The day I met SS Rottenfuhre Werner Volkner
I suppose this story is tainted with it’s connection to the third Reich and Hitler’s attempt at Nazis domination of Europe, very difficult to be objective with so many recorded historical facts, eyewitness reports, images, and the genocidal destruction of so many Jews, Gypsies and anyone else that fell short of Hitler's Aryan ideal.
I came at the project with an open mind, It wasn’t my place to be judge and jury, history had already done that part for humanity, as you can imagine finding someone who had served in Hitlers SS was not easy, as they are clearly cautious about who they speak to, so with a lot of research and a brief memberships to online pro-German military historic forums that I would not normally use, I managed to find information on various Waffen SS units, through this research I managed to meet Werner Volkner a former Waffen SS soldier
I urge you to read this story and keep an open mind, read it, judge it, but remember if you find yourself saying why would you spend a day with a Nazi, then you have missed the point, you may not like what you read, and that’s the beauty of stories, the reality can be beautiful as it can be painful.
I arrived early morning and knocked on Werner's door. I had this Idea in my head that on opening the door Werner would look me up and down and close the door immediately, I say this due to my roots being Belizean and British, the Belizean heritage being more prominent in my appearance, so you see my objective side was failing already. I introduced myself, and was greeted “Hello Mark come in” Werner's English was very good, with a strong Germanic tone, he showed me through to the lounge where we discussed the project, he was very open to all my ideas, which in short where based on preconceptions and the subconscious reading of people, in Werner's case the association of hearing the word Nazis or SS, would invoke images and stories of horrific atrocities and disgust.
Werner had served in the Waffen-SS or combat SS as Rottenfuhre, which is a non-commissioned officer, he had joined at 18 straight out of the Hilter youth and took part in some of the most brutal tank battles on the Eastern front, in Kharkov and Kursk. The Totenkopf SS deaths head unit which is what the Waffen SS were known as, were recognizable by the skull and crossed bones insignia badge worn on their caps and collar tabs. The Totenkopf were also the divisional units that policed the Nazi concentration camps, many Totenkoft units had many atrocities laid at their feet, one such crime was the Paradis Massacre. Ninety seven soldiers of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment surrendered after running out of ammo, they were led across the road lined up against a wall and shot by the 14th Company, SS Division Totenkopf, under the command of Hauptsturmführer Fritz Knöchlein; Knöchlein was convicted of war crimes after the war and executed in 1949.
I never provoked Werner to explain why the Totenkopf had been accused of so many war crimes, but he openly defended them. I remember very clearly after we had discussed another SS atrocity the 'Malmedy Massacre' where SS-Obersturmbannführer, Joachim Peiper, part of the 6th SS Panzer division, had captured 120 American soldiers, mainly from 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion. Peiper continued west toward Ligneuville, and the remaining German troops assembled the Americans in a line along with other prisoner captured that day. There are various reports regarding what happened next, one of which says a few prisoners tried to escape, this then prompted the Germans to open fire. One hundred and twenty soldiers were murdered that day, some tried to hide and pretend they were dead, but the SS walked among them shooting anyone that appeared to be alive.
Werner makes reference to the HBO series Band of Brothers, in which one episode portrays 101st Airborne Division (Easy company), coming across a Combat SS unit, unprepared and not battle ready, they appeared to be surrendering when the 101st Airborne unit opened fire. He went on to tell me his friend Hauptscharfuehrer (squad leader) Hans Siprott, had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for giving the order to open fire on the American prisoners at Malmedy. In the image you can see 2 photos of Siprott on the small table, one taken in 1944, one taken more recently sitting with Werner somewhere in Europe, and behind that one of Werner reading Schindlers Legacy. The book was an engineered part of my project, and shows Werner's willingness to be accepted as no more than an old soldier that fought for his country. Siprott was sentenced to death but as you can see from the photo, he was not executed, SS-Obersturmbannführer Joachim Peiper was convicted of war crimes and served 12 years in prison, he then went on to work for Porsche and Volkswagen, then moved to France where he translated books from English to German under the name of Rainer Buschmann; in 1976 he was shot and murdered and his house was burnt to the ground.
I have to be clear now that Werner was very specific about not being anti-Semitic and told me that he was shocked when he heard what had happened in the concentration camps. He then proceeded to show me images from his collection of WW2 books, explaining that the images of some Jews in a particular book looked too healthy for all the atrocities to be true. At this point, I could see that Werner’s opinion of Hitler now and his experience during the war, his molding in the Hitler Youth was something that was ingrained, a true belief in Hitler's attempted domination of Europe. I do believe Werner wanted the Concentration camp reality to be a fabrication, but deep down he knows it’s indisputable, he told me of a trip to Jerusalem, he visited the wailing wall and like the Jews pushing their prayers between the cracks, Werner pushed his own message into the Hakotel 'The Wall' that stated "We did not commit all the crimes we were accused of. "
Werner then tells me that he had won the Iron Cross, second class, awarded to him for saving the lives of wounded colleagues, he managed to get them to safety whilst under fire near Grodnow in Poland, on July 20, 1944. This was the same day as the failed attempt by officers to kill Hitler by blowing him up in the so-called July Plot, which triggered the reworked operation Valkyrie, led by Colonel Claus Von Stauffenberg, General Olbricht, Major General Henning von Tresckow, the modified plan was to arrest the Nazi leadership and take control of German cities, it failed, Stauffenberg, and Olbricht, were executed by firing squad and Tresckow committed suicide,
The military runs deep in Werner's family, his father, was a storm trooper and Freikorps member, (a German volunteer in the mercenary unit), whose beginnings date back to the 18th century. He was also awarded an Iron cross 23 years earlier during the 1st World War, both of which Werner proudly displays, Werner's Iron Cross can be seen in the image framed to the left of the fireplace. He then takes me into his study, imagine walking onto a film set that was dressed for a scene from Triumph Of The Will directed by Leni Riefenstahl, this room was full of German, no, German Nazi Waffen SS memorabilia, it also housed a very comprehensive WW2 German book collection, it was this visual divergent environment that confused the senses.
What makes Werner's story so incredible, is after the war he spent time in prison camps in Europe and later moved to a camp in New Haw in Surrey, where he was released in 1948. He had spent some years working on farms and as School caretaker, he then decided to make the United Kingdom his home and joined the Army. He signed up with the Westminster Dragoons which were a Territorial unit attached to the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, which ironically had fought with distinction during the D-Day landings, in the image he proudly wears his Dragoons Blazer and tie with its embroidered crest.
Werner's transition from German soldier to British soldier and citizen has not been an easy one. As you would expect, my day with Werner was an eye opener and an experience, Werner and other veteran soldiers from many Combat SS units used to meet at certain times of the year at secret locations, now no longer possible at age 92, many of his old surviving Totenkopf friends will be of a similar age, they are the last of what can only be described as one of history’s most revered and feared fighting forces, as I said at the beginning, it's not for me to judge. I had to process a large amount of conflicting information, and there is more to to this story which can’t really be told in a few paragraphs. Maybe Werners Hitler youth indoctrination and it's aims to instill the motivation for boys and young men to fight faithfully for Nazi Germany has served him well in both German and British forces, his integration with those he would have considered the enemy over 75 years ago has not been easy, with the dark public perception of anyone associated with the SS and the Nazis. There were traces of misplaced loyalty and even naivety evident throughout my time with Werner, but nothing that conclusively led me to believe that this man was anything other than an old and possibly misguided soldier.
"The two most powerful warriors are patience and time ". Leo Tolstoy.