Often lost to the writing of the histories of war are the individual stories of those who lived and worked unseen in the machinery of the state, such as the members of the Bund Deutscher Mädel (BDM), or League of German Girls, the female version of the Hitler Youth.
There are always more memories and anecdotes to reveal, and these are not limited to wartime. In addition, during my research I have hoped to learn how these young girls fared after 1945, and whether what they had experienced had blighted their lives.
I uncovered some very mixed emotions. Many members of the BDM survived the war, but many were left with the emotional scars having suffered rape, abuse or beatings at the hands of their liberators.
Over the tentative years that followed many rebuilt their lives experiencing mixed fortunes in the Germany that emerged from the ashes of the Second World War.
Following is the account of just one of the former members of the BDM, it is also one of the most emotional and troubling interviews I have ever conducted. Weiner Katte recounted her experiences as a 15-year-old member of the BDM in Aachen, the first major German city to fall to the Allies after the D-Day invasions of 1944.
In 2005, Wiener sat down with me in London to tell the final piece of her remarkable story:
“It was not all doom and gloom, not in the beginning. In the BDM we were like a community of very close sisters. We had gone through our childhoods together, through school together and here we were now in the Hitler Youth together, with our country at war.
I recall some wonderful times. We would have a summer camp, a week out in the forest where we girls learned all sorts of new skills.
In the mornings we would be roused from our tents where up to six of us had slept the night, we would go to the lake to swim, then we would exercise, salute the German flag, have our breakfast then go out into the forest on a march where we would sing patriotic songs as we went.
We had to absorb the Nazi party politics and had to remember all important party days. On Hitler’s birthday we would take part in a large parade wearing uniforms and carrying banners. This was considered an honour at that time.”
“Things changed drastically from 1943, when the Americans began strategic bombing of our cities. School would be interrupted to the point where it was just too dangerous to go outside. I recall the sound of the air raid sirens and how we were told what we should do and where to go to.
After a while seeing death and destruction became normal to us.
In October of 1944 the war arrived in all its fury. Aachen was effectively barricaded by the German forces into what was known as a ‘Festungs’ (Fortress city). The city was bombed from the air and the Americans fired artillery which landed all over the city.
The Hitler Youth was mobilized into many duties. I was called up by one of the garrison officers who showed me a map of the city. He asked me “do you know where this place is” or “do you know where that place is”? I told him “yes I did but why was he asking me”? He explained that he had lost a number of message runners to American sniper fire over the past two weeks.
He surmised that maybe if they sent a girl wearing normal civilian clothes the enemy would be reluctant to shoot.
I agreed and, after studying the map and working out a route, I took the messages, folded them in half and put them in the inside of my coat. I used the underpasses, alleyways and sometimes sewerage networks to get around the city.
Sometimes there was heavy shelling and I had to stop to take cover but I carried out several message runs until the last week or so of the battle for the city, when I was told to report to the medical aid post. It was there I assisted doctors with amputating legs and arms, treating non serious injuries such as cuts and breaks and comforting civilians who had been injured or had lost children to artillery fire or bombs.
I was very good with first aid having learned much with the BDM, and I was not troubled by the sight of blood or injuries.
I recall a young woman arriving at the aid post carrying the body of her little girl. I examined the child and found it had a steel shell splinter embedded in the left side of its head and she had been dead for some time. I had to use all my strength to comfort the woman and get her to hand me her child’s body for later burial.”
The end of the war
“When my war ended it happened in a blur, before American tanks and troops broke through into our sector, they shelled the area. I saw an old woman blown to pieces by a shell as she shuffled across the road. She had only come out of a cellar to hand me two stale biscuits and a small cup of milk.
I felt a surge of nausea and strange sense of extreme fatigue and I fell to my knees. I was aware of green painted vehicles pulling up with big white stars on them, lots of shouting too.
I looked up and saw a bayonet on the end of an American rifle pointing directly at my face. He was just a young man maybe 19 or 20 I don’t know. I looked up at him, placed my fingers around the blade of his bayonet and moved it away from my face saying to him “nein,nein” (no, no). I reassured him with a smile that I meant him no harm.”
Wiener Katte was later awarded two medals albeit in an unofficial capacity by one of the German garrison officers.
Wiener was handed a brown envelope containing the Iron Cross Second Class and War merit Cross Second Class (without swords) with a pencil written note. He thanked her for helping to save the lives of his men and the people of the city of Aachen, and asked that she accept these awards with his gratitude as now their war was over and he may not be able to have the awards officially recognised.
Wiener never wore her medals and she gave them to me as keepsakes at the close of my last interview with her in 2005.
Born in to a military family, Tim Heath’s interest in history led him to research the air war of the Second World War, focussing on the German Luftwaffe and writing extensively for The Armourer Magazine. During the course of his research he has worked closely with the German War Graves Commission at Kassel, Germany, and met with German families and veterans alike. Born out of this work, Tim has written several books about women in Germany under the Third Reich including ‘In Hitler’s Shadow-Post War Germany and the Girls of the BDM‘ for Pen and Sword.