Flensburg: 23 May, 1945

German Naval Academy in Flensburg: Once part of the last Nazi stronghold in 1945
German Naval Academy in Flensburg: Once part of the last Nazi stronghold in 1945

Flensburg: 23 May, 1945. The war in the European theater was officially over. Hitler and Goebbels, along with many of his followers were dead. After signing the agreement of unconditional surrender of the German armies in northwestern Europe to British Field General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery near Hamburg on May 4th and Nazi Colonel General Alfred Jodl agreed to unconditional surrender to US General Dwight Eisenhower three days later at Rheims (France), millions of Europeans celebrated V-E Day, as Nazi Germany became no more.

Or was it?

On this day, 70 years ago, the last pocket of the Nazi government surrendered to British forces stationed in Flensburg, Germany. Jack Churcher had installed his post in the southern part of the city center at Norderhofendem 1, and British troops had taken control of the northernmost city in Germany. In comparison to other cities, Flensburg sustained minimal damage, and much of the city’s population was well-fed and dressed. They were for the most part aware that the war was coming to an end, and according to historian, Gerhard Paul in an interview with the SHZ Newspaper Group, “It was a matter of time before this absurd came to an end.” With the British troops entering Flensburg, the Nazi era had come to an end.

All except for the suburb of Mürwik, located on the eastern end of the harbor.

There, a small area in the suburb, extending for six kilometers and including the Naval Academy, was still under de facto Nazi control. Admiral Karl Dönitz had assumed power as the German president after Adolf Hitler and Josef Goebbels committed suicide on 30 April- 1 May, 1945.  Realizing that the war was lost, he and his remaining government officials fled the oncoming Soviet troops to Flensburg to set up a government there. The goal was to get as many fleeing German troops out of Berlin and out of reach of the Soviet troops and eventually broker terms of surrender to the western allies of the US, Britain and France. Originally they wanted to defend what was left of Nazi Germany, but they lacked the manpower and the ammunition for the efforts. After securing the agreements, it was a matter of time before the enclavement would be revealed, and the rest of the Nazi regime would surrender. Yet how they held out for so long until this date, the 23rd remains a mystery. Yet, as seen in the film produced by Pathé, soldiers of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, were in for a surprise when they found out not only how many people were holed up in Mürwik but who held out until the very end:

This leads to two main questions that are worth discussing:

  1. Why did Dönitz and his government wait for so long until they were discovered by British troops and were arrested? Could they not have surrendered to Churcher?

  2. As Dönitz claimed to have power in Germany, even after the agreements were signed and the war ended, would it not have made sense to declare 23 May as V-E Day and the end of Nazi Germany instead of May 8th?

Perhaps these questions will be speculated for a long time and may never be answered, but for Albert Speer, the architect of Hitler’s who received 20 years of prison time, “Flensburg was considered only the stage for the Third Reich, but nothing more than that.”  But why the town of Flensburg, of all the places Dönitz could have chosen? Was it an escape route for him and his people to flee the country through Denmark and the seas? Were there that many people sympathizing with the Third Reich, even though numbers indicate much lower support? Was it because of the navy, the rum, the beer? We may never know….

Today, Flensburg is a thriving city with many multi-cultural aspects. It still has the largest number of Danish people living there, along with many from other countries, even some from the US, Britain and Russia. The Naval Academy is still in business, and the city prides itself with its handball team, rum, beer, and other northern delecacies. But this 70-year old scar still remains, even if the city survived almost entirely unscathed by the war.  Time always has a way of healing, yet memories still remain, even on this day, when Dönitz and his men were arrested for their crimes, of holding the city (and in particular, one of the suburbs) hostage despite the war being over, and were brought to justice. This, in my eyes, was the real end of the European theater of World War II, and with that, a chapter in history we must never repeat again, period.


Note: Check out this documentary on the Flensburg Fiasco in German, as reported by SHZ, here. It was the last of the series written on the 70th anniversary of the End of World War II. A guide to earlier articles you find on the SHZ web, here.

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Gandhi’s Letter

This week’s Literature/Genre of the Week takes us back to World War II and many failed attempts to avoid it- in particular, many failed attempts to keep a tyrant from conducting one of (if not the) most heinous crimes against humanities to date.  There are a lot of interesting facts that have appeared recently about Adolf Hitler, who ruled Germany from 1933 until his suicide in 1945. This includes the top 10 from a news source in India (see article here.) He was one of the greatest orators of all time, but one who was obsessed with strategies of how to conquer Europe and the rest of the world. He was the most feared in the eyes of many politicians in other countries, who tried to appease him at any cost, pleading with him not to start the war machine at a time when the majority of the world was in the worst economic depression of all time. Many letters were written to him asking him to reconsider.

This included the one written by a peace activitist.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (known throughout the world as Mahatma Gandhi) was a peace activist who first led a movement to ease restrictions the British Empire had imposed on its colonial state, India, but later led a non-violent movement called “Quit India,” demanding Indian independence from the British Commonwealth and rejecting Indian involvement in World War II, both of which were successful. India obtained its independence in 1947 in spite the violence that accompanied it, setting the stage for the break-up of the empire that occurred in Africa and Asia over the course of 35 years. Known as “The Father of India,” a national holiday in India, combined with the international day of non-violence, takes place every year on October 2nd, Gandhi’s birthday.

Gandhi was known for his non-violence movements and his staunch criticism of World War II, arguing against the use of force to put down the regimes of Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Italy, claiming that if so and through self-sacrifice, the death toll would not have been as high as it was. Although this was met with heavy criticism among western nations and the Jewish community, some of the points made were worth considering for World War II was one of the most destructive wars on record, with up to 75% of the cities destroyed and as many German lives being lost as those from the Holocaust This does not include the loss of life among soldiers outside Germany. The war is still considered by many in Germany a delicate topic to discuss because it eventually reshaped Germany and the rest of the European landscape, veering away from empires and tyrannies and embracing the principles of democracy initiated by the United States as the new superpower and its allies when the war ended in 1945.

Yet Gandhi was also aware of the actions of Hitler and attempted to persuade him to change his mind with a letter he wrote to the dictator, explaining the effects of starting the war in Europe. This was what he wrote, as read by Clarke Peters at the BBC Studios in London:



Written in 1939, the letter never arrived in Berlin and subsequentially, World War II started with the German invasion of Poland on 2 September, 1939. It lasted until 7 May, 1945 but not before leaving a scar that will never go away, but will always be remembered for years to come. Gandhi never lived to see a new German democratic state and a socialist state, for he was assasinated on 30 January, 1948. West Germany was created out of the regions occupied by the US, Great Britain and France on 23 May, 1949. The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was formed on 7 October, 1949. It would be another 41 years until Germany was reunited in 1990. Yet the question still remains: what would have happened, had Gandhi’s letter arrived in Berlin and Hitler had a chance to read it? Would he have reconsidered or would he have ignored it? While history scholars will refute over one claim or another, the answer remains the same: we will never know.


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A Tribute to Günter Grass


This week’s Genre of the Week, presented by the Files that is in connection with English and life in Germany, had to take a moment of pause- and for a good reason. Germany lost a literary great yesterday (13 April, 2015)- a controversial one but one of the key pillars representing literature in modern German history after 1945, and one who will have his place in the top 20 of all German writing greats. In its place, the Files would like to pay homage to this particular writer, who passed away peacefully in Lübeck at the age of 87.

Günter Grass was one of the very first literary greats I was introduced to in my college German classes at my alma mater, Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, when I studied German in the late 1990s. At that time I was taken aback because I had expected the teachers to introduce more popular German literary greats that we could associate ourselves with German culture and history, such as Erich Kästner, the Grimm brothers, and Wolfgang Goethe. But on hindsight, the decision of bringing him in the limelight was perhaps the best ones the teachers ever made, for Mr. Grass represented one of the children rising from the ashes of the fallen National Socialist Reich, one of many who engineered the reinvention of the Bundesrepublik through his writing and participation in discussions on the political and literary platforms, and one of many who through his experiences in his youth during the Nazi era and subsequentially, World War II, as well as a young man who was part of the reconstruction process in Germany, brought forth many lessons from Germany’s past that we, as the majority of a fast-moving society- have remembered some but forgotten the rest.

This includes the establishment and reestablishment of a nation and its effects on its people, as he described in his Danzig Trilogy, a set of novels built from 1959 to 1963 and whose book Tin Drum was converted into a film in 1979. Danzig was his place of birth and childhood, and Grass’ books looked at how the rise and fall of the Third Reich and Hitler’s tyranny brought out the worst among his people, splitting families into two (pro-Nazi vs pro-Slavic) and persecuting the minority, thus producing the scar of guilt that still lingers today, years after he wrote his works. Grass himself was initially opposed to German reunification fearing that a unified country would dominate the European landscape, thus rekindling German fears that he had experienced while growing up in Danzig.

Yet when talking about the reestablishment of the country, it does not come with obstacles that the people faced during this phase, as Grass wrote about in his books on My Century and Crabwalk. There, he described the persecutions that happened to the Germans after World War II as the country was being rebuilt. The historic fiction written in the two books were based on Grass’ experience and spurned discussions on the German question, where people were split up between those wanting to leave Germany behind and those who want to rebuild Germany and reinvent the country’s image, walking away from the nightmares of the past that happened during the Third Reich. This platform on the reinvention and recreation of Germany was later used in several films whose plot took place after 1945. Among them include  a German film released in 2013 entitled Schicksaljahre, a story about a family torn apart by The Third Reich and World War II, and was forced to rebuild after the war ended.

But despite all the stories he wrote about Germany, especially after the war, Grass left us with an important question worth considering: How can we cope with the past while ensuring that the mistakes we made in life will never happen again- both from the same individual as well as by passing it on to others to repeat them? This is a question that will never be answered in its entirety for our lives are based on our raw talents and abilities. We keep making changes in order to make something as perfect as possible, only to find that once the finished product is completed, it still contains the imperfections that will surface and never change. Being raw has its advantages, where we find a way to create and make perfect but we never reach this perfection. This was something Grass mentions about in his interview conducted in 2013 (which you can see below as well), as he talks about how his literary works were considered raw and how he rigorously made changes, big and small, even when the manuscript was about to go to the press. The same mentality applied to his artwork, for he was a painter and produced many paintings and drawings on the side, some of which received many accolades for the work.

In the end, despite the controversies he had, especially with regards to his role as a Nazi soldier in his youth and his frigid relations with Israel, Günter Grass was considered a protocol of his time, showing the readers life in Germany during the darkest times and afterwards, but also showing them that Germany was anything but a savage state, as many people considered the country after the war and for many years prior to 1989. Germany, in his view, was a country like any other country- a raw state going through the developments after the war in order for it to be like the other states. At the same time, he saw that even though Germans affected by the tyranny of Hitler and the affects of the war felt the guilt of their country and what happened during the war and with the Holocaust, they had a chance to rebuild from the ground up and over time, walked away and embraced the future. Germany’s past will not be forgotten, but its development into the state it is today is still being remembered and admired by many. And with that I must say, Grass will be missed as one of the founding fathers of modern German literature, with a Nobel Peace Prize in his hand and definitely a standing ovation from the other literary greats awaiting him above. That is after getting honored by many who knew him through his works here.

In honoring Günter Grass, the Files has a collection of videos for you to watch, many of which are in German, except the interview has English subtitles. The interview includes his views on social networking versus talking to people, which is worth interesting to watch and think about. The aforementioned example films Der Blechtrommel (read by the author) and Schicksaljahre (starring Maria Furtwängler) are included as well:

Interview in 2013:



Der Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) Listening (in German)

English Version:

Günter Grass and his Distaste towards Facebook and Technology:

Schicksaljahre  (EN: The Years of Mystery)

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In School in Germany: Immigration

Here’s a question for all teachers in the German school system and social studies/ history  teachers in the American schools:  How much do you teach your pupils about the history of immigrants- in particular, German immigrants?  How do you approach this topic in terms of teaching method, focusing on a time period in history as well as garnering interest in the topic? And lastly, how much information do/can you provide to your group?

As you recalled a couple articles ago, I presented you with some questions about this particular topic for you to answer, to challenge yourself and learn a couple new items that you have never heard about before.  But this article is about German immigration in general and how important it is that this topic is integrated into the learning curriculum.

Many years ago, I visited Ellis Island, during my 1.5 week stay in New York City, to learn more about this topic and how Germans represented one of the majorities of the population that moved to the new world. Part of this had to do with the fact that my mother’s family is primarily German, originating from Schleswig-Holstein (and in particular, Stein near Kiel, according to genealogy research). Also important was the fact that prior to my trip, I had discovered,  in my parents’ garage, a trunk and on it, the maiden name of my mom’s ancestors that had immigrated to the United States in 1898 and eventually settled down on a farm south of Ellsworth, at  the Minnesota-Iowa border. This sparked my interest in knowing more about how Germans immigrated to the US, the reasons behind their strive towards something new and how they survived over there (and are still prospering today).

Ellis Island. Both photos taken by boat in 1997

The immigration wave of the Germans started in the 1840s before the Great Revolution of 1848. At that time, much of Europe, which featured the Habsburgs (The Austro-Hungarian Empire), Prussia, Russia and France had their own set of oligarchs who favored the church and the powerful over the common people. With violent clashes over food and poverty, plus the strive to put an end to this type of rule in favor of democracy, many of the immigrants boarded ships bound for the States and after several stops along the way, settled down in regions in today’s Rust Belt (the former steel regions extending from Illinois to Pennsylvania), as well as parts of the Midwest, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and North Dakota. Much of their traditions, including their food, such as the hamburger and sauerkraut, the German language and its usage in literature and books, and even the villages were named after those from Prussia and Habsburg. Over 400 villages and towns were created with German city names, like Frankfort, Hamburg, Hannover, Berlin, and the like. Even some of the smaller towns in Germany had their names incorporated in the US, such as Flensburg, Schleswig, Lubeck, Kiel, Weimar, Jena and Trier. There was even the city of Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota that was named after Otto von Bismarck, the founding father of Germany, which was established in 1871. German culture prospered until World War I when President Wilson declared war on Germany in 1917 after a telegram was intercepted promising Mexico portions of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California if it entered World War I against the US.  For a period of three years, German culture was suppressed in a way that all traditions and even the usage of the language was prohibited.  Literary works by Schiller and Goethe were banned. The hamburger was renamed Liberty Steak; the sauerkraut, Liberty Cabbage. The Germans were perceived as evil in the eyes of many other immigrants, including the Italians, Irishmen and Russians, and conflicts broke out as a result.

After the war was over and the Versailles Treaty was signed, immigration to the US was limited because of the Red Scare- the Communist movement that had plagued Europe and parts of the US since the Bolshevist Revolution of 1917. Germans tried to escape the misery their country was facing, first through the hyperinflation during the Weimar Republic and later with the rise of Adolph Hitler but were faced with limitations both internally as well as externally. It would not be until after the second World War when the gates were reopened wide and many who wanted to leave and had the resources did.

Today, traces of German culture can be found in the US through foreign languages in public schools, the foods which have become somewhat commercialized, like the beer and hamburger, and the communities that still bear the German names. Some festivals can still be found in those communities, like the Oktoberfest in New Ulm in Minnesota.  Yet do we talk much about immigration in the schools?  Sadly, I have to say no.


