Interview with Knight's Cross winner Fritz Langanke, Company Commander of the 2. SS-Panzer Division 'Das Reich', Essen, 1988.

I like to ask what attracted men to join the SS, can you tell me about the attraction you had?

Fritz: Yes, for me the SS was a new way of thinking, combined with our old traditions. I came from a very traditional German family and I had a deep respect for the old ways. The SS was seen as the pride of the nation, where only the best Germans were accepted. I wanted to be seen as being a member of this special group of men who were the standard-bearers of the new era. I joined the Jungvolk [for ages 10-14], then Hitlerjugend [ages 14-18], then did my time in the RAD [Reichsarbeitsdienst, or Reich Labor Service]. All this bolstered my view of these elite men of the National Socialist movement. The SS was the next step on the ladder. To join the SS you had to be in the best possible shape, physically and mentally. The entrance exams took all day to do, as it encompassed mental and physical tests. There were many stations set up so that a doctor could evaluate you. You had to attest that your genealogy went back at least two hundred years of Germanic blood. This was done to make sure no one entered who was not a native-born German, of the original Germanic people. I believe that I heard a statistic that said only one in ten who applied were accepted. Everyone, rich or poor was welcomed into the SS if you had the aptitude. There was no class structure, everyone was equal and were treated as equals. The Generals often ate with the privates, which was unheard of in the past.

What were the early years like for you in the SS?

Fritz: I was accepted into the 'Germania' regiment, 10th Company, and my training was much like the military. Our leaders envisioned a force dedicated strictly to the party, like the Praetorian Guard of Rome. We had no army support, as they were opposed to us existing. Himmler had to use SS funds to buy equipment and weapons. I spent all of 1937 training, and then in March 1938 'Germania' was part of the forces welcomed by the Austrians. It was something; thousands of people cheering us as we marched in. A very big lie told today is that they did not want us there. I was there, and everyone came out to greet us and thank us for freeing their land. Later in October we marched into Czechoslovakia, this time we thought it might be tougher, but again, everywhere people came out to welcome us. The German minority was persecuted and very happy to be liberated. The average Czech came out to see us, I could tell they were slightly nervous about what would happen, but many offered us warm coffee and snack cakes. For 1939, we trained, and were used as occupation troops, which for us meant having to help with the harvests or aiding the widow clean her yard. Our leaders always wanted us to make a good impression on all people.

An older married SS man was kicked out when he had relations with a Czech woman and she became pregnant. He supposedly told her he wanted nothing to do with her and that Germans were only here to conquer the women. There may be more to it, but the point I want to make is that we were very respectful wherever we were. If we were not, you would get a lot of trouble coming your way. Another story I can share is a comrade in my company borrowed a bike to chase after a girl he saw on a tram; he dented the rim and tried to return it to the owner after. Our Spieß [German military slang name for the company sergeant major, it literally means 'spear'] ordered him to buy the man not only a new bike, but also a better model.

[Above: (left) SS recruits tidying up their barracks and (right) SS recruits learning runic symbols. Click to enlarge.]

What was the mood like when war started in 1939?

Fritz: Strangely, for us there was no bravado, no cheering, and no talk of revenge. We were muted and concerned that our nation was going to war again. We did understand that due to Polish refusal to stop border incursions, killing of Germans inside Poland, and harassment of the German minority, we had to step in to solve the problem. The British declaration was unnecessary and uncalled for, it only proved the Führer's claim that plutocrats wanted war to fix their rotten nations. I found that the Poles were tough fighters when well led; part of the 'Germania' got a bloody nose at Jaworów [near Lviv]. The Poles beat our company with a division that was well led and caused us heavy casualties. Some of our troops fled, leaving much equipment behind. 'Germania' held out but suffered very heavy casualties before being overrun. We were green and had no fighting experience, the thinking was we needed to learn and what better way than to go into the fire? This paid off later in the war, as we were much more experienced in Allied tactics, and had our battle baptism. We also learned to trust our comrades with our lives. It was with relief that Poland fell so quickly, their army was large and well-equipped. Some divisions were better equipped than German ones. We went to work rebuilding and reorganizing so that we would be better prepared for the western allies. I saw our Panzers in action and decided that I would like to be a part of this elite group.

Did you ever meet Reichsführer-SS Himmler or any high leaders?

Fritz: Yes of course, being an early member of the SS-VT it was common to see Reichsführer-SS Himmler and others. We performed many parade and honor functions, though not as many as the LSSAH [Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler] who were used primarily for state service. Reichsführer-SS Himmler would often pay for fine dinner parties and dances for us. We had many parties at our barracks where we went to great lengths to invite the pretty girls. During the war, we would receive visits from Reichsführer-SS Himmler or his aides, who would bring greetings and gifts from home for the troops. I always was impressed at how well he stayed in touch with his units, always making sure our needs were being met, both at the front and at home.

Was there really animosity between the SS and the Wehrmacht?

Fritz: Yes, there was, there did not need to be, but the Wehrmacht was very jealous of a private army within the National Socialist state. In the beginning they did not want to help us in any way, arms had to be bought with SS funds, and they refused to train with us. Many senior Wehrmacht leaders were stuck in the old days where there was no room for new thinking. We were loyal to the Führer and the new era he was creating, while the Wehrmacht was still stuck in Old Prussian times. Lucky for us, some very good ex-Wehrmacht leaders came to us and trained us up to be the most elite soldiers Germany has ever had. When war started, we were criticized by some army officers. We made mistakes early on, but learned from them and got better and better. By war's end, we were saving Wehrmacht units from destruction, and small SS battlegroups were holding off whole divisions of the enemy. I would say by 1943 the Waffen-SS was superior to the average Wehrmacht unit; we were better trained, armed and motivated. We believed in what we were fighting for, where most of the Wehrmacht was drafted and only yearned for home. I say this not to insult my comrades, most all who served our nation did so with honor and bravery regardless of branch, but SS men had a deeper sense of what we were fighting for. The Wehrmacht fought for Germany, we also did, but more so for a brighter world for all in which National Socialism was allowed to flourish to show man a brighter future.

[Above: (left) A young Fritz Langanke during his time in the SS-Verfügungstruppe 'Germania' in the early stages of the war and Langanke a seasoned Knight's Cross winner.]

You fought in Normandy against the western allies, what was your experience like, and how did you view the western allies?

Fritz: I did not find much difference between the Allies, many Germans say the western allies were more European, and thus treated us better than the Russians, but I disagree. I saw the aftermath of war crimes in Normandy as much as in Russia. Allied propaganda inflamed both civilians and soldiers to believe we were all killers of innocents, and when the shooting started, the Allies felt they were on a holy crusade to wipe out the Nazi scourge, and in France, the bandits joined in, led by Allied operatives. Allied soldiers killed surrendered Germans in many instances from the beginning. The HJ Division had a hospital attacked in which Canadians were responsible. I have nothing against the Allies and wished they had had better leaders who would see the war for what it was, the destruction of Europeans, but the acts of cruelty they committed are unforgivable. More so since they lied about them.

On the Eastern Front, the Russians were loose and undisciplined many times; however, there was still a sense of honor in many units. When 'Das Reich' was at Kursk, there was a lull where a Russian captain was shot and our medics were treating him, under a white flag his assistant came out with an interpreter and asked if they could trade him for a wounded officer they had. The German said he was well cared for by the enemy and given a small bottle of vodka to share with us. This happened more than historians care to research. The Russians are always accused of being barbarians, but I did not find that to be the case. Their Jewish political officers were a different story however, and the crimes at the war's end were horrible. We stand accused of being very cruel and hateful towards the Russians, this was not true either. We treated them well, and that is why so many aided us. The homeland often complained about all the Russian prisoners who were allowed to work freely in the fields and felt they were invading them. The Allies in Normandy left a very bad impression on me, they strafed anything moving, many times killing French civilians. They shelled areas without proper scouting, killing many civilians, and were more 'shoot first, see what they were shooting at later'. According to some French I have stayed in contact with, the Allies killed so many French civilians that they never want to be 'liberated' again.

You won the Knight's Cross because of your leadership in Normandy, how did this happen?

Fritz: Normandy was a very hard fight for us; the Allies controlled the air and made movement very hard for our Panzers. Even our march to Normandy was hard, as they used bandits and commandos to slow us. 'Das Reich' came to the battle after it was already too late, and we could not advance far due to the firepower that the Allies could bring to bear on us. Hundreds of ships' guns and artillery batteries that made it ashore, met any thrust to the beach. We fought mostly a defensive battle, trying to contain the Allies. We were outnumbered, and without control of the air, had no real mobility. Our units did an exemplary job of working together and fighting bravely, even when all hope was lost. This is where I won my Knight's Cross, I was in a large group that had been surrounded and many of the Wehrmacht units had just abandoned their vehicles and equipment, trying to sneak out on foot, but were captured. We had an American prisoner who laid out the defensive line. I did not want to be captured, as I knew what might happen, so I gathered a few Panthers and found more armor who joined us. I advised officers of my plan, everyone ended up following me, and then we rode off and punched a hole in the enemy. They were prepared for this, but the guns of the Panthers spoke loudly and silenced all opposition, knocking out many Shermans. This raggedy group turned into a wild battlegroup and fought a superior enemy seizing vital bridges before they could be blown. For me this was just a natural will to survive, I was surprised when told the Knight's Cross was being awarded.

One cannot talk about the Waffen-SS without getting into the atrocities you are accused of committing; may I ask your opinion of the Allied claims, especially Oradour?

Fritz: If we must young man, but I must be careful. You mention Oradour sur Glane; I know it well, as my division was involved. I can state clearly to you that this was no atrocity, it was a reprisal against murderous bandits that went wrong. Most do not know what happened to us and our allies at the hands of these bandits. All they have been told is that SS men for no reason killed men, women and children. The unit involved had been in hard fights with bandits, suffering deaths at the hands of people who never should have been fighting. These men had mothers, wives, and children. Some were found horribly mutilated; I never understood what makes people so depraved to torture a soldier who has surrendered. We found Wehrmacht, SS, and medical people who, among the worst acts, had been set on fire while alive. A man who later fell in Normandy took photos of them as proof, but never had a chance to develop them. Oradour was a town where many communists from all over Europe had settled to avoid occupation. The Allies tapped into this willing mob, urging them to action. The Allies armed them, trained them, and paid them, but they were civilians. An officer had been captured and held for ransom which was very common. We did the same thing, so that we could do exchanges. This time was different, the officer going to seek his return found he had been killed and saw an ambulance that had been attacked with everyone killed. He saw that even the women and children wore the armbands of the bandits, showing they were under their control.

Other units were brought up to find out who was responsible. Everyone was put in the church while the village was searched; they found many weapons, explosives, and money. As people started talking, they began betraying the leaders, who were brought out and interrogated. Later on, the people in the church heard the shots of the leaders being executed, it is surmised someone in the church, trying to get at hidden weapons, triggered explosives and set the church on fire. It burned fast and hot as it contained a type of explosive used to melt rails. Normal fire does not melt church bells or steel, this fire did. This killed everyone inside, and indeed Germans tried to douse the flames and rescue people, but munitions were going off and it was too hot to make an entrance. Afterwards, 'Das Reich' still had a mission to move to the battlefront. This area was abandoned and the communists moved in, they brought in every press person they could find to label this as an SS atrocity. On the outside, it sure looked like one, but like everything the SS is being accused of, deeper examination needs to happen.

There was a trial in France where no German accused was found guilty, or had their charges dropped; that should say something. An English author tricked many of us to speak to him a few years ago, and then twisted and lied about what we told him. Many SS men will not speak about supposed war crimes anymore, as they can easily be sent to prison with lies. People who call themselves investigative reporters or historians are always trying to hound us to talk about supposed crimes, but they all seem to have a hidden agenda and never report what we actually say. In my mind we did nothing wrong on any front, any civilians who were killed by us were legitimate and within the agreed rules of war that we followed. There may be only a couple of times where an overzealous and fatigued officer may have allowed a questionable killing, but I bet there will be more to it than meets the eye.

[Above: Knights of the Sun.]

[Above: Fritz Langanke (left) and Ernst Barkmann, both veterans of Panzer Regiment 'Das Reich' and best friends after the war.]

Excerpt from Langanke's Knight's Cross recommendation:

'SS-Standartenoberjunker Langanke, Zugführer in the II./SS-Pz.Rgt. 2, was separated from his Abteilung along with 3 Panthers on the 28.07.1944. In this time he made the independent decision to rally 300 Heer Grenadiers and launch a breakout attempt on the night of the 29./30.07.1944. Advancing via St. Denis he personally destroyed 13 tanks, 4 anti-tank guns, 8 halftracks and 10 trucks over a series of hard yet successful engagements. Ultimately he managed to make it back to friendly lines while also clearing open the way to freedom for many other units including a self-propelled Flak-Batterie (with five 3.7 cm guns), 2 Grille SPGs, 3 Sturmgeschützen and 29 trucks.'

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