Decorated by both the U.S. and Nazi Germany
By Tom Morrow
Adolf Hitler personally decorated a high-ranking German general with the “Iron Cross,” and after World War II, the general managed to “re-write” history, ending up with a U.S. presidential citation.
Gen. Franz Halder was chief of staff for Nazi Germany beginning in 1937. He met and became a loyal supporter of Adolf Hitler. Later, he participated in the strategic planning for the Sept. 1, 1939 German invasion of Poland, which began World War II.
In 1941, Halder directed the planning and implementation of “Operation Barbarossa,” the infamous Nazi invasion of Russia. Halder’s plan gave German soldiers freedom to execute at will Soviet and Polish citizens, particularly Jews.
During the “Barbarossa” planning, Halder began a dispute with Hitler over strategy. In1942, because of Halder’s objections to the mass slaughter of Poles and Russians, Hitler removed Halder and retired him. In 1944, although he wasn’t involved, the Gestapo arrested Halder after the July 20, failed plot to assassinate Hitler. He was sent to the Dachau concentration camp where the U.S. Army liberated him a year later.
After the War, Halder played a decisive role in the attempted “cleansing” of the Wehrmacht (German armed forces). He served as a lead consultant for the U.S. Army’s “Historical Division.” He oversaw the writing of more than 2,500 “historical” documents, skillfully assisted by some 700 former Nazi officers. Halder instructed them to remove material detrimental to the image of the Wehrmacht.
The U.S. Army overlooked Halder’s rewrite of history because the general had provided valuable “Cold War” intelligence on the Soviet Union. Halder generally succeeded in his aim of exonerating the German Army, first with the U.S. military, then among politicians and eventually the American public. The Poles and Russians, however, remember a different scenario.
In the last days of World War II, together with other special prisoners, Halder was transferred to Bavaria (southern Germany) where he was liberated by U.S. troops. On May 5, 1945 Halder was arrested by the advancing American troops and interned awaiting disposition. He was not part of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. instead, Halder was tried in a German court on charges of aiding the Nazi regime.
Halder denied any knowledge of the Nazi regime’s atrocities and claimed to be outside the decision-making process. The German court found him “not guilty.” Halder then began working for the Americans providing information on the Soviet Union. In spite of attempts, the American command refused to allow a retrial of Halder in German courts.
Halder played a key role in creating the myth of a “clean German army.” It was a false, mythic view, especially of the Nazi-Soviet war in which the German army fought less than a “noble war.”
The cleansing resulted from a memorandum titled “The German Army from 1920 to 1945.” The document was written by Halder at the suggestion of U.S. Gen. William J. Donovan, who later founded the CIA. He viewed the Soviet Union as a global threat to world peace, hence Halder’s “research” became invaluable.
As the Cold War progressed, the U.S. military intelligence provided by the German section of the Army’s Historical Division became increasingly important. Halder oversaw the German section of the research program which became known as the “Halder Group.” His aim was to exonerate the German army from the atrocities they had committed. He sought to distance himself and the German army from Hitler, Nazism and war crimes.
Halder’s work with the historical unit drew to a close at the end of the 1950s, when he received praise from the U.S. Defense Department. Navy RAdm. Walter Ansel, who had worked with Halder, recommended he become an associate of the U.S. Naval Institute. In 1961, Halder was awarded the Meritorious Civilian Service Award for his work by President John F. Kennedy, thus becoming the only German ever to be decorated both by Hitler and by an American president. The praise is in stark contrast with the reality of Halder’s military career and the atrocities for which he was responsible.
Down through the years, Halder has become akin to an “historical icon,” however in their book, “The Myth of the Eastern Front,” historians Ronald Smelser and Edward J. Davies concluded Halder presented a myth which is in stark contrast to reality — in particular, the German army’s atrocities to Polish and Russian citizens during the Eastern Front’s “Operation Barbarossa.”
Halder is an excellent example of how history can be easily rewritten … it all depends on who’s doing the writing. Halder died April 2, 1972, in Bavaria. In many quarters, his “interpretation” of the role played by the German army during the World War II, remains as “history.”
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