Heroes of the Woods

THE OFFICIAL US Army Battle of the Bulge historian, Hugh M. Cole, stated in 1965 that ‘the precise reasons for the selection of Antwerp as the German objective are none too clear. The city represented the main supply base for British operations and it might be expected that the British public would react adversely to an Allied command responsible for the loss of an area so close to England which could be employed for V-2 attacks at short range. Later, at Nuremberg, Rundstedt would say that the Meuse bridgeheads and Liège actually were the ultimate objectives.’1 In fact, when we consider why Hitler was drawn specifically to the Ardennes and Antwerp as the setting for his winter offensive, reassessment of old evidence and new factors makes the reasons abundantly clear.

It has been established that there was an element of wishful thinking in hoping to repeat his success of 1940 over the same ground; Hitler’s 31 July request for Major Schramm to research the historical documents, his 16 September comment about ‘a new Dunkirk’ and later conversation with Albert Speer about using organisational data from the western campaign of four years earlier, confirm this. However, there was much more behind his allegedly ‘spontaneous’ choice of the Ardennes.2

In his 16 September meeting, Hitler was partly reacting to the capture of Antwerp, the named objective of his December assault, which General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British Second Army had captured twelve days earlier, on 4 September. Hitler could not have known then that Antwerp would remain unusable for the Allies until 28 November, due to the river being mined and both banks of the Scheldt estuary leading from the port to the North Sea remaining in German hands. With the port’s modern berthing facilities, a peacetime discharge capability of 80,000 to 100,000 tons of cargo per day, 592 cranes, dry docks and storage capacity for 120 million gallons of fuel, mostly untouched by war, this was a catastrophic oversight on the part of Eisenhower and Montgomery (distracted as they were by the Market Garden operation), to tidy their logistics. That is why all Anglo-US supplies had to be trucked to the front from Normandy – wasteful exercise, tying up valuable transport and consuming much-needed fuel. Unlike the Allies – who seemed not to recognise the importance of the undamaged harbour to their advance at that stage – OKW regarded the loss of Antwerp as an operational catastrophe, knowing the port could dramatically infuse the Allied advance, which they realised was slowing.

In Führer Orders of 4 and 6 September, Hitler ordered that OB West make the port unusable for as long as possible by defending both banks of the Scheldt, and the island of Walcheren as its mouth.3 It also became the focus of attacks by V-1s and V-2s, even before the Allies opened the harbour. Whatever the tactical shortcomings of his continued battlefield meddling, on this occasion it was the Führer’s clear strategic thinking that explains why the Scheldt took so long to clear: it was not merely Monty’s seeming indolence, or distraction by Operation Market Garden. Furthermore, the Canadian First Army, under temporary command of Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds, assigned the task of clearing the Scheldt estuary, were also overcommitted in having to subdue or encircle the other Channel ports. These were all designated ‘fortresses’ by Hitler – to be held to the last man.

Monty and Eisenhower only initiated operations along the Scheldt estuary on 2 October, in revolting autum weather; but it had taken far longer for the importance of Antwerp to occur to the Allied commanders, Eisenhower writing belatedly to Marshall on 23 October, ‘the logistical problem had become so acute that all plans had made Antwerp a sine qua non to the waging of the final all-out battle’.4

Operation Infatuate, the amphibious assault on Walcheren Island between 1 and 8 November, brought the campaign to a close, by which time stout German resistance had caused 12,873 Allied casualties, though 41,043 German prisoners had been taken. De-mining the waters still took until 28 November, when the first convoy entered the port, led by the Liberty Ships Fort Cataraqui from Canada and James B. Weaver from the USA. They contained, among other crucial supplies, the personnel and equipment necessary to set up a port headquarters, the 268th Port Company and a critical cargo of war correspondents. By this time Hitler had managed to buy nearly three months in which to bolster his Westwall defences and plan the Ardennes counter-attack.5

Thereafter Antwerp became the focus of V-weapon attacks, with 5,950 falling in the area. Of these, 302 actually fell within the docks, killing or injuring 750, and destroying or damaging 150 ships, two warehouses, twenty berths, a canal lock, and a floating crane sunk by a direct hit from a V-2. Worse was the distraction of endless air raid warnings and rescue and repair details, which diverted personnel away from their unloading duties.6 This did affect onward supplies by rail to the front during the Bulge, though not excessively so. While a major strike by a lethal area weapon could still have had grave consequences for the Allies even at this stage of the war, the threat of Hitler’s secret flying bombs and rockets doing so proved after all to be a damp squib.

