The Reluctant Soldier


“I have seen war…I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.              Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945)

Sometimes stories come to us completely unexpected, only to reveal their true purpose after the fact. Such was the case when I met Otto Steiner – an elderly gentleman who without exception wore a tweed suit and tie to the nursery and carried himself with a dignified elegance that seemed a bit out of place, like it belonged to a generation long past. He always came in with his son, Otto Jr., and like many regular customers, we became friends over time. One day while I was showing him a hanging basket, Otto reached up to examine it and then suddenly winced and dropped his arm, as if in great pain – it was then that he first mentioned his war injury.

Eventually, he started to share the story of his internment in France, where he and fellow German soldiers were stripped of their Geneva Convention rights, fed on starvation rations and denied contact with the International Red Cross and family – who, for the most part, didn’t even know they were still alive. As much as these conditions somewhat resemble the plight of detainees in Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan – this is not a story about the war on terrorism. This tragedy takes us back another 65 years, to 1945, when America was just one of the countries complicit in the illegal detention of hundreds of thousands of German POW’s classified as D.E.F., or disarmed enemy forces. One of these detainees was Otto Steiner, who was once a critically injured soldier awaiting the end of the Second World War from his hospital bed in Austria. This is the story of how he reluctantly took up arms to serve his country and paid a terrible price in a French detainment camp for two years after the war had ended.

Born in 1920 – one year after the war to end all wars – Otto could not remember a time when he was not hungry as a child growing up in Heilbronn during the depression of postwar Germany. As the only son of elderly parents (his father was 62 when he was born), Otto was obliged to enter the full-time workforce as a machinist at the tender age of 15, around 1935, when the National Socialist, or Nazi party was putting a stranglehold on political power. While most young men his age were members of the Nazi youth group known as the Hitlerjugend, or Hitler Youth, Otto resisted, much in part to a gut feeling he had that this was the wrong thing to do. He quickly realized the consequences of his decision when he won a machine-operator’s skills contest sponsored by the government. When it came time to receive his gold medal, Otto was disqualified for not being a member of the Hitler Youth, and his prize went to the person who came in second.

Otto quietly endured this injustice and life went on as usual until the outbreak of the Second World War. Suddenly, young men his age were being conscripted into military service. Otto, on the other hand, did not feel that this was a just war and was able to procure an exemption from his employer as a necessary worker and sole provider for his elderly parents. With much of the young male workforce leaving for active duty, a labour shortage ensued, and it was not long before Otto was supervising a crew of 30 French POW workers in the Neckarsulm piston factory where he was employed. Life fell back into a pattern of work and war, and every year Otto simply forwarded his draft notice to his employer (who processed his military exemption). But as the conflict dragged on and the tide turned against Germany, the cold stare of his much-older German coworkers became increasingly unbearable. By 1943, half the young men of the town had died or were injured in active service, and Otto became a pariah for staying behind while others were out risking their lives to defend their country. He finally made the difficult decision not to forward his draft notice to his employer for exemption, and became a reluctant soldier for the Fatherland.

Hastily trained in Munich with horse-drawn artillery, Otto entered active service after just four months and eventually landed on the fringe of one of the bloodiest sieges of the Second World War. He was stationed in the tiny Italian village of Terelle with five other soldiers of the Mountain Corps. They were responsible for reconnaissance; counting artillery shots and reporting enemy troop movements involved in the battle of Monte Casino, about five kilometers distant. His small unit was actually boarded by the mayor of Terelle (who was able to communicate with Otto in French) and service in this tiny mountain village was reasonably comfortable for a short time.

That comfort zone quickly diminished as the combined Allied forces overwhelmed the entrenched German positions and even distant observation posts, such as Terelle, were coming under aerial attacks by fighter aircraft, forcing Otto and his comrades to work only by night. Shortly afterwards, they were told to evacuate and ordered to destroy all foodstuffs, water supplies and major roadways – it was an order they basically ignored, since the inhabitants of Terelle were so accomodating. Leaving on foot, Otto’s unit walked for two days with no food, until they were finally picked-up by an open-bed military supply truck, driving at night with no lights to avoid detection.

They were sleeping in the back of this northbound truck when they awoke to the sound of an approaching aircraft. It dropped a bomb, killing the driver and overturning the vehicle – Otto was thrown onto the left side of the road, with the truck rolling on top of him and pinning him underneath.

He woke up two weeks later in a hospital in Assisi. It was February 1944 and his friends from the unit stayed with him until he regained consciousness. The chief surgeon, a German officer from Austria, told him “you should be a pancake” – and for the first time in his life, Otto experienced the excruciating pain of three crushed spinal disks. Badly injured and unable to get out of bed, the young nurses tried to wean him off the morphine used to control his pain and encouraged him to eat in order to gain some strength for the trip home. When it came time to leave Italy, Otto was handpicked by the ambulance driver for his immobility – the reason being that German ambulances at that time were used to move soldiers and munitions to the front, evacuating the injured only on the return trips. The allies caught wind of this practice and began to follow ambulances with fighter planes, shooting down any able-bodied persons who emerged out of the back. So after only a few months of active service, during which time he did not once fire his gun at the enemy, this reluctant soldier was finally on his way home.

Otto was back in Germany by August 1944 – initially convalescing in hospitals, later resting in makeshift shelters set up in sports halls and private residences. But as soon as the war in Europe started winding down, in early April 1945, Otto, who was still on crutches, went home to Heilbronn by train. Unfortunately, this part of the country was not yet occupied by Allied troops and the law was left in the hands of a few German military police officers, who were shooting or hanging soldiers without discharge papers as deserters, right on the spot. Otto was one of the many injured soldiers without proper documentation, which was difficult to obtain as the Nazi regime crumbled. Fearing for his life while also trying to avoid capture by the encroaching Soviet army, Otto fled south to Ludwigsburg with the help of two friends. Their flight would finally end just over the Austrian border, in Dornbirn, where they were issued some ration coupons at the hospital and directed to the Nazi office at the train station. It was VE day, May 8/1945, and Otto received a package of black tea and some chocolate, parting gifts from an already defunct regime.

French colonial troops arrived shortly afterwards, and all Axis soldiers (including Otto) were arrested and detained. The next day, without so much as an interview, these detainees were loaded onto American transport trucks and driven en mass to an unknown destination. Their travels brought them past ordinary German citizens who lined the town roads – throwing gifts of bread, cheese and sausage into the passing convoy’s of POW’s. Otto experienced a deep sense of loss as the trucks wound their way through the still pristine Black Forest and he realized that they were being taken out of the country. They were driven across the border and loaded onto a cargo train near Strasbourg, in northeast France. The injured were herded into boxcars, while the able-bodied were held in open guarded coal cars. All the POW’s were confined to the train for the entire seven-day journey to Bordeaux, during which time they were not fed. Some tried to eat coal to quell their hunger and they received water only by means of an occasional hosing down while the train was refueling. Traveling in one of the crowded boxcars, Otto was only able to wet his tongue, but circumstances were much worse for the POW’s in the open cars – who were frequently pummeled with rocks and building debris thrown down by angry French citizens from the many overpasses and bridges.

Once in Bordeaux, they were again transported by truck for about an hour to a First World War-era army camp, home to those who survived the ordeal for the next two years. Before entering, each detainee was strip-searched and had their personal possessions and foodstuffs confiscated – the only exception being the seriously ill, such as Otto, who were allowed to keep what they had brought with them. The living conditions of the detention camp were deplorable and included lice and cockroach-infested barracks, no heat or initial means of making a fire, typhoid-infected drinking water and no medical care or access to the International Red Cross. Otto estimated that about 4,000 German DEFs (Disarmed Enemy Forces, or soldiers captured after the official end of the war) came to be housed here. Of those, about half would die of disease, starvation or suicide. The latter happened all too frequently, with delirious half-starved men crying out the names of family or loved ones, and making a mad dash for the barbed-wire fence, only to be shot by waiting guards. The only other means of an early release was to join the French Foreign Legion and volunteer for active service in Indochina. Many of the teenaged detainees chose fighting in what would become Vietnam over a slow death in France. Even younger boys (aged 12 to 14) who were members of Hitler’s last line of defense, the Volkssturm, were brought to this camp for a short time and were released after a few months detention.

The conditions inside the camp were difficult and cramped, with each of the buildings sleeping 150 men on beds made of little else but wood frames and woven wire supports. When food was available, their daily ration was generally composed of one cup of thin cabbage soup per person, and a loaf of bread to be shared between several men. There was no doctor or hospital for the sick, and all medicines had to be concocted in-house – Otto’s black tea was one such cure, saving many lives as a remedy for diarrhea.

Although they were brought to France to be used as forced labour as part of the war reparations act, most were too sick, malnourished or injured to be able to do any manual work, and the few capable men did little else but help local farmers with chores. However, the trip outside the compound did allow them to trade for black market food, and Otto once gave up his wristwatch and ring for barter. The man he entrusted with the trade returned with a jar of jam and no intention of handing it over to a defenseless Otto – but a former German staff-sergeant and friend convinced  him otherwise. This sort of desperation was a constant threat to camp moral and two years of subsistence living left both physical and mental scarring – some of which would last a lifetime.

It finally came to an end in 1947, when the Swiss Red Cross was permitted a brief visit to the compound. Shortly afterwards, the men were allowed to write their one and only letter to Germany, to let their relatives know that they were alive and coming home. Otto took the train back to Heilbronn and when his mother finally laid eyes on his skeletal frame, she broke into tears.

For two years he did not exist to the outside world and yet Otto Steiner was never given an official explanation or apology, or compensated for the atrocities he endured in France. In 1963, he would immigrate to Canada with his wife, in hopes of starting a better life for his family.

Afterword: Otto passed away before I had finished writing his story and although he did not live to see it in print, I think its true purpose is to remind the rest of us that war has many innocent victims, including, at times, its own soldiers. During the course of our conversations, Otto repeatedly asked me one question, “Who would do such a thing to another human being and why?” I promised to find out on his behalf and share his story with the public – so I think it only fitting that I briefly detail the guilty parties and their actions. The agreement to hold German POW’s after the war as forced labour to rebuild Europe was finalized between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt at the Yalta conference in February of 1945. Churchill was a reluctant participant in regards to this policy and the compassionate treatment and low mortality rates of German POW’s held in commonwealth camps after VE day bears this out. The worst atrocities – and it is genocide when tens of thousands of men and boys die from a simple lack of food, shelter or medical care – occurred in post-war France and Germany, under the watchful eye of Charles de Gaulle, his chief of staff Marshal Alphonse Juis, and the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe, General Dwight Eisenhower. These men gave the orders making it possible for the detention camps to exist and operate. No doubt, similar or worse conditions existed for German POW’s under Stalin’s regime, but these incidents are more difficult to verify. Lastly, this little known chapter of post-war Europe has been well documented by Canadian author, James Bacque, whose books Other Losses and Crimes and Mercies examine the extent of this tragedy in great detail – I encourage you to read them and to do all you can to make sure this never happens again.

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One Response to The Reluctant Soldier

  1. Janis Mack says:

    Thank you, Michael, for such a moving and insightful piece.

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