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On the Otto Schimek Affair

David Warszawski

The determination and stubbornness of the Polish authorities to fight the legend of Otto Schimek–“executed by the Wermacht because he refused to shoot at Polish civilians,” as the inscription on his grave says–is really appalling. People who come to Machowa to visit the grave on his birthday or the anniversary of his death, are habitually arrested, and the press, no less systematically, publishes articles which are supposed to destroy the myth of his alleged heroism.

The legend has not gotten much harm from this; on the contrary, such a posthumous persecution of the Austrian grenadier enriches the legend of the previous Schimek’s sufferings and puts the Polish authorities in a company which can hardly be called attractive. The fact that the authorities are ready to pay such a high price proves how important the campaign against Schimek is for them.

One thing we know for sure about Schimek is that this Austrian Catholic, who had been drafted by the Wehrmacht at the age of seventeen, was executed by a firing squad on November 14, 1944 for “desertion and cowardice in the face of the enemy,” according to the field court martial’s sentence. Schimek’s sister maintains that her brother was sentenced to death for his firm refusal to kill–based on his religious beliefs and evidenced during his two years in the Wehrmacht, first in Yugoslavia and later in Poland. According to Franciszek Tobiasz, a miller from the Machowa region and a former member of the AK (Home Army–the pillar of the resistance movement in Poland during World War II), a young Viennese Catholic was executed for sheltering two partisans and for refusing to join the tiring squad that executed them when they were discovered. As the circumstances unequivocally suggest, this person could only be Schimek.

The validity of that report is questioned by two well-known Austrian journalists, Ransmayr and Pollack, who have managed to get in touch with officers from Schimek’s regiment. According to their informants, Schimek was executed for plain desertion, nothing out of the ordinary in the last months of 1944. The officers also maintain that it is impossible that Schimek was forced to take part in any executions, since the executions were only carried out by the Gestapo and SS, and not by the Wehrmacht. The very officer who sentenced Schimek could not remember him at first, but later declared that the accused had be en a plain deserter.

Thus, it is extremely difficult to determine the real course of events.

A researcher, faced with a situation like this, must decide whose version he ought to believe–or deny. Still, one should remember that the only disinterested witness in this case is the Home Army soldier Tobiasz who has no interest in creating a picture of Schimek’s martyrdom, as opposed to Schimek’s sister. On the other hand, the army mates of Schimek have a strong interest in maintaining the version of his plain desertion because of self interest. If Schimek died for the refusal of taking part in an execution, one can assume that there must have been someone who did not refuse.

A journalist, being free from the obligation to arbitrate historical disputes, is in a position to describe the different perspectives involved.

In the propaganda battle taking place around Schimek, the “heroic” version is endorsed by the WiP movement (however, WiP sends a caveat that historical data may not be final). This particular attitude seems to be a rather obvious choice for the movement. The fact that official propaganda furiously challenges this version and claims that Schimek was just a plain deserter who deserves no homage whatsoever, is even more intriguing. Why do the authorities wish their claim to be true?

It would be ridiculous to think that the authorities simply care for historical truth the communist propaganda has never cared for the truth. Moreover, the authorities seem to have no doubts which of the versions is true, namely the “antiheroic” one, and they do their utmost to maintain it, although common sense suggests the opposite. Schimek’s honorable action, if it really took place, stresses the moral responsibility of those who did not match Schimek’s deed. The adherents of the “heroic” version do not try, as it is sometimes alleged, to “clear” Wehrmacht of the blame, quite the opposite. It 50, why do the Polish authorities tear Schimek, the hero?

The answer is simple and can be found in the visitor’s book in Machowa graveyard. One of the entries in that book says:

“Set an example for our sons, 50 that they never use violence or any kind of arms against their brothers or other nations,” signed by Jozef Nowak, Krakow–Nowa Huta. By refusing to carry out the order, Schimek “set an example” and comes closer to us than a Polish People’s Army soldier, who did obey orders so many times in our post-war history. One does not intend to use his heroism as an instrument of achieving any immediate purposes: we cannot expect anybody to sacrifice his own life, rather than somebody else’s. One just wants to show how deceptive some formal labels, national, political, etc. are used to divide people between “ours” and “alien.” Schimek’s controversy challenges the image of a bad German, advanced by the official propaganda, but not only that.

If Schimek were a communist (after all, hundreds of thousand of ex-members of the German Communist Party had be en drafted by the Wehrmacht), or at least an anti-fascist, or had as much as shouted at the moment of death “Es lebe rot e Deutschland!” or “Weg mit Hitler!,” his image in Polish propaganda would have been quite different. He would still have remained a soldier, only the cause for which he fought would have been replaced by another, a righteous one.

But Schimek did not mention any political reasons for his gesture. In his last letter, written within hours of his death, he did mention his profound religious faith as a source of hope and support both for himself and for his kin. That same faith provided the very basis for his protest, and it might well be the essential reason behind the anti-Schimek campaign. The authorities would be in grave danger if such an attitude were ever publicized. The proverbial “divisions of the Pope” are composed of the likes of Schimek.

In my opinion, this is the main reason the authorities are against the “heroic” version. However, it still remains unclear why they are opposed to any kind of homage being paid to Schimek, a “plain deserter.”

As a West German journalist pointed out, if more soldiers had followed Schimek’s example, even if they were cowards, the war would have ended earlier and the bloodshed would not have been so enormous. (It is worth mentioning that there is an absolute silence about Schimek in GDR).

As a “plain deserter,” Schimek, who did not speak Polish and therefore could not count on help from the civilian population, risked his own life, just as he would have done at the front. From this point of view, his apparent cowardice takes a totally different shape. He deserted because he did not want to kill. Don’t we owe him respect for that? To this question, the authorities answer, “No.” There is no reason to honor Schimek’s memory in any special way.

Schimek did not do what he did in order to oppose the dictatorship; he just did not feel like being a soldier any longer. Whether he “simply” deserted, or whether the desertion was preceded by his refusal to carry out an order is of lesser importance. Let us imagine that Schimek is not a soldier of the Wehrmacht, but fights on the other side of the front. In that scenario, do we still find his defection praiseworthy? This last question was posed to point out the fact that Schimek is an “uncomfortable” hero, difficult to pigeon-hole for either side, and as such, deserves our critical appraisal even more. The issues which his case bring to mind cannot be ignored.



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