The Nazi tank commander who became an American peacenik
H. Eberhard von Waldow of Pittsburgh by way of Prussia was a Lutheran minister, an Old Testament scholar and a charter member of the Holocaust Museum
It would not surprise you to learn that long ago H. Eberhard von Waldow spent three years as a young tank commander in Hitler's armies.
In fact, when you first meet him, you can't help thinking that he is a living, breathing, textbook stereotype of a Prussian military officer.
He's right out of a bad World War II movie. Tall and straight with strong bones and angular features, he carries himself, even at 71, like a career military man.
When he says things like "Oskar Schindler was a crook and not a worthy representative of the Germans who resisted Hitler," his German accent is Hollywood-perfect.
Although he's been an American citizen for more than 20 years, he is, as a Jewish friend and colleague so accurately puts it, "still very German."
But let's say you already know all about von Waldow's amazing life story and what a brilliant scholar he is.
Let's say you already know he is an ordained Lutheran minister with a serious interest in Holocaust studies, and that he's a virtual pacifist who hasn't touched a weapon since he surrendered himself and his men to British forces in 1945.
You still wouldn't be that surprised if he suddenly jumped up in the middle of a conversation, pulled out a Luger and led you in an invasion of his neighbor's yard.
Stereotypes are hard to shake. The real man, as usual, is more complicated.
H. Eberhard von Waldow is a Junker, a full-blooded son of East Prussia's landed aristocracy and very much the product of a culture known for its conservatism, its career military officers and its fierce loyalty to the German state.
He belongs to the generation of Germans who brought the world Hitler, a World War and the Holocaust. Yet Von Waldow, who joined the faculty at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1966 as an Old Testament scholar, is no ex-Nazi.
He's "a new German" — one of the war-hating kind who've run Germany quite peacefully for the past 50 years. He's the son of a Lutheran minister — his father was twice imprisoned by the Gestapo — and abhors the sins of Nazi Germany. A charter member of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C, he doesn't want to revise history or ever let the world forget how evil the Nazis' reign of horror was.
For the past 30 years, however, he's been on a tricky intellectual mission. He wants to make sure that his fellow Americans and all young Germans and Jews understand an important historical truth that he says has either been forgotten or never fully understood: Not all Germans were monsters before and during World War II.
There was another, better Germany flickering inside the dark of Nazi Germany — what von Waldow calls "The Other Germany." It was a small, unorganized minority compared to those who supported the criminal Nazi system, he admits. But it was populated by many unknown heroes who helped Jews escape to Sweden or resisted Hitler or even tried to get rid of him. And he feels it should be remembered.
Von Waldow knows the risks of this kind of thinking. "What we're always afraid of," he says at his home, "is that others may think, 'Ahhhh, now they are coming up with excuses. It wasn't so bad after all.’
“No. It was very bad. I visited the other day the Holocaust Museum in Washington. What is demonstrated there is absolutely necessary. We Germans must see that this was done in the name of our country. No excuses — just understand what happened."
Von Waldow has two shelves of books in his office-library about "The Other Germany," most written in German. He knows who the resisters were by heart: Politicians, labor leaders, socialists, intellectuals like the Kreisauer Circle, Munich university students, Catholic and Protestant bishops and ministers like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who openly prayed for the defeat of his country.
"Jews basically have no idea about this,” he says, lighting up a cigarette. "They think all Germans were Nazis, and so when they hear this for the first time they are asking, 'Isn't this revisionism?’ 'Aren't you trying to revise history?' No. What I am telling you is so well-documented — it's not revision of history. It's revision of wrong perceptions."
For example, there were many Oskar Schindlers, von Waldow says, referring to the deeply flawed hero of the movie "Schindler's List." "But the majority were not crooks. The only claim to fame that Oskar Schindler has is that his story came to the attention of Steven Spielberg, and he used it to make an excellent film."
Von Waldow is an expert on the largest and best organized anti-Hitler resistance group — the military. On July 20, 1944, resisters in the upper ranks of the German army almost succeeded in killing Hitler.
At a staff meeting, Col. Claus Schenk Count von Stauffenberg set off a bomb in a briefcase next to Hitler’s chair, as von Waldow illustrates by doing a crude reenactment in his office. But Hitler survived the blast and von Stauffenberg and hundreds of other conspirators in the military were quickly rounded up and executed. It was the 20th and last unsuccessful plot hatched by military officers to kill or arrest Hitler, dating back to 1938.
