and was surprised to see many Russians were just getting back to having Christmas. Many did not believe in this custom as it was brought back with the occupation. I know there were churches in the East as I saw them, and the people were grateful to be able to attend again. I want you to know something as well; they always say we retreated hastily but we had orders to break contact and form new lines. This was a new type of warfare that was brilliant. It was meant to break the advance of the enemy and cause heavy losses. It worked as we made the enemy pay for every inch of land they took. The problem for us was that they had unlimited soldiers and tanks, we did not.

Something else I saw that is interesting, it is said we turned the Russian and Ukrainian civilians against us by being very cruel to them, and treating them as slaves. This is simply not true. I can tell you I saw the factories in Ukraine and Russia with many willing workers helping their people, and us. I never saw any camps for them, they lived free and without influence, and many areas had no Germans nearby. This is why the partisans had success, because so few German units were close, they could operate for weeks without reaction. I do not believe these stories coming out of the Soviet Union about how cruel we were. I saw the opposite, we helped the people as much as we could, we gave them food, medical care, and help rebuilding. There was a war going on so I am sure at times they were inconvenienced by us, but we did not hate them. I believe Stalin had these stories created to hide his crimes, and the more times they tell these lies the more they believe them. You can not believe anything coming from communists about the war.

[Above: Young Ukrainian girls carry a poster of Adolf Hitler with the words 'Hitler the Liberator'.]

Why did the Waffen-SS use a skull on your uniforms? Many in America believe it's a sign of evil and of how bad the SS was.

Reinholt: You know, we had a foreign volunteer in my training, and we still had a bit of political training then. He asked the same question, why we used a death's head as one of our symbols. Our instructor was an old guard, and said it best. I will try to paraphrase as I remember his response pretty well. "The death's head is a very ancient symbol used by many militaries and elite organizations. We must remember that for us SS men, it tells our enemies that we are already fighting as if we are dead. We have one foot into the next world and have no fear of them. So I can tell you it means we fight until death, and then even in death we won't stop fighting." We all laughed at this of course, but it shows that the SS was serious at keeping true to our oaths and to fight until the end without fear. It certainly does not mean anything evil or vile. It was a part of our esprit du corps [the common spirit existing in the members of a group and inspiring enthusiasm, devotion, and strong regard for the honor of the group-ed.]

You fought in Normandy, what was this time like for you? Can you describe the feelings, and what you saw both from the French and enemy you fought?

Reinholt: Ah I remember that journey well. We were enjoying a rest in Russia after our spring actions. Things were somewhat quiet as Stalin rebuilt his army and received fresh supplies. We held a battle line and only had small, rare battles; I remember a lot of training. We also helped the farmers plant and repair areas damaged by battle, this helped pass time. We received marching orders in June to move west to help on the invasion front. We boarded trains with the Panzer regiment and headed west. Something that stood out to me was seeing the bomb damage in the Reich at this time. In 1944 the bombings of the cities were getting bad and we were delayed at times. We did not make it to the invasion front until the end of June, by then the invasion had a strong footing. I know they went many km inland on the first day, there was hardly any defense. By the time we arrived, piecemeal as it was, we went into the line by Caen, and faced British and Canadian soldiers. Units arrived very slowly due to issues with supply and breakdowns. They had incredible artillery support along with air cover. We were harassed often and had to stay under cover during the day for the most part. We were greeted by several British attacks that were beaten back each time, rarely giving up any ground. I met my first British prisoners here, and was given the Iron Cross for this.

I was ordered to report to the division doctor to get a shell splinter looked at that I had ignored. I was walking through a field in what was supposed to be a safe area when I heard someone call out to me in what sounded like English. I turned towards the sound and saw a wounded Tommy who had been shot during a skirmish the day before, and was very weak due to blood loss. I helped him do a tourniquet better and gave him water. I did not speak English well but he understood I was there to help him get treated. On the way to the hospital we came upon another soldier who was wounded as well and I helped him but he could not walk. I was already helping my new prisoner stay up. I left my canteen with the second and motioned I would return. We had to walk 2 km back to the hospital and when I arrived I reported my prisoner and said I had another to get. There was no vehicle, so I had to go back and drag the other one on a borrowed stretcher. The doctor said I saved them both as their wounds were bad, but also chided by comrades who said they were shooting SS men who surrendered. I ignored that talk and was just happy to find some humanity in wartime. The second prisoner gave me American cigarettes which were highly prized.

I was given the Iron Cross because when the prisoners were interrogated it was learned a new attack was being planned and it helped us prepare a defense to match the blows. The weather was very nice, I remember, with many nice days, but it also invited many new air and ground attacks. I was in the Panzer grenadiers and was trained to move with the Panzers, but this new battle was mostly defensive. Any movement by our side brought instant artillery, anti-tank, and air attacks. Many Panzers were disabled before they could ever reach their objectives. In spite of these incredible odds, we had success against the enemy with limited counterattacks that broke open the lines. One such attack we were able to capture a large amount of supplies and prisoners. I had every spare space stuffed with tins of meat, cigarettes, and coffee.

I was always amazed at the amount of supplies and equipment our enemies possessed. This is why we lost because they had an unlimited supply of anything they needed. They seemed to be fighting this war as a sport and not a matter of survival. So alas our lines were broken open that August and we were forced to retreat. I was wounded during this time. I was in a column that came under artillery and air attack and was hit in the side. I was told I was lucky and if it happened just a day later I would have been trapped and captured. I lost a lot of blood and was in and out of consciousness. I was sent to a hospital back in Reich territory and made better just in time to be sent to Arnhem.

You were part of the Arnhem battle? What was that like for you?

Reinholt: This was an Allied plan to take the Rhine bridges and they had the bad luck to land where we were in reserve to rest and repair. I came back to my unit right in time for us to engage the scattered British and capture them. We then pushed into the town and battled them in pretty severe house fighting. They turned many of the houses into fortresses and often did so with the civilians still in the homes. We had to fight a war, but were also ordered to be very careful about the civilians. I saw a fight go like this. We had to attack forces defending houses and a museum. As we started to bring up our armor, they threw firebombs at us. Our flak opened fire and hit one of the soldiers who was throwing a bomb, dropping it inside and setting the house on fire. A screaming woman came running out followed by her parents, and we quickly moved away.

It was a surreal thing to see. We also had to take the museum and I recall we had a strange guy with us who was furious to see a museum be used as defense. He later punched a Tommy who he said had an artifact tucked into his blouse. It was a strange thing to see during this fight. Here we had to avoid the Allied air power as well; they would come over and strafe anything moving. I felt for the people in the city, as they had to stay inside without power as the Allies bombed the railhead and town. We had to set up food distribution for the people, many who had children. You see we were not the bad guys like people seem to always want to think today. We would go out of our way to help our enemies and take care of civilians. We took every chance to help the British and treated them with respect when they surrendered. I did not know English but I offered cigarettes to some who looked like they could use one. I was glad to have made it out of this fight with only small scratches.

We finally were able to get some rest after this and were moved back to the Reich to rebuild ourselves. This time was spent helping with the harvest and visiting camps for the children and youth groups. Also we did training and received new equipment. All of the stresses of fighting were wearing on me now, I went home on leave and my family said I aged ten years in just two years.

[Above: The brave young men of Hohenstaufen, Autumn/Winter, 1944-45.]

You fought in the Ardennes offensive I understand, how was this for you and what did you experience?

Reinholt: This was the end of the war for me after all this. We went into action against your American soldiers. We had very easy going the first few days, but then the sky cleared and the hunting planes came out. We suffered a lot of losses due to this. The Amis, as we called them, were very well-supplied and able to fight. We could not take an important area and were used as reinforcements to take a town called Bastogne. Here there were so many artillery pieces, anti-tank guns and air attacks that any attacks failed. I saw the massive air drops coming to bring relief, and we could do nothing. It was snowy, cold and damp, so very miserable fighting. It reminded me of Russia, but with better roads and infrastructure. The people here had turned cold to us I remember. We would see people who would be on the roads and wave us off to not bother them. We saw one cart with a French flag flying. I saw an officer go and throw it down; I believe he told the people it could make them an air target for our Luftwaffe.

They laughed that we had no more Luftwaffe and the war is lost so we better head west to surrender. This boiled our blood, but I think we also knew they were right. I remember on our retreat I was on a road where it appeared civilians had been attacked by planes and killed. I felt pity I recall, and I wondered if this was maybe part of this group, killed by the people they thought would free them. Our retreat from this area was cold and depressing. We were told this was it; it was to be our big attack west to split the Allies and force peace. We only wanted that damn war to end any way possible and it was a gamble, which did not work out. We made it back to the Reich and again were sent to rest ourselves. I was on a train when it was attacked by planes and hit in the shoulder by a bullet. This train was riddled and another civilian train that was sitting on a siding was hit as well, killing many civilians. I found out later they were mostly eastern workers who were being moved to factories in the mountains.

