Fascism has repeatedly been defeated but it doesn’t usually surrender. It denies its defeat, it hangs on every last thread of hope, it sends every last one of its heroes to their deaths and it uses the citizens in peacetime as it does the soldiers at war: as mere means to an end. In fact, fascism does not see people as citizens, but only as subjects. The individual has no merit, his needs are meaningless and death is heroic (even necessary). When the fascist leader is in danger, the whole country is in danger along with him; as the haves wanting to “take it with them” when they depart, so does every little fuehrer, when he sees the end coming, wants to take his own property (his people) with him. One such ultimate, desperate historic moment will be presented here, involving the biggest fuehrer of our recent times, in an incident that has largely been omitted from history.
Perhaps there is no historic phenomenon more exhaustively studied than the rise of the Nazis and the 2nd World War. But there are still relatively unexplored aspects of it. Those associated with the formation and the operation of the suicide attack Unit of the SS that have survived chose to withhold their participation or even the very existence of the unit, perhaps in an effort to avoid unpleasant questions and a public acknowledgment of their leadership’s defeatism during the last months of the war. Pieces of evidence still remain scattered and few.
A short time before Germany’s defeat by the Allies -and as Hitler was already hiding in his bunker where he finally committed suicide- the Nazis tried one last plan. They trained a task force of pilots called Sonderkommando Elbe assigned to ram enemy targets. That the inspiration for the formation of this task force came from the relative success of the Japanese kamikaze, is an intuition that cannot be substantiated with evidence, but seems very likely.
Typically, these were not suicide attacks as, strictly speaking, the rationale was that the pilots would escape from their aircraft (Bf 109) before the impact and survive in order to fly again. But the fact remains that there was no ejection mechanism (this technology was new at the time and was used in roughly 50-60 German airplanes during WW2), and this dropped the chances of survival to 5%, something that makes it doubtful whether the 2,000 volunteers realistically expected to survive their mission.
The aim of the Sonderkommando Elbe was to delay by 4-6 weeks the American advance of the bombers that decimated their army and their cities, so that they would have enough time to construct new fighter aircrafts (Me 262) and restore their fuel reserves in order to regain air dominance. The pilots’ targets were the tails of the Ally bombers or, alternatively, the winds behind the engine or the cockpits.
The first of the two missions of the task force (operation “Werewolf”) was made in 7 April 1945, with 180 Bf 109 aircrafts countering over 1,300 American (along with their escorts), a ratio that makes the operation seem like an exercise in dementia. The American archives give us an estimate of 8 to 15 bombers being destroyed, while Luftwaffe, probably exagerating their numbers, refers to 22 to 24.
The second mission took place 10 days later, against the Soviet army as it was crossing the bridges of the Oder River east of Berlin, near the borders with Poland. The Germans managed the destruction of some bridges, but in both cases the losses they caused were minimal and constituted only a minor discomfort and delay.
The Sonderkommando Elbe was actually not the first unit created with the aim of using soldiers as human bombs. Earlier, in February 1944 –months before the Japanese kamikaze- an unwilling Hitler was introduced to the formation of the Leonidas air force unit by the fanatic Nazi Hannah Reitsch, who probably wanted to take a little something from the Spartans’ glory. Hitler refused this hopeless notion of self-sacrifice, since he didn’t believe the war effort had yet reached a dead end. Reitsch was an important figure of the war, as she was one of the two women honored with the Iron Cross and had the support of certain higher officers in the army. During a meeting with Hitler in his country house on the Alps, Reitsch finally convinced him; and so the unit was formed (with the official name 5th Staffel of Kampfgeschwander 200) with her positioned as a trainer.
This kind of suicide attacks was rooted in the German mythology and utilized the ‘Nazi spirit’. The Nazis created symbolism drawn from the Teutonic Order of the mythology (and not that of history); in particular the Chivalry, the blood oaths and the idea of war against the enemy from the east (“It is eastwards, only and always eastwards, that the veins of our race must expand. It is the direction which Nature herself has decreed for the expansion of the German peoples.” Hitler, 7/2/1945). The Teutons were of a strongly religious character (they were essentially monk-warriors) and protected Germany from Russian and Slavic enemies. Their code involved dying in battle rather than surrendering (the tradition of Totenritt / “death ride” is widespread). Heinrich Himmler had the Teutons in mind when he formed the SS and transformed them from a small paramilitary wing to the bigger and most powerful Nazi organization. They were his version of the Teutons.
The aircraft that the modern Spartans would use was actually a modified bomb, with the installation of a cockpit to host the pilot. Training started with 70 volunteers, mainly newly drafted. Here, too, the pilot was expected to make an effort to get out of the aircraft, but the placing of the cockpit in the front made the escape plan a fantasy. The volunteers were required to sign a declaration which said:
In the end, the plan was considered to be a waste of lives and resources, and therefore no mission was made by the Leonidas members. Alternatively, a guided bomb was used, which proved inefficient to cause serious damage.
Later, from 17 to 20 April 1945, during the battle of Berlin, pilots of the Leonidas squadron used any craft they would find available and made suicide attacks (“total operations”) to destroy bridges and obstruct the Soviet advances in the capital. The price of 35 pilots was rather high for the miniscule reward of the temporary delay of the Russians.
Hitler in his final days, and after defeat was certain, ordered the Nero operation, according to which the infrastructure of the country would be destroyed by its leadership, so that the Allies would only find scorched earth. Hitler wanted to end it all not with a whimper, but a bang. According to the Teutonic idea of “win or die”, one of his last orders was to flood the underground tunnels that were hosting thousands of German civilians at the time, in order to obstruct the Russian advance. The result was several thousands of Germans dying, not of drowning, since the water level did not exceed one meter, but due to the panic that it caused, with the weaker among them being trampled by the rest. With this action, which many call paranoid, Hitler “punished” his own people that did not stand up to his own expectations and led his country to defeat.
The fascistic regime utilized history and mythology to fanaticize it subjects, placing the war effort in the realms of fantasy and symbolism; and when it saw the end nearing, in the very literal image of enemy bombers, deeming its citizens to be traitors, wanted to take them along with it to its death. As in the case of the Japanese kamikaze, totalitarianism refused to accept defeat and used the more devoted citizens as weapons, sending them to desperate suicide missions, knowing that they had no real chance of changing the outcome of the war.
It is no accident that both Germany and Japan avoid mentioning their suicide pilots. This omission suggests how execrable they themselves think sending soldiers to certain death is (sometimes the best among them) only for a few more meters of land, or for a few obstacles less. Of course, democratic regimes also, in times of war, view the soldier as an expendable resource, and often not the most valuable one. As told by a General calculating the outcome of an impending military operation, in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (adapted from Humphrey Cobb’s book):
This means that 60% of his own soldiers, the general considers an accepted (and certain) loss to take over a hill. The case of the kamikaze, though (and their German counterparts), differs. The French soldiers of the 1st World War in the above excerpt did not have a right to chose. If they refused to carry out the order they were given, they would die from ‘friendly’ fire. And when they made such an attack they had the hope of getting out alive; they probably had no clear view of how improbable that was in such situations. The kamikaze and their Germna counterparts, however, had chosen to participate voluntarily and their death was a certainty. As George Orwell correctly observes in Review of Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler:
These people are the best candidates for supporting fascism; those who still today present themselves with their permanently frowned faces, those who instead of trying to fix the “corrupt system” they want to destroy it completely and replace it with their own broken version.
When the individual is absolutely subjected to the state (the determinant element of totalitarianism), it is not only expected from the regime to sacrifice however many it wants in order to satisfy its purpose, it is the soldier that is expected to self-sacrifice for its sake. The kamikaze pilots were the paragon of the fascist soldier; completely submisive and utterly devoted. And this annoys the defeated fascists. The needless waste of the bravest and ablest shows the untenability of the regime; if they had won they might have praised them as examples for imitation. Because (as Hitler probably said): “If you win you don’t need to explain, and if you lose you are not there to explain.” When the person has no individual substance, when only the mass has a purpose to exist, personality evanesces and a very sinister version of utilitarianism takes over to define thought and action. What’s best for the state is the only thing that matters.
In totalitarianism there are no individuals, there is only the idea of the state.
- Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)