Strangers in the Wild Place: Refugees, Americans, and a German Town, 1945-1952

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In 1936, the Nazi state created a massive military training site near Wildflecken, a tiny community in rural Bavaria. During the war, this base housed an industrial facility that drew forced laborers from all over conquered Europe. At war's end, the base became Europe's largest Displaced Persons camp, housing thousands of Polish refugees and German civilians fleeing Eastern Europe. As the Cold War intensified, the US Army occupied the base, removed the remaining refugees, and stayed until 1994. Strangers in the Wild Place tells the story of these tumultuous years through the eyes of these very different groups, who were forced to find ways to live together and form a functional society out of the ruins of Hitler's Reich.

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1 The Wild Place, 1933–1945

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On a summer day in 1937, a hunter pauses at the edge of a meadow halfway up to the summit of the Löserhag and looks behind him into the valley of the Sinn River. Yellow and blue flowers dapple the clearing in the bright sun. A few feet away, a narrow footpath plunges into the gloomy darkness of the great beech forests of the Franconian Rhön. The hunter looks down the slope to the valley floor toward the village of Wildflecken. With its tidy red roofs, the town of a few hundred souls nests in between two ranges of hills along a single railroad track that connects it to the world beyond.

But the hunter’s home is changing as he watches. He can see the red brick bridge over the Brückenau road and the new square in the middle of town. Across the valley and up a hill, hundreds of workers put the last touches on rows of squat, narrow buildings. Soon there would be horses in the newly built stables and hundreds, then thousands, of soldiers living in the barracks. A new street connects the town and the base, paved with heavy white stones to accommodate the vast bulk of military vehicles that will soon rumble through the valley. Turning to the west, our hunter shakes his head when he sees farmhouses and villages sitting abandoned in neat clearings a few kilometers away. A year ago, those villages had been his neighbors. Then the German state ordered them abandoned to build the new troop training facility. As he shoulders his rifle and walks into the woods, he wonders to himself what all of this change will mean for his family and his town. Perhaps he suspects that Germany is on the road to another war, but he cannot know what that struggle will mean for this quiet valley.

 

2 The Seigneurs of Wildflecken, 1945–1947

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On the morning of May 16, 1945, news reached Wildflecken that a villager had been injured in a fight at the camp. Mayor Bruno Kleinhenz grabbed local physician Erich L., Wehrmacht civil administrator Peter M., and the town’s sole law enforcement officer, the young Wilhelm Henties. Together they jumped in a car and headed up the hill. Henties knew the camp’s erstwhile commander, a Russian major named Pavlov, and hoped to find him. By American orders, none of the Germans were armed, and Henties did not have the right to wear a uniform. In the midst of thousands of angry former forced laborers, this was a dangerous situation. Things went wrong quickly. The crowd turned on the delegation, dragging them from the truck and beating and stabbing all four. A Frenchman among the laborers ran to the American military post nearby and summoned help, which arrived and dispersed the mob. The bodies of Kleinhenz, L., and M. lay in the street, while Henties, grievously wounded, survived to recover in the hospital in Brückenau.1

 

3 Keeping Refugees Occupied, 1945–1948

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Armin G. did not like Americans very much. He also had little love for his erstwhile German protectors or their local government. Armin and his family arrived in Brückenau from Yugoslavia in 1945, ethnic Germans who found themselves on the wrong side of the postwar order in the Balkans. Armin was a consummate troublemaker and a political chameleon, capable of adjusting his entire persona when the need arose. Along with his large family, he lived in temporary quarters in one of Brückenau’s resort casinos, from which he occasionally emerged in traditional Bavarian dress carrying an axe and intimidating refugees and townspeople alike.

Problems began in 1946, when Armin told authorities a bizarre story that American soldiers held his family at gunpoint and demanded liquor. When his interlocutors pressed him for specifics, he withdrew his complaint. After the manager of the resort went to speak with Armin, the two fought and both later went to the Americans to complain about the other. “The Germans,” wrote one Military Government official to another after hearing both sides, “should be encouraged to ‘clean their own house.’ ” When the Americans visited Armin, along with his seven children and various other relatives, they found him resolutely uncooperative, unwilling to move to new quarters, and enthusiastically displaying Communist symbols and a banner reading “Workers of the World, Unite.”

 

4 These People, 1947–1949

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In May 1948, a high-level meeting took place in Frankfurt between representatives of the International Refugee Organization (IRO), UNRRA’s successor organization, and officials of the American Military Government. More than a year after the disastrous DP camp riots, the situation in Germany looked very different. As rebuilding continued apace, IRO officials faced an increasingly difficult task in convincing anyone that they needed more time and supplies for DPs in their care. When an IRO administrator pressed the Americans for more food aid, a clearly frustrated American official named Hatch worried that such a gesture would infuriate expellees who received no such aid. “It might produce an unrest factor with the Sudeten Germans if more food were taken in to these people.” Hatch’s irritated retort highlighted the dwindling range of options. “The greatest solution to this problem,” he suggested, “[is] in getting these people out of the country.”1

 

5 A Victory for Democracy, 1949–1952

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For the second time in fifteen years, the hill above Wildflecken swarmed with workers and construction crews. In the snows of January 1951, a tent city grew in the Franconian uplands. Where a shrinking but sizable DP population still hung on in the IRO camp, they were joined by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, specialists, and German contractors. There was a lot of work to be done, repairing buildings, paving roads, and installing the necessary accoutrements of a military installation. Years later, Brigadier General Carl McIntosh recalled his arrival at Wildflecken with the 4th Infantry Division. “The best I can remember of Wildflecken was there had been displaced persons housed there . . . they had burnt down about half of the post and cut down all the trees around there just trying to stay warm . . . they nearly froze to death up there because there wasn’t any heat, and nothing was supplied to them. So, we were building a road, setting up rock crushers and building ammunition pads . . . for the future needs of a post, camp or station there.” With more than six hundred German workers on the site, living space ran short. Many lived in tents until summer, no doubt a miserable existence in the cold of the Rhön. There was also fun to be had, with contractors building canteens “staffed by husky, friendly German girls” who worked to keep laborers fed. As a Corps of Engineers inspector later wrote, “Naturally wherever troops were stationed near construction work these canteens became a favorite of the troops and caused both Commanding Officers and the Construction Engineers considerable headaches.”1

 

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