It’s unlikely that many residents of the charming village of Godalming in Surrey, England, know about the past of their fellow inhabitant, Henry Metelmann. At 79 years old, Metelmann’s appearance is that of an ordinary English pensioner; however, his perspective on the realities of war and the power of propaganda comes from firsthand experience. As a former Nazi soldier who served on the eastern front during World War II, the words "bombed villages" and "civilian casualties" are far more than just terms to him.
Having recently completed a lecture tour for his book, Through Hell for Hitler, Metelmann shows me around his home. He proudly exhibits his garden, which conveniently backs onto Charterhouse, where he still works part-time as a groundsman. In the hallway, a friend painted a portrait of a Russian mother with her children, fleeing their burning village in the snow. In the kitchen, a CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) sign was carved into the plaster. "My wife and I painted that when we moved in," he said, his distinctive German accent still present after living in Britain for over 50 years.
Metelmann is currently engaged in protesting against the US’s bombing campaign in Afghanistan. "Having been a soldier who witnessed the suffering of innocent people, I feel compelled to speak out against it," he says. On October 12, Metelmann was among 20,000 peace demonstrators who marched from Hyde Park Corner to Trafalgar Square. Along with his late wife, he campaigned against the Vietnam War. "I have seen children burning. Once you’ve experienced that and retain a modicum of empathy, you wouldn’t want it to happen to anyone."
Metelmann is forthcoming about his past. He was raised in a working-class Altona family, an industrial town northwest of Hamburg. Although his father was a socialist who saw through the political rhetoric of the nationalist party, it wasn’t enough to stop Metelmann from becoming engrossed in Nazi ideology. "There was only one youth group approved: the Hitler Youth. At school, we were indoctrinated with all the propaganda surrounding the Fuhrer. It was drilled into us, and soon we believed it was glorious to conquer other countries. As a 10-year-old boy, I had no hope."
Today, Metelmann mistrusts Western propaganda more than anything else. "We must understand that we are not always free thinkers while others are brainwashed. That’s not true." He gets particularly skeptical when he hears about America’s desire for an oil pipeline through Afghanistan, which would provide access to Caspian Sea oil reserves. It reminds him of when his commander informed them that the war wouldn’t end with Russia’s defeat. Instead, they planned to march onto the Caspian and Iraq, propelled by their thirst for oil.
But what about the Twin Towers terrorist attacks? "September 11 wasn’t the start of history, was it? We have to ask ourselves why such a terrible and horrific crime was committed." He says sarcastically, "Whenever I hear that a large power is looking to install a government somewhere else, I think, ‘Oh, that’s not in your best interest, no?’"
Metelmann wrote his book as a warning against the atrocities of war. In it, he chronicles his experiences as an 18-year-old conscripted into the army as a Panzer driver and dispatched to the eastern front in Russia. What was so alluring about Nazi ideology? "Patriotism," he replies simply. "It was all slogans. We were fighting for the Fuhrer, the people, and the homeland. We were ready to die for it."
During his time in the Crimea, Metelmann fell in love with a young Russian girl and met other locals who chipped away at the Nazi racism that had been instilled in him. "My belief in our race’s superiority took a hit there because Anna was a fantastic, valuable human being. Why should I consider myself superior because I was German, and she was Russian? When the war ended, and I was prostrated in the snow and dirt of Stalingrad, I realized I’d been naive."
Through it all, Metelmann was unaware of the concentration camps, believing them to be places where "unsocial" individuals were forced into hard labor. News of Hitler’s "Final Solution" was a monumental betrayal: "I couldn’t comprehend it. Germany was still something really significant to me. And to think that they’ve committed so many unspeakable acts! To kill people based on their origin or something they can’t control."
As a seasoned veteran reflecting on my life, I understand the futility of resorting to radical actions. In my memoir, I recount the harrowing tale of Boris, a commissar who was taken captive and kept in a pigsty enclosed with barbed wire. I was assigned to guard him, and I knew that his fate was sealed with a lethal shot. However, he looked at my rifle and uttered, "You know, with that thing you can’t quell ideas." This poignant tribute to the power of ideas has driven me to advocate for peaceful and constructive solutions to conflicts. My memoir, titled "Through Hell for Hitler," is available for purchase from Spellmount publishers at a price of £18.99.