Of the other ports that might have alleviated Allied logistics concerns, Cherbourg had fallen in late June, and Brest, Le Havre and Ostend by mid-September, though all were sabotaged and unusable until the end of October. Meanwhile, Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk remained resolutely in German hands, if surrounded and containing thousands of Wehrmacht personnel desperately needed elsewhere. Of the importance and extent of the Allied logistics squeeze, Hitler seems to have had great insight, perhaps more than many of his generals, but this is not only what drew him to the Ardennes.

The Führer was also partly attracted by the presence of American troops in the densely wooded frontier region, an army whose military abilities he denigrated constantly, in contrast to the soldierly skills of the British whom he admired more. ‘I like an Englishman a thousand times better than an American,’ he once ventured, but without the faintest idea of either nation.7 Back in 1941, in declaring war on the United States, Hitler had picked a fight with the world’s leading industrial power. Of itself this move made no sense, but in a wider context he assessed the US Army to be tiny and obsolete, and was convinced that Roosevelt was in any case about to side with his Anglo-Saxon friends against the Third Reich.

He also misread the reasons behind American isolationist foreign policy and overestimated potential support from US Nazi sympathizers, especially the German American Bund. His Kriegsmarine had already attacked US warships escorting convoys in the North Atlantic, which resulted in the sinking of the destroyer USS Reuben James on 31 October 1941, and the US Navy was consequently attacking his U-boats. In the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hitler was also under huge pressure to support his Axis partner in the Pacific. Believing Japan to be much stronger than it was, and that it could help the Reich defeat Soviet Russia, at 15.30 p.m. (Berlin time) on 11 December 1941, the German chargé d’affaires in Washington, DC, handed Secretary of State Cordell Hull a letter bearing the declaration of war.

In Washington, President Roosevelt told the 77th Congress that the free world must act quickly and decisively against the enemy: ‘The forces endeavouring to enslave the entire world now are moving towards this hemisphere. Delay invites danger. Rapid and united efforts by all peoples of the world who are determined to remain free will ensure world victory for the forces of justice and righteousness over the forces of savagery and barbarism.’ Resolutions against Germany and Italy were passed without debate. In Congress, the only person who voted against was the pacifist Jeannette Rankin, who had similarly voted against war with Japan; in the Senate the vote was unanimous. Democrats and Republicans agreed to ‘adjourn politics’ for the duration of the war and focus on national defence; Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, Vice-President Henry A. Wallace and Roosevelt officially signed the joint resolution of both houses declaring war on Germany at 15.05 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, 11 December 1941.8

On the one hand, Hitler admired America’s industry and capacity for hard work, in February 1942 observing, ‘The great success of the Americans consists essentially in the fact that they produce quantitatively as much as we do with two-thirds less labour … It was reading Henry Ford’s books that opened my eyes to these matters.’9 He envied the reach of her national media, enjoyed Hollywood movies and (apparently) Mickey Mouse cartoons, shown nightly in his private cinema at the Berghof, but despised Roosevelt personally for his incessant verbal attacks on National Socialism. Movies apart, Hitler hated most American art and culture, and alongside an instant distaste for anything Jewish, blues, ragtime and jazz came in for special opprobrium and were banned in Germany. ‘I don’t see much future for the Americans,’ he ruminated. ‘In my view it’s a decayed country. And they have their racial problem and social inequalities. Those were what caused the downfall of Rome.’10

This was throwing stones from afar, for unlike Roosevelt Hitler’s great weakness was that he spoke no foreign languages and rarely travelled abroad: he simply had no concept of other nations. Displaying an astonishing insecurity, he disliked meeting foreign leaders, whether friends or adversaries, except on his own turf, declining to meet Churchill or Stalin when invited. In early 1933 Hitler turned down Roosevelt’s invitation to discuss economic issues in Washington, DC.11

Ironically, the Third Reich was more isolationist than the US, sending few officers to study overseas, whereas on graduating from the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, the US Army sent Captain A.C. Wedemeyer on the two-year Berlin Kriegsakademie course during 1936–8, where his contemporaries included Claus von Stauffenberg and Ferdinand Jodl, brother of the future Generaloberst at OKW.12 Wedemeyer soon realised the superiority of what he was being taught there, recognising that the organisation, doctrine, equipment and training of the Wehrmacht would revolutionise the coming battlefield. On returning, Wedemeyer served in the War Plans Division under Marshall and Eisenhower, devising the 1941 Victory Program, and helped to plan the Normandy invasion.13

Hitler did have a view of the United States, but it was extraordinarily puerile, arising from a childhood liking for the adventure and travel stories of Karl May, a bestselling north German writer noted mainly for novels set in the American Old West. May’s younger years were marked by a propensity to fraud and petty theft, and he spent time in jail and workhouses. After achieving success, May started to claim some of his novels were true-life experiences, but he travelled only once to the United States, after he had written most of his forty volumes. While there he purchased a fake doctorate from a phoney university but failed to visit the Wild West. Embarrassingly, Hitler never lost his admiration for May’s works, recommending them to colleagues even while Führer. The upshot was that Hitler’s knowledge of the United States was furnished principally from the cowboy novels of a convicted fraudster who had never himself visited any of the locations in which he set his stories.

Before the war, and during it, Hitler looked down on the Land of the Free, calling it a ‘mongrel nation’ and ‘devoid of any military tradition’. ‘I’ll never believe that an American soldier can fight like a hero,’ he exclaimed in January 1942.14 These bizarre notions both denied the influx of talent from neighbouring European countries into the German states over the years, and overlooked the mass movement of over eight million Germanic migrants to the United States, mostly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; by 1940, 18 per cent of Americans regarded themselves as of German origin. Scholars of the Revolutionary War would observe that it was the Prussian-born Baron von Steuben who trained the Continental Army at Valley Forge during 1778–9, later serving as a divisional commander and George Washington’s chief of staff. In the civil war, over 200,000 German Americans fought under Union banners, about one in ten of the total force, sixteen of whom won Medals of Honor. Many were able to respond only to German words of command, and served in XI Corps, under the popular Major-General Franz Sigel, a refugee from the 1848 uprisings in Germany.

Many of America’s greatest military names owed their origins to German political or economic refugees: George Armstrong Custer’s ancestors, Paulus and Gertrude Küster, had moved to the US in 1693 from the Rhineland; John Pershing, who commanded the US Army during the First World War, was descended from the Perschings, who left the Fatherland in the late eighteenth century, while the Eisenhauer family had migrated from Karlsbrunn, near Saarbrücken, in 1741. Among Eisenhower’s senior contemporaries, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, descended from a German merchant seaman, commanded the Pacific Fleet, while General Carl A. Spaatz (born Spatz, he added a second ‘a’ to make his name sound Dutch rather than German) led the Strategic Air Forces in Europe, responsible for reducing the cities of his ancestors to rubble.15

OKW’s initial assessments of US military ability were coloured by the setbacks at the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia, Gela on Sicily and Salerno, all in 1943, while the destruction of two battalions of elite Rangers at Anzio (January 1944) and the punishment meted out on Omaha Beach perhaps served to reinforce the jaundiced anti-American views of those in the distant Wolfsschanze. In September 1944 an intelligence assessment issued by the German Nineteenth Army observed the US Army still ‘advanced too hesitantly, focused almost exclusively on security, always attacked at the same time of day, never attacked at night, and never without tank support. Objectives were shallow, leading to frequent failures to exploit opportunities.’16 This report and others like it formed the basis of interpreting likely American tactics and intentions before the Bulge counter-offensive.

One of the basic reasons for the optimism of the German plan for the Ardennes was this poor estimation of US tactical ability. The Wehrmacht had been at war constantly since September 1939 and had proven itself one of the world’s finest fighting machines: in the eyes of Hitler and OKW, these were combinations which could beat even the industrial might of the United States. However, both these parties had become wilfully blind and failed to recognise how quickly American soldiers had learned and adapted in Tunisia, Sicily, Italy and Normandy – and would do so in the Ardennes.

Even more notable among the reasons which attracted the Führer to the region for his counter-attack was a personal obsession with woods and forests, something other historians of the Bulge campaign have tended to overlook. Many of his wartime headquarters were located in them; for example, the Wolfsschanze in East Prussia was hidden in a dense, swampy forest of pine and birch trees, five miles east of Rastenburg (Kętrzyn in modern Poland).

Among the most consistent influences on Hitler throughout his life were the thirteen operas created by Richard Wagner. The latter had an almost religious effect on the former, who idolised this most German of nineteenth-century composers, and to understand Wagner is one of the keys to the Führer’s mind. According to the American correspondent William L. Shirer, Hitler used to expound, ‘Whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner’.17 The composer died six years before Hitler was born, but both men shared a love of animals, were vegetarians, vicious racists and anti-Semites, who craved the devotion of others. Wagner’s dragon-slaying warrior culture, his themes of triumph, sacrifice and nationalism precisely anticipate Hitler’s Reich, and his works were a subtext to Nazi propaganda newsreels and films. Hitler’s Bavarian retreat, the Berghof at Obersalzberg, was adorned by a large bronze bust of Wagner, whose descendants also presented him with pages from the original score of Lohengrin.

It was allegedly a performance of Wagner’s Rienzi in 1905 that inspired Hitler to consider a political career. His boyhood friend August Kubizek later concluded that Wagner’s operas provided Hitler with a means for both self-hypnosis and escapist fantasy. Of Hitler’s first reaction to Rienzi, Kubizek recounted, ‘Hitler began to orate. Words burst from him like a backed-up flood breaking through crumbling dams. In grandiose, compelling images, he sketched for me his future and that of his people.’ Thirty years later, at Bayreuth, Hitler acknowledged, ‘It began at that hour!’18

Wagner permeated almost everything to do with National Socialism; the soundtrack of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 Triumph of the Will was peppered with excerpts from Act 3 of Die Meistersinger, as was her earlier portrayal of the 1933 Nuremberg Rally, Der Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith). Karl Ritter’s 1941 propaganda film Stukas has a depressed and apathetic bomber pilot cured by listening to a performance of Götterdämmerung, which gives him spirit and energy to return and blitz England.19 A remarkable newsreel of 1942 portrayed Die Meistersinger, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, being performed for workers and convalescent soldiers in the austere surroundings of an AEG factory in Berlin.20

The Nazi elite saw Wagner’s operas as ‘redeeming music for the people’, which was perhaps not quite how the jazz-deprived population of the Third Reich understood the composer.21 A highlight of the pre-war Nazi social calendar, almost a religious duty, was to attend performances of Wagner’s works in his opera house, completed at Bayreuth in 1874. Hitler’s favourites were the four operas of the Ring des Nibelungen cycle: Das RheingoldDie WalküreSiegfried and Götterdämmerung.22 How ironic, then, that Die Walküre was very nearly the end of him; the Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler utilised a pre-existing contingency plan for the continuity of government, code-named Unternehmen Walküre (Operation Valkyrie).

The Führer knew that most of The Ring’s thirty-six scenes were set in or near a forest. Since Wagner was aware of the significance of trees in Teutonic culture and its myths, he chose woods as the principal background for nearly all his operas, and one of the most memorable Wagnerian excerpts remains ‘Forest Murmurs’ from Act 2 of Siegfried. Wagner was part of a long thread in the Romantic art movement, which likened Germany’s stately conifers to marching soldiers, standing tall and unbowed against the elements.

In 1936 Nazis released the propaganda movie Ewiger Wald (Eternal Forest), which alleged that Germanic traditions sprang exclusively from the forests; that the ancient Aryan tribes had lived free among the trees, but their idyllic life was shattered when the Romans and their successors invaded, bringing alien beliefs. In woodland groves, noble tribes had worshipped their gods; early Christian missionaries, however, had felled the ancient oaks dedicated to Nordic deities to favour their substitute religion. Therefore, National Socialist ideology suggested, only in woods could the modern Volk tap into their primeval roots (literally and metaphorically) and feel truly free. Forests, then, were fundamental to Nazi views of their own history.23

Hitler shared Wagner’s passion for ancient Teutonic mythology, where northern Europe’s vast swathes of forest were regarded also as magical places, lived in by gods. In the ancient legends, dense forests were usually inhabited by mysterious creatures, symbols of all of the dangers with which young men must contend if they are to become worthy adults.24 The menace of the forest is also the dominant theme running through the three volumes of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, published between 1812 and 1822; both Wagner and Hitler were known to have been brought up on the famous German folklore collected by the brothers Grimm, and their many imitators.

