Wake Up America: Reminders From Times When Men Failed To Listen And Act
Hitler's Former Bodyguard Rochus Misch Is The Last Survivor Of Hitler's Bunker
By Steven Rosenberg
BBC News, Berlin
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At his living room table, 92-year-old Rochus Misch shows me some of his old photo albums. Private pictures he had taken more than 60 years ago. There are colour images of Mr Misch in an SS uniform at Adolf Hitler's home in the Alps, snapshots of Hitler staring at rabbits, and photos of Hitler's mistress and future wife Eva Braun.
For five years, SS Oberscharfuehrer Rochus Misch had been part of Adolf Hitler's inner circle, as a bodyguard, a courier and telephone operator to the Fuehrer.
"My first meeting with Hitler was rather strange," Mr Misch recalls. "I'd been in the job 12 days when Hitler's chief adjutant, a man called Bruckner, started asking me questions about my grandmother, about my childhood.
"Then he got up and walked towards the door. Being an obedient soldier, I flung myself forward to open it, and there was Hitler standing right behind the door. I felt cold. Then I felt hot. I felt every emotion standing there opposite Hitler.
"In the Fuehrer's entourage, strictly speaking, we were bodyguards," says Mr Misch. "When Hitler was travelling, between four and six of us would accompany him in a second car. But when we were at Hitler's apartment in the Chancellery we also had other duties. Two of us would always work as telephone operators. With a boss like Hitler, there were always plenty of phone calls."
With the Allies advancing and Germany on the brink of defeat, Hitler retreated to his Berlin bunker. Rochus Misch was the telephone operator there.
"I worked in a small room with a telephone and teletype machine with outside lines," he remembers.
"There was only enough room to shelter one extra person in my room in the event of an air raid. The bunker really wasn't that big. It contained small rooms of only 10 to 12 square metres."
Rochus Misch is the last survivor of the Hitler bunker. He is the final witness of the drama that took place there on 30 April 1945. It was the day Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide.
"Suddenly I heard somebody shouting to Hitler's attendant: 'Linge, Linge, I think it's happened.' They'd heard a gunshot, but I hadn't. At that moment Martin Bormann, Hitler's private secretary, ordered everyone to be silent. Everyone began whispering. I was speaking on the telephone and I made sure I talked louder on purpose because I wanted to hear something. I didn't want it to feel like we were in a death bunker.
"Then Bormann ordered Hitler's door to be opened. I saw Hitler slumped with his head on the table. Eva Braun was lying on the sofa, with her head towards him. Her knees were drawn tightly up to her chest. She was wearing a dark blue dress with white frills. I will never forget it.
"I watched as they wrapped Hitler up. His legs were sticking out as they carried him past me. Someone shouted to me: 'Hurry upstairs, they're burning the boss!' I decided not to go because I had noticed that Mueller from the Gestapo was there - and he was never usually around. I said to my comrade Hentschel, the mechanic: 'Maybe we will be killed for being the last witnesses.'"
The next day the drama continued. Down in the bunker, the six children of Germany's new leader - Joseph Goebbels - were drugged and murdered. It was their own mother Magda who killed them.
"Straight after Hitler's death, Mrs Goebbels came down to the bunker with her children," Mr Misch recalls. "She started preparing to kill them. She couldn't have done that above ground - there were other people there who would have stopped her. That's why she came downstairs - because no-one else was allowed in the bunker. She came down on purpose to kill them.
"The kids were right next to me and behind me. We all knew what was going to happen. It was clear. I saw Hitler's doctor, Dr Stumpfegger give the children something to drink. Some kind of sugary drink. Then Stumpfegger went and helped to kill them. All of us knew what was going on. An hour or two later, Mrs Goebbels came out crying. She sat down at a table and began playing patience."
Mr Misch fled Hitler's bunker just hours before it was seized by the Red Army. But he was Quickly captured and spent the next nine years in Soviet labour camps. The captured "Fuehrerbunker" became a symbol of the Allies' victory in World War II.
Two months after the end of the war, Winston Churchill visited it. He posed for photos outside, sitting on a chair recovered from the shelter. In later years, the bunker was blown up to stop it becoming a Nazi shrine.
At the end of our conversation, I ask Rochus Misch whether he knew of the horrors that Adolf Hitler had unleashed across Europe. Did he know about the Holocaust?
"I knew about Dachau camp and about concentration camps in general," he tells me. "But I had no idea of the scale. It wasn't part of our conversations. The Nuremberg Trial dealt with crimes committed by the Germans. But you must remember there was never a war when crimes weren't committed, and there never will be."