We seem to have drifted away from topics like this one because of the strive to streamline education at the expense of the most important ones, like history, culture and politics. Foreign languages have also taken a hit, as schools in the United States are focusing solely on Spanish while leaving the rest behind- something that is angering the neighbors to the north, Canada, where French is the official second language behind English. While business and technology are two important elements needed to get a well-paying job, other aspects, like the ones mentioned, are just as important for they provide students with an insight to other countries and their culture and history.  Looking at it from a historian’s point of view, taking these humanity aspects seriously can enable the student to learn about him/herself and the surroundings and identify him/herself based on their own family history and how it contributed to the history of their countries.
Yet even when we discuss about humanities, like history and culture, in schools, we seem to have left out the meat of the topics for discussion. Reason for that are the limitations with regards to the subjects to be taught for certain grades- both in Germany, as well as in the USA. The time constraints regarding how and when to teach these subjects have forced many teachers to prioritize which subjects are important and which ones should be left out. Unfortunately, those that are left out are usually not taught unless in academia, if at all.

Immigration is one of those aspects that should be brought to the table at an early stage. There are many reasons for this argument, but I will mention only two, as they are the most important in my opinion. The first is immigration is like a bridge, connecting one’s old home with their new home. People who immigrated to other countries collected many impressions and stories to share with their relatives and friends back home. Many of these impressions and stories deal with comparisons between their new home and their old one, as well as suggestions as to how to improve their old region. While some of the immigrants returned to their old homelands, some remained in their new homelands forever, creating families of their own.  In the case of German immigration, it is typical to find many German families settling in clusters in either a community or region. An example of which can be found in an article written in 2010 about New Trier in Minnesota, which you can click here.

The second argument behind teaching immigration in school is because it played a key role in the development of the countries the immigrants originated from and the countries where they eventually settled down.  In the case of Germany, the emigration of Germans from Prussia and Habsburg resulted in the need to reform the countries respectively, unfortunately through the usage of violence, as was seen in the Revolution of 1848. Eventually the situation stabilized with the creation of a German state in 1871, which provided the solidarity and sound structure of a democratic state many people had envisioned two decades before but were realized by Bismarck.  In the case of German immigrants in the US, their  previous experiences before immigrating over, combined with their innovation and thinking has helped shape the US as it is today.  It is not hard to find Germans in America, who had made a difference, whether it was Henry Kissinger’s role as Secretary of State under Nixon and how the US scaled back on its mission of containment and opened their doors to relations with Russia and China, or John Roebling and his design of the wire suspension bridge, a few examples of which still exist today. Kissinger originated from Fürth (north of Nuremberg) in Bavaria, while Roebling emigrated to Pennsylvania from Mühlhausen in Thuringia and established the town of Saxonburg.

How the topic should be taught in the classroom is fully up to the teacher, but some of the small aspects mentioned here will help students know about the importance of immigration, even more so when it is discussed in the classroom in schools in Europe, and in this case, Germany.  This is where the article ends with a small anecdote: Ignore the smallest details and you will ignore the most relevant. Give them something small to think about and it will make a big difference as far as learning is concerned.

And now, some interesting Flensburg Files’ Fast Facts, which you will find in the next article…..

Dresden Neumarkt: The Medieval Market

Frauenkirche at Neumarkt at night


Moving on from the markets in the outer portion of Dresden, we come to the Christmas market in Dresden’s Neumarkt, one of two major Christmas markets in Dresden’s Altstadt. The market is located between Wilsdruffer Strasse at Altmarkt and the Elbe River and includes the city’s Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady).  The market is  unique for many reasons. The first and perhaps most noticeable of the market is the way it is laid out and the trees and huts are decorated. While most German Christmas markets are in a town square and have a central meeting point where people can stop to eat, drink and watch the entertainment from the benches and tables surrounding the Christmas tree, the layout resembles a round swirled raisin and cinnamon roll, with wide aisles curling past and around the huts and many areas where people can indulge in their food and drink while being awed by the Christmas trees decorated in yellow star lights. At least 10 Christmas trees decorated with these string of star lights (made of paper machete and painted a dark yellow or white color), and many huts carry a yellow star light that shoots out on a steel pole at a 60° angle.

