The Swiss volunteers repeatedly encountered Germans’ sense of duty and their efforts to cultivate the hardness it required. Elsi’s colleague Dr. Bucher had no luck comforting a soldier whose hands and feet had been amputated due to frostbite the day before. “I am in tears,” the seventeen-year-old SS recruit explained, “because I promised my mother I would fly with the Führer to England.” “It is really unbelievable,” Dr. Bucher shook his head in dismay. “Ice creeps into the limbs, but the poison deceiving their hearts sits even deeper!”
While the Swiss were quick to bring up democracy and humanitarianism, the Germans spoke up—at least in the Swiss transcripts—with stock phrases and Führer quotations. The Germans’ words astonished the Swiss, who found intolerable what they regarded as the Germans’ “totalitarian” mind-set, which shuttled between the profane and the sacred, between “mental cripples” and “war cripples,” between extreme violence and complete faith. “Everything else,” that is, anything that did not have to do with Germany, “had no reason to exist, was just nonsense.” By contrast, the Germans found the violence they meted out acceptable, even appropriate, even as they ably detailed the suffering they had endured after World War I. The Germans whom the Swiss encountered were completely absorbed in their own national drama. Indeed, the narcissism they displayed was instrumental to their use of extreme force.
Peter Fritzsche is the W. D. & Sarah E. Trowbridge Professor of History at the University of Illinois. The author of nine books, including the award-winning Life and Death in the Third Reich, he lives in Urbana, Illinois.
Image: Nazi troops on parade in Paris. Wikimedia Commons / Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-L05487 / CC-BY-SA 3.0