The Sniper in the Hill: The View from Far Away

World War Two was devastating to global communities around the world, both Axis and Allied powers and all the parts in between.

When Americans think about the war, then and now, we think about the Greatest Generation. Good versus evil. Bravery, honor and sacrifice in the face of potential utter devastation and defeat. It’s the classic good-guys-beats-insurmountable-baddies. It’s the definition of Just Cause war.

But as Americans, what is the story we tell for the Germans?

For the citizens, that they were weak and mindless. That few were brave enough to try to stop the horrors of the Holocaust, the crushing of democracy. For the military and political parties, that they let their greed and desire for power eliminate their souls. That their fear of failure, other world powers and need for an identity overwhelmed everything else.

America often  redefines other cultures “in terms of classically American ideals, so that this mode of interpretation became an unconscious act of self-reflected, a commentary on the real meaning of America,” says David Spurr, an explorer of travel writing in his own right. He argues that culture is not a simple construct of ideals and values, but instead a highly evolving complex engagement between dissimilar dominant and subordinate cultures. He proposes “idealization takes place in relation to the Western culture” and the viewer sees that perceived culture as both Other and a reflection of their cultural norms. Translation: Americans see Germans as what we want to see, a reflection of our values; for example, during the war, we ignored our own atrocities to idealize our soldiers and demonize the enemy. We saw an enemy to our righteous power. And why could we think this way?

They are the Others. They are the Not Us, the Never Us. We idealize our own culture, and see the values we want to see in others…even if they must be evil, so they can be a reflection of purely good. As David Spurr says in his essay about idealization, America redefines other cultures “in terms of classically American ideals, so that this mode of interpretation became an unconscious act of self-reflected, a commentary on the real meaning of America.”

One candlelit dinner, tucked away in the ancient hills of a quiet German home, my landlandy’s father told me a story.

To be perfectly clear, I did not take this photo...Kurt Oblak captured my small village of Malberg, with its lush hills and small palace, much better than I could have.

To be perfectly clear, I did not take this photo…Kurt Oblak captured my small village of Malberg, with its lush hills and small palace, much better than I could have.

It was after a couple of mandatory shots of schnapps, homemade liquor from the local weed called konigskerze, that he brought it up, suddenly.

“You know,” he said, his bright eyes moving from side to side under bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows, “There were Americans here during the war.”

When any German says “the war,” they mean, “World War Two.” I put the schnapps down, hoping Friedl wouldn’t make me take another one in exchange of the story.

“Yeah, here? In Malberg?”

It makes sense, if you look at a map. Little Malberg, a village so heniously hilly most Germans cluck their tongues at driving through it, is right by the borders of Luxembourg and Belgium…right where the lines of defense were. The stories you hear of Band of Brothers, at the Battle of the Bulge? Just a hop and a skip away from Friedl and me.

Malberg is less than 40 kilometers away from the Belgian border...only 53 kilometers from the famed grounds of the Battle of the Bulge.

Malberg is less than 40 kilometers away from the Belgian border…only 53 kilometers from the famed grounds of the Battle of the Bulge.

There’s even a small town down the road from Malberg with tank tracks of Patton’s 3rd Army, eternally scraped into the ancient stone gate entrance (look it up, if you don’t believe me!)

“So, what happened?” I asked, leaning forward. Germans, you see, are not usually afraid of telling their story. They are not afraid of talking about the past. But it is rather rude to bring it up without a decent segue, so I was not about to let this one slide.

Friedl grew up in the house I now rented from his daughter, and it was a lovely stone home, a place six times older than me. Friedl had been in the West German Army during the Cold War and Berlin Wall, and ran the small village as their bergermeister. He and his family, like most rural families, had lived and farmed and hunted the land for hundreds of years.

During the war, he told me, before he was born, there was a battle here in our very own castle. The Germans knew the Americans were coming, so some of the locals fixed the Jewish graves that the Nazi soldiers had desecrated.

When they arrived, the Americans asked the German locals if they were hiding soldiers in their homes. The Germans said no, of course, and the Americans made their way through the small village. But what the Germans from Malberg didn’t know, is that there were German snipers in the hills. The Americans decided to explore the small castle, or the schloss, when BAM!

Friedl slammed the table. I jumped.

The small palace of Malberg...again, photo from Kurt Oblak.

The small palace of Malberg…again, photo from Kurt Oblak.

An American, then two, were taken out. The sniper had struck from his hiding place in the hills.

The American commander was so incensed by this apparent betrayal, Friedl says, that he swore he would flatten the village with airstrikes. The local bergermeister and the priest went to the U.S. commander, begging him to understand they hadn’t known, they couldn’t have.

The commander [most likely understanding this course of action could make him a war criminal] decided not to kill innocent villagers, and the Americans moved through, on their way to crushing the evil of Hitler. But, as in all things inherently unfair like war, the ground they gained was lost in a three-day battle in the local area…and the Nazis came through Malberg again.

Here, in Malberg, they saw the graves of the Jews, no longer desecrated, tidied and clean for the Americans. Unacceptable, they said, that Germans would be trying to coddle the enemy’s sensitivities. They made the offending locals come out to the graves, and shot them on the spot.

I had seen the gravestones of the fallen soldiers, a proud memorial to the local German boys who went off to one world war, then another, and never came home. But what of the citizens of Germany? What of those stuck in between the geopolitical wars beyond their small rural village? They wanted peace. They wanted to farm and raise families and make konigkerze schnapps.

These are the stories we do not hear…we do not think of. In our arrogance of righteousness, we often create the narrative for all Germans in that era. This is the danger of the single story, as one very eloquent Adichie says.

But what would you have done, if you were just trying to survive? And is it possible to see the German narrative during World War II through the lens of their culture, not ours?

How do we challenge these narratives, if to “investigate forms of ‘otherness’ -both biological and culturally coded- that alternately confirm and question the position of the investigating subject”? The question is posed by Holland and Huggan in their article about travel writing in the contemporary, and it is truly one to consider. How do we re-discover what is already labeled as history?

A photo of German civilians, WWII era.

A photo of German civilians, WWII era.

As Adichie says, “power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

So often, we define all Germans of the past by their history, by their leader, by their war. But we forget that each person probably had a family, dreams and hopes for living their lives.

We forget about the citizens whose only crime perhaps was to be defined by someone else’s story.

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10 Comments to “The Sniper in the Hill: The View from Far Away”

  1. Every story has a second … Love to read yours!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this blog. I thought the pictures helped give a little extra sentiment.

  3. Again, another brilliant Blog! I appreciate how you incorporated Adichie’s Single Story and Spurr’s Idealization into your story. The only thing that I wish is that there was more narrative in Friedl words. You sent it up so nicely I thought that it was going to be a sort of first person account. The photos as always add wholeness to your blog.
    Good Work!

    • Great feedback…I can shift it to his words I recall to quotes. I don’t recall all the exact wording, so I didn’t want to misquote him. Thanks again for your feedback

      • Not to mention Friedl didn’t speak the greatest English nor did t get better with each glass of Schnapps.haha

  4. Hello Katrina:

    Wow, this is beautiful, and I often wonder about the Other in any war. It takes two to have a war and both sides think they are on the right side so you have to wonder if both are right or both are wrong or…

    Your images are gorgeous, and your dialog with Friedl really brings the story to life. There’s something very powerful about a modern-day telling of an aging tale. Any possibility we can see am image of Friedl? I want to know more about the person who had so much to offer.

    You wrote, “I had seen the gravestones of the fallen soldiers, a proud memorial to the local German boys who went off to one world war, then another, and never came home.” I got goose bumps when I read this, and it brought me back to my Memorial Day tradition: I help a local Veterans’ Day Committee place flags on the graves of fallen soldiers in my town. It makes me feel grateful but sad at the same time.

    Over the weekend, I watched a documentary on Eva Braun. I learned so much, so it was great to read your take.

    Nicely done.
    Denise

  5. Katrina,
    This is a wonderful story that covers the other side of things and it’s absolutely touching and so very true. I think that many Western people do forget about those others that did things to help and to protect and it is wonderful to see a story that acknowledges them. Thank you for such a wonderful history lesson.

  6. Awesome blog. I already raved about it in your previous post. There are some great books that really highlight the plight of German civilians during the War, including The Book Thief, All the light We Cannot See, and Those Who Save Us. Maybe it would be cool to suggest something like those for your readers so that we can have a way to add to the one story even more after being inspired to do so by your blog:)

  7. Beautiful place, beautiful people.

  8. Katrina, once again, you capture the reality from another persons perspective. Coming from a German heritage, I can appreciate this story. My grandparents and parents made sure people understood their commitments to the USA. They even stopped speaking the German language and my uncles were proud veterans of WW II. Another great short story!

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