The Christmas tree with the yellow lights


One can see many young artists singing Christmas carols or playing an instrument, both as a solo or a small ensemble, but there is no official program nor large ensemble group found here at this market. That is found at the Striezelmarkt at Altmarkt or in Dresden-Neustadt.  But for children, there is a hand-powered carousel that is worth riding, if they enjoy horses and swinging. There is also a live manger set located near the church.  What is characteristic of the Neumarkt part of the Christmas market is that there are many shops that offer a wide array of hand-made products made of ceramic or wood with live demonstrations. Most of these products resemble the ones that were common during the Medieval Ages. For those willing to try a homemade specialty or two originating from the Medieval Ages, the market has everything that will satisfy the appetite in a visitor. One can try entrées originating from the Middle or Far East, like beef goulash with olives and couscous (wheat kernels that are boiled and dried before they are cooked and served with an entrée- very popular in the Middle East), date-filled rolls with either a pistachio or a sesame pastry covering, different types of coffee or tea from that region, just to name a few. There are also a few places that serve homemade pastries originating from Dresden and all points to the east, including the pastry tunnel (a Hungarian specialty where the cookie dough is rolled onto a rolling pin and cooked- best served with a coating of sugar on it) or even handmade cookies and Stollen from a local bakery booth where the children can see the whole process live. Yet should they want to become involved with Christmas baking at the market in general, the Altmarkt is the place to go.

The manger set with live animals on display

After trying out all the Medieval specialties and some from other places, and purchasing homemade Medieval products from the booths, one should spend a couple hours visiting the Frauenkirche, which is the centerpiece of Dresden’s Neumarkt. Built in 1726, the cathedral is one of the most common of all the points in Dresden one has to visit, with over 2 million visitors every year minus the time of the Christmas market. During the one month celebration from the end of November to Christmas Eve, the number of tourists during that time matches the ones who visit during the 11 months of the year.  In order to step inside the church, one should plan an hour of waiting time, which may be inconvenient when winter weather hovers over the city during the Christmas market.  If one lives only two hours away from the capital of Saxony, then the summer time is perhaps the best time for visiting the church.  This unique landmark was constructed as a replica to the one destroyed at the end of World War II. On 13 February, 1945, a fleet of British RAF Airplanes pelted the city with 650,000 bombs, creating an inferno which destroyed 80% of the city (including all of the city center), and killing as many as 60,000. This signaled the beginning of the end of the 12 year Nazi Regime as many people who supported Hitler’s cause left and willingly surrendered to the allies, with those supporting him took their own lives in the last months before Hitler committed suicide on 30 April, 1945 and Germany surrendered to the allies on 7 May, 1945. Much of Dresden remained in ruins for three decades as it became part of the Soviet zone and later the German Democratic Republic, which (when the next article on Dresden-Neustadt will explain in further) constructed various multiple storied flats and ignored the true meaning of Dresden, which was its artwork and architecture.
Right after the Fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November, 1989, millions of dollars worth of investment flowed into Dresden and the city center was reconstructed from scratch, beginning with the Frauenkirche and working its way towards the Palace and other Baroque-style buildings that were destroyed.  A section of the old church was preserved and can be seen on the east end of the church when walking toward the river. The reconstruction took 10 years and featured exact replicas of the architecture that was destroyed in the war. When the Frauenkirche was open in 2005, it marked the return to architectural greatness that was and still is the signature of Dresden today.
The Medieval Christmas market at Neumarkt makes the Frauenkirche complete as the surroundings give the tourist a feeling of walking back into the past when there was no electricity, everything was handmade, and the Frauenkirche looked like the church that was never destroyed. This was the impression that came across the author as he and his family passed through the place many times during his recent visit in Dresden.  With its offers and its settings, it is no wonder that the market at Neumarkt is a royal treat for those wanting to know a bit about Medieval culture and Dresden’s unique history; especially when it comes to the market’s centerpiece, the Frauenkirche.

Frauenkirche today after its reconstruction