As Philip walked away, a major standing before the receptionist’s desk, talking animatedly with her, drew Olbricht’s attention. “Freiherr von Gersdorff! What brings you to Berlin?”
The major turned to Olbricht and answered in a strained voice, “Herr General, Feldmarschall von Bock sent me to ‘protest’ the Commissar Order—but you can imagine what little effect I’ve had. Brauchitsch and Müller insist that it’s pointless to protest further.
Olbricht’s expression darkened. “Don’t the Army Group Commanders realize the blood will be on their hands?”
“Tresckow tried to get Bock to fly back personally—but Bock sent me instead.” The major smiled cynically. Who could compare the impact of a General Staff major with a field marshal commanding an Army Group?
Olbricht’s only comment was a cryptic “Cowards.”
“I don’t understand,” the receptionist spoke up unexpectedly. The officers turned to her politely, and she said, “Why do you gentlemen emphasize the Commissar Order more than the Barbarossa Instructions when the Instructions are actually worse?”
“The Commissar Order is outright murder!” Gersdorff countered, too shocked to be polite, even to a young lady.
“Yes, but it’s directed against a clearly defined and easily identifiable group which is—if nothing else—actively engaged in military operations and ideologically committed to Communism. The status of Commissars as non-combatants is certainly debatable.” Gersdorff opened his mouth to protest, but she forestalled him. “Obviously, that is no justification whatsoever for their ordered ‘liquidation.’ I simply wanted to draw attention to the fact that the victims of the Barbarossa Instructions are unquestionably civilians, and the Instructions effectively suspend at least two hundred years of international law. I am not convinced that the Commissar Order is more objectionable than the Barbarossa Instructions merely because the Order is more systematic.”
The officers absorbed her sharp analysis over a short pause. Gersdorff and Philip, both taken aback by the receptionist’s precise, articulate, and confident tone, were astonished that she’d expressed her opinions on military affairs. Olbricht, however, was apparently not only used to her speaking up, but evidently encouraged her. Turning to the visitors, he explained, “Fraulein v. Mollwitz has a law degree, with a specialty in international law.” Turning back to his overqualified receptionist, he noted, “Gnädiges Fräulein, you are, as usual, correct in your assessment. I can only suggest that the emphasis we place on the Commissar Order is a function of the fact that it might cost blood within the very first hours.”
Then, remembering that Philip had only just arrived, Olbricht turned to him and remarked, “I don’t suppose you’ve seen either of these orders?”
Philip shook his head with a feeling of dread.
Olbricht turned back to his receptionist. “Fräulein v. Mollwitz, would you be so kind as to see that Major v. Feldburg has a chance to read both orders? Lieber Gersdorff, maybe you could join me in my office …?”
Olbricht and Gersdorff disappeared into the General’s office. Fraulein v. Mollwitz removed two manila folders from a safe and handed them over to Philip. “I’m afraid I must ask you to read these here,” she apologized. “General Order #1.” This order, which Hitler had issued early in the war, prohibited anyone from knowing anything not directly related to or necessary for his duties. General Order #1 ostensibly increased security, but, more transparently, was intended to reduce the ability of any officer to judge the total picture. As it disrupted a long tradition of openness for the sake of sound analysis, Order #1 was quietly ignored at the General Staff.
Philip set his briefcase down beside the door and sank down onto a wooden armchair before the receptionist’s desk. The young woman resumed her work clacking loudly on a typewriter while Philip read: “In the struggle against Bolshevism, the behavior of the enemy in accordance with the principles of humanity and international law is not to be counted upon … The originators of these barbaric Asiatic methods of warfare are the political commissars.”
Like the pot calling the kettle black, Philip observed. After what the SS had done in Poland, who are we to condemn Soviet “methods of warfare”? He read on: “Commissars are to be immediately, i.e., on the battlefield, identified and disposed of.”
Disposed of? The banality of the phrase was almost the worst of it. They were talking about murder, killing without establishing any crime or guilt—other than the ideological guilt of being Communist—and they used the same language one would use with unwanted documents or furniture. Philip looked up and focused his attention on the elegant receptionist as she typed away efficiently. “And, you said the other order was worse?”
She stopped typing and admitted, “A poor choice of words.” She bit her lower lip, not meeting his eyes, and for a moment, she seemed unsure of herself. Then, she looked at him again and declared in a lucid and self-confident tone: “I didn’t mean to imply that anything is worse than cold-blooded murder; only that because the Barbarossa instructions are more comprehensive and vaguer, they may cost many more lives in the long run. Here, let me show you.” She held out her hand. He stood and handed both manila folders back. She flipped the second open and scanned the pages swiftly until she found what she was seeking. “Listen to this: ‘Attacks by civilians against the Wehrmacht, its personnel or support elements, are to be repressed by the troops with the sharpest methods.’ Neither ‘attacks’ nor ‘sharpest methods’ are more closely defined. Imagine what an SS division might interpret as ‘attacks.’ Even the smallest gesture of defiance by youths or children could theoretically be repressed with ‘the sharpest methods’—including execution without trial.”