All the old myths and stories suggested the outlook for mortals was pretty bleak, the only bright factor being the belief that one should die a courageous, heroic death. Slain warriors qualified for admittance to Valhalla, perceived as a celestial dining hall, festooned with coats of mail, spears and war shields, ruled over by Odin. The brave dead joined others who had died in combat and various legendary Germanic heroes and kings. In this respect, subsequent Western ideals of heroism and heroic deeds in the face of certain death seem to spring from these dark north European legends, and not from sunnier Greek or Roman mythology.

Wagner’s version of this was best expressed in Tristan und Isolde, an opera Hitler later claimed to have heard over forty times during his pre-war days in Vienna. After the hero Tristan was mortally wounded, he is kept alive by the power of devotion until reunited with his lover, Isolde. Wagner portrayed this as the triumph of love in the face of all adversity, which not even death could defeat. Hitler translated this into a requirement to lay down one’s life for Germany. The individual was worth nothing, but in dying for the Fatherland one achieved a kind of salvation. Hitler’s public utterances were full of this rhetoric: ‘We will die, but Germany will live on in you,’ he told his Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) at the 1934 Nuremberg Rally.25

Ideals of heroism and fighting to the death against any odds inspired the kind of fanatic loyalty demanded by Goebbels and Himmler, who in turn used propaganda to persuade their followers that this was what an earlier generation had died for in 1914–18. Visitors to German military cemeteries administered today by the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (German War Graves Commission, or VDK) often comment on how gloomy and depressing they appear, with dark granite grave markers and an abundance of pine and oak trees, when compared to their British and American equivalents – but that is precisely their point, echoing the Teutonic ideals of death and sacrifice. Hitler knew the Langemarck German war cemetery near Ypres in Belgium well, because it is where some of his comrades from the Great War had been buried. He visited it again in May 1940 and by 1944 Himmler had named the 27th SS Division ‘Langemarck’, perpetuating the Nazi notion of necessary sacrifice.

As with trees, Wagner used frequent references to wolves and their relationship to the gods, guiding their charges wandering the forests, throughout the Ring cycle. Perhaps for this very reason, Hitler called himself Führer (guide), rather than the more obvious Leiter (leader). Wolves were also inseparable from the gods in Nordic mythology, particularly Odin (Wotan), and it is surely significant that Hitler was known in his early life and by close family intimates as ‘Wolf’, an old German form of Adolf – and from the codenames he gave to his own headquarters, a nickname with which he was clearly comfortable.

Apart from the Wolfsschanze in East Prussia, Hitler named his tree-studded HQ on the Franco-Belgium border, from where he oversaw the humiliation of France in 1940, the Wolfsschlucht (Wolf’s Gorge). Another headquarters, Werwolf, more concrete bunkers in woodland, was built in the Ukraine and used in 1942–3. Although it was his Alsatian, Blondi, who famously accompanied her master to their Götterdämmerung in the Berlin Führerbunker in 1945, it was Hitler’s first hound, Wolf, who greeted his owner’s return from Landsberg prison in 1924.26 He liked ‘Wolf’ because the forest-dwelling lupine was one of the most significant animals of early Teutonic legends, a beast to be both feared and honoured, worshipped and held in awe, which reaffirmed for Hitler his wolf-forest obsession.

Himmler, too, perhaps more than Hitler, fell upon Wagner, subverting the myths into his own nonsense, incorporating them into a pseudo-religion he inculcated into the SS, centred on Wewelsburg Castle in North Rhine-Westphalia. His fantasy castle incorporated a Valhalla-like chamber, decorated with ancient weapons, and another inspired by the Knights of the Round Table, where senior SS officers would gather. He intended his quasi-Nordic cult to replace Christianity, and in homage to Wagner, late in the war, he named his last SS division ‘Nibelungen’. Wagner portrayed the Nibelungen as a race of evil dwarves, but he adapted this from earlier Nordic legends where Nibelungen were the ominous ‘children of the mist, or fog’. Presumably this is how Himmler saw his young SS warriors, emerging out of the dawn mists.27

While German army insignia incorporated the usual eagle, swastika and a belt buckle bearing the words Gott Mitt Uns (‘God With Us’), Himmler’s SS insignia incorporated the Totenkopf (a skull), further reminding them of the requirement, if necessary, of surrendering life. Himmler reinforced this ideology with his personal award of an engraved silver SS-Ehrenring (honour ring), patterned with oak leaves, Nordic runes and a skull, to deserving SS officers. The 15,000 or so rings given were to be returned on the death of the wearer and stored in a special chest at Wewelsburg, symbolising the Wagnerian importance of sacrifice to the continuance of Nazism. Tens of thousands of Waffen-SS troops, many of whom were fanatical believers in Himmler’s folklore, were to fight and die in the Bulge for these curious and completely contrived values.

Thus the old legends and Wagner’s dramatic presentation of them were key tools of the Nazi Party, but Hitler’s warped mind was perhaps also a prisoner of Wagner’s vision, not merely to the composer’s musical genius. The huge extent to which Wagner influenced the Führer was illustrated on 7 December 1941, when a Führerbefehl decreed that anyone ‘endangering German security’ should suffer ‘Nacht und Nebel’ – Night and Fog – at the hands of the SS and Gestapo. The term was a direct quote from Scene 3 of Rheingold, where one of the characters cites a spell for invisibility, ‘Be like the night and fog. Disappear!’ The Reich’s euphemism meant that those identified were worked to death or otherwise murdered, and made to ‘vanish without trace’; even their graves went unrecorded.28

In this context, the final codename chosen for the 1944 Ardennes operation, Herbstnebel (Autumn Mist – Nebel can also translate as smoke or fog), was actually a term loaded with hidden significance. Any analyst who understood Hitler’s mind would have realised that the innocent sounding Herbstnebel actually heralded something very sinister. Autumn marks the return of darkness, seasonally and spiritually, while in his operas Wagner used mist as a device to alert his audiences to the presence of the dark side; he was reflecting the Norse interpretation of fog as suffocating light and goodness.

Death and suffering were essential to National Socialism; it is impossible to conceive of the NSDAP without it. An early Nazi hero was Horst Wessel, murdered by Berlin Communists in 1930. His death became a great propaganda event, with 30,000 lining the streets; the ‘Horst Wessel Song’ became an unofficial national anthem; the Kriegsmarine named a ship in his honour, the Luftwaffe an aircraft wing and the 18th Waffen-SS Panzergrenadier Division also adopted his name. Inspired by Wagner, Nazi iconography saw warriors as more valuable in death than life. The Ardennes campaign would develop this idea, that in order to save Germany, Hitler’s armies had to be prepared to sacrifice their lives.

To oversee these sacrifices, Hitler created a medieval court, hidden away from public view, which followed him to his various headquarters. His own personal psychology reflected a primeval need to hide away, either at the Berghof, his mountaintop eyrie 6,000 feet up in the Bavarian Alps, from where he could reign like a god, or more usually, underground.29 His various command centres, usually consisting of a complex of subterranean concrete bunkers secreted in woods, were the equivalent of Wagnerian caves, which Nordic legend understood as a means of communicating with the underworld. Hitler spent much of his life in this kind of environment: dugouts in the trenches of 1914–18; his various headquarters throughout the Second World War (he spent more than 800 days in the Wolfsschanze), and of course he ended his days in his own Berlin bunker.

Underground shelters were not obligatory for war leaders, even those with experience of the Great War trenches. Churchill may have had his famous bunker, beneath the Foreign Office in Whitehall, but hated being there, and preferred the risk of living in Downing Street. All the various Allied leaders, for example, preferred to command from simple ground-level headquarters (sometimes relatively primitive caravans), leaving one with the assumption that there was a psychological dimension to Hitler’s preference for his troglodyte life, surrounded by walls of concrete.

To Wagner and Hitler, woods were a place of testing, a realm of death holding the secrets of nature, which men must penetrate to find meaning, purpose and achievement. Perhaps because Hitler felt he was shaping the destiny of others, but not his own, he felt safe lurking in caves and forests. As the war drew on, and particularly after his ‘miraculous’ preservation from death on 20 July 1944, the Führer would lose himself more often in such esoteric nonsense, clutching at straws, to persuade himself that his Germany would survive the war which was his personalWagnerian test.

In the Führer’s mind, his beloved Siegfried the dragonslayer (who cropped up even in Mein Kampf, written in 1924), translated, in 1944 terms, into crushing the mighty, fire-breathing, winged American reptile in a suitably Wagnerian setting – and where better than the endless, mysterious forests of the Ardennes?

A final significant motivation also drew Hitler to the dense, ancient woods that proliferated throughout Germany. This additional reason, ignored by other historians of the Ardennes campaign, had sunk into obscurity until the summer of 1987, when Major Tony Clunn, a British officer with a passion for Roman archaeology, serving in the Royal Tank Regiment, discovered a scattering of coins and slingshot in the vicinity of Kalkriese, near Osnabrück. Working with local archaeologists, who uncovered significant Roman military detritus, Clunn was able to reconstruct the route taken by the 17th, 18th and 19th Roman Legions under Publius Quinctilius Varus in ad 9, and to determine precisely where they had been ambushed and massacred by tribes led by the Germanic chieftain Arminius. The site of Rome’s most famous defeat, where perhaps 20,000 died, originally deep in the Teutoburg Forest (Teutoburgerwald), but open farmland by the 1980s, had eluded scholars for hundreds of years.30

The details had hitherto been vague, but it was known that Arminius, a trusted senior auxiliary in the service of Varus, learned the Roman techniques of war, turned traitor and lured a huge force of three legions, six auxiliary cohorts and three wings of cavalry into the dense Teutoburg woodlands to die. This was over 10 per cent of the Imperial Army, the Empire stretching from northern England to Egypt amounting to twenty-eight legions at the time. Later Roman units found their bleached bones lying on the ground and skulls nailed to trees. Some colour was added in 1455 with the rediscovery in an obscure monastic library of a book by Tacitus, describing the lands, laws and customs of the Germanic peoples. Written circa ad 98, Germania presented the old tribes in a noble light, not as barbarians but ethical, loyal and brave. Their most significant leader, who had forged a coalition to destroy Roman power, was Arminius of the Cherusci, later translated as Hermann the Cheruscan. Martin Luther is thought to have been the first to interpret Hermann (meaning ‘army man’ or warrior) as the German equivalent of Arminius.31

Over the centuries, scholars hijacked Tacitus’ Arminius/Hermann as a role model of resistance and an advocate of freedom and independence, in the same way Robert the Bruce or William Wallace was reinterpreted by successive generations of Scots. The alliance of Germanic tribes and their victorious defiance of Rome became a story that could be paralleled to other eras, whether the Protestant northern states opposing the Vatican and Catholicism, or resistance to Napoleon. In the fine arts, Hermann was always associated with an oak tree, a symbol representing the battle, the Teutoburg Forest and Germany itself. Following unification in 1871 under Prussia, the Teutoburg was regarded as the foundation date of the new German empire, a turning point in national destiny, and taught in all schools as such.

In 1875 a 200-foot bronze Hermann Monument was unveiled on a hill overlooking a forest of oaks, near Detmold. The Hermannsdenkmal, with a seven-yard sword raised aloft, was originally intended to serve as a reminder of the liberation and unity of Germany but became a symbol of the victory over the arch-enemy France, towards whom his head is angled.32 A half-size copy was erected shortly afterwards by the Germanophile communities of Minnesota. This dramatic battle of centuries before was thus used to shape national consciousness – and was popularised by numerous novels, plays and historical paintings, on which the young Hitler was groomed.

