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Karl Plagge

A Rescuer of Jews in the Uniform of the German Wehrmacht.

Last Update 19 March 2006

Lecture of Prof. Dr. Wolfram Wette, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg i. Br., Historisches Seminar, on the occasion of the Commemoration in Honour of Major of the Wehrmacht Karl Plagge, "Righteous Among Nations“, arranged by the City of Science Darmstadt on Friday, 15 April 2005, 4:00 p.m.

Today, we honor a most unusual man: the officer of the German Wehrmacht,
who during the 2nd World War saved several hundred jews from
being murdered in the German occupied Lithuania.  The uniqueness of
this man rests in the fact, that not withstanding the extreme
conditions of war and Holocaust- he  steadfastly held on to his humane
orientation and decided in case of a conflict of conscience to be
guided by this orientation.

In Paneriai (Ponary), located not far from the city of Wilna, nearly
100,000 people, men, women and children, were shot in the years 1941
to1944.  Most of them were Jewish people from Wilna.  Plagge knew about
the mass-murders, as did every member of the German occupational forces
in the area of Wilna, who gave the murderers at least passive support.

It was no mystery to Plagge what was expected from him by his superiors
regarding the Lithuanian Jews.  They expected his understanding of the
policy of annihilation of the Jews, that he would support it, or at the
very least keep his hands out of the mass-murder perpetrated by the SS
and Lithuanian auxiliary police, in other words: that he would let it

In contrast to the vast majority of those officers, soldiers and
military officials stationed in Wilna, captain and afterwards Major
Karl Plagge simply did not accept the events around him.  He alone made
a decision to walk a road dictated by his own conscience- without any
illusions about the dangers inherent in this decision. Death sentences
were easily handed out by the Wehrmacht courts of that time for such
offenses as supporting the enemy or war treason in general.

It must be pointed out that Plagge did not help with one isolated
spontaneous act, but rather followed his personal convictions over the
years, persistently, cool and deliberately, not always successfully, in
many areas.  He acted in a cool and resolute manner within the
framework of his possibilities.

By his example, we can learn about the extent and nature of actions
which any officer of the Wehrmacht could have created for himself if he
had only wanted to.
      1.  As commander of HKP 562 in Wilna, a large facility  for the
repair and the maintenance of motorized vehicles and other Wehrmacht 
equipment, he arranged that in his facility the majority of his workers
was Jewish, which saved which saved them from actions of execution
which occurred off and on. Thus he at least temporarily removed them
from a deadly danger.

    2.  He made sure that even those Jews who knew nothing about
automobile repair were employed by him and therefore protected.

    3. He saw to it that his Jewish workers, men and women were medically
cared for and received adequate food rations.  This could reasonably be
justified since without healthy and physically strong workers,
satisfactory work for the Wehrmacht could not be accomplished.

    4.  He secretly forwarded to those in danger, confidential information
about impending deportations to Ponary, giving them the opportunity to
go to secret hideouts where they were safe from the actions of the SS
and their Lithuanian helpers.

    5.  Plagge had to use utmost care when associating with his
"comrades".  This meant both those in rank above and below him.  He
considered them more an obstacle than a useful instrument in saving-
operations of the above kind.  The term comradeship  denoted a
principle of order and not of friendship.  It is therefore amazing,
that in HKP Wilna there were at least 7 with lower ranks than him- as
they have testified after the war-who knew about his help to the Jews
but did not denounce him.

    6.  He still had to conceal his humane intentions as late as the final
role-call on July 1, 1944, for which he had assembled his Jewish
workers and their families.  He wanted to inform them that the Soviet
Army had penetrated the German lines to just outside of Wilna, that the
Wehrmacht was retreating westward and that the HKP repair facility with
it's about 350 employees was now to be commanded by the SS.  Plagge
stated "all of you know how conscientious the SS is in protecting their
Jewish prisoners" this warning was immediately understood and as a
result at least part of those threatened with execution were able to
disappear into their hideouts.

Sergeant Anton Schmid

He, like Karl Plagge was stationed in Wilna.  He was in command of a
smaller agency whose place of work gave him the opportunity to hide
Jewish workers and thus remove them from the grip of the SS.  He even
transported them in his official truck with falsified identification
papers to safe villages in adjoining White Russia.  Sergeant Schmid is
considered especially courageous, as he actively supported the Jewish
resistance in the Wilna area.  He was denounced, sentenced to death by
a Wehrmacht military court and executed on April 13, 1942.  Regarding
the motives of his actions, he wrote in a farewell letter to his wife
and daughter " my dear Steffi and Grete please forgive me- I only acted
as a human being and did not want to harm anyone".  Since May 8, 2000 a
barracks of the Federal German Army in the Schleswig- Holstein town of
Rendsburg carries the name " Sergeant Anton

This sergeant of the Wehrmacht used specific areas of action in the
rear of the Wehrmacht territory far behind the front line, much in the
same manner as Plagge.  Therefore, the activities of both men may be
compared to that of such civilian businessmen as Oscar Schindler, Bert
Fredrichold Beitz and Hermann Fredrich Graebe whose field of action was
also the German occupied territory in the east.

Soldiers of the Wehrmacht too, used their position in war-related
plants and businesses to save people.  In those areas behind the front
lines, where the intent was the economical exploitation of the working
force, members of the German occupying administration, if they wanted
to save lives,  could use this chance to employ Jewish skilled workers
as well as Polish and Russian prisoners of war.  All this under the
guise of protecting German military interests.

More recent research regarding "saviors in uniform"

In regards to Anton Schmid,  Karl Plagge and other members of the
Wehrmacht who saved people a group of about 30 German historians- men
and women- has recently (1999-2004) made investigations, among them
Manfred Messerschmidt, Arno Lustinger, Detlef Bald, Norbert Hasse,
Jakob Knab, Johannes Winter, Hermine Wullner, Gerd R. Ueberschaer,
Peter Steinkamp, to name only a few.

As far as Major Karl Plagge and his acts of salvation are concerned,
the Darmstadt historian Dr. Marianne Viefhaus - simultaneously with
several Jewish survivors and their children from Vilna - did her
research, during which Dr. Michael Good appears to have been the
driving force.  Together they created the preconditions for Plagge to
be honored as Righteous Among the Nations on the 11th of April 2005.

We have been able to determine through intensive research, that there
were such humanely thinking and acting individuals in the Wehrmacht, in
the military police, in the organization Todt - responsible for
building military establishments -  and rarely even in the SS.  Their
deeds of valor and their life history is meticulously documented in two
books- "Saviors in Uniform" and "Civil Courage" both were published in
2002 and 2004 by Frankfurt Pocketbook Publishers respectively,
specifically in their "Black Column" which for many years has informed
the public about the years of national socialism.  There you will also
find the story about Major Karl Plagge as described by Dr. Marianne
Viefhaus.  Furthermore, the young Freiburg historian Kim Priemel in his
Master of Science dissertation entitled "Salvation by Work", is dealing
with Karl Plagge, Anton Schmid and another "savior in uniform" from
Vilna,  namely Oskar Schoenbrunner, a paymaster with the rank of first
Lieutenant who served in the paymasters office of the commanding army

If you really and thoroughly want to understand and praise the saving
actions of men like this, we are confronted by several more general
questions, which we have analyzed in our research project.  From where
did these men take the inner strength to "swim against the tide?"  What
motivated their actions?  Their decision to help or save usually
originated spontaneously, triggered by the cry for help by someone
persecuted.  The framework of values for their decision usually
consisted of a politically or religiously founded humanity.  Often the
rescuers took their actions as a matter of course and not an example of
unusual heroism.  They did not want to be heros.  Often they were ready
to help, out a sense of outrage having witnessed or reliably been told
about the crimes committed.  Just as important was a sense of self
respect.  They simply would not or could not stand by idly in the face
of such monstrosities, thus found the moral incentive to help.  Stories
of rescuers are stories of individual resistance, resulting in an
extraordinary humane act.

Without the support of a tradition of resistance

The second Question: Was there in the German military any tradition of
acting out of responsibility to the self or resistively upon which the
"Saviors in Uniform" could fall back in their conflict between order
and conscience?  As we all know the German Military was a poor training
ground for civil courage.  A tradition of resistance did not exist. 
For the German soldier, used to obeying orders, whether a member of the
Prussian army, Hitler's Wehrmacht or any other army in the past,
disobedience was a behavior totally outside his horizon of imagination.
  Sebastian Haffner in his book "The  History of A German," which
contains his reflections from the years 1914 to 1933, states that
"civil courage - the courage to make your own decisions and shoulder
your own responsibilities - totally disappears in a German as soon as
he puts on a uniform".  The German soldier and officer, outstandingly
brave in battle, always ready - to even shoot his own German countrymen
if ordered - becomes frightened as a rabbit if asked to take a stand
against his superiors.  Because of this traditional mentality of the
professional soldier, it is easy to understand why most of those
Wehrmacht soldiers who saved and helped others were reserve army
members, as we say "uniformed civilians".  The professional officers as
a rule were not able to free themselves of the chains of unconditional
obedience.  Acts of civil courage were anathema for them.

Karl Plagge, too was a reserve army officer.  Born in 1897, he served
as a soldier in the first World War, then studied at the technical
University in Darmstadt and at the beginning of World War 2 was drafted

Anti Semitism in the Wehrmacht

Third General Question: What was the position of the Wehrmacht in
regards to anti-Semitism?  This can be answered - in spite of attempts
to prove otherwise - by stating that anti-Semitism was a traditional
orientation in the German military.  After the transfer of power to the
National socialists  (Nazis) the leadership of the German Reichswehr
which consisted of professional soldiers, spontaneously affixed the
symbol of the NSDAP, the swastika, to the uniforms of their soldiers. 
They also, already in 1934, enacted the so called "Arier-paragraph". 
This amounted to a voluntary approval of the Nazi race ideology. 
Immediately afterwards seventy soldiers of various ranks with Jewish
ancestors in the first or second generation were dismissed.

There is nothing known about any resistance of officers during anti
Jewish excesses, such as the "Crystal Night" in November 1938.  Since
the beginning of the war in 1939, Wehrmacht soldiers were indoctrinated
to form an ideological perception of the Jews as enemies.  Thus, they
were attuned to the coming of the war against the USSR.  This war was
referred to, by Nazi propaganda, "as struggle against Jewish
Bolshewism".  In some cases the leadership of the Wehrmacht intervened
punitively if officers did not comply with the measures ordered by
their superiors.  To quote one example: In 1942, a regimental commander
on the eastern front was caught exchanging birthday letters with a
former classmate and friend who was Jewish.  This triviality resulted
in his dismissal from the armed forces - no less but no more.  The
chief of the army personnel office, General of the infantry Rudolf
Schmundt , a willing tool of Hitler's, issued an order in October of
1942 which was to make it clear that an unequivocal attitude without
any compromise was expected towards Jews. " There  should not be any
relationship, no matter how superficial, between an officer and a
member of the Jewish race".  This "because Germany was involved in a
struggle with the Jewish Bolshevik enemy of all nations".  The officers
were to see themselves as fighters for a view of the world rooted in
racism.  Any violation of this ideological orientation could lead to a
loss of position and dishonorable discharge from the army -  no less
but also no more.

Resistance from below: realistic and successful.

Most of these saviors in uniform had one thing in common, they never
became involved in the political aspects of tyrannicide.  Their work
was directed downwards in order to help the persecuted: they did not
care about hierarchies, they did not complain, they did not report
upwards to any superior, they did not write memoranda, as some officers
did who believed in a moderation of the system, they did not count on
military "comradeship" which they saw as an obstacle rather than an

Instead of this they followed the realization that they were in no
position to overwhelm the Nazi- system- or change the military.  And
therefore, they decided to do what was realistically within their realm
of possibilities, namely to at least support - and if lucky save - the
individuals persecuted.  In quite a few cases this resistance of the
"little man" was even successful, at any rate more so than the
officers' doomed attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944.  If we
speak of resistance from the ranks of the Wehrmacht, we immediately
think of Colonel Klaus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and his attempt to
assassinate Hitler.  This attempted assassination, we associate with
high officers of the Wehrmacht who resisted by sacrificing their lives.

However, the fixation on July 20, 1944, has raised the question whether
or not "the little man" in uniform had a resistance-potential and in
which ways it manifested itself.  In this connection we must think of
the conscientious objectors, the deserters, those who subverted the
fighting power of the army, and all those soldiers who refused to be
part of this war of annihilation.  It was a big step forward when the
German Parliament on May 17, 2002 finally recognized this group of 
"little men".  The 'rescuers in uniform" are to be included in this

A mirror for the Nazi followers:

After the war those who saved Jews were often referred to as silent
heros.  This term was meant to attract attention to a typical attitude:
most of these men did not want any praise for their actions.  However,
the modesty of the saviors was not the deciding issue for the decades
long denial of the fact that there were any saviors of Jews at all. 
For the majority of the followers the fact that it was possible to swim
against the tide and follow ones conscience had the character of a
provocation, even an accusation.  Being simple human beings, not
belonging to the leading class the rescuers and saviors had the effect
of a mirror, which in 1945 posed and reflected the unpleasant question
"And what did you do?"

Those who rescued and saved Jews, constituted -as it were - a
contrasting mentality to the vast majority of citizens who had
supported the existence of the Nazi Regime, whether out of conviction,
opportunism or fear.

This majority, after the war mobilized much energy towards oblivion of
their behavior.  It was rare that somebody would be ashamed.  After the
war refusing to see their own responsibility, they proceeded to
denounce these rescuers on a large scale.  They were overtly or
covertly stigmatized as traitors.

The Osnabrueck jurist Hans Calmeyer, who saved the life of thousands of
Jews in Amsterdam, later hardly ever talked about his successful
actions of saving and rescue and did not get any recognition in Germany
during his lifetime.  A particularly blatant case is that of the
engineer Hermann Friedrich Graebe.  He had attempted to save thousands
of Jews in the Ukraine, and in addition forwarded -as the only German -
his knowledge of the Holocaust to the international military tribunal
in Nurnberg.  After the war he was confronted by an atmosphere of such
hostility that it made him realize he was "unwelcome in Germany".  He
thought it necessary to leave Germany and immigrated to the USA.

In Vienna the widow of Sergeant Anton Schmid had to hear  her heroic
husband being denounced as traitor by her neighbors, who also otherwise
harassed her smashing windows of her apartment etc.

When the state of Israel bestows the title of "Righteous among the
Nations" on German rescuers of Jews, the German press as well as
politicians until the 1990's would react with non - recognition
(silence).  Thus it has taken Germany more than a half century
following the war to develop a recognizable public interest in these
people.  With increasing recognition goes the need to honor those few
helpers and rescuers who are still alive.

Darmstadt and Karl Plagge

During this hour, while we are honoring the memory of Karl Plagge in
Yad Vashem as "Righteous Among the Nations", this event must not simply
be seen as an echo of his recognition in Jerusalem.  The Technical
University of the city of Darmstadt did already honor Karl Plagge in
2003 with a memorial plaque located at the University quite independent
of the proceedings in Yad Vashem.  It says on this plaque "As an
officer of the Wehrmacht he saved many Jews during the Holocaust".

In other places an occasional push from the outside is still needed. 
Parts of German society have misgivings about those, who during the war
saved Jewish people.  As an example, the Bavarian community of
Ergolsheim refused to honor a former policeman, Max Maurer, who just
before the end of the war saved 15 Jewish concentration camp inmates
from the grip of the SS.  He hid them in his barn until they were
liberated by the advancing US army.  This courageous village policeman
was honored by the state of Israel, but his community refused to name
their school after him.  Against this background of scandalous rural
and provincial events- and more examples could be listed- we must truly
welcome the way in which the science city of Darmstadt and its
Technical University have honored the legacy of Karl Plagge.  It should
serve as a shining example.

Civil courage, implemented.

One would wish that Karl Plagge and with him the "resistance from
below" including the rescuers in uniform become a firm element within
the German culture.  During the annual remembrance of the resistance
against National Socialism, these men should be honored at least to the
same extent as the officers of July 20,1944 have been.  Perhaps it is
preferable not to elevate them to heroic symbols, because a high
pedestal only increases the distance between them and the beholder. 
The rescuers in uniform were humans like any other with strengths and
weaknesses.  What made them entirely different from the hangers-on was
the following: during the hours of challenge they mustered the courage
to not only think of solidarity with Jews, but also to practice it.

In my speech, I have put special emphasis on Karl Plagge and Anton
Schmid.  In order to correctly appreciate their actions we have to
quickly return to the historical realities of the years 1939 to 1945. 
During this time the German Wehrmacht led a war of annihilation and at
times participated in the murder of Jews.  There were about 18 million
of the German armed forces, the number of saviors so far is below 100. 
This shameful relationship of numbers makes it all the more clear how
highly the exceptional actions of Major Karl Plagge must be praised. 
The "silent heros" were rare individuals who deserve our respect.  One
might want to call them "the little grains of gold" on the bottom of a
huge mountain of trash and destruction which the war generation left
us.  Young people who are interested in the rescuers of the era of
national socialism will regard them as an example.  They have -while in
the uniform of the Wehrmacht- lived up to the highest levels of civil
courage under the most extreme conditions.  Karl Plagge, too, can serve
as a shining example.


Translated by Burkhard Voelkening, MD