Obituary:Alexander Stahlberg

"Did you know about Bergen-Belsen?" asked the German refugee in British officer's uniform of Alexander Stahlberg, adjutant to Field Marshal von Manstein. Stahlberg was delivering a letter from his boss to Field Marshal Montgomery in the last days of the Second World War.

Stahlberg had gained his knowledge of this notorious concentration camp almost by accident. Many Germans later claimed they knew nothing of such things. The former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, in discussion in the weekly Die Zeit last year, said he knew nothing. Those in the upper class would have known very much more than an ordinary soldier like himself, he believed.

Schmidt served as a lieutenant in the anti-aircraft artillery. He had been called up in 1937. In the barracks in Bremen, Schmidt said, "We had no idea about the deportation trains. We didn't even hear of the `Night of Broken Glass' [10 November 1938]." In Stettin, going to work, Stahlberg, an army reserve lieutenant and factory owner, saw the burning synagogue and the plundered Jewish shops, the silent crowds watching with police and SA men on guard. He felt ashamed. From the radio he heard that the same had happened throughout Germany as a reprisal for the murder of a German diplomat by a Jew in Paris.

It was during the Polish campaign that Stahlberg saw the first German SS atrocities. He took part in the campaign in France and then in the attack on the Soviet Union, where he was informed of the notorious order to shoot all Soviet political commissars. As his orderly officer he attempted to appraise his superior Erich von Manstein of the mass killings of Jews by the SS in their sector. Von Manstein could not, or would not, believe it, referring to the difficulties of dealing with the masses of corpses and to enemy propaganda in the 1914-18 war. Stahlberg learnt of the Jewish deportations from Berlin while on leave in that city. A Jewish friend who had been "aryanised" told him and introduced him to the name "Auschwitz". He also got to know of attempts, some of them successful, to give Jews sanctuary. From his mother, active in the Red Cross, he heard Hitler had ordered that all letters from German POWs in Russia which arrived via Sweden were to be destroyed.

Stahlberg had an interesting life. He grew up on his grandmother's Pomeranian estate and in Berlin in a family concerned with politics and music as well as farming. He wrote about this in Als Preussen noch Preussen war ("When Prussia was Still Prussia"). In 1934 his father sent him to London, where he lived in a boarding house in Hampstead. He was a welcome visitor in the house of his aunt Viscountess Esher.

On his return to Germany he joined his father's edible-oil firm in Stettin. Under pressure to join the Nazi party he sought refuge in the 6th Cavalry Regiment. The army was still free of the party. With von Manstein he spent time with Hitler on several occasions. He also met Himmler.

Never a Nazi, Stahlberg was recruited into the military resistance against Hitler and was asked by Major-General Henning von Treschow, his cousin, to win over von Manstein. This he was unable to do. He heard of the failure of the 20 July 1944 plot from the radio in a boarding house at a north German coastal resort. There the Field Marshal was resting. Later he again heard from the radio of Hitler's death. Frau von Manstein cried. She was an active member of the Nazi party.

Could it have been different? Henning von Treschow believed that the Soviets could have killed Hitler during his visits to the front. Stalin did not order this because the Wehrmacht was easier to defeat with Hitler than without him.

As an officer in the 2nd Motorised Infantry Division at the time of the Munich crisis in September 1938 Stahlberg felt that his troops were rejected by the Germans as they passed through the streets on their way to Czechoslovakia. When they returned to their barracks in Stettin after taking the Sudetenland, they were received by hundreds of thousands with flowers and the slogan "Peace in our time!" According to Stahlberg, in his well-researched autobiographical Die Verdammte Pflicht ("Damned Duty"), the German people wanted peace. In 1938 the new Chief of the General Staff, General Franz Halder, knew that a two-front war with Czechoslovakia and France would have gone very badly for Germany. Had it come to war, the army would have removed Hitler and his government. An emissary of German opposition circles had flown to England in August in an attempt to persuade Chamberlain to stand up to Hitler.

The Nazi hegemony started when Franz von Papen helped to manoeuvre Hitler into being the Chancellor (the head of government). Stahlberg worked for Franz von Papen, the former Chancellor, who became Vice-Chancellor, under Hitler. The plan was to tame the Nazis in a government in which they would be in the minority with only three members out of 11. The other eight were reactionaries who did not much care for Weimar democracy. The fire at the German parliament a little later was blamed on the Communists and Hitler was able to use force and fraud to set up his dictatorship in 1933. Stahlberg's oil business went up in flames in the war. Stettin became part of Poland, and Stahlberg's beloved Prussia became just a memory.

Twice married, Stahlberg lived after the war in Berlin and then in Lower Saxony. Although he spent much time on music, his main interest was in attempting to come to terms with the Nazi experience. He was a classic case of "the good German".

David Childs

Alexander Stahlberg, soldier: born Stettin 12 September 1912; died Bloemersheim, Germany 9 January 1995.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Compensation and Benefits Manager - Brentwood - Circa £60,000

£60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Compensation and Benefits Manager - Compensat...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £35000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker