Interview with Hans Bernau, German Cross in Gold holder and Battalion Commander of the 5. SS-Panzer Division 'Wiking', Bad Woerishofen, 1989.

Thanks for allowing us to come visit. As was mentioned, I would like to ask you about your time in the Waffen-SS and memories. I would begin by asking what attracted you to join the SS?

Hans: Well my friend, as you know I am not an apologist for my service. The SS was the guard within the National Socialist movement, and we were the chosen guards of the Führer. Every German boy yearned to be one of the black soldiers, but only the very best were taken. We had those who disliked our elite status because it left them out, but in National Socialism, the best were promoted as examples. I saw the fight for power firsthand; I saw the crimes the communists committed against National Socialist supporters. I remember the times when you had to watch your back as they would run up on SA men and stab them or hit them with bricks. Their violence was appalling, let us fight back and then their press would call us the criminals. This showed me that the National Socialists were fighting a good fight, and they let the communists implode themselves by being lawless. They attacked anyone who did not support them either in the press or physically. It was so bad in the big cities that even the pro-Marxist press had admitted it was this behavior causing election losses.

I knew in my heart that this cause for which so many died for, was where I belonged, and never looked back. I am not ashamed of my time and look forward to still meeting with my comrades and sharing our recollections of the good old days. SS membership was the high point that one could attain in National Socialist Germany, it brought one into a vast community that was dedicated to the preservation of not just Germany, but all of Europe. Himmler saw the hidden enemy which so many are blinded to today, he understood how to expose and defeat them. We had a great publishing house dedicated to this endeavor that exposed the enemy agenda well. For me the SS was a special brotherhood that was like the old religious orders of old, for example the Teutonic Knights, who were specifically trained to be most loyal. During the war we were focused on military issues and not much else, but we were not created at first to be a fighting force. Our primary purpose was to be guards and loyal to the Führer.

You were part of the LSSAH at first and you saw action in Poland, can you tell me what the declaration of war felt like, and experiences in Poland?

Hans: Sure, the attack on Poland came as a small surprise, but not much. I personally followed the political situation, most of us did. Sepp would come around and talk to us often regarding various topics, and I remember him saying that Poland was a hotbed of anti-German sentiment that might get out of control. Even the Reichsführer-SS gave a talk where he said Poland has exhibited poor behavior and shows no evidence of changing. He went on to say that German lives were at stake and Germany may need to intervene to halt attacks. We knew relations were not good by 1939, but always held out hope a solution would come. I knew Germans were being expelled from Poland, as many were welcomed into the Reich, leaving generational homesteads. Poland would accuse us of threatening them to take their land, but they never seemed to understand the land was taken away from us first, with countless Germans inside.

When it was announced we were moving east to the border area for security, and manoeuvres, many knew this could be it. I was in the signals section relaying orders and information between commands. We were the glue that kept the regiment together. We were very small back then, only having infantry and light weapons sections. My experience in Poland was good; the LAH was used as a reserve and linked to the flanks of army units. When we crossed the border, we did not see any action, it was only people turning out to greet us as liberators. Soon after the action started and we were attacked by broken Polish units, and bandits who came out of nowhere. I remember our officers being so angry hearing German soldiers had been found bound and murdered, that they ordered the shooting of a man who was caught running away with a K98 and a Soldbuch, from a fallen soldier. Sepp ordered him turned over to the police to be interrogated, some were upset at this.

I heard more were caught who took pot shots at our soldiers from a farm, and our reconnaissance unit opened fire burning down the house they fired from. This is what we faced from these people, their hatred made them break laws that caused their deaths. The regular Polish soldier we had no problems with, they were mostly professionals who loved their nation and did their duty. We often spoke to them after capture and ate with them. We said goodbyes when trucks came to pick them up, we joked to them that they were heading towards Berlin, but in a different way. I will tell you a funny story I saw, one of the infantry took a helmet and cap from a soldier and wanted to keep them as a souvenir. I believe it was Meyer who went up to him and advised him we are not thieves, marauders, or looters and we do take personal items from honorable soldiers. He ordered him to give the soldier his items back, and then he asked our interpreter to see if anyone had a souvenir they could give the seeker. One came forward and gave him a Polish propaganda leaflet to surrender.

Can I ask how you went from the LSSAH to the Wiking division?

Hans: Yes, one thing about the military, much like any business is there is usually chances to advance. The SS was no different, you started at the bottom and if you did your job well you could move up. I started at the bottom in signals, then after France, moved into artillery. I liked this branch as I would coordinate strikes and advise of locations; this suited me to a tee. I had the chance to attend officer's class after Poland and was promoted to an SS-Untersturmführer on the 9th of November. Something that I know made many LAH personnel angry was the Reichsführer-SS used the LAH to build many of the other SS divisions. We constantly were losing men and often times they requested to take friends with them; this was usually granted. I had the chance to go to Wiking as it was a new formation, it came into its name in 1941 and we trained very hard to become a cohesive unit that would be ready for battle. I was placed into the artillery and Steiner was our commander. He died in 1966, and it is too bad you never had a chance to meet him. He was beloved leader and a great tactician. It was here with the III. Battalion that I was given the German Cross in Gold.

What did you do to win the German Cross in Gold?

Hans: Nothing in particular, it was listed that there were many instances of holding actions where our artillery stopped cold, many attacks by Ivan. We worked as a team and all my men showed extreme bravery and fortitude, many times we repulsed attacks with our bare hands. The men who did this were awarded a Combat Clasp in different grades. It signified we faced the enemy and saw the whites in their eyes and many occasions and survived. Many times Ivan was drunk when he attacked and had slow reflexes, which made it easier to defeat him. It was good for us, as many times we ran out of ammo when they broke through.

[Above: This photo was taken on May 19, 1944 at Cholm (Russia) during an awards ceremony of the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking. From left to right: SS-Sturmbannführer Paul Kümmel, SS-Standartenführer Johannes Mühlenkamp, SS-Obersturmführer Kurt Schumacher, SS-Untersturmführer der Reserve Paul Senghas and an unidentified SS-Oberscharführer. Note the 'Wiking' cuff title on one of the men, and also seen below.]

Can I ask your opinion on the claims that the SS was a criminal organization that committed countless war crimes?

Hans: Yes, we have discussed this. I feel as if we are unfairly judged for actions that are either not understood properly, fabricated, or were accidents and not intentional. For example the farm in Poland, it was burnt down by the fire of our men and the bandits died in the fire. They did not intend to burn it down, but combat caused it. This happened often as the enemy fortified structures, and then we are blamed for their destruction. In Poland a family who was fleeing alongside army units was attacked by Stukas, killing a child. They had strict orders to avoid attacking columns that appeared to have civilians. I know this as I heard some of the conversations between pilots on our radios. This was true in Poland, France and on every front I was part of. In truth we went out of our way to avoid any unnecessary destruction or losses. It did us no good to harm the civilian population, we went out of our way to protect and aid them.

I went to a restaurant in Normandy which was famous for omelettes. The owner was a very sensible woman and she even confirmed she saw German forces go above the normal to aid the French after the surrender. She told me she was pleased that not only did Germans spare French towns, but quickly brought in aid for the people. I witnessed this often behind the lines, on every front, even Russia. I know there may have been small issues with stealing or insulting people in the occupied areas, but it was rare. There were no permissions given to be cruel or vindictive to the people, it was quite the opposite. I personally believe that the stories of civilians being executed for no reason by SS men are false, or there is much more to the story, which was not told.

I can see no instances of our men purposefully killing prisoners or civilians for no reason. I do know those who chose to act as saboteurs or spies opened themselves up to judgment of field courts which often issued death sentences. These were part of the Geneva and Hague conventions, and allowed. All nations did things like this during wartime insurrection and opposition. Only the SS was singled out to take the punishment for this. It is interesting to me that many of the trials after the war in the west resulted in vindication of SS men. If any of our men did commit crimes, I would be the first to say they must pay for their crimes, but I fear the enemy claims are not as they say, and the papers work to feed these false stories. With regards to the many eyewitnesses coming forward even in this day, I find them hard to believe. I have seen stories in which they say Germans just walked down the street shooting civilians for fun, this absurd and dangerous.

Can I ask your opinion about the many Germans today who say the Third Reich was bad and they are ashamed of what happened?

Hans: Yes, I will tell you my thoughts on this. When people are put into traumatic scenarios where they could be killed, they are grateful to those who save them. The Allies pretended they saved us from evil and have spent the last forty years convincing us of that view. Many people accept it as it is the easy way out. You see, from 1933 until 1939 Germany went through a magnificent transformation. The government the Führer put together, worked for Germany. Our lives changed, but on a spiritual level. You had to live in the time to understand it; people had real purpose and a duty that was clear and wholesome. Yet, there were a tiny few who still did not want to go along with this idea. Mind you they were very few and very quiet. Most all liked what was happening because it gave them safety and prosperity. Those who opposed National Socialism were fanatical Marxists, capitalists, and monarchists. They did not care about or understand the Jewish problem; they cared only for their wealth, and ideology.

That state police dealt with these types and when tried they were either heavily fined or sent to prison. I want to stress to you these were rare and only a tiny portion of our people. So, this was before the war, and then came the war. 1918 left a terrible fear in our leaders and due to this they imposed many restrictions at various times. For the first three years of war, you would question if as war was really being fought. Life at home and in the occupied areas was as peacetime, save for flak drills and minor attacks. When the Allies sent in spies and agitators to work within the small circle of the anti-National Socialists, things began to change. It is known now these spies worked with the aristocrats and Marxists to target our cities and industry. When caught, they faced execution after trial, this was done to punish and deter. Due to the danger of an internal revolt and spies, tighter controls were placed on the populations, some quite inconvenient, causing frustration. This was not how the National Socialist state was supposed to work; it was not a warlike ideology. The food shortages hit the people hard in the big cities, and fuel was very hard to get, many people had to convert to wood fired cars that killed many people, due to poisoning.

The failure to stop the bombings, as well as Allied propaganda leaflets that were constantly dropped and broadcast, help influence people. Yes, you could listen to Allied propaganda shows, but it was frowned upon. Many did so for the entertainment value and paid scant attention to the war news. The German people were tired, scared, and hungry by 1945; they had given all that they could. They remained true to the Führer, even though some questioned why he did not end the war. The intelligent knew what unconditional surrender meant, it was not that simple for Germany to quit. When the Allies came and war ended, they embarked on a terror campaign that was unparalleled in modern history. They made the entire state and its supporters guilty of crimes and exacted punishment. They convinced the survivors that all they lived through was but a bad episode of our history, and through their mercy, life will get better. A syndrome came over the German people, where they started to agree and work with their tormentors. Many turned on National Socialist members, sometimes National Socialiststhemselves turned on each other just to survive. The SS was targeted by the Soviets, where many SS men, especially foreign volunteers were executed outright. The west treated us better.

Over the years, as life returned to normal for us, many just agreed to forget what we lived through. It is better on your mind to live happily and not in anger; many of us have done this. We hate what happened, and what the enemy did to us, but what can we do now? There are those who for self-promotion, or for a few minutes of fame, have come forward to tell about how bad life was in the Reich. They tell of great persecution, fear, and disgust. I believe they are lying. Jews and Marxists, it is true, have led the charge with these early claims of arrest and persecution. Indeed, they were rounded up and put away, in the case of the Jews of Europe they were seen as enemies, working within to destroy. Many were forced to sell their assets and were sent east to be resettled, where they could not have any influence on us. It is true the SS helped take part in this, and the Waffen-SS has had to reject this action as immoral. Even today, if we want to publish a book or memoir, we must bow to the state and show some remorse for the state's actions. I say what happened to the Jews happens in wartime, I believe most nations removed people they thought could make trouble.

I feel bad that women and children became involved, and many did die, I believe due to the Allied bombings of camps and rails, but this was at war's end. The National Socialists had lost most control by April of 1945 and that is when many prisoners, who were moved west to protect them from the Soviets, became sick. Anne Frank is a good example of this, but she was one of many. Today her family is millionaires based on a faked diary that her father, who was wanted in Germany for finance crimes, wrote. As you understand, I have no remorse for anything; we were soldiers and served our nation with honor. The war has birthed many false stories, which we are unable to truly defend against.

[Above: Hans Bernau.]

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