Von Waldow disagrees strongly with those, like author William Shirer, who say the resisters in the military were just a handful of generals who realized belatedly that the war was lost and wanted to save their own skins. “That is not so. It is absolutely wrong. It is simply that they discovered that Hitler was the manifestation of evil. They did it for moral reasons."
Von Waldow believes that the spirit of "The Other Germany" as represented by von Stauffenberg et al. lives on in the Germany of today, and that leaders like Helmut Kohl embody the "New Germany."
Kohl has no connection with Nazi Germany, von Waldow says, which is why he is "deeply disappointed ' with President Clinton for not inviting Kohl to Normandy for tomorrow's 50th anniversary celebration of the D-Day landing. Speaking for himself and as a board member of the Pittsburgh-based Institute for German-American relations, von Waldow sent a letter to Clinton expressing his disappointment.
Von Waldow wants to use this summer's 50th anniversary of the attempt on Hitler's life as a way for history to acknowledge the existence of this "Other Germany" and as a way to honor those who died resisting Hitler.
He has written to WQED to ask that on July 20 it rebroadcast "The Restless Conscience," a documentary about the attempt on Hitler's life. He has asked the Holocaust Museum in Washington "to please tell the entire story" by adding information about "The Other Germany." And he is trying to arrange for an exhibit on the military's resistance movement that was shown years ago in Germany to travel to Pittsburgh and other cities.
In publicizing the resistance movement, von Waldow's goal is simple. He wants to demonstrate that "the equation that all Germans were Nazis is not true."
H. Eberhard von Waldow was 10 when Hitler came to power in 1933. He and his mother Ully and older brother Alexander lived in an East Prussian village of fewer than 1,000, where his father Bernd was the Lutheran minister.
Von Waldow remembers the cheering crowds that greeted Hitler at first, and he remembers being in the Hitler Youth.
At 15 he remembers being confused by the sight of firemen watching passively as the village synagogue still burned the morning after Kristallnacht, the national night of Nazi terror and rampage against Germany's Jews on Nov. 9, 1938.
He remembers his father breaking the law and listening to BBC broadcasts while he and Alexander circled the house so they could warn him if someone was coming.
He remembers the first time the Gestapo came to arrest his father for preaching sermons that "diminished the will of the German people to fight." He remembers being shocked to learn that his father had been betrayed by the church organist.
After leaving high school, he and his classmates were drafted into the regular German army. He may have been the son of an anti-Nazi, but he had no choice but to go to war and wear the uniform of what he calls "a criminal system."
He trained as an officer, then saw his first action as a tank commander against the Russians in Finland in 1942. Later, he was transferred to Ukraine, where he was a commander of 12 Tiger tanks in the huge battles fought there.
As Germany's armies slowly retreated across Russia, he had only two questions on his 20-year-old mind: "No. 1 was, 'How do I survive this war so I get out alive?' No. 2 was, ‘If this is my intention, how do I cover this up so no one else knows?' " After the war, he would discover "there were so many others who felt the same way, even superior officers."
On July 20, 1944, he heard the government news report that Count von Stauffenberg and "a handful of irresponsible officers who were traitors had tried to assassinate Hider." The idea that there was an organized opposition to Hider came as a complete shock to him.
When he heard the names of the conspirators he was shocked even more. Many of the officers were from his part of Pomerania. The brother of one of them was his close friend. Only recently von Waldow discovered how close he came to being involved in one of the failed plots to kill Hider. In a book on the military resistance, he learned that his own superior officer planned to surround the Nazi leader with his tank regiment when Hitler came to visit their unit on the Russian front near Poltawa.
Von Waldow never got his chance to be a part of history, because Hitler changed his plans and never showed up. But what would he have done if the attempt to get Hider had happened? Would he have fit the stereotype of the "good German soldier" and followed his superior officer's orders?
"Of course." The alternative to disobeying an order was death. "As a young guy, what do you do? Hitler was an abstraction. Colonel von Strachwitz knew me. I knew him. So if he tells me do that, I do it."
During a battle near Vilnius, Lithuania, von Waldow got lucky. In a fight with the Russians, his tank became stuck in the mud. After he climbed outside to assess his predicament, a piece of shrapnel from a Russian mortar shell tore into the side of his head, seriously wounding him.
He was sent back to Germany to recover and never saw his unit or his friends again. "They were either killed or taken prisoner."
