Authors: Tony Hernandez
The second part of making him happy was to make the men, and thereby the camp, look busy. There were chores and basic upkeep that needed to be done, but in this place those things were far and few. For all of Ingersleben’s faults, Otto thought, he was good at spreading the minuscule jobs out day by day, week by week. While no one wanted to sit around all day and freeze, there really was no other option, since their options were so limited. But now that they had an extra pair of eyes looking at them, and an important pair at that, they now had to look busy for the sake of appearances. The men didn’t mind it too much, as it gave them something to do, but this wouldn’t last too long. One more day, maybe, and then there would be literally nothing else to do for weeks ahead. Everyone shared the secret hope that their newfound friend was merely stopping by, and that his visit would be as abrupt as his appearance.
It was proving to be an undue stress, as the men had become accustomed to their days of menial work. There was a certain structure in their days that was due, in part, to the way Ingersleben had the men carry on the hours. The men may have come from different corners of Germany with backgrounds as varied as the seasons, but they did have one thing in common: they all hated Unteroffizier Ingersleben and his cold, matter-of-fact, ways.
But now, with Oberfeldwebel Peter Haas at their camp, many men, including Otto, were beginning to rethink the notion that their commander was the worst man on earth. Haas deserved the title more.
Just as Otto was about to lose his mind in pretending to clean the same three pots for another two hours, they were given respite, as the Oberfeldwebel and Unteroffizier adjourned to Ingersleben’s tent for a break from looking and judging other men. As soon as the two men closed the tent flap behind him, nearly all the men fell to the ground in exhaustion.
One little grenade and two big problems would be gone
, Otto thought. He hated those two men. Not so much for the men they were, but because of the man they were turning him into.
“And this is the best course of action?” Ingersleben asked. “There really is no other way?”
Haas gave him an exasperated look. “What do you think? What else can we do?”
Ingersleben nodded. “Okay. But just tell me the plan again, one more time.”
“You know the plan!” Haas said, nearly shouting. “We’ve been over it.”
“Please,” Ingersleben said, “humor me. For my sake.”
Haas gave him a stern look, as if to say
no, and that's the end of it
. But then, Ingersleben said, “If I am to risk my life, and those of my men, I just need to hear it again. Please.” The last word came out more as a demand than a plea.
It seemed that Haas appreciated Ingersleben’s soft demand, and relented.
“We will inform the men that we are secretly going to the Western Front. And there, we will surrender to British and American forces.”
“And the prisoners?”
“We will execute them. All off them.”
Ingersleben nodded. He seemed to agree. “I think you're right. I do believe your plan will work, but let’s look at it a bit closer.”
Haas motioned for Ingersleben to continue.
“First,” he said, “the men are going to enjoy killing the Russians. That’s a certainty!” They shared a silent chuckle. “One thing I do question is: how many of the men are willing to go on ahead with this plan? We are talking about treason, after all. Some will think it a test, and others might outright deny it. Many of these men’s friends have died in battle for the Fatherland and many won’t be ready to surrender. Many, if not most, are ready to die for the German people and the thought of becoming like one of them,” he said, pointing to the direction of the Russian prisoners outside, “is a fate worse than death. My fear, Herr Oberfeldwebel, is that we won’t live for a moment after of our announcement of the plan.”
“And you see,” Haas said, “that is where you are wrong. The men will listen to me and my command. When they hear these words coming from me, they’ll agree.” He crossed his arms and smugly nodded his head. “You’ll see.”
The only thing Ingersleben could see was a cocky man. The only other man so self-assured that he had ever met was the man he met every morning in the mirror.
“Very well,” Ingersleben said. “When do you propose we do this?”
“Today!” Ingersleben was ready for the horror of war to end as much as the next man, but even he wasn’t in such a rush.
“Of course. Why not?” Haas said. “The longer we wait, the tighter the noose becomes. We have one advantage, and that’s time. Let’s not waste it. It’s either my plan or the plan of the generals. It’s your choice.”
“Very well,” Ingersleben said, realizing that there really was no choice. “Let me just talk to a few of my more trusted men.”
“To save our asses in case this little plan doesn’t work out, that’s why. If even one man doesn’t agree to the desertion plan, he is likely to shoot us both in the back. We will need men who already know and agree to the plan ahead of time and can act like our protectors should the plan not be universally agreed upon.”
“And who are these trusted men?”
“Leave that to me,” Ingersleben said. “I have one or two in mind.”
There was something happening, Otto just didn’t know what. It was now past afternoon, and there was some extra scurrying-about as the day continued. Oberfeldwebel Peter Haas was no where to be seen—inside Ingersleben’s tent, presumably—and Ingersleben was going around the camp in a nervous manner. Ingersleben was in a nervous mood, with his head and eyes darting about, like a rooster who can hear the master sharpening his knives.
After a few moments Otto realized what made their commander’s actions seem so out of place. He wasn’t his usual thunderous self. When he spoke to the men, he spoke to them in a hushed manner. Coupled with his nervous demeanor, it all told Otto that something more was happening that met the eye.
The other men didn’t seem to notice, probably because Haas’s visit had thrown their world and everything they perceived off kilter as it was, and this new development was overlooked as just another part of the day’s changes. Or perhaps, Otto thought, he was losing his own mind. Everyone else had quietly gone mad at their own pace; had he just crossed from the land of sanity as well, and not even noticed? He wasn’t sure, but the thought just added another fear to the many he had already. If the war ended right that moment, he would never go back to the man he was. He may not have had any open wounds on him, but a part of him was already dead.
“Are you done?”
Otto turned to see the voice calling him. It was Grenadier Josef Wernher, Ingersleben’s unofficial right hand man. Otto was using the restroom and had been standing there with his pants unbuckled for who knew how long.
“Yes,” Otto said, closing the buttons on his pants and buckling them. “What is it?”
“Unteroffizier has a new order for a few men.”
“Well then, why doesn’t he tell me?” Otto asked, instantly regretting his combative tone.
“Because,” Wernher said, walking over to face Otto, “he’s busy at the moment, and asked me to tell you. That is okay with you, is it not, Gemeiner?”
“Yes, of course,” Otto said, quickly shrinking into the passive dog he was used to being. “What are our commander’s orders?”
Wernher seemed to be relieved at Otto’s change of tone. “We are to kill all the Soviet prisoners.”
“Yes,” Otto said, nodding, “understood.” But he didn’t understand.
If we’re going to kill these Russian animals, why the secrecy?
he thought. Once the men got wind that they were about to rid the earth of these Russian beasts, the happier the men would be.
“There’s something else,” Wernher said. “We are going to the Western Front to turn ourselves over to the invading forces.”
So there it was. The order from Berlin had come down. The war was truly over. Everyone was to return home and surrender. But none of it made sense. Why would the surrender be in silence? And if they were surrendering, why would they be killing prisoners? Surely turning prisoners of war in alive would be one of the stipulations. Unless they were just surrendering to the armies in the west, and not the east, but even that didn’t make sense. Would the Soviets and Western forces go to war over the German spoils? Had Germany really fallen so far as to go from nearly ruling the world to simply becoming a piece of land that other men, foreign men, fought over?
Otto wasn’t sure if he was happy, now that the war was over. After praying for an end to it, he now secretly wished God hadn’t listened to his pleas.
“So we are to turn ourselves in?” Otto asked. “Has the Führer and others in command already begun to turn themselves in as well?”
“No, you idiot,” Wernher spat. “The war isn’t over, and no one is turning themselves in. Officially, anyway.”
Otto didn’t understand. As if sensing his confusion, Wernher said, “We, meaning our men, are deserting. We are becoming traitors. Cowards. Whatever you want to call it. I am calling it
something most German men won’t be able to say here soon.”
This just confused Otto further. How could they desert? Nazi forces were closer to Moscow than Berlin, weren’t they? And what about the commanders? Had Haas and Ingersleben really agreed to this? This seemed to be too much.
“When? How?” Otto asked, not sure what to say.
“Soon,” Wernher said. “I just need to know if you’re in, and if you are, not to tell anyone else.”
“Yes, of course,” Otto said, knowing full well that his cowardliness wasn’t a secret. “Anything.”
“Good,” Wernher said. “We need a few men who can be trusted. Just in case some of the men don’t agree with the plan.”
“Me?” Otto asked, confused. “Why trust me?” He felt both confused and honored at the same time.
“Because you’re a coward, Otto. Because you’re scared to die. We didn’t choose you because you’re a courageous man. We chose you because you are a mouse. And what we are about to attempt takes every thread of desperation that a coward embodies. You’re one of those men.” And with that, Wernher was off.
As Otto stood there, alone, he realized that the worst part of the insult was true. He was a coward, and he didn’t want to die. He was the right man for the job.
It was a bitterly cold day and, just like days past, the world was lying. While no snow could be seen, its invisible ghost had fallen again and frozen the men’s bones.
They were now being called to hear the long-awaited and long-presumed announcement from Oberfeldwebel Haas.
Everyone knew that Haas’s visit wasn’t just one of cordiality or happenstance, and today’s announcement would prove just that.
How would the men take the declaration that they were to become traitors and surrender to the enemy? Would everyone be on board to make the three-week long trek to the Western Front in a lie, surrounded by men they were now deceiving? These and other questions would soon be answered, Otto thought. Everything was coming to a head, he realized, and no matter the outcome, blood would flow. He just had to make sure it wouldn’t be coming from him.
The men huddled around one of the personal transport vehicles. It was one of two that they had. Ingerlseben and Haas had chosen the one that still worked. Otto wasn’t sure if that was an intentional attempt to show strength, but the effect was felt. And it was out of earshot from the prisoners. No one was sure what level their German was on, but better not to take risks.
“Men,” Ingersleben said. “Today we are to embark on a new journey and new cause. But this was not my idea. All credit and honor is due to this man,” Ingerslaben said, patting Haas's shoulder and showing a smile. “Oberfeldwebel Haas. So I will let him share his idea and his plan. Afterward, I’ll share my own thoughts on his idea. Oberfeldwebel?” Ingersleben motioned forward to a microphone that wasn’t there. Old habits and arranged formalities didn’t die in a time like this.
“Thank you, Unteroffizier Ingersleben, for your introduction,” Haas said, looking about as happy as he ever had since arriving.
“My arrival here to you brave men was not one of chance. My task is one of upmost importance that can only be handled by the best. And that is why I chose you.
“These orders are a result of news from Berlin. I apologize if I am not making any sense, but allow me to explain.
“Men, the situation is graver than many of you have thought. As many of you have feared, Germany is losing the war. Not only that—our defeat is all but guaranteed.” Haas paused a few moments to see the effect and reaction that his words might have on the men. There was none. He continued.
“British forces have now joined French forces, who have, in cowardice, turned against the betterment that the French people had agreed upon with us. Joining the French are American and Canadian forces as well. The reports differ, but it appears that the amount of Americans that have become involved in a war that has nothing to do with them is a staggering number.
“Coupled with our crumbling war efforts here in the east, it leads me, and most that know of this news, to believe that we are doomed.
“Our fate is sealed. The outcome is set. Germany will fall. After that, many believe, myself included, that the Soviets and the British will then go to war over the Fatherland.
“So, having said all this—what are we to take from it? What are we to do? The German Reich will not reach its promised thousand-year reign, and we are to be a defeated people. So what next? The only thing there is to do: live.
“We must live, and we must survive. Not only for our personal sake, but for our families, and yes, even for Germany, even for the Fatherland. What’s to come of our great land and people is anyone’s guess, but what is certain, as we go forward, is that we need strong men, just men, to continue on our great culture. And we can do that, even if we are to live our lives in chains.
“And that brings me to the real reason I am here. To what chains are we to be tied? That is the only question. British and Russian bullets kill the same, but their imprisonment is different.