Five Years Behind
Hitler's Barbed Wire

barbed wire
edited by Jacqueline Collins
                                 Behind the Book, A Journey of Discovery

Behind the Book, A Journey of Discovery

The cannons are silent and so is the rattle of machine gun fire. A few thumping explosions rumble and echo in the deep valleys of Les Vosges. Our munitions are exploding. A light mist rises from the earth. Here and there, the golden dots of a few small lights disclose the presence of isolated farms. Night falls. It’s all over.
Diary, 22 June 1940

“It’s all over,” the first entry in the diary, written over seventy years ago on the fateful day France and Germany signed an armistice, immediately brought back to me the pervasive feeling of sadness I experienced as a young child during World War II. This affinity of feeling engaged me deeply into the life of the camp community.

As I translated the diary, I discovered these men’s will to react to their circumstances and the courage they showed in facing their grim conditions. It was a revelation. Harking back to my childhood, I heard unequivocally that the soldiers of 1940 did not measure up in any way to the Poilus, the soldiers of World War I, although it never occurred to me that this opinion applied also to my father. Yet, that has been the conventional wisdom. But, the actions of the men in Oflag XVIIA showed fortitude and resilience. I needed to know why.

Fortunately, this same question had been raised in 2003 by a British historian, Julian Jackson. A review of his book in The Spectator called it a “guide” to the multifaceted elements of the 1940 debacle refuting “the welter of legend, rumour, memory of the immediate ideas of 1940” which, he noted, “have remarkably persisted.” Then, a blog a few years later, pointed to the publication of Dominique Lormier’s Comme des lions, a detailed review of all the battles, some of it based significantly on the research of Karl-Heinz Frieser, a German military historian with access to the numerous reports of German officers who fought in 1940. They wrote, “The collapse of the French Army cannot be blamed on the soldiers, but rather on its command. Whenever these men were correctly employed, they displayed astonishing examples of bravery.” The fighting spirit I found in the camp community was confirmed by the reported fortitude and resilience on the battlefields.

The location of the camp was officially named as Edelbach. The diary indicated the proximity of Vienna, Austria. But where was Edelbach? The name did not appear on any map. By a fluke, I learned of a trunk of a French officer (see story under articles) which led me to the name of the region, Das Waldviertel, and its dramatic story.

When Hitler entered Austria in 1938, he declared a section of that area a Maneuver Grounds, and expelled seven thousand people from forty villages and a small town, which stood intact but empty during the war. When the Russians occupied Austria, they took over the Maneuver Grounds and used the villages as targets, reducing most of them to rumble. The Austrian military has now taken it over. Edelbach is now off the map.

It is generally believed that Hitler’s action is due to the fact that his father was born in the small town of that area and that he wanted the town abandoned and destroyed so the record of his father’s birth would be lost. His father was an illegitimate child and it was common hearsay that the unknown father was Jewish. I found a book online, which detailed the history of the area.

In 2010, a French group of families of officer POWs in Oflag XVIIA invited me to join them to visit the site of the camp. Because it is still on the Maneuver Grounds, we were the guests of the Austrian military. What remains of the camp are the foundations of one complete row of barracks along what was the central alley. The entire area has been reseeded with pines, hiding the presence of the camp. The town of Döllersheim – Hitler’s father’s birthplace - has also disappeared except for the church, which has been renovated and renamed the Peace Church, where people come for a remembrance ceremony every year on All Souls Day. It stands on a small hill in the middle of a forest instead of the center of a town.

My trip to Vienna was significant in another way. The officer POWs had printed a regular publication, which I thought was simply a newsletter. I knew that some of the issues were in Vienna, but did not know where in Vienna. Just a couple of weeks before my trip, I was finally able to locate it in the National Library of Austria. I was stunned to find a regular sixteen-page-tabloid-size newspaper published twice a month for two years. It became an invaluable source of information. (See le Canard en KG.)

These were the major discoveries, but there were many more along the way, which I will write about in my blog(coming spring 2016).