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Corelli's Comrades

Beitrag der Sunday Times, London vom 19.08.2001 von John Follain (Dokumentation)


Die Sunday Times hat schon im Jahre 2001 von den Gräueltaten der Gebirgsjäger berichtet:

Faced, like his companions, with imminent execution, the prisoner climbed onto a box, stuck his chest out proudly as if he were on the stage of Milan's La Scala, and launched into an opera aria. To the astonishment of the German firing squads, he carried on singing even as the bullets whistled, as they tore into flesh and bone, and as all around him his Italian friends fell in untidy heaps. His life was spared, and he became one of the few Italians to survive one of the worst crimes of the Second World War -- a crime committed not by the SS, nor by the Gestapo, but by regular troops of the Wehrmacht on the idyllic Greek island of Cephalonia.

The story of the singing prisoner could have been penned by Louis de Bernieres in Captain Corelli's Mandolin, the bestselling novel that adopts the massacre of several thousand Italian troops as the chilling backdrop for an epic love affair between a music-loving Italian officer and a strong-willed local beauty. It's been made into a film -- a romantic blockbuster starring Oscar-winner Nicolas Cage and Penelope Cruz that's just been released. But the story of the singing Italian prisoner is not fiction -- it comes from the newly discovered diary of an Austrian-born corporal who took part in the crushing of a former ally. 

Following Benito Mussolini's fall from power, Italy had formally surrendered to the allies in September 1943, and changed sides. The Italian division on Cephalonia refused to surrender to the Germans, who controlled Greece. The diary is the first such record of events on Cephalonia to emerge that recounts the massacre from the perspective of its perpetrators. It not only graphically chronicles the killings that form the film's dramatic climax, but has broken a conspiracy of silence that endured in Germany for more than 50 years.

Alfred Richter first started keeping a diary during the summer of 1926. When, in early August 1943, as a result of Hitler's annexation of Austria five years before, the 36-year-old painter was drafted into the 54th battalion of the Wehrmacht's Alpine troops, his talent with words must have caught someone's attention: he was put in charge of keeping the daily minutes of his unit's movements and operations.

He also kept a separate, personal diary, which he jotted down in notebooks during breaks from his military duties, and carried a camera. "I awake as the ship docks," Richter wrote on Sept. 20, 1943. "After 7 1/2 hours at sea, we reach the west coast of the biggest Ionian island, Cephalonia. The beach is said to be full of mines. So we must walk only along narrow, marked-out stretches."

The Germans were preparing for an onslaught against the men of Gen. Antonio Gandin, the commanding officer of the Italian army's Acqui division, who had refused to surrender. On Sept. 21, the day chosen to launch the attack, the plan was for another German battalion, of the 98th Gebirgsjager Regiment, to advance ahead of Richter's unit on the town of Dilinata. Another formation would seek to confuse the Italians with a diversion. Dawn finds Richter marching south along the road to Dilinata. The road, which becomes worse with every step he takes, leads to a high pass.

Ahead of him, the troops with the 98th encounter the Italians. "Only a few shots are fired," he notes. "Then the Italians wave white handkerchiefs and run down in groups. But when we reach the spot, we come across Italians lying on the ground. There are many of them. They were all shot in the head, they were all shot by the 98th after they had surrendered. Some Alpine troops pull shoes off the bodies."

The unit marches on towards Frangata. In the early afternoon, the sun beats down and it is "hellish hot." Fighters and reconnaissance planes circle above as the men advance. "We make a halt in a garden," Richter writes, "near an Italian battery that has been brutally annihilated by those of the 98th. Shot, killed, and trampled with mountain boots, the men of the coastal artillery lie at their positions. It must have happened a few minutes ago. Under the bloodied bodies, there is one that still moves and breathes. The eyes of another man lie next to the skull, which has been crushed completely."

It is five in the afternoon by the time Richter reaches the outskirts of Frangata; two companies of Italians surrender without firing a shot. They believe capture means their lives are saved. The men in Richter's unit are thirsty after many hours on the road, and steal the wine the prisoners are carrying. Several German soldiers become drunk. Preparing to move on, Richter's unit hands over its prisoners to another battalion.

"They are taken close to a bridge," he notes, "in the fields surrounded by stone walls outside the city, and they are executed. We remain two hours on the spot and for the whole time we hear shots without any interruption, and the shouts can be heard as far away as the houses of the Greeks. Without any respect for their professions, neither doctors nor priests are spared execution.

"A group of Bavarian soldiers try to refuse to obey, but an officer threatens to put them up against the wall as well. Everything happens so fast that those who did the shooting have no time to see whether all the Italians are dead. I have heard it said that some Italians, in the back rows, let themselves fall to the ground although they had not been hit, and afterwards got up from among the masses of the dead and ran towards the Greeks."

It is here that Richter comes across the singing prisoner. There is only a short, tantalizing reference: "A tragi-comic figure, saving his life by climbing onto a box and singing Italian opera arias with a beautiful voice, while his companions are killed."

Two days later, on Sept. 23, Richter speculates briefly on the reason for the massacre: "People say it was an order from the Fuhrer to kill all the men of the Acqui division against whom we were fighting. I doubt this. I think it was our commanders who were drunk with despotism, and for them the life of an individual was only a number. Nobody buries the dead, which start smelling immediately given the heat. In one little street, where the bodies are piled up one on top of the other, the smell is so terrible that I turn away and don't take any pictures." Richter writes of his delight at managing to grab a pair of shorts from a pile of clothes taken from the Italians.

That same day, military records show, the German Gen. Hubert Lanz reported from Cephalonia to Berlin: "Final mopping up ... is under way. General Gandin and his staff were captured. Special treatment in compliance with Fuhrer Order."

Issued in mid-September, the order stated that any Italian troops that took up arms against Germany were to be seen as insurgents; their officers should be court-martialed and shot, and the soldiers sent to labour camps in the East. The body of the Acqui division's commander, Gandin, was never found, although the remains of 3,000 victims were returned to Italy in the 1950s.

Richter's diary would perhaps never have come to light had not Roland Kaltenegger, an Austrian-based military historian, published a book in 1977 titled German Alpine Troops in the Second World War. Richter read the book, and invited Kaltenegger to his home near Salzburg. He brought out his diary and some photographs. He had typed out the diary on his return home after the war, working from the notes and observations he had made. It was only after Richter died two years ago, at the age of 92, that Kaltenegger gave the extracts concerning Cephalonia to the makers of a German television documentary.

He also handed over a handwritten account by one Waldemar Taudtman, who, according to military records in Berlin, was then a 21-year-old private serving with Richter in the 54th battalion. Although much shorter than Richter's, Taudtman's account is significant for setting out the orders that the troops were given. "No prisoners will be taken, everything we see before us will be cut down," he notes on the morning of Sept. 20.

Four days later, he describes how the mountain troops sacked the homes of civilians in Argostoli, the island's capital, and how they stole watches and fountain pens from the sick at the Italian military hospital. "The way the German soldiers behaved is a disgrace," writes Taudtman, who died on the Balkan front in the last years of the war.

When extracts from Richter's diaries and Taudtman's account were first released, broadcast on Germany's ZDF television channel in April, they were hailed as breaking a long conspiracy of silence by German officialdom. After the war, the German military authorities, and since then veterans' associations, minimized the number of victims, and maintained there had been no massacre in Cephalonia. Those Italians who had died had been shot in combat, they insisted.

On the little evidence available at the time, Gen. Lanz was the only officer convicted at the Nuremberg trials.

Sentenced to 12 years' jail, he was released after five. In 1965, investigating magistrates in Germany re-examined the events on Cephalonia. The few veterans called to testify were vehement: No, they had not seen or heard anything untoward. One commander insisted, despite conflicting historical evidence, that Hitler's order had never been passed down to the troops. The results of the inquiry were never published.

The tragedy may yet return to haunt Germany: Prosecutors are considering using Richter's diary to start a new investigation.

The original screenplay of Captain Corelli's Mandolin called for a scene that echoed almost exactly the episode of the condemned prisoner singing for his life. Unaware of Richter's diary, screenwriter Shawn Slovo portrayed a captured Corelli (Nicolas Cage) leading his men in opera arias as they are driven to their impending execution.

"I never quite specified what exactly they would be singing," says Slovo. "Verdi, probably. Remember that Corelli is the main driving force behind his unit's opera society, which he calls La Scala."

In the film, the society consists of a chorus of soldiers who not only burst into song at the oddest moments with rough-edged snippets from Puccini and other Italian composers, but who also represent the thousands of Italian soldiers who lost their lives on Cephalonia.

But when the time came for the director, John Madden, to revise the script one last time, he struck out the scene. "The more I thought about it, the more I doubted that a film audience would tolerate that episode," he says. "It was fine for a book, but not for a film. The risk was that operatic sentimentality would tip the event into completely the wrong direction."

And the decisive factor was the story he was told in Cephalonia by an elderly islander, a teenager at the time of the killings, who saw more than 600 Italian soldiers executed in a field next to his house. They had been rounded up and herded into a school. They sang late into the night. They sang of home, because they thought they would be treated as prisoners of war and eventually sent back to Italy.

But the next morning they were taken to the field, told to remove their knapsacks and to make a big pile of their valuables. Lined up along the perimeter stone wall of the field, they then stood waiting quietly.

Suddenly tarpaulins were whisked off two or three machineguns, which opened fire. It took only a few minutes. Officers then walked among the bodies, dispatching any screaming survivors. The bodies were left where they fell, and the villagers ended up putting many of them down wells, which to this day have not been opened.

"What struck me about the old man's story was the unexpectedness of what happened," says Madden. "In the film, I want the killing to ambush the audience just as much as it ambushes the soldiers. I want to deal with the massacre as a grim reality that one would never imagine would reach those shores. Music and singing is a metaphor for the life which Corelli represents, but there are moments when singing and music are simply impossible." Madden held firm to his decision, even when de Bernieres expressed his disappointment after seeing the first copy of the film: "It's a pity you left that out," he told Madden, "because it did actually happen."

Another scene from the book also struck the director as almost grotesque and unsuitable for filming: the episode in which German officers walk among the piles of bodies and announce that it is all over, that anyone still alive can stand up and be spared.

The massacre comes three-quarters of the way into the film, and as in the book, it is the dramatic climax to the story of Corelli's love for Pelagia (Penelope Cruz). Little time is given to the German perspective, but there is a Richter-type character in the film who gives the butchers a human face. Lieut. Gunter Weber (David Morrissey), who has befriended Corelli and his men, is present in the clearing chosen for the executions. Corelli recognizes and hails him, but is ignored by Weber.

After the Italians are mown down, a shocked Weber picks his way among the bodies, administering the coup de grace to those still alive. He finds a horribly wounded Corelli, who whispers to him: "Shoot me." Weber tries to, but cannot bring himself to pull the trigger. He walks away. "We must always remember, in historical drama, that the people we're playing didn't have hindsight," says Morrissey. "Yes, now we know what the Nazis did, but not all Nazis themselves necessarily knew or, as with Weber, were just beginning to get a glimmer."

The film's producer, Tim Bevan, has described it as the most ambitious film made in Greece since The Guns of Navarone, and while on location in Cephalonia the crew stumbled again and again over reminders of what it was attempting to re-create. One of the most harrowing discoveries was made in the very clearing where the execution of Corelli's men was to be filmed.

In temperatures of 45C in the shade, technicians were raking the earth to make sure actors would not injure themselves as they fell, and to bury detonating wire for special effects including body hits when someone found an old German cartridge casing in a corner of the field. The set went quiet for a long moment, before the crew went back to their preparations.

The debate over how many died on the island continues in Italy to this day, and is acknowledged in de Bernieres' novel: "At least 4,000 were massacred and possibly 9,000. Was it 288,000 kilos of butchered human meat, or 648,000? Was it 18,752 litres of bright young blood, or 42,192? The evidence was lost in flame."

Bodies were burnt in huge bonfires, with olive branches as fuel, buried in shallow graves, or thrown into the sea. According to Alfio Caruso, the author of Italians You Must Die, the latest book published about Cephalonia, 6,400 Italians were killed there. Of these, 1,200 died in combat, while the rest were massacred. Of 3,300 victims, no trace has ever been found. Only 34 Italians are known to have survived by feigning death among the corpses, as the fictional Corelli does.

Among the real-life survivors is Amos Pampaloni, then a captain with an artillery regiment, who was forced to surrender when his battery was overrun by the Germans. His unconsummated love affair with an 18-year-old Greek girl, and the fact that he survived being shot, is said to have inspired de Bernieres, although the author says the character was pure invention.

Now 92 and living near the sports stadium in Florence, the six-foot-three Pampaloni, a gentle giant of a man, tells the story of his escape in a voice made hoarse by a throat-cancer operation. Without any warning, a German officer shot him in the neck from behind with a pistol shortly after he surrendered. "It felt as if a giant had struck me a huge blow with a red-hot metal glove," Pampaloni says. "If I was religious I would say it was a miracle. But I'm not a believer, so I say I owe my survival to a lucky combination." The bullet penetrated his neck near the spinal cord and his carotid artery, but failed to harm them. And lastly, says Pampaloni, it missed his jawbone too. 'That's not a vital organ, but if I'd been hit there it would have hurt a lot, the pain would have made me cry out and I'd have been shot again, like so many of my companions were."

He remembers that he fell to the ground, machineguns opened fire, and his men cried out "Mamma" and "Dio" as they were decimated. Later someone lifted his arm up to take off his watch. Then the Germans left him for dead. He was nursed back to health by an untrained doctor, and fought for a year with the partisans, taking part in the liberation of Cephalonia a year later, in 1944.

"I suppose it's a good thing that the Germans say the truth today, that they talk about the barbarity of what happened, because until recently they were denying any massacre had ever taken place," Pampaloni says. "But there's one thing I would have liked to ask Richter: why didn't you denounce what you had seen immediately when you got back home? The war was over, the Nazis were no longer in power, there was a democratic German government. You that are shocked by the barbarity, why did so many years go by before your diary came out?"

So many years, he says, that there is now no point in a new investigation into the events that almost cost him his life. "Justice, an apology, vendetta -- I want none of those. Of course, I'm bitter that no one was ever properly sentenced for those crimes, but now it's too late.

"Any German veteran still alive would be at least 80 years old now, and if he was an officer he is very probably dead already. All I would like is that people never forget."

Siehe auch:

Verbrecher unterm Edelweiß endlich vor Gericht stellen

Gespräch mit Ulrich Sander nach dem Pfingstreffen 2003 in Mittenwald und nach dem Karlsruher Urteil


Pfingsten 2003 - Gegen die Traditionspflege der Gebirgsjäger


"'Real Corelli' gets close to Germans linked to massacre"/"Germany confronts Nazi atrocity: Reunion of war veterans intensifies calls for prosecutions over Cephalonia massacre"

Weitere Literaturhinweise...


Wehrmachts-Veteranen wollen nicht an Massaker erinnert werden

Protest gegen Feier der Gebirgstruppe / Opfer berichten von Kriegsverbrechen / Bundeswehr unterstützt Traditionstreffen

(Dokumentation aus der Frankfurter Rundschau vom 10.06.03)


Für die Erinnerung an die Opfer ist bei der Soldatenfeier kein Platz


Gegen die Traditionspflege der Gebirgsjäger

Btr.: Unverzügliche Strafverfolgung der Mörder von Kephallonia gefordert...

Pressemitteilung der VVN-BdA NRW:

Angreifbare Traditionspflege:


VVN/BdA fordert unverzügliche Strafverfolgung der Mörder von Kephallonia:

Mörder unterm Edelweiß – noch immer unter uns: