Diary of Writing Italy’s Sorrow

Hamelin, February 14, 2006
Another early start, this time to Dusseldorf, some 550 kilometres away, and where Franz Maassen, formerly of the 278th Infantry Division, lived.  Once again, we made good progress and reached Dusseldorf in time for a quick lunch before seeing Herr Maassen.  He was a small man with a pleasant, humorous face and ushered us in.  He used to be a baker but is no longer able to bake himself.  Instead he had bought us an array of rich and creamy cakes, and kept apologising for not having produced them himself.  ‘My wife has recently passed away,’ he explained, ‘and it’s difficult to be a proper host now.’  I still felt pretty full from lunch but felt I ought to at least tackle one of these cakes.  It was a mistake, because with coffee as well, I soon began to get really bad indigestion – something I’m not conscious of having suffered from before.  The stomach cramps were terrible and for the best part of five hours I kept shifting from one side of my seat to the other.  And this was a great shame because Franz Maassen was a fabulous interviewee: frank and articulate and with an astonishing memory for detail.  He told us about how he done amphibious training in early 1941.  Why, I asked him.  ‘Because we were going to invade Britain,’ he said.  I thought that was interesting because Hitler had postponed the invasion the previous autumn.  He told a funny story about how, after the war, he had finally gone to Britain on holiday.  His family had taken the ferry and as they approached the English coast he looked up and saw the White Cliffs.  ‘And then I thought to myself: we would have never managed the invasion!’

He really was fascinating – obviously he had been a brilliant NCO, the backbone of the unit in which he served.  You could tell by the way he explained himself and told various stories about his experiences.  He was also particularly interesting about his attitude to partisans.  He had served in Russia twice and had lost a good friend in a brutal partisan attack.  On arrival in Italy, having recovered from wounds on the Eastern Front, he was in Verona when the café he was in was attacked by Italian partisans.  He already had a very low view of these guerrilla fighters  – as do most regular army when confronted by them – but this attack made him think that Italian partisans were every bit as bad as those he had come against in Russia.  This, I think, is an important point.  I do so want to understand why German troops were able to line up civilians and massacre them, and I have a feeling Russia has a lot to do with it – after all, there were large number of Eastern Front veterans in Italy.  If their view had already been both tarnished and hardened by their Russian experiences that would have had a knock-on effect with other German troops in Italy.  And after all, Kesselring and a number of his commanders were also veterans of the war in Russia.

As we were leaving he looked at us wistfully and said, ‘You know, it was only after the war that I felt human again.’  I liked him enormously and was glad I’d had the chance to talk to him at such length.

We then drove in the dark to Hamelin, as in the Pied Piper.  It was late when we got there and found the hotel.

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