Hitler first saw this statue in 1914 when wearing the uniform of a Bavarian Landser, en route for the battlefields of Flanders, and fell under its spell immediately, accepting as gospel truth all that it stood for.33 Later, the monument and other images of Arminius were used extensively in National Socialist election and cultural posters; it became a shrine for Nazi organisations (50,000 turned up in 1925), and the forest victory against Rome was presented as a battle for living space (Lebensraum) and the right to exist: implicit justification for future wars of the Third Reich. The Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter described the January 1933 elections, which would bring Hitler to power, in terms of ‘The Second Battle of the Teutoburg Forest … Historical memory is awake, which will never disappear so long as tongues speak the German language … A monument, a symbol, the statue of Hermann the Liberator in the grey mist of January.’34 Nazi cinematographers also made a movie about the Teutoburgerwald in 1935, ending with the line, ‘The people, like the forest, will stand forever’.35

The Nazis used Arminius not just as a symbol of victory, but to give the Fatherland a bloodline – he was offered as a blond-haired Nordic military pin-up, a role model oozing racial purity. Hermann was seen also as embracing the Darwinian notions of ‘survival of the fittest’, in accordance with Nazi ideals of ‘conquer or die’. As the 1937 Nazi volume Das deutsche Führergesicht; 200 Bildnisse deutscher Kämpfer und Wegsucher aus zwei Jahrtausenden (Face of the German Leader: 200 Portraits of German Fighters and Pioneers from Two Millennia) confidently explained, Arminius was the first of a line of German rulers, via Frederick the Great, which ended with Hitler.36

This was, of course, rubbish. When the Romans referred to ‘Germans’, it was a vague term to describe the peoples east of the Rhine (the Rhenus), in parts of what we know today as Germany, Holland, Denmark, Switzerland and Poland. As their loyalty and cultural identity was purely tribal, with no sense of national ethnicity, any talk of the Third Reich as their direct descendants was propagandist nonsense. Nevertheless, the Nazis presented Arminius as the birth certificate of the German Volk, in their woodland habitat.

Der Spiegel observed in 2009 that ‘The country is marking the 2,000th anniversary [of the Teutoburg battle] with restraint … In fact, a lot of Germans don’t even know about Arminius. Many schools shunned his story after 1945 because he became so contaminated by the militant nationalism that led to Hitler.’37 That was because, as it turns out, the Führer was as obsessed with the defining battle of ad 9, which stopped a huge army in its tracks, almost as much as he was with Wagner. There are many parallels between the two forested worlds – one mythical, the other real.

Hitler commissioned a series of huge historic tapestries for his Reich Chancellery, the first of which depicted the Teutoburg, completed in August 1939. The participants of the battle were deliberately ‘Aryanised’, both Romans and Germans becoming symbolic of the martial and nationalistic values of the Reich.38 In October 1941 he was referring to Arminius as the ‘first architect of our liberty, wasn’t he a Roman knight … Germanic blood constantly regenerated Roman society’.39 When comparing his Reich with the Americans and British in April 1942, he reminded his lunch guests, ‘Our history goes back to the days of Arminius’,40 while his anger at the newly promoted Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus’s capitulation at Stalingrad in January 1943 was expressed in terms of the Teutoburg battle: ‘The man [Paulus] should shoot himself as generals used to fall upon their swords … Even Varus commanded his slave: Kill me now! … Life is the nation; the individual must die.’41

Most tellingly, in May 1942 over dinner, when his Reich was at the height of its power, Hitler had pontificated,

To teach a nation the handling of arms is to give it a virile education. If the Romans had not recruited Germans into their armies, the latter would never have had the opportunity of becoming soldiers and, eventually, of annihilating their former instructors. The most striking example is that of Arminius, who became Commander of the Third Roman Legion [sic]. The Romans instructed the Third in the arts of war, and Arminius afterwards used it to defeat his instructors. At the time of the revolt against Rome, the most daring of Arminius’ brothers-in-arms were all Germanics who had served some time or other in the Roman legions.42

In ad 9 Arminius and his comrades had originally worn Roman military uniform, spoken Latin and studied their opponents closely, before slipping into the woods and unleashing an ambush of terrible ferocity, turning their opponents’ own weapons against them, under conditions of complete surprise. Despite getting the legion wrong and confusing Arminius’s role in the debacle, this 1942 Führer-monologue betrays Hitler’s admiration of Arminius’s cunning and tactics. Predating the Ardennes battle by two and a half years, in this remarkable passage we can see perhaps the genesis of Hitler’s 1944 idea to use a fifth column, uniformed and talking as Americans, in the woods.

Against this backdrop of Wagner, Arminius and 1940, myth and reality somehow intertwined in Hitler’s mind, and it becomes obvious why Hitler was drawn to the timeless, misty Ardennes as the setting for Germany’s final test.

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