“Or here:” she continued.: “‘Guerrillas are to be mercilessly eliminated, either in battle or when they attempt to escape … until the attackers are exterminated.’ And now it gets even more delicate: ‘Disciplinary action against members of the German Armed Forces and their support elements’—read SD, Gestapo, Party and I don’t know who else—‘for attacks and excesses against the enemy population’—note, not partisans or even Commissars, just any enemy civilian—‘are not necessary, even when these actions constitute a military as well as a civil crime—'”
“Read it yourself, Herr Major.” Frl. V. Mollwitz pushed the folder back across the desk toward Philip, her finger marking the passage she had just read. As he read, Frl. v. Mollwitz insisted, “This is a license to barbarity on the part of every individual soldier—impunity from punishment regardless of what he does to Russian civilians, male or female.”
“No,” Philip told her flatly. “The Officer Corps will not—cannot—allow troops to engage in excesses. Discipline would be utterly destroyed.”
Frl. v. Mollwitz fixed her gaze on him for a moment, and Philip felt uncomfortable. The young woman continued politely, “May I draw your attention to one or two more key points?”
Philip wordlessly passed the Instructions back to her. Again, she skimmed quickly and read: “In regions where deceitful and insidious attacks of any kind occur, the Battalion or Regimental Commander may instigate collective countermeasures—”
“Thank you. That’s enough.” No longer able to face the young lady’s penetrating gaze, Philip picked up his briefcase, and with a curt nod, he limped out of the office. A moment later, he was back. “Excuse me. May I see those orders again for just one more second?”
Mutely, Frl. v. Mollwitz handed them back.
Philip flipped to the last page of the Commissar Order and paled. “My God,” he murmured. Frl. v. Mollwitz was watching him so intently that an explanation seemed unavoidable. In a low voice, he remarked, “This was signed by Brauchitsch.” (Brauchitsch was the Commander-in-Chief of the German Army.)
She nodded. After an awkward pause, she added, “In fairness, I ought to mention that he also issued supplementary orders intended to take the sting out of these,” she tapped the folders. “The supplementary orders place stress on the maintenance of discipline and remind commanders that any actions in accordance with Barbarossa are only to be taken in self-defense. It is the opinion of General Olbricht, however, that the supplementary orders are too weak and will only serve to create widespread confusion. On the other hand, Oberst v. Tresckow argues that they do at least give those officers and commanders who want an excuse for ignoring the Barbarossa Instructions the option to do so. What concerns me is that the supplemental orders do not significantly minimize the opportunities for excesses by those commanders who share the National Socialist Weltanschauung.”
Philip gazed at Frl. v. Mollwitz and admitted, “Half an hour ago, I would have assured you that no commander in the German Army would implement those orders, but if Brauchitsch signed them …”
“I have a theory,” Frl. v. Mollwitz started but cut herself off.
“Yes?” Philip prompted.
“Oh, it’s not very scientific, just an observation or perhaps an analogy,” she smiled a little apologetically, no longer so sure of herself.
“Yes?” Philip pressed her again.
“It’s as if—” She stopped at the sound of someone going by in the hall. Philip stepped back inside and closed the door.
“Thank you. It’s as if Hitler and his close associates were carriers of a disease— a disease that eats away at the moral fiber of the individual. The nearer or longer one is in contact with them, the weaker one’s own ethical structure and sense of humanity becomes. Over time, one’s entire system of values is corroded to nothing. In the advanced stages of the disease, not only has a person’s normal sense of human decency been destroyed, but criminal values have replaced healthy ones.”
Philip considered this for a moment. “You mean that this is how otherwise—or previously—decent men like Jodl or Brauchitsch …”
“But, if our senior military commanders can’t resist the criminal orders of Hitler, then the fate of the entire nation is in the hands of an emotionally unstable, morally degenerate madman.”
Frl. v. Mollwitz nodded again.
“This is impossible! There has to be something the generals can do!”
“Freiherr v. Gersdorff says that the Commissar and Barbarossa Orders will be passed on in Army Group Center with verbal orders not to carry them out. Since both orders will be given out only verbally from Army level downward, in the end, it all depends on the individual commander.”
The words hung in the air for a moment, and Philip said, “Yes, it all depends on the individual.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish