Laurence Rees: Wilhelm Moses was a soldier with a German transport regiment during the first months of the Nazi occupation of Poland, in the autumn of 1939. He witnessed personally some of the appalling atrocities that were committed from the earliest days of the conflict. One day, for example, he was travelling in his truck through a small Polish town when he saw a gathering of people in the market place.
Words of Wilhelm Moses: I told my comrade, 'Just stop for a moment!' Because the others had driven off in another direction. And we had gone straight down the main street and into the market place where there were hundreds - well, roughly - several hundred people standing there. And the SS brass band, the Germania, were playing music there. And about seven or eight people were hanging from the gallows. And they had tied their feet together and hung stones on them, and their hands were tied behind their backs. They let them down slowly, like that, so they died a slow death. Yes, and their tongues were hanging out - those people were all blue and green. I no longer knew where I was. Am I in the real world? Because it was such a crime. You can’t really describe the way I saw it. I can’t describe it. Yes, and the music was only playing because people were screaming so much. And then the soldiers, they were beating up people on the street because they were crying so much.
Probably because they were hanging relatives. They started to wail, then screaming, crying, and then they beat them up and struck them down with the butts of their guns. And we didn’t stay there for too long, because we were on duty, we were driving. But we allowed ourselves to have a good look at that - so that I could get an impression of it. The way they were treating them, I can only say that they weren’t humans for the Nazis, they were vermin. And the Nazis were very brutal. They were so brutal that somehow you can’t believe that a human being could be like that. An animal isn’t like that, isn’t as dangerous as the Nazis were in Poland then.
Laurence Rees: What Moses’ testimony reminds us of, and it’s something that’s often forgotten in this history, is that from the very first day this was an ideological conflict as far as the Nazis were concerned. The Poles were considered to be inferiors who should be treated as ignorant slaves, or worse. And it was the Polish Jews who were to be the particular focus of Nazi hatred and prejudice. As Wilhelm Moses discovered personally when he drove through the nearby countryside and saw an SS unit in the process of committing murder.
Words of Wilhelm Moses: I said to Heini, my co-driver, 'What’s going on here?' Some of the Jews had had to dig their own graves. They were at least twenty metres long, I’d say. I didn’t measure it. They were twenty metres long, there were the Jews in front of their graves, they had dug their own graves. When they had done this, they were shot in the back of the head and they all fell into the trench. The others could see, and then they were digging their own graves too. Vermin weren’t treated as badly as these human beings. It was incomprehensible to me. And it affected me too. And it baffled me how a person could be so rough and have no feelings, because without feeling there is nothing, I’ve always thought. It was, it was incomprehensible. As far as I’m concerned, they should have been killed in the same way as they killed those people. And again such a fate, or such a hatred for people that they had, the SS - I don’t get it. And all I want is peace, so I don’t think about it anymore. You go crazy! You lose your mind when you’ve seen all that. Reading or writing about it, that’s not as hard as having to look at it with your own eyes and with your inner feelings. I just said: 'If one day we have to pay for what they did to these people, then we will have bitter times!'
Laurence Rees: What Moses witnessed was one of several hundred such incidents in the aftermath of the Nazi invasion of Poland. Though there was as yet no systematic instruction to the Nazi killers to exterminate all the Jews, many Polish Jews still lost their lives in these first months of the war. The situation was so bad that even a German regular army general, Johannes Blaskowitz, complained about what was happening: 'It is misguided,' he wrote, 'to slaughter tens of thousands of Jews and Poles as is happening at present.' But it was to prove almost impossible to be part of this German army of occupation and yet not to be compromised by these crimes. Wilhelm Moses experienced this first hand, when he and his co-driver were ordered to transport a group of Poles. As soon as they were on board they started pleading for their lives.
Words of Wilhelm Moses: 'Let me get down, let me, don’t take me, they will kill us!' 'Well, who said that they are going to kill you?' 'But of course they will kill us, they killed the others too, my mother, my father, my children have all been killed, they will kill us too!' 'Well, are you Jews?' 'Yes, we are Jews.' What could I do? We couldn’t do anything, our hands were tied.
Laurence Rees: And so Wilhelm Moses had moved, almost without realising it, from bystander to perpetrator. From watching an atrocity take place, to participating in one. It was a journey many more would take during this war. And, looking back, Moses can scarcely believe that it was Germany – one of the most cultured nations in the world – that had spawned all this horror.
Words of Wilhelm Moses: As a German, I can only tell you that I was ashamed about everything that had happened. And I no longer felt German. I said to myself, I said the words to myself: 'I am no longer a German!'