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Postwar Iraq Is No Germany, Historians Say

U.S. officials have compared the current insurgency to that of the WWII-era 'Werewolves.'

August 27, 2003|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As violence continues in Iraq, Bush administration officials have increasingly compared the postwar situation there to that of Germany after World War II. In particular, they have likened the guerrilla-type attacks on U.S. forces to actions by the die-hard Nazis known as Werewolves.

"SS officers -- called Werewolves -- engaged in sabotage and attacked both coalition forces and those locals cooperating with them, much like today's Baathist and Fedayeen remnants," national security advisor Condoleezza Rice said in a speech Monday.

But historians and military analysts take issue with that comparison.

"The Werewolves existed more in the idea or the fantasy stage than ever as a real phenomenon," said Lt. Col. Kevin Farrell, a historian at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan.

The Werewolves were founded in September 1944 by SS chief Heinrich Himmler, who saw them as a special force that would work behind U.S. lines to sabotage equipment and kill U.S. troops. About 5,000 SS officers were trained as Werewolves.

But according to Perry Biddiscombe, a historian of postwar Germany who wrote a 1998 book on the Werewolves, the force was designed only to assist the German army in winning the war. It was not created to be an underground movement after a German defeat.

As a result, Biddiscombe said, Rice is correct that the Werewolves attacked U.S. troops -- but the only documented assaults took place before the Nazis capitulated on May 7, 1945.

"After the end of the war there's a lot more ambiguity," said Biddiscombe, who teaches European history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada.

One reason for that ambiguity is that a few days before the Nazi surrender, the SS officially disbanded the Werewolves. But in the last month of the war, as Germany collapsed, Nazi radio propaganda called on Germans to take up arms to resist the occupying forces. Members of the Hitler Youth vowed to join the Werewolves in attacking Allied troops, and some other Germans who resisted after the surrender adopted the term "Werewolves" to describe themselves.

In addition, the U.S. Army warned American GIs about the danger posed by the Werewolves, contributing to their mythology, said Volker Berghahn, a professor of German history at Columbia University. This was enhanced by the fear that Nazi units would retreat to the Alps, build a redoubt and refuse to surrender.

"There was a lot of talk before the end of the war, especially within the Army, about underground units, fanatical Nazis who would hold out and commit sabotage and snipe at U.S. soldiers. But when it actually came to the point, there was some resistance -- but it was not Werewolf resistance," Berghahn said.

The most notorious documented Werewolf attack was the assassination of the mayor of the town of Aachen before the end of the war -- on March 25, 1945. The perpetrators were tried by U.S. authorities for the crime, Biddiscombe said.

But there was never an attack on the scale of last week's bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, in which 23 people died, including the head of the U.N. mission.

Tom Schlesinger, a retired Army major and professor at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire who served in Army intelligence in occupied Germany, described the Werewolves as "almost a deliberate urban myth."

"I was in Germany all through the surrender and, although at lower rank, had access to all classified intelligence distribution as part of the occupation security force," Schlesinger said. "The Werewolf story turned out to be mostly a hoax, perhaps some wishful thinking of a few SS officers, though it caused us a few inconveniences due to the phony alerts."

It's possible, Biddiscombe said, that some isolated Werewolf cells or officers may have continued to operate for a few months after the war. Guerrilla-style attacks did take place against U.S. soldiers -- wires strung across roads to decapitate soldiers or sand poured in gas tanks, for example -- and there were several suspicious deaths of U.S.-appointed mayors. In some towns, leaflets and posters threatened Germans who cooperated with the U.S. occupiers. But none of that activity can be directly attributed to the Werewolves, historians say.

"The Army put bars on jeeps to prevent decapitation by wires, but that was the only action taken by the Army," said Farrell. "There's very little evidence of the Werewolves offering effective resistance."

Moreover, historians say, the comparison between postwar Germany and postwar Iraq is questionable because of the scale of events taking place now in Iraq.

In particular, the rate of attacks against U.S. occupation forces in Germany was lower than is the case in Iraq.

There were about 1 million U.S. troops in occupied Germany -- a territory slightly smaller than Iraq -- compared with nearly 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

For the first month or two after the Nazis' surrender, there were about the same number of sabotage and sniper attacks in Germany as in postwar Iraq. But in Germany, such attacks dropped off after June 1945, a month after the surrender, and for the rest of that year deaths of U.S. troops subsided to "tens," historians said.

"Certainly, there weren't American troops dying at the rate that they are in Iraq," Biddiscombe said.

Another difference is the alleged involvement by foreign fighters and international terrorists in the violence against U.S. forces in Iraq.

"You can't compare the Werewolves to the Baathists in Iraq, because the Werewolves would not have had any outside support," said Geoffrey Megargee, a historian with the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

In the end, historians say, the Werewolves had far more bark than bite.

"The movement was a dismal failure," Farrell said.

"The fear of them was much greater than the actions that actually took place."

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