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Germany

Hitler's Footsoldiers, Democracy's Builders

Sixty years ago, Friedrich Paarmann and Wolfgang Gribkowski fought for Hitler. That fact has forever changed the way they have been allowed to remember the war.

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Paarmann (r.) and Gribkowski: History isn't black and white

A few years ago, Friedrich Paarmann and Wolfgang Gribkowski decided it was time to set a memorial to remember the comrades they lost in a fierce battle east of Berlin a little over 60 years ago.

The two retirees went to public institutions and Hamburg government agencies, asking for funding for the simple granite stone, with a bronze inscription. They were rejected at every turn.

"They thought we wanted to romanticize the war," said Paarmann, 79, who still lives in the city small town outside of Hamburg where he was raised. "We just wanted to remember our friends."

No one could blame Paarmann and Gribkowski, also 79, for wanting to set a public remembrance for the battle at Seelow Heights in March 1945, in which close to 50,000 soldiers died. But the two were Wehrmacht soldiers, charged with the suicide mission of holding the coming Belorussian Front before it descended on Nazi Berlin. They fought for Hitler, something that left not only battle scars but forever changed the way they were allowed to remember those battles.

Instead of parades, secret meetings

"The American or British (soldier) was always able to talk about his deeds without finding himself in a moral dilemma," said Hilke Lorenz, a journalist and author of the book "Weiterleben als sei nichts gewesen?" ("Continue to Live as if Nothing Happened?"). "You had parades. We have secret meetings."

As a country, Germany made lamenting and scrutinizing the damage fascism dealt Europe and the rest of the world a national assignment in the decades following WWII. In the weeks prior to the 60th anniversary of the end of war on May 8, hundreds of documentaries and newspaper articles covered everything from the brutality of war to Hitler's SS and the Holocaust. But the 18 million men who joined the Nazi army have largely escaped the scrutiny of society at large.

"The Wehrmacht soldier was grandpa. He was part of the family," Lorenz said. "It was much more difficult to start a discussion in the family about it. And that's where most of these discussions needed to begin."

Exhibit sparks needed debate

A controversial exhibit titled "Crimes of the Wehrmacht" only reinforced these sentiments. The traveling exhibit documenting German army war crimes met protest in every city that hosted it in the late 1990s and from 2001 to 2004. Not only former Wehrmacht soldiers, like Gribkowski and Paarmann, were upset at a documentation they thought was missing context.

Verbrechen der Wehrmacht

A 1941 photo used in the exhibit shows the execution of a hostage in Krusevac, Serbia, by Wehrmacht soldiers.

Bands of neo-Nazis, under heavy police guard, marched to protest the damning critique of parts of Hitler's army. Their reaction was the extreme expression of an attitude held by many Germans.

"We heard, simply said, that the Wehrmacht soldier was good, and the SS and Nazis were bad," said Sven Eden, a documentary filmmaker whose father served in the Wehrmacht. "It was that black and white."

Fighting for fascism, then building democracy

The motive wasn't hard to understand. For all the crimes they may have committed as soldiers, they were the same men who helped rebuild Germany into a thriving democracy after the war, Lorenz said. They were people like Paarmann, silver-haired, with a quick wit and good nature; and Gribkowski, a polite, intellectually curious man who abhors generalizations.

After the war, Paarmann returned to the small village outside Hamburg he was forced to leave in 1943 when he was drafted into the Wehrmacht. His life was pleasantly domestic. He ran his mother's grocery store with his wife, planted vegetables in the plot around their brick house, and tried to forget what happened in 1945.

Then only 19, he was part of a group of 1,500 soldiers charged with breaking the Soviet line. More than 800 were cut down, injured or went missing. After getting hit in the head and neck with shrapnel, he spent an entire day playing dead among corpses before crawling away under the cover of night.

Ostfeldzug

Wehrmacht soldiers were seen as simple, hard-working men pulled reluctantly into war.

Gribkowski was injured as well at Seelow Heights, but north of Paarmann's regiment. A sense of duty led him, the son of a forester who had fought in WWI, to enlist. Like Paarmann, he spent the following decades struggling with his war experience. Unlike Paarmann and the majority of returning soldiers, he talked with others about it.

Lessons of tolerance

After the war, a Jewish professor of his in Hamburg -- himself a concentration camp escapee -- helped Gribkowski come to grips with his decision to fight for the Wehrmacht. After he became a psychology teacher in the Bundeswehr, Germany's postwar army, he passed the professor's lessons of tolerance on to the coming generations of German soldiers.

"It would be good if people in the future dealt with history more objectively, that they don't see everything in black and white," Gribkowski said.

In 1999, more than a decade after he retired from the Bundeswehr, he joined a group of survivors from Paarmann's regiment.

Not forgotten

Über den Seelower Höhen

The bronze figure of the Soviet soldier is re-installed at the memorial at Seelow Heights. The photo, taken in 2002, shows the figure hovering above the graves of Russian soldiers.

They now meet every four weeks, eat dinner and talk not only of old times but of educating future generations. Paarmann said they plan to start a foundation that helps fund the upkeep of the memorial and education center at Seelow Heights, which includes a massive statue of a Soviet soldier.

In 2003, they were finally able to build their own memorial, with the help of private funds. "Not forgotten" reads the beginning of the inscription, in bronze letters on black granite. At the bottom, so that their intention isn't misinterpreted, are the words "Pray for peace."

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