I was sent to the hospital and made to heal until April, by now the war was over as our area was taken by the Americans. I was almost ready to be discharged when they arrived. They toured the grounds and any Waffen-SS soldiers were arrested and taken away. I was mad the hospital staff did not try to hide us. At first the Americans were okay to us and made sure we had food but later on the frontline soldiers were replaced by personnel who were very cruel and delighted in making our lives as bad as they could. We were kept in open camps; even those who were still wounded were left without proper care. I saw several soldiers die due to this. There was also a civilian camp by our military camp, and we would hear women crying at night. We learned the Americans rounded up anyone who had been in the party [NSDAP] and sent them to camps. Many were parents who were forced to leave children with no one to turn to. I have come to shut this time out of my mind, it was very bad, we surrendered and ended the war, but the treatment of the victors was very cruel. I would see your soldiers often drunk and harassing the civilians that summer.

I personally witnessed a woman beaten and shot at who was trying to get food to her husband who was in the camp. She came to bring him bread and meat as he was sick. She threw the food over the fence but sadly men had been turned to cruel savages as they stole his food. Her efforts were met by a guard violently pushing her to the ground and taking her basket and smashing it. As she got up he shot his pistol at her feet and made her run away. I learned her man died that fall due to sickness caused by lack of food and care. I battled dysentery then as well, it was bad. Conditions did not improve until the winter going into 1946; we were moved into better conditions and now getting better food and care. They did make sure we knew we were liberated. We had to attend denazification training which involved getting lectured at by former camp prisoners. We had to watch propaganda films as well and woe to anyone who did not accept this view. It was not until 1946 that I was released, although I was branded as having been a member of a criminal organization. That was what I got for my service time to my nation.

I have been told the Allies did these things because of the crimes that are claimed to have been committed by the SS. Do you agree with the stories that are told about war crimes and mistreatment of civilians? Why did so many Germans agree with the Allied judgment?

Reinholt: You must understand, all of war is a crime. There are bad people in every army. I am sure we had our bad people who either did things against the rules of war, or allowed them. However, the other side did these things as well, and I do not agree that you condemn one side's crime while you do the same as well. An example I can say is this, we bombed cities with civilians in them, killing many. This is called a war crime and evidence of our brutality. The Allies razed cities to the ground all over Europe, killing countless civilians and it's called necessary collateral damage. The hypocrisy is unfair to us.

Another is the treatment of bandits. When we executed, or allowed the execution of people who attacked, sabotaged, or spied on German forces we are called murderers. When the enemy did this it is called swift justice. They did this often in the end, executing anyone who even tried to slow them or spy. Think of the trials of German civilians who killed air crews that they found. These airmen literally just murdered women and children who had nothing to do with fighting, and vengeful civilians killed them out of anger. In France, Britain, Poland, and Russia there are reports of civilians killing German air crews, and it is dismissed as justified anger. Again there was no punishment, but for Germans they all went to the gallows. Even people who just witnessed these things were sent to camps as punishment for not stopping them. The hypocrisy again is telling, one side gets away with murder, the other side is guilty and can not be allowed to defend its actions.

I will say my nation may have broken some rules of war, but in the east we fought a nation who recognized no rules of war and fought quite cruelly. In the west it was different and we followed all rules of war and never sought to be cruel. It is my belief that if crimes were committed it was only because the other side caused the reaction. I do not believe many of the [concentration] camp stories, you must know that. They make no sense as mainly we needed workers and these camps were all work complexes. That is all they were during the war. Places where people, either prisoners or resettled Jews, were forced to work for the war effort. So why kill them for all to see? It would cause more problems than it would solve. That must be all I say on that, I can be too loud at times. You ask why Germans went along with the stories. I think it is just human nature. The war drained our strength and fervor so when it ended, it was a happy feeling for those who made it. All you had to worry about then was surviving. You would do that by embracing the victors, and conforming to what they wanted you do to.

Many German women fell in with them as it was the assured way to get food. They then just agreed with the stories they were told, to disbelieve would bring a lot of problems. The people saw that early on, so if the victors said something happened it was best to agree and repeat it to others. Of course there were the opportunists who wanted to gain good favor, so they actively took part in hunting down those who they knew would bring rewards. Even former comrades were not immune to this. I think they signed confessions and participated in investigations by the Allies as they thought it would make them free. It is a shame this happened but it is again human nature to try to save one's self first. I was lucky in that Hohenstaufen was not accused of any crimes, and actually praised for our fair treatment of enemies. The treatment we received after the war was not fitting of this, but it could have been worse. Many former Waffen-SS were sent to Stalin who killed them all. I will say that I have no shame in my service time; I was in a division that fought with honor and chivalry to our enemies. What did I get for my service? They give us no pension for serving, and quietly call us criminals. The papers smear us and our children are told to revile in disgust at our earlier lives. Any attempt to correct this view is met with scathing attacks, investigations, and threats.

*Unfortunately we couldn't make out Reinholt's last name. 'Schl' was the extent that could be made out. If anyone ever has a clue, we'd appreciate you sharing it with us.

[Above: An SS saint with a halo of barbed wire.]

Back to Interviews