Waldheim goes to war

Mark Mazower

Around noon on 16 August 1943, Dimitri Apostolou, a young Greek peasant, returned to his home village of Komeno in north-west Greece. German troops had just pulled out after a raid lasting some seven hours. In the charred ruins of the houses timbers were still burning. Corpses had begun to swell in the heat. The belly of one woman had been slit open, and a chicken had begun to drag her entrails along the road. Shortly after he saw this, Apostolou fainted.

From Komeno, the German troops involved in this operation, a detachment of the 1st Mountain Division, had a journey of an hour back to their base. On arrival, they sent a report of the incident to the Operations Office at their divisional headquarters in Jannina. The officer there included the information in the Day Report which he prepared for his superiors in Athens – the 1a office of the German General Staff attached to the Italian 11th Army.[*] In this office there were just two officers and it was the junior of the two who received the report from Jannina and recorded its contents in his unit’s War Diary. This officer’s name was Kurt Waldheim.

Between 19 July and 4 October 1943, Waldheim served as deputy to Col Bruno Willers, the operations officer with a small staff group sent to Athens. Until this time the Italian 11th Army had been responsible for controlling Greece. The invasion of Sicily, however, and the ousting of Mussolini, made the Germans suspicious of the depth of the Italian commitment to the Axis. Preparations were therefore made to take over total control of Greece: the staff group was sent to Athens, where it set up quarters next to the Italian 11th Army staff; at the same time new German units were sent into the country. Of these the most important was the 1st Mountain Division, a battle-hardened unit, which had witnessed fierce fighting on the Eastern Front and had taken part in savage anti-guerrilla operations in Montenegro and Albania before arriving in north-western Greece. For the sake of form, the German troops were placed under Italian command: in reality, they ignored the Italians and took most of their orders from the German Staff in Athens. Waldheim’s main duties as deputy to the 1a officer were to process incoming reports from subordinate units, and, on the basis of this information, to write up the War Diary for the General Staff, as well as sending on daily reports to Army Group ‘E’ in Salonika.

The chief topics of his daily correspondence were the euphemistically-termed sauberungsunternehmen (or ‘clean-up operations’) which German troops undertook against the guerrillas. In Greece, as in Montenegro, the Germans felt that Italian timidity had allowed the resistance to grow unchecked. On their arrival in the area, the 1st Mountain Division launched a major campaign against the guerrillas in Epiros, where it was feared the Allies might attempt a landing.

At first the troops were simply sent down the main roads to search out groups of guerrillas, but the mountainous, waterless terrain, combined with poor intelligence and the difficulty of bringing the guerrilla bands to battle, led to increasing frustration. On 24 July, the commander of the 98th Regiment cabled back to divisional headquarters: ‘General! The way things are at present, the whole action, although carried out with the greatest efforts, is to my mind completely pointless. There is only one available option: to apprehend the whole male population; whoever takes part in fighting or supports bandits ought to be shot immediately.’ The troops became less discriminating and the operations degenerated into a scorched-earth policy.

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[*] German army staffs were divided into an Operations Office (1a), a Supply Office (1b) and an Intelligence Office (1c).