Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Miguel Ezquerra's Berlin, a Vida o Muerte

This book was donated by a supporter of the Miguel Serrano translation project, into whose Amazon list I had added it on account of Don Miguel making reference to it—albeit briefly—in The Golden Thread.
Miguel Ezquerra was a Spanish Falangist and soldier, who fought in the Spanish Civil War and as a volunteer in World War II, first as a member of the Blue Division (known as Division Azul, or Division Española de Voluntarios in Spain, and 250. Infanterie-Division in Germany) and subsequently in the Waffen SS.
His only book, Berlin, A Vida o Muerte (loosely, Berlin, At Any Cost), is an autobiographical account of his experiences during the final months of World War II.

General Franco did not take sides during that war, but allowed volunteers to join on the German side. The Blue Division, a unit of Spanish volunteers that served in the Wehrmacht, was active between 1941 and 1943. Eventually, pressured by the Alliess, conservative Spaniards, and the Catholic Church, Franco ordered the solders to return to Spain, and were repatriated in 1944.

Some refused to return and remained in Germany (Ezquerra calls them ‘despistados’, or ‘absent-minded’), where they either worked or were absorbed into other German units. Among those who were repatriated, some slipped through the Franco-Spanish border and joined the Germans again as volunteers. Ezquerra was one from the latter group.

The book begins with a laconic 600-word prologue, where Ezquerra summarises his life up until 1943. We learn that after being demobilised following the end of the Spanish Civil War, he worked as a teacher for a while before enlisting in the Blue Division, where, according to his account, he reached the rank of Captain.
‘The Fatherland suffocated me,’ he says in Chapter I; there were many things he was unhappy with and he desired to join the struggle for European civilisation, which for him meant fighting with the Germans against the Soviet communism.

Together with a few comrades, Ezquerra successfully crosses the French fronteer, then closed, and reports to the German authorities as a volunteer. He is soon back in the German army, where his rank is recognised.
What follows are a series of adventures. While they welcome Ezquerra and holding him in high regard on account of his behaviour in previous combat missions, the Germans do not initially deploy him on the front, as is his wish. He does, however, encounter a number of fellow Spaniards, then and throughout the book, many of whom had been in the Blue Division with him.

In the early stages he spends much time in France, employed in German counterintelligence, consorting with all manner of shady characters in the seedy underworld of occupied France. He reports that the resistance movement, celebrated after the war, was invisible in 1944; that, in fact, the French gave the Germans no trouble.

Eventually, he is given combat assignments, one of which is in Normandy, shortly after the Allied landing. Ezquerra tells how he and his men got behind enemy lines in the Battle of the Bulge and blew up a munitions depot, capturing 300 Americans.

As the Germans prove unable to contain the Allied tide, Ezquerra eventually finds himself having to evacuate France and catch up with the Germans, who had already left. The ‘resistance movement’ surfaces only then—except Ezquerra depicts it as comprising individual cowards who, having lived peacefully and profitably under the occupation, remembered their courage and reinvented themselves as heroes of the resistance—after it was safe to do so.

Once in Germany, life picks up the pace, and Ezquerra is now near the epicentre of events. Promoted for the second time in his narrative, Ezquerra is finally given a unit with his name, and assigned a nearly impossible mission defending the Reich’s chancellery, which by this time is being encroached upon by the vastly superior Russian forces. The mission is accomplished, but Ezquerra is, in the end, the last man standing. All that remains afterwards are ruins.

With Hitler dead, and the war visibly lost, Ezquerra drinks with a fellow officer until captured by the Russians. Other prisoners are rounded up and either deceived and killed or marched Eastwards, evidently destined to the gulags, although these are not mentioned.

Ezquerra decides at this point never to reach Russia—either to die or return to Spain. His escape and tense efforts to achieve the latter objective occupy the final portion of the book. And of course, we see, as we saw earlier, how Spanish communists, peppered throughout Europe, organised chekas at the end of the war and began maltreating their vanquished enemies.

The story is gripping, a potent cocktail of horror, harshness, and fanatical will, told with a dry, rock-hard laconicism and crammed with feats of nearly insane courage.

As a story, it is first rate. It reads almost like a novel, despite its literary minimalism.

As a biographical account, some have found it lacking at times, afflicted by the author’s apparent vanity and self-serving embellishments.

Certainly, Miguel Ezquerra, known to have been a very colourful character, comes across as a superman in his own account: a singularly brave soldiers, stoic, astute, indifferent to pain, esteemed, feared, and a born fighter and leader—hardest of the hard, but not without humanity. He proves a charismatic character.
Some historians have found difficult to confirm some of the episodes he recounts. Naturally, this may well be because of the chaos of the moment and of the war in general while in its final stages. His promotion to lieutenant-colonel, for example, was given verbally, in the field, and the only evidence appears to be Ezquerra’s own account, where he receives the news with indifference; yet, the promotion takes place just ahead of the final battle for Berlin.

Ezquerra also tells how he was taken to Hitler’s bunker, met the Führer, and was offered by him the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross and German citizenship, the latter of which Ezquerra thanks but declines, stating ‘I will be Spanish for as long as I live’. He subsequently tells that he had strong tea with Goebbels, who commended the bravery of the Spanish volunteers.

Possible historiographical difficulties aside, there is no question Ezquerra was an idealist and an uncommonly brave soldier, that he volunteered thrice to fight for the future of Europe against communism, that he sought action on the front, and that he was eventually in the Waffen SS, at the time the most elite and exclusive armed force in the world. In other words, this was a man who was eager to follow through with an ideal and who put his life on the line, ready to sacrifice it, in a world where most crave peace and comfort and would do anything to avoid even a bit of inconvenience.

The first facet of this book that interested me was its extremism. With an angry title like Berlin, At Any Cost, which one cannot but utter with a gurn and rippling masseters, the idea of fanatical soldiers bent on defending a position to the last, even beyond all hope, is appealing to someone fascinated with extremity and extremes. All the same, the book is not political or philosophical, and, apart from passing comments derisive of communism, any political or philosophical content there may be is implied.

The second facet was the insights the book affords into the author’s psychology, which I found most counter-intuitive where I thought it most closely matched the national temperament in his fatherland, and most instructive whenever he engaged with his compatriots. And their idiosyncracies as Spaniards are not lost on Ezquerra, who was glad to find German officers aware of them, as this awareness paid dividends during combat operations. This was partly the reason why, rather than a heterogeneous force, Einheit Ezquerra, formed at the end of the war, was comprised of Spanish volunteers.

Finally, the third facet was the insights the book provides into the conditions of occupied France, and the situation and behaviour of non-German expatriates involved with or under the aegis of the Axis. Berlin offers a witness’ account, and a perspective, on people and aspects seldom thought about, and perhaps also seldom mentioned, in the history of the occupation and World War II. Certainly the history of the Spanish Waffen SS is little known, as is the fact that they were among the last defenders of Berlin, along with the Germans and the French of the Charlemagne Division.

For a short and Spartan book of 132 pages, there is much for the reader to enjoy.
Ezquerra’s adventures did not end with the war, and he went on to live for another 39 years, a number of them in Brazil, having passed through various Caribbean republics. His post-war life is recounted in an interview granted to the Spanish magazine, Interviu. That, however, is another story . . .