When Deserters Are Heroes

By: Daniel Nardini

In an effort to break from its past, the Austrian government has recognized those Austrians who deserted from the German armed forces during World War II as “heores.” The Vienna authorities—Austria’s capital—intends to build a statue to honor those Austrians who deserted the German armed forces. Until recently Austrian deserters were treated by ordinary Austrians with contempt. They were seen as “cowards,” “traitors” and “enemies of the state.” In the 1990’s, the Austrian government started to confront its Nazi past and those who resisted it.

Normally no nation honors those who deserted its armed forces, and Austria is no exception. But the Nazi state was very much an exception. First of all, most Austrians did not want to unite with Germany in 1938. Germany forced an annexation with Austria pretty much at gunpoint. Second, the German armed forces, especially in Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union, did not follow the rules of war. German elite forces, such as the SS (Schultz Staffel), carried out massacres and brutal atrocities against civilians and against certainly groups pf people because of who they were. Jews were simply murdered because they were Jews. There was no way to appeal any orders in the Nazi military command—you simply obeyed or you were shot.

Under these circumstances, an increasing number of Austrians deserted the German armed forces because they saw being included in them as not only illegal (because Austria had been forcibly annexed) but also immoral. In the minds of many Austrians who were forced to serve in the German armed forces of the time, there could be no morality in committing mass-murder, genocide, torture, whole-scale destruction of villages and cities for just “being there,” and occupying almost all of Europe to simply plunder it for the Third Reich. The Austrian government estimates that 15,000 to 20,000 Austrians deserted the German armed forces—the majority of them in the last days of the war.

Until recently they had to keep their desertion from the German armed forces a secret. They were not only stigmatized by their neighbors and even families. Neo-nazi groups in Austria have been known to attack and kill deserters from the German armed forces in the post-war period. Many of these deserters could not marry, or their families were equally stigmatized for the actions of one family member. It is fortunate that the Austrian government has taken the step to not only recognize the Nazi past but also to take away the stigma against those Austrian deserters who fled the German armed forces because of the evil nature of those they were fighting for.

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