This unusual book tells the story of World War II, from the perspective of a German hero, Franz Stigler, a boy who once wanted to become a priest but whose love of flying led him, instead, to become a fighter pilot, a flying ace, whose act of mercy saved the life of an American soldier. He never joined the Nazi party nor did members of his family. His brother was a suspected member of the underground. While I always knew that not all Germans were supporters of Hitler or members of the National Socialist Party, I had rarely given them the benefit of the doubt, excusing their behavior because they had no other choice. Reading this book, I realized that many Germans may have had no other choice but to obey Hitler’s edicts. To do otherwise and defy Hitler would probably have led to their own death in the same brutal way as Hitler’s other victims died, in the Concentration Camps that Hitler called work camps, retraining facilities, exemplary examples of the way a prison should treat its prisoners, but in fact they were little more than torture chambers. Still, with so vast a number of people disappearing, it still defies my imagination to believe that many Germans were unaware of something awfully wrong going on in their country. To be sure, there were noble resistance groups, and they sacrificed their own lives, hoping to save the lives of others who were being persecuted, trying to take a stand against evil and not supporting the Nazi effort simply because they were ordered to or had to or felt nationalism for their country. To me, not supporting Hitler’s policies, but supporting the war by lending an effort to fight or by turning a blind eye to the plight of his victims, was meaningless. It simply meant that if Hitler succeeded, whether or not one agreed with him, their compliance would have guaranteed his remaining in power and his hateful policies against certain people would have continued as would his heinous violence and genocide.
Reading about the bravery of the German soldiers, reading about their fears and their concerns, their losses and their suffering humanized this enemy of the past, to a far greater degree than any other recounting of the history had done for me before, but it remained hard for me to find it in my heart to empathize with those who attacked innocent people for the sake of their Fatherland, regardless of whether or not they supported the Nazis and Hitler. As I read of the plight of these people who were suffering from a lack of supplies and food, who were living in bombed out buildings, I felt little sympathy. Their plight was a result of their duly elected leader’s behavior. While others were being piled onto cattle cars and sent to their death, marched to gas chambers, humiliated by their nakedness, taunted, starved, beaten, and enslaved, terrified of what awaited them, helpless in the face of their enemies, for little more than their beliefs, not their actions, these same Germans were turning a blind eye, saving their own skins from the person they, themselves, put in power. Hitler’s reign of terror brought Germany down and the Germans were complicit, even if it was just in their silence.
Putting politics aside, the book is marvelous in what it does. It conflicts the reader often, since the traumatic events Stigler encountered as he fought for his country, watching his friends die, being shot down, losing members of his family, may cause the reader to hope this noble pilot survives, often forgetting he was the enemy of America and the Allies; he was a German pilot fighting to exalt his Fatherland, and so, while the reader may pull back a bit and rethink what he/she knows and what he/she has learned in the past., the reality of the Holocaust will often stop the reader from becoming too sympathetic to the German’s eventual suffering. They reaped what they sowed. If, perhaps, forgiveness is not possible, a greater understanding is probably more achievable. The book absolutely presents a more human side of the war from the German viewpoint; it does humanize the soldier there, exposing him to be the same as soldiers everywhere, dedicated to their fellow countrymen, dedicated to their country, loyal to their cause, but also simply frightened young men obeying orders.
As I read (I actually listened to an audio version), I tried to be more tolerant and to glimpse behind the scenes of war, to the character of the soldiers and to the landscape of their backgrounds. Some of them, soldiers and officers, were fine men, noble men of purpose who respected the rule of war and did not support Hitler’s Nazi hatred. The soldiers in the German armed forces were trained to follow orders, even when they disagreed, as they area in all countries armed forces. At one point in the narrative, the author seems to be telling the reader that the German soldier actually behaved more ethically on the field of battle, not shooting down the paratroopers as they escaped from their wrecked and burning planes, even as the Americans did that to prevent their enemy from returning to fight them another day, and actually, isn’t that what this books is really about, the life that the German soldier saved the day he did not shoot down his enemy, the kill that would have earned him his Knight’s Cross, the day he realized they were all soldiers following orders and they all deserved to live, the day he did not shoot the pilot and crew in the severely damaged plane, but saluted them and let them return to England! He could have been court-martialed. There were several instances of that kind of bravery mentioned in the book which will give the reader pause. The day that Stigler let the American survive to fight another day was never publicized by the pilot or the crew he saved. It was forbidden to speak about it for fear it would damage the morale of the pilots who might think their German counterparts would spare them. In the end, America admitted they had made a mistake in hiding this act of German bravery and the men who made it back to safety were awarded medals, sometimes posthumously, many decades later. In the mid 80’s, a series of reunions took place and as the American pilot began having nightmares of that fateful day during the war, he began to search for the German pilot. He placed ads in the serviceman’s newsletters and since both were searching for each other, and both read the same newsletter, fate brought them together so they could finally meet.
The book made it seem as if the military was a separate part of this fight, separated from the SS and Hitler’s demons. It made the German officers, who commanded the fighter pilots, out to be gentlemen who insisted that their soldiers engage in fair play towards enemy soldiers so that they would be treated as well, if they were shot down or captured. When one officer found more than 130 prisoners of war in Buchenwald, he immediately arranged for their freedom and they do owe their lives to him for they were scheduled for extermination, only a few days later. In fairness, some Germans did what they could in their own heroic way, even as they continued to fight Hitler’s war. Here-to-fore, I would not have believed that such civilized behavior would be possible from a German soldier in Hitler’s military. Hitler’s brutality knew no bounds, and I would have assumed the soldiers would follow in his footsteps. Instead, another view is presented on these pages, and if the reader can find it in his mind and heart to absorb this story and believe it, it might help to revise their overall opinion of the Germans, during that time. The soldiers felt the same camaraderie as ours did. They were nationalistic, and as they were engaged in fighting, they only heard the propaganda put out by the government, as the citizens did. To think other than that which they were force fed, was subversion, treason and it was punishable by death. There was little opportunity to fight back, because they had allowed Hitler to usurp too much power, slowly, using thugs and madmen in his effort to expand the size and scope of Germany’s influence. They loved their homeland even if they did not love Hitler. Let’s hope that no other country makes that mistake again.