By January of 1945, he was back at war. Only this time he was on the Western Front, trying to stay alive and secretly looking for an opportunity to surrender to someone. His chance came in western Germany in late April, two weeks before the war would end in Europe and four months after his 21st birthday.
He was assigned to stop an approaching British tank unit with a force or 50 green 18-year-old infantrymen. The attack was set for morning, so the night before he ordered his men not to shoot at the British tanks but to stay in their foxholes and let the tanks pass over them. Then they were to look at him and do exactly what he did.
The next day, after the tanks passed over them, and as Von Waldow, left, in 1944 with his mother Oily and brother Alexander. the British infantry approached, von Waldow stood up in his foxhole and raised his arms in surrender. His men did the same. As he had hoped, not a shot was fired and no was hurt.
It was while he was a POW that von Waldow was first confronted with the hideous details of the atrocities the Nazis had committed in the concentration camps and elsewhere. As a soldier on the front, he had heard rumors, and he knew in a general sense that the Nazis were putting Jews in internment camps, but he couldn't believe what he heard.
Von Waldow, naturally, has been asked many times how much the German people knew about the concentration camps. His answer is this: "No. 1, it was very dangerous to know. But whoever cared to know, could have. It was strictly forbidden, but they could have tuned in to BBC London, which my father regularly did.
"But what did the German people know? I can tell you flat out — nothing. It was beyond imagination. A normal human being does not expect other human beings to do things like that. It was beyond human imagination."
Anyway, he asks, if someone did know what was happening to the Jews, "What could anyone have done? Nothing. That's the tragedy. We couldn't have done anything. The country was no democracy."
As a POW, von Waldow also heard about the atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese. And, by chance, he heard what fate the war had dealt his father, the man who had always spoken so contemptuously about the Nazis, the man he considered a perfect East Prussian German gentleman.
Following his second arrest by the Gestapo, his father had been given a punitive transfer to a town on the far eastern edge of Pomerania. When the plundering Russian troops swept through the area, von Waldow says, his father was shot by a soldier in the back of his head in a hog pen.
"He wanted his watch," von Waldow says with no visible emotion. Thirteen of his relatives died at the hands of Russian troops, but his mother and brother survived.
After the war, when POWs were being sorted out and sent to their homes in East and West Germany, von Waldow came up with a phony home address in a bombed-out city and became a West German citizen.
He became a Lutheran minister, got his doctorate in theology, got married and had two kids. When Germany joined NATO in the late '50s, he was asked to become a military chaplain. He said no thanks. He hadn't earned a doctorate in theology so he could help strengthen the military might of NATO.
Instead he went to Brazil. After seven years there, he bumped into the traveling dean of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, who asked him if he'd like to work on his faculty for a year.
Von Waldow and his wife Brigitte and their children Arnd and Gisela came to Pittsburgh in 1966 and never left. He and Brigitte became American citizens in 1972 so that they could work in the presidential campaign of George McGovern.
"What attracted us was one statement that McGovern made repeatedly," says von Waidow, who demonstrated against the Vietnam War and describes himself as a liberal Democrat. "I think it's still hanging downstairs: 'I'm sick and tired of old people dreaming up wars for young people to die in.' That hit me personally.”
For the past 30 years, von Waldow, who speaks or reads seven languages, including Hebrew and Aramaic, has sought to build emotional and intellectual bridges of reconciliation and understanding between Jews and Germans.
He has become known in Pittsburgh for his work with Jews, and it was he who introduced a new field of study at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary — the Holocaust. He also started a course in which he and Rabbi Mark Staitman of Rodef Shalom in Shadyside jointly teach Old Testament theology to future Protestant ministers.
Staitman met von Waldow 18 years ago at an October Fest in Beaver County, where von Waldow was teaching German drinking songs to a group of revelers. It took a while, Staitman says, but they got to know and understand each other through a series of Jewish-Christian dialogue sessions.
Not many partnerships are formed between ex-German tank commanders and rabbis, Staitman admits. He attributes their close relationship to mutual respect and von Waldow’s intellectual integrity. Although von Waldow retired from the seminary's faculty last year, he and Staitman still co-teach their Old Testament course.
What von Waldow is doing to publicize "The Other Germany" is important, Staitman says.
"It has become very easy for most of the world to see only one aspect of Germany and the German people. And while that aspect is an important aspect, and none of us deny its significance, it's certainly not the whole picture.
"He's saying we need to take a very different perspective to see if that leads to a better understanding of a historical issue. It's important, especially for Jews, for that to happen."