The Victory in Europe Day 75th anniversary passed this week, and half a world away in my mum’s hometown of Hamilton in western Victoria, so too did one of the few remaining participants in the Nazi war machine. Wolfgang Schueller was ninety-three years old.
Wolfgang was just a seventeen-year-old boy when in 1944 he progressed from the Hitler Youth to the German Wehrmacht. He served in the Panzergrenadier Division Großdeutschland and for a short time with the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend. He fought in the Battle of Berlin just metres from Hitler’s bunker, was captured by the Russians but escaped, worked for the Americans during the Soviet’s Berlin Blockade, and ultimately found his way to Australia where he contributed to the post-war building boom.
I was introduced to Wolfgang’s story late last year. Through an intermediary he sent me a signed copy of his autobiography, “Memoirs of a German Boyhood: the Wehrmacht and the Australian Odyssey,” which he self-published eight years ago when he was eighty-five years old. After I read his book, Wolfgang answered a number of my questions. I wanted to understand him more. There was so much that he expressed which I just could not comprehend. Sadly, I never got to meet him in person because the coronavirus restrictions and now this week his final days intervened.
Wolfgang’s book lacked a professional editor and that’s the charm, because from the very first word you can actually hear his German accent loud and clear through unintentional phonetic spelling. The story begins in his hometown of Bad-Warmbrunn (now Cieplice Śląskie-Zdrój in Poland) at the foothills of the Sudeten Mountains. His memories move very quickly to war. His Uncle Fritz was an officer in the German Army. His mother’s oldest brother didn’t return from the First World War and her youngest brother was reported missing very early in the Second.
Young boys love a uniform, and Wolfgang describes in considerable detail his Hitler Youth clothing. He saw Hitler for the first time in 1938 when as a Hitler Youth he stood to attention in the front row as the motorcade drove by after the retaking of the Sudetenland “without a shot being fired”.
Throughout the book, Wolfgang repeats his dislike for the English, blaming them for the loss of German land following the First World War, the rise of Hitler, and starting the Second World War. “I make no attempt to whitewash any of the known war crimes Germany is accused off (sic), but I can’t help to speculate on the culpable actions of many other countries … Hitler’s rise to power came at a time when the British Empire was struggling to maintain its world status. That England felt threatened by Germany’s growing industrial strength is a matter of historical fact. The loss of German land, following the so-called Treaty of Versailles, which was not a treaty at all, because the dictated terms became a wound, which refused to heal. By bringing that land back to the nation, Hitler gained prestige and support from the people.”
Wolfgang says that apart from declaring war on America, attacking Russia was Hitler’s biggest mistake. Wolfgang’s only brother Rudy was killed in Russia. His last letter was written from the outskirts of Moscow, in which he says in the distance he could see the towers of the Kremlin.
Wolfgang’s own army training was at Buchenwald which was the location of the infamous concentration camp of the same name. He writes that he only heard second-hand about rough treatment that was going on but heard nothing of the gassing of prisoners. After the war the concentration camp commander was executed and his wife sentenced to prison for crimes that included making lampshades from human skin.
Wolfgang’s war started when the end was within sight in the bloody Battle of Berlin. He records some of the awful events that he witnessed. “I was fighting in Hardenberg-Strasse in the suburb of Tiergarten not far from Hitler’s bunker … several women were busy cutting the flesh from the cadaver (of dead horses), when a mortar shell landed and ripped the women and horses apart … we were always well informed about the crimes of Russian soldiers committed. We knew for instance a Russian general told his troops, before penetrating Germany, that the time had come to rape, loot and kill…”
He adds some gruesome detail of the fighting. “A Russian T-34 tank exploded … the tank was still burning and the tunic of the Russian tank crew was hanging in the overhead wires with one arm and a little bit of a shoulder left inside. Blood was dripping down the road.”
Wolfgang tells of how he cheated death during the street fighting. A grenade bounced off his chest, he ran from the house and the grenade exploded, however he received only minor wounds. He joined another unit as a Panzer Grenadier with SS-Panzer Regiment named ‘Gross Deutschland’. It was with fifteen-year-old boys from the Hitler Youth and old men from the home guard that Wolfgang then trotted behind the tanks until they ran out of fuel.
The final German resistance capitulated as news of Hitler’s death became known. Wolfgang wrote that he was sad about the news. But how, I asked him, could he possibly be sad about such an event. He explained that he was sad that the country had lost its leader and its way.
Wolfgang was captured by the Russians and imprisoned in the same camp as his Uncle Oscar. Wolfgang escaped, and while Oscar spent only four years in captivity in Russia, others were held for more than eleven years because there were still German POW’s returning after the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. While Australia basked in glory of gold medallists Betty Cuthbert and Murray Rose, the German news that year was dominated by stories of soldiers returning home to find wives remarried.
Wolfgang’s purpose in writing his book was to tell what the world what he believes it was not supposed to know. That included that 13.5 million Germans were displaced within two years of the war ending, after one fifth of German land was taken by other countries. He says there will never be a claim made because of the promise made upon reunification in 1989, however he needed to make the world aware of what happened.
“The war memorial I stood guard in 1944 (in my hometown) was now replaced with a wooden structure in honour of the Polish army who liberated the country in 1945 after a thousand years of German control,” Wolfgang wrote with touch of sarcasm.
I asked him would he alter anything if he wrote the book again. He said he wouldn’t change a thing, other than adding a lot more about his military service but he was afraid that people would not appreciate it and would judge him for it.
At times I felt uncomfortable reading parts of the book and I will never comprehend some of it. However, Wolfgang’s words are a perspective on history that is worth understanding if that history is never to be repeated. That’s especially so this week as we commemorate the anniversary of the end of war in Europe and Wolfgang’s own passing in his adopted country town.
Wolfgang Schueller c1944 – Memoirs of a German Boyhood, cover
Wolfgang Schueller signature page 2020 – my own
Wolfgang Schueller c1945 – Memoirs of a German Boyhood, p.88
Wolfgang’s SS cap 2019 – courtesy of Craig Goodman