In the early days of the US occupation of Germany, a Major Raymond Towle of Boston ruled the Bavarian town of Eichstätt as the commander of US Military Government. “Ruled” is putting it lightly. Major Towle’s official reports made his authority sound sensible enough, but in reality the major terrorized the locals while setting himself up as an eccentric tyrant, prompting Eichstätters to dub him “Major Toll,” or Major Crazy, applying the German word for both insane and fantastic in place of an unpronounceable English name.
Major Crazy carried a riding whip he slapped on his desk to scare any official questioning his decisions. Major Crazy was a pleasure-seeker and a racketeer. He was also obsessed with ancient Catholic power, had a papal costume tailored for himself, and even brought in a top Munich painter to portray him in it. His German and American entourage of rakes and prostitutes and pimps took up over twenty houses in town that he had requisitioned as commanding conqueror. The major shipped home hundreds of crates filled with finer plunder and forged art pieces.
In Liberated: A Novel of Germany, 1945, Major Crazy is reborn in the character of Major Robertson Membre, US Military Governor of the small and isolated Southern Bavarian town of Heimgau. My main character, US Captain Harry Kaspar, at first believes his commander the major to be his worst nemesis—as well as the town’s. As Harry will soon find out, the troubles are just getting started.
Liberated might read like fiction, but the story is based on simple truths and historical record. Justifications aside, the early US occupation of Germany was a kind of Wild West where foreign autocrats wielded total power over the native inhabitants like a robber baron over a busted boomtown.
In late spring of 1945, US combat units had secured the war’s unexpectedly calm closure on the frontiers of Southern Bavaria. On the local level, though, the future peace and law and order remained far from clear. Enter the US Military Government (MG) detachments, following the path of US tactical forces into cities and towns, villages and counties that were physically and socially devastated. Amid untold ruin and chaos, broken infrastructure and vaporized authority, the first MG detachments aimed simply to get things going again. Establishing order and ensuring public safety were primary duties. At the same time, MG officers performed a delicate balancing act that varied according to detachment make-up, intelligence on hand, a confusing mix of directives, and the inhabitants’ cooperation. In the first few months, MG officers in the smaller far-flung detachments were often cut off from the world. This demanded self-reliance and inventiveness, but it also invited confusion, scandal and infamy. Some MG commanders made themselves the lords of their helpless, isolated communities. Such types were dubbed the Kreiskönige, or “County Kings,” by fearful and sometimes grateful locals, as their King often beat out rival MG detachments’ communities competing for manpower and precious resources, shelter and food.
I once thought all this would make good material for historical nonfiction. While performing research in Munich years ago as a graduate student on a Fulbright Fellowship, I discovered the example of Miesbach, the unassuming capital of a rural Kreis between Munich and the Alps. US combat units had denied Miesbach’s MG detachment access to the town until May 16, 1945—over a week after the capitulation. What MG detachment officers found there must have given them a shock. The MG report for May 13-20 describes the local population as being highly distressed, because US Military Police were “permitting SS officers and a limited number of enlisted men to remain armed with some freedom” (italics mine). Incredibly, the SS soldiers were able to shoot three civilians while at liberty, including a US intelligence informant. What was more, German army troops stationed nearby were allowed to operate with complete freedom. Their commander, a General von Hahn, reportedly addressed his men that “the war is not lost and another German Army will be formed.”
Miesbach MG stabilized the situation, but as late as 1947 an MG investigator described a history of “careless enforcement” in Miesbach. MG there had appointed locals with distinct Nazi pasts to top posts. One deemed politically acceptable turned out a “paranoiac and a psychopathic mythomaniac.” The investigator found the situation typical in such isolated areas. Miesbach MG officers were flattered by officials with Nazi connections and reluctant to let them go, showing a lack of “judgment, intelligence and impartiality.” He concluded: “It has been proved over and over again that the officer who is lulled into confidence by a surface obsequiousness is forgetting an essential fact: No people loves or trusts or essentially wishes to help the power that occupies it.”
It intrigued me that so much scandal was implied between the lines but might well have been lost to history forever. This seemed the stuff of mystery and crime and historical novels. Musing about this would lead me to write a first manuscript years ago that, after repeated revisions, would become Liberated. My Heimgau is fictional but not unlike Miesbach, Landsberg, Bad Tölz or any number of actual towns in Bavaria or elsewhere in the US Zone of Occupation. The characters Harry Kaspar, Major Membre, Eugene Spanner, Harry’s lover Katharina Buchholz and the rest are fictional too, but real-life examples certainly existed.
As the story begins—as the US first takes the world stage running a conquered land, Harry is what my agent and editor Peter Riva once called a “goddamned do-gooder” with emphasis on damned. A naturalized American born in Germany, Harry believes in the capability of American can-do to change the world for the better given full reign to do so. Without giving anything away—Harry soon finds out otherwise, and it will change him forever.
In real life, it did seem that MG and occupation duty could attract a certain type of man who saw glory not in combat but rather in the power and patronage, mistresses and riches that martial rule provided. Not everyone could be Major Crazy. A common Joe could thrive, and not all were criminals when considered in context. In 1945, a 22-year-old recently naturalized American sergeant and German Jew named Henry Kissinger was a Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) agent tasked with finding and arresting former Nazis. As a CIC man, Sergeant Kissinger had more power than even the local MG commander. Calling himself “Mr. Henry,” young Kissinger ruled over the town of Bensheim and surrounding county from a lavish villa and a posh Mercedes sedan. He reportedly enjoyed multiple affairs and extravagant dinner parties. The future US Secretary of State was already learning to enjoy the trappings of authority.
Meanwhile, certain Americans with all the power operated with shameless greed and impunity, a few punished only when matters got out of hand or made public. One true episode loosely reflected in my story is that of the Hungarian Gold Train. Sent west by Hungarian Nazis in the last year of the war to prevent confiscation by the Red Army, the train carried far more than gold—it held the expensive belongings and art of persecuted Hungarian Jews. This load was not the well known museum collections and pieces that the US Army’s vaunted Monuments Men units sought to secure, and as such proved all the more tragic. According to Kenneth D. Alford in Allied Looting in WWII (2011), at one point the train “consisted of 52 railroad cars, of which 29 were freight cars containing items of great value. ... [The cars] contained cases of gold, 60 chests of jewelry, and chests of the finest collections of Meissen, Dresden, and Chinese ivory figurines. There were over 5,000 handwoven Persian rugs, exceptional works of art, five large trunks full of stamps, over 300 complete sets of silverware, and 28 large boxes of mink and sealskin furs. Other personal effects of the murdered victims included American dollars, Swiss francs, gold coins, small bags of gold dust, watches, rings, Bibles, skis, musical instruments, cameras, typewriters ... In 1945 terms, the value of the train’s contents was estimated at $206 million, which would translate to several billion dollars today.” Under constant threat of attack from ground and air, the train made it into Austria as the war ended, where the SS and the trains’ Hungarian guards fought for control. The train was meant for Switzerland, for anonymous bank accounts and profit-taking. It ended up in a train tunnel near Salzburg, Austria, where it fell into the hands of the US Army. Over the next couple years, certain unscrupulous American officers, empowered by victory and lured by easy wealth, began appropriating the contents from storage as the original ownership remained disputed between puffed-up policymakers. Much of the haul found its way to the states through boats and planes and back doors wide open.
Elsewhere, deserted GIs got in on the plunder game and early, having found crime rackets the only way to stay free if not alive. It’s known that certain crafty and determined deserters were able to set themselves up quite nicely and securely, especially in Paris and Brussels. About 50,000 American soldiers total had deserted in the European theater, many returning to duty, some never. Most had been broken by combat duty, given no respite from the front line, doomed “for the duration” (before the Army instituted rest rotations) in units with casualty rates well over 100 percent counting replacement cannon fodder. Hell creates its own type of hero. It’s not hard to imagine an enterprising sociopath like a certain fraud in Liberated (no spoilers!) rising to the occasion, death wish and all.
And then there were men like Harry Kaspar, with special skills for MG, something big to prove, and a lot to dread down deep. The Wild West that was the early occupation became the greenhorn American Harry’s worst nightmare—the worst of history and human nature coming roaring back like a locomotive charging full steam downhill without a driver. Against the robber baron, the new town sheriff hardly had a chance.
This post was adapted from the Afterword of Liberated: A Novel of Germany, 1945.