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.

The reporting of these sauberungen evolved a language of its own: villages were zerstört (‘wiped out’) or niedergebrannt (‘burned to the ground’); teachers, priests, Jews and eventually all able-bodied civilian males were regarded as ‘suspects’ and taken as hostages to be shot in retaliation for attacks on German troops. The most striking feature of this vocabulary were the evasions it relied on and the way these increased as news moved up the chain of command. The cold-blooded killing of civilians, for instance, is mentioned in regimental reports, but covered up at the divisional level and above. Waldheim was central to this process. To take one example: on 12 August 1943, the 1st Mountain Division was informed by its 98th Regiment that the village of Kuklesi had been burned down and ten civilians shot (Zivilisten erschossen). But when the divisional 1a officer reported the incident to Athens, he informed them that the troops had shot ten ‘suspicious’ civilians (verdächtige Zivilisten). Waldheim received this report and then went one stage further: in his own report the next day he referred to ten ‘bandit’ suspects (Bandenverdächtige). In this way all mention of civilian casualties was suppressed and the act of murder retrospectively justified. Nothing could more clearly illustrate the need that was felt throughout the Wehrmacht to hide the truth from those responsible for it. There are grounds for arguing that by making such changes Waldheim put himself in the position of accessory to a war crime.

In fact, it was rare for the reporting officer at Army level to have to make such changes. Usually the necessary alterations had already been made lower down the line, and most of the reports received by Waldheim in Athens used only the blanket term ‘enemy dead’ (Feindtote) which often disguised a more brutal reality. The effect of these alterations was obvious: the process of ‘forgetting’ the war, for which Waldheim has been so much criticised, had already begun during the war itself. Interviewed in April this year, the intelligence officer of the 1st Mountain Division, Karl Rothfuchs, ‘could claim in apparent good faith’ that the division never killed an innocent civilian – a statement directly contradicted by documents bearing his signature.

The most direct way of finding out what Waldheim and his fellow staff officers actually knew of what was going on in the mountains is to look through the casualty tallies that accompanied the reports of ‘clean-up’ actions. For example, the 1st Mountain Division announced in early July 1943, at the end of operations in Montenegro, that it had captured 498 ‘communists’, of whom 411 had been shot. The first major operation carried out by the division in Greece, on the basis of plans worked out in Waldheim’s office in Athens, resulted in the reported deaths of eighty to a hundred guerrillas for the loss of only two German soldiers. These figures say all there is to say about what was being done in the name of the struggle against the guerrillas. It was not until the winter of 1943-44, when Red Cross delegates were finally permitted to travel in Epiros, that the first neutral reports of this destruction emerged. By then, almost a hundred and fifty villages had been burned or looted in Epiros alone, and 85,000 people made homeless.

This state of affairs was, of course, well-known to the officers at staff headquarters, in both Athens and Salonika. The casualty tallies alone, not to mention the references to burned villages which abound in these reports, made matters clear. One junior intelligence officer in Salonika at this time, Lt Werner Schollen, resigned from his position precisely because, as he put it in an interview earlier this year, ‘I was shocked and increasingly distressed by having to put my name to reports which conveyed news about the killing of hostages and the taking of reprisal measures.’ His post was filled by Waldheim in October 1943.

What was Waldheim’s connection with the horrific scene which Apostolou witnessed in Komeno on 16 August 1943? The reporting of events, which occupied Waldheim for most of his time in Greece, is essentially a passive activity. In the confused circumstances of the summer of 1943, however, he was one of only two officers in a small but crucial policy-making unit, the German 1a office in Athens. As Germans and Italians tried uneasily to work together, there was constant discussion between Athens and the Jannina HQ of the 1st Mountain Division about how best to tackle the guerrillas. On 5 August, Col Willers, Waldheim’s superior officer, flew to Jannina for high-level talks with senior figures, including Field-Marshal von Weichs, commander-in-chief of all Axis Forces in the Balkans. There were no Italians present: when it came to anti-guerrilla operations, the Germans no longer had any faith in their allies. Two days later, Willers’s office in Athens issued a major policy document detailing plans for a series of sauberungen to last from mid-August until the winter. The first operation, code-named ‘Augustus’, empowered the 1st Mountain Division to ‘clean up’ the west coast of Greece between the ports of Parga and Preveza. As Willers’s deputy, Waldheim certainly discussed these matters with him. In addition Waldheim recorded the details of the proposals in the War Diary.

The means by which this area was to be ‘cleaned up’ emerge very clearly from the guidelines for operation ‘Augustus’ issued by the divisional HQ the same day. The troops were instructed to retaliate against any signs or even suspicion of guerrilla activity by the summary shooting of suspects and the destruction of all dwellings in the vicinity. The following day a new Hitler Order, requiring the immediate execution of any guerrilla captured in battle, was passed on by the 1a office in Athens to Jannina. Once again, Waldheim’s involvement in this process is demonstrated by his record of the order in the War Diary.

Operation ‘Augustus’ lasted from 10 to 15 August and details of the various engagements were transmitted daily from Jannina to Athens, together with advance notice of the division’s plans for the following day. Waldheim, in turn, passed the information on to Salonika. This correspondence included frequent references to ‘clean-up’ and ‘reprisal’ actions, among them the Kuklesi shootings.

On 12 August, in the middle of the operation, came a report that ‘bandits’ (i.e. guerrillas) had been sighted at the village of Komeno. This lay to the south-east of the town of Arta, in flat country behind the hilly coastal area where the German troops were deployed. The first Germans seen in the village were members of a reconnaissance team which drove unexpectedly into the main square that morning, to be met by the sight of Greek guerrillas requisitioning food from local shopkeepers. No shots were fired before the frightened Germans managed to reverse their car and drive away to report their news. The nervous villagers spent that night sleeping in the fields and only returned when they had been assured by the Italian commandant at Arta that they had nothing to fear. Reports of the sighting had been sent from Jannina to Athens, however; and on 14 August the HQ of the 1st Mountain Division ordered a detachment to prepare for a ‘surprise’ operation at Komeno.

The crucial question is: who gave this order? It is unclear from the documents whether this was an independent initiative on the part of the divisional staff or an instruction from the 1a office, where Waldheim worked, in Athens. We can probably exclude the possibility that the order came from Waldheim’s superiors in Salonika since this small, ad hoc operation, tacked onto the end of ‘Augustus’ would not have warranted their attention. On the other hand, it is unlikely that the divisional staff in Jannina would have felt able by themselves to sanction the deliberate brutality displayed at Komeno, something without precedent in occupied Greece. They would have required some authorisation, however peremptory, from their superiors. What seems most likely is that the planning was done in Jannina, but that the operation only went ahead after Athens had been notified of the plans. In fact, Waldheim’s office was notified on 15 August of the plans for the following day. And on the same day Waldheim himself signed and passed on another report from the 1st Mountain Division which called for the extension of operations to the Arta area.

Just before dawn on 16 August, men of the 98th Regiment surrounded Komeno, and on a prearranged signal stormed the houses. The bewildered inhabitants were either killed in their homes by hand-grenades and machine-gun fire, or shot down in the streets as they tried to escape. In one house, where a wedding celebration had been taking place, only one boy and his sister managed to escape; that afternoon the boy returned to find the rest of his family dead. The violence was indiscriminate: children were stabbed, women raped. By the time the troops withdrew, more than three hundred of the village’s six hundred inhabitants had been killed – undoubtedly the most savage act so far perpetrated by the occupation forces against the rural population.

The report of the 98th Regiment tried to cast the usual veil over the massacre: not only had the German troops supposedly been fired on first, it was also claimed that large amounts of munitions had been stored in the village. These claims were belied, however, by the appended ‘booty total’ which revealed that apart from 16 head of cattle and one lorry-load of wool, the troops had managed to seize only five Italian carbines and one machine-pistol. Moreover no guerrillas were reported as having been killed, wounded or captured. On the other hand, the report admitted that ‘as a result of this engagement 150 civilians appear to have lost their lives.’ By the time the Jannina 1a had reported back to Waldheim’s office in Athens, the 150 civilians had become 150 ‘enemy dead’ (Feindtote). Rothfuchs improved on matters still further: in his report the dead civilians had now become Banditen. As for Waldheim, he stuck in his report to the term ‘enemy dead’.

The casualty and booty reports remained unchanged from the original version, however, and these alone were sufficient to make clear to all these officers what had happened at Komeno. After all, not a single German casualty had been recorded. The death tally of 150 was far higher than the total killed in several days’ fighting over an area of several hundred square miles in the course of the entire ‘Augustus’ operation. Indeed, the death toll at Komeno was the highest recorded for a single action since Waldheim had begun work in Athens: only once before had ‘enemy’ losses run into three figures.

The 1a office had some authority over German units, notably the 1st Mountain Division, and was closely involved in formulating anti-guerrilla policy. In these circumstances, knowledge carried with it certain responsibilities. The Wehrmacht bureaucrat, with his command of euphemism, turned the dross of criminal violence into the precious metal of military necessity. Few men, like Schollen, had the courage to turn aside from such work: there were more, like Waldheim, ready to step into Schollen’s shoes. Most preferred to forget or deny the nature of the policies they helped to implement – a denial which in many cases began at the moment of commission.

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