"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".
Alexander Stahlberg, soldier: born Stettin 12 September 1912; died Bloemersheim, Germany 9 January 1995.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies