An elite mountain commando within the German Bundeswehr wears an emblem signifying their "noble purity." The same insignia was worn by a division in Hitler's army -- one whose actions were far from high-minded.
The edelweiss, a symbol of nobility, is the insignia of an elite mountain commando
Hermann Frank Meyer never really knew his father. A Nazi officer by conviction, he was declared missing in action in Greece. Meyer flew there in 1963 to try to find out what happened to his father, visiting dozens of villages to question contemporary witnesses.
Author Hermann Frank Meyer dug deep into his Nazi father's past
Finally , he managed to find and speak with the man—a former Greek guerrilla fighter—who had shot his father.
Meyer didn't let his father's killer know just exactly who he was until the man had divulged everything.
"Of course he felt I had deceived him," recalled Meyer. "That was a traumatic experience for him. But there was no reconciliation. If he had taken me into his arms, everything would have been all right. But he just didn't have the strength to do so."
"They had become so brutalized"
The traditions of the First Mountain Division are still revered today
Star-shaped, woolly-looking, white blossoms cling to many inaccessible mountaintops in Europe. The edelweiss, whose name could be translated as "nobly white," is associated with mountaineering in Slovenia and symbolizes unblemished purity in Switzerland.
Similarly clinging to rugged terrain, Hitler's elite mountain troops adorned their green uniforms and helmets with an edelweiss emblem. Their ability to fight under extreme conditions upon difficult ground earned them the number "One," perpetuating a long tradition of military elitism that started before the First World War.
Arial photo taken in 1945 of the Slovakian village of Ostry Grun razed by the Edelweiss
But, as historian Hermann Frank Meyer argues in his new book "Bloodstained Edelweiss," the 1st Mountain Division of Hitler's army, the Wehrmacht, tarnished the symbol's purity with innumerable war crimes.
"During the Russian campaign, they got used to killing," said Meyer, who estimates that the 1st Mountain Division killed upwards of 60,000 people in Russia.
By the time the once 20,000-strong elite force was relocated to the Balkans from the brutal fighting on the Polish and Russian fronts, it had lost over 80 percent of its men.
Veterans of the Mountain Division commemorate the soldiers who died during WWII
"Once they got to Montenegro and Greece," argued Meyer, "they had become so brutalized that they were ready to carry out these atrocities."
Some of the atrocities Meyer describes in his 800-page book include how the division adopted a take no prisoners policy in the Balkans, how they destroyed 315 villages and murdered 3,000 civilians in southern Albania, and how they executed thousands of Italian soldiers and officers even after they had surrendered. Along with the SS, the Edelweiss Division was also responsible for rounding up Greek Jews in western Greece.
A discredited myth
Meyer reveals the unit's bloody legacy
Meyer gave up a successful business in Belgium to shed light on this part of German history. He has spent over 20 years sifting through archives in 10 countries, studying Wehrmacht documents, reading private memoirs, and visiting the places where war atrocities took place.
For Meyer, the edelweiss blossoms that now adorn the uniforms of today's German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, are bloodstained. Not only are German soldiers wearing an emblem tarnished by Nazi atrocities, most of the top commanders who committed them also served in the Bundeswehr when it was first established in West Germany in 1956.