Voices of the Flemish Waffen-SS – The final testament of the Oostfronters by Jonathan Trigg
Our fascination with facts and voices of the Second World War is as strong as ever, and it remains the most popular historical period for authors and readers alike. That fascination has partly been fed by the living reminders of the war that walk around with us every day – the veterans themselves – men and women for whom the war was the defining aspect of their young lives and who played a part, however large or small, in it. But the ranks of veterans are thinning. No-one lives forever and the survivors are now nonagenarians or centenarians.
For example, over 16 million Americans served in their armed forces during the war, and by 2014 only one million of them were still alive. In ten years that number will be fewer than a hundred thousand. But as one of those self-same US veterans once wrote: “No war is really over until the last veteran is dead.”
If that is the case with the leviathan that is the United States then what of far smaller nations, and their combatants? Flanders – the northern Dutch-speaking half of Belgium – is today one of the most highly developed and densely populated parts of modern Europe. It is a prosperous place, with its own culture and traditions, and this history fuels a deep-seated sense of belonging that nurtures a powerful independence movement that wants to break away from their French-speaking southern neighbours in Walloonia and establish their own country.
Back in the early summer of 1940, after the victorious Wehrmacht had invaded and occupied Belgium, the Nazis sought to take advantage of both the Flemings nationalism and their strident anti-communism and use it for their own ends. A new military unit was formed by the Waffen-SS – the Nazis own private army – called the Legion Flandern. Thousands of young men volunteered, and began a process that would see Flemish Waffen-SS men fight and die across the Eastern Front in some of the most savage battles of that most savage campaign; the siege of Leningrad, the Volkhov Pocket, Krasny Bor, Narva. The end of the war would find them on the losing side, and many would spend years in Belgian prisons convicted of collaboration. Finally released back into society, most would find it very hard to rebuild their lives, the authorities and their own neighbours often unwilling to accept them and viewing them with suspicion and mistrust.
Most have never told their story – preferring to look forward rather than back, and get on with their lives; marry, raise and provide for their family and then retire and play with their grandchildren.
Capturing their memories, recording their voices before it’s too late, is like finding an old treasure map and following it to a treasure trove– a veritable El Dorado of stories and experiences from the war.
One such Oostfronter – the collective name they are known by in Flanders – is Oswald Van Ooteghem. Now a 93-year-old pensioner, back in 1941 he was a bright-eyed 16-year-old from a strongly nationalist family. He was one of the very first to step forward for the Legion, and was joined by others including Albert Olbrechts, Dries Coolens and Theo D’Oosterlinck. Their initial enthusiasm was soon dampened by a chauvinist German training machine that viewed them as inferior, and they were then shuffled off to the grinding trench warfare that was the siege of Leningrad in late 1941, early 1942. Unglamorous though that sector was, neither was it easy, and casualties were high. Battling the bitter cold, the miserable conditions as well as the Red Army, the survivors had their eyes opened to the often-dreadful realities of war. All were wounded at some point – most more than once – and the effect of the war on all of them was profound.
Olbrechts, invalided back home after severe illness, saw first-hand the brutality of Nazi rule in Belgium as his best friend was shot for helping shot-down British airmen try and escape home. Dries Coolens became a hard-bitten NCO, wounded multiple times, as he somehow survived the likes of the Battle of Narva in the summer of 1944. Van Ooteghem was also wounded in action, and became a war reporter, photographing his comrades and building up a unique record of the Flemish Waffen-SS. New recruits continued to join-up, and not just as infantrymen. Herman Van Gyseghem became a panzer signaller in 1943, and the young Lucie Lefever enlisted as a Red Cross nurse to treat wounded Flemings.
As the war came towards its end, a previously-wounded D’Oosterlinck returned to his company to find no-one he knew still survived in the unit, while Van Ooteghem was ordered to lead teenaged Flemish Hitler Youth youngsters into a final, pointless stand. But undoubtedly the worst fate was reserved for Lefever, who was caught up in the Soviet siege of Breslau and then raped by Red Army soldiers.
This book is built on in-depth interviews with these veterans and others, and gives an insight into their lives, and what the war was like from a human angle. That angle includes the very real horror of the Holocaust and the evils of Nazism. This is the conundrum that sits at the very heart of interviewing the Flemish veterans. These old men and women, so friendly, so polite, often funny and enthralling – may not have been Nazis themselves, but they still fought for a régime that was one of the blackest in all human history, how could that be? It is a tremendously difficult question to answer, and not one I have ever received a satisfactory answer to, however, one author put it very well when he wrote of both sides on the Russian Front - “…there were brave and extraordinary soldiers on both sides, but it is a sad truth of military history that some of the most remarkable warriors have fought for some very shabby causes.”
Jonathan Trigg's new book Voices of the Flemish Waffen-SS – The final testament of the Oostfronters is available for purchase now.