Britain declared war on Nazi Germany exactly 70 years ago today. What are your memories of the day? What did you or your relatives do in the war? Do you or your family have any inspirational wartime stories? Are you doing anything to mark the anniversary? Tell us your experiences here .
"Wake Up, America, Peekskill Did!"
Thursday, September 03, 2009
By Mark Roessler
Peekskill rioters pose proudly in front of their handiwork
On September 4, 1949, 60 years ago this Labor Day weekend, as they were leaving an outdoor holiday concert, the folk singers who wrote "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and "This Land is Your Land" were part of a crowd ambushed by an angry mob.
The attack was premeditated and organized. The concertgoers and musicians leaving the performance area were diverted down a four-mile-long country lane lined on either side by steep embankments. Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were riding in a Jeep, along with Seeger's wife and his young family. As the cars began to leave in single file, the mob uncovered piles of baseball-sized stones they'd collected at the top of the hillsides and began hurling them down at the cars. Other rioters used clubs and their bare fists. With all other exits blocked, the cars had no where else to go. The local police on hand laughed when asked to help and told the victims to move along. The next morning a burning cross was found on the fairgrounds where the folk singers had performed.
Though these events foreshadowed America's civil rights movement, they didn't happen south of the Mason-Dixon line. While many of the rioters screamed anti-communist slogans and many historians agree the battle helped pave the way for Senator McCarthy's political witch hunts, it wasn't a particularly conservative region where blood was spilled.
The attacks happened in Peekskill, N.Y., a small industrial city on the Hudson River, just north of Manhattan and a couple hours from the Pioneer Valley.
A week prior to the Labor Day concert and riots, Seeger's newly formed organization, People's Artists, had booked another concert at the Lakeland Picnic Grounds. This show was stopped by violent unrest before it ever got started.
It was going to be a benefit for performer Paul Robeson's Civil Rights Congress. Robeson was a film and stage actor as well as a lawyer, writer and orator, but by 1949 he had begun to focus his energies on becoming a political artist. He used his basso profundo voice to sing songs against racism and fascism. He was both an African American and a socialist who considered himself a friend of the Soviets.
Robeson had performed in Peekskill before without incident, but world events and his own politics converged to set the stage for hostility. That year, the Russians tested their first hydrogen bomb and Mao Zedong's Communist Party had taken over China. While attending the World Peace Conference in Paris, Robeson gave an interview to the Associated Press in which he said, "It is unthinkable that American Negroes will go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations...against a country (the Soviet Union) which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind."
There had already been growing embers of suspicion and hatred toward American communism and proponents of the civil rights movement; Robeson's statement fanned the flames into a blaze.
Weeks before the concert, Louis Johnson, Truman's Secretary of Defense, made a speech to the Peekskill chapter of the American Legion emphasizing the threat communism now posed. "We will build our ramparts so strong that no aggressor will dare attack us," he was reported as saying in the city's newspaper, the Evening Star. Referring to the two world wars, the paper went on to editorialize: "Twice in our lifetime we have had peace within our hands and twice we lost it. If we make the same mistake the third time it may be our last chance. ... We can have peace... but only if we are prepared to fight for it. Now that we are fully awake, we are grimly determined that history shall not repeat itself."
When the concert was announced, the paper noted Robeson was "violently and loudly pro-Russian." It continued, "The time for tolerant silence that signifies approval is running out." Some readers apparently recognized an opportunity to test their patriotic, commie-hating mettle.
Howard Fast, the author of Spartacus, was to be the concert's master of ceremonies. He arrived early to make certain the sound and lights were ready, and though there had been some concern about trouble, up until about an hour before the concert, everything had gone as planned and was quiet. In his memoir, Being Red, he recounted the first glimmers of trouble:
"A boy running. I watched as he came in sight around the bend of the road, running frantically, and then we crowded around him and he told us there was trouble and would some of us come—because the trouble looked bad; he was frightened too.
"We started back with him. There were twenty-five or thirty of us, I suppose.... I thought that this would be no more than foul names and fouler insults. So we ran on up to the entrance, and as we appeared, they poured onto us from the road, at least a hundred of them with billies and brass knuckles and rocks and clenched fists, and American Legion caps, and suddenly my disbelief was washed away in a wild melee."
As their wives and children watched in terror, Fast and a few dozen men and boys fought a crowd of hundreds for several hours. Instead of stopping the vicious melee, police parked outside the concert grounds. When Seeger arrived with his mother to perform, an officer at the entrance to the park told him the show had been cancelled, and the musician returned home, not knowing that his friends and colleagues were fighting for their lives a few hundred yards away. News reporters watched the action impassively, taking photographs as people were stabbed and beaten. Agents from the Department of Justice took notes and watched as the rioters yelled, "We'll finish Hitler's job! Fuck you white niggers! Give us Robeson! We'll string that big nigger up!"
This first attack ended around 10 at night, when the rioters finally broke into the concert grounds and began stacking the wooden chairs into a pile. Fast described the scene: "A chair went on fire, and then another and another, and then a whole pile of the chairs. Then they discovered our table of books and pamphlets.... Standing there, arms linked, we watched the Nuremberg memory come alive again. The fire roared up and the defenders of the 'American way of life' seized piles of our books and danced around the blaze, flinging books into the fire as they danced."
In the glow of the bonfire, the Department of Justice agents finally abandoned their aloof neutrality and offered to help take the seriously injured (of which there were many) to the hospital.
In the aftermath, the local district attorney, George Fanelli, blamed the violence on the musicians and audience for showing up where they weren't wanted. When Seeger and others sent the governor a telegram urging him to investigate, he put Fanelli in charge as his neutral observer.
Robeson, who had been warned of the violence and hadn't been present for the first riot, would not be cowed and wanted a second chance to perform. The Civil Rights Congress held a huge rally in Harlem days after the attack, and Robeson declared, "If the police won't protect the audience, we will protect ourselves."
A second concert was announced for the next weekend on Labor Day at a location a half-mile from the scene of the previous week's violence. Local union leaders and the heads of the American Communist Party vowed to support Robeson and the other artists. Veterans' groups promised a counterdemonstration. The directors of People's Artists sought an injunction against the counterdemonstration, but the judge reviewing the request dismissed it, saying, "I don't know why you think the veterans are going to disobey the law."
The morning of the second concert, 2,500 union men (many of them also veterans) created a human wall around the concert ground protecting it. Robeson and the other performers were all provided volunteer body guards. Police from all over the state were called in to keep the peace. Between 15,000 and 20,000 audience members filled the open air arena, and the concert started at around three in the afternoon, just as the counterdemonstration was scheduled to end. Seeger and Guthrie warmed up the crowd, each with brief sets, and then Robeson performed. Just over an hour later, the concert ended peacefully and people began to head home. Despite the careful planning of security for the event, the artists had no exit strategy. Unfortunately, the rioters did.
According to Seeger's biography, How Can I Keep from Singing?, by David King Dunaway, Seeger first tried to take the most direct route to his home, but the police insisted everyone head down the narrow lane where the ambush awaited them.
"We hadn't gone a hundred yards from the gate when I saw glass on the road," Seeger said. "And in my innocence I said to my family, 'Hey, watch out, they may be throwing stones at us.' Hell, I had no idea how well organized it was. Around the next corner was a guy with a pile of stones, waist high.... As the cars came by, four or five feet away, wham! Around the next corner was another group with another pile of stones."
Police attacked drivers with their nightsticks, sometimes demanding the victims get out of their cars, and then proceeding to beat them to the ground. Seeger saw one officer standing with his arms crossed, and outraged, the musician stopped his car and demanded the policeman do something. The trooper took a step backwards and told him to move on. "I look around and the guy [in the car behind me] is getting it. Because I'm stopped, he's got to stop. And he's getting stone after stone right through his window. So I moved on."
A friend of Seeger's, Mario Cassetta, who was in the back seat, remembers, "We got to the end of the run and there was a clearing. We stopped. Some people were sitting. We asked, 'Do you know the nearest hospital?' And they all started laughing and cackling. Cackling. I remember one woman rocking back and forth slapping her knees, like she'd heard a good joke.... All the way into the Bronx—more than twenty miles—you could see the injured, a long bloody alley."
Though there were no deaths, the emergency rooms across Westchester County were filled, and many of the injuries were permanently debilitating. Years later, Seeger learned from the son of one of the police officers that the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan had worked with the police to orchestrate the attacks. No arrests were ever made, and the governor instead commended the police for their excellent work.
For about a month after the riots, the city where they had occurred was wallpapered with posters, signs and bumper stickers that read, "Wake Up, America, Peekskill Did!" And then, suddenly, they disappeared.
In a recent interview with Majora Carter for The Nation, Seeger explained what he thought had happened. "It seems that in Europe, they were horrified," he said. "They said those were the same signs that went up after Kristallnacht." This was another coordinated attack that had happened 11 years earlier in Germany when 91 Jews were killed and tens of thousands more were sent to concentration camps. The event became a Nazi rallying point, Seeger pointed out: "Hitler said, 'Wake up, Germany, Munich did: throw stones at all the Jewish shopkeepers.'"
With the world wondering whether America was turning fascist, apparently those responsible for the violence thought twice about what they'd done, and decided to try and forget what had happened.
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