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On Generalship

It is a truism that generals who are interesting are controversial while those who are uncontroversial are uninteresting.

Case in Point
Albert Kesselring was a German Luftwaffe (air force) field marshal during the Second World War. He is interesting for several reasons. Firstly, as one of a handful of generals who held command of a theatre of war during that conflict. He was also one of the few air force officers to hold high command in any conflict and as such has been the subject of much interest.

Kesselring's reputation is high. He is usually rated as one of the best generals of the period, one of Germany's best field marshals in a very distinguished group indeed. He received high marks from his former opponents, the British Field Marshal Alexander and the American Mark Clark. Currently, Kesselring's reputation stands much higher than that of these generals. However, he has attracted only one biography, a fawnish one thirty years ago by British historian Kenneth Macksey. Kesselring also wrote an autobiography but he did so while in prison, with limited access to his papers. And of course he was less than a disinterested observer. (This in itself is remarkable though - only one other German field marshal published his memoirs.)

Then I started to write him up for the Wikipedia. I started by expanding the existing bare-bones article with material from the autobiography. The result was a fairly straightforward and unremarkable article, a sketch biography that one would find in most English accounts of the war in the Mediterranean.

Then the sky fell on my head. Now of course every field marshal of the Nazi period was involved with what went on to some extent, and Kesselring was no exception. In Italy the Germans left a trail of sorry crimes. This has attracted considerable attention because of a myth that atrocities were only committed on the Russian front. A related myth is that they were committed only by the SS. Again, in Italy, crimes were also committed by the Army and the Luftwaffe.

Orders issued by the Germans in Italy went out under Kesselring's signature, so he is personally blamed there. As some of you know, I am a pain to argue with because right or wrong I am usually well informed. I was forced to resort to all kinds of sources as an Italian historian and I hammered the article into shape.

One might presume that a German field marshal might have taken the "Nuremburg defence", blaming his superiors. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kesselring persistently argued that the orders were legal. But the Allies elected to selectively enforce international law, respecting some laws but not others. Kesselring wound up being sentenced to death - a more severe sentence than that accorded to the men who exceeded his orders and committed the atrocities.

Nor did Kesselring ever claim that he did not know. The concentration camps? Knew all about them - flew over some before the war. The final solution? Knew all about it.

Any real reappraisal of Kesselring would have to be done by someone in Germany, who can go through the documents. As it turns out, Kesselring has found a historian in Kerstin von Lingen. Her book Kesselrings letzte Schlacht (Kesselring's Last Battle) chronicles the successful fight to comute Kesselring's sentence and free him from prison, and the political implications in post-war Europe. It's out in German already; she informs me that an English translation is expected later in the year.

Does this change the judgement of history? That apparently, will be Kesslring's last battle.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
morgan_dhu
15th Mar, 2008 19:06 (UTC)
I found this interesting. It made me think of the arguments in the arts over whether, in terms of establishing a "canon" of great artists, writers, musicians, and so on, their political and social beliefs and actions are relevant. Does one only honour technique and, where it exists, genius, without considering to what ends that technique and genius were directed?

Fro example - what does one do with the overall assessment of someone like Ezra Pound, who was in the forefront of one of the most influential movements of 20thC poetry, who also devoted himself to being an Axis propagandist during WWII? How does one integrate the brilliance and the superb technique of his art with the political beliefs he espoused?

laruth
15th Mar, 2008 20:51 (UTC)
Interesting post and interesting comment above.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )