A couple of years ago I made the journey to the village of Kondomari in Crete, accompanied by my friends Bruce Mildenhall and documentary maker John Irwin.
It is a beautiful drive up into the low hills to the west of Chania; as we drive past the low stone walls and olive groves the sun breaks through the trees and the scent of flowers fills the air. Soon we pass a bend in the road and we have arrived. In the distance below, down towards the sea, lies Maleme.
The little village is quiet when we arrive, it is the middle of the day, the sun is high and all are most likely inside enjoying a customary siesta. But I am on a pilgrimage. It was on Monday 2nd June in 1941 that four German trucks loaded with paratroops drove along these roads and stopped in the village.
The previous weeks had brought the German invasion to Crete. The villagers would have had a ringside view of the battles around Maleme and Chania. They would have seen the paratroops dropping, they would have heard the valiant defence by Allied troops and they would have witnessed the see-saw of battle as it finally tipped to the German’s advantage.
And some would have joined with other Cretans in fighting alongside the Allied troops. German paratroops had landed around nearby Platanias as well as Kondomari. Local fighters are recorded to have assisted the New Zealand troops in their defence of the area, inflicting severe losses on the enemy.
As the Allied soldiers retreated, rumours spread through the German troops that some of their war dead had been mutilated by civilians. And so it was that the Nazi Air Minister, Herman Goering, ordered the German commander of Crete, General Kurt Student, to institute an inquiry and commence civilian reprisals without formalities. As historian Antony Beevor writes, in typical Nazi fashion the inquiry followed the reprisals. This inquiry would dispel the vast majority of these rumours, finding that many of the ‘mutilated’ dead bodies had in fact been affected by the extreme heat and prevalence of carrion birds in Crete. But the wave of brutal reprisals had already commenced.
And so the thirty or so paratroopers came to Kondomari. Blaming the whole village for the deaths of a few German soldiers whose decaying bodies were found near the village, the commander Horst Trebes directed the troops to gather the villagers in the square. Importantly, the Trebe’s unit was accompanied by a divisional war photographer, Franz-Peter Weixler.
Prior to entering Kondomari, Weixler had argued with two of the paratroop officers concerning the allegation of mutilations of the dead, the purported reason for the reprisals. He told them that he had seen dead soldiers whose bodies were partially destroyed by the heat and vultures picking at the corpses. As he said, carrying out Goering’s reprisal order would amount to “outright murder.”
What followed is drawn from Weixler’s written testimony and his unique photographic record of this terrible day in the history of Kondomari.
A search of houses produced a paratrooper jacket with a bullet hole in the back. Trebes immediately order the house burnt to the ground. One of the villagers volunteered himself as having killed a paratrooper. Despite Weixler’s direct appeals to Trebes that there was no evidence against anyone else in the village and that the reprisal action should be abandoned, the commander ordered the selection of a number of village men for execution.
As the village men were being led to a nearby olive grove, Weixler made it possible for nine men to get away. The remainder was then led into the place of execution and shot. 23 villagers were executed that day. Weixler could not believe it and asked Trebes if he knew what he had done. The murders at Kondomari would be repeated across Crete and Greece, the destruction of the village of Kandanos taking place on the next day. And so began the reign of terror on Crete that would see thousands of civilians murdered and villages destroyed.
THE ROLE OF FRANZ-PETER WEIXLER
What was different at Kondomari was the presence of Franz-Peter Weixler. For the whole terrible action was captured by Weixler in a series of photographs – from the arrival of the German troops, to the assembly of the villagers in the square, the separation of the men and their walk to the olive grove, the executioners forming a semi-circle and the killing of the civilians. The German Army in WW2 would commit many atrocities at the behest of its Nazi leadership – from Poland to France, from Russia to Greece. But the actions of Franz-Peter Weixler on that hot day in June 1941 ensured that the murder of these men could not be forgotten.
Many will have seen these shocking photographs but may not be aware of how and why they were taken and the steps the photographer took to ensure their survival. Directed to surrender his film to his superiors, Weixler was able to send copies to a friend in Athens. He was soon dismissed from the German Army and later accused of high treason for having leaked his photographic record of the Kondomari massacre and for helping some of the villagers escape. Arrested by the Gestapo, Weixler was court martialled. Condemned to death, Weixler remained in prison from early 1944 until the end of the war. But he would not rest. Weixler went on to provide a written testimony of the massacre and Goering’s role in ordering such actions during the trial of the former Nazi leader at Nuremberg after the war. While Goering committed suicide before he was to be executed, Horst Trebes – who was awarded the Knights Cross by Goering for his “bravery” in Crete – was later killed following the Normandy landings. Former General Student was never tried for crimes against civilians.
Why did Weixler take the action he did? We know that he was not the only member of the German armed forces who protested at the reprisals order on Crete. But Weixler’s action went beyond disapproval. We know that he was a committed Christian, having been a member of various pre-war Catholic associations and after the war he became active in Germany’s Christian Social Union Party. He did join the Nazi Party and the SS in 1933 but was expelled and briefly arrested in 1934, becoming active in various German anti-Nazi resistance groups, using the evidence of his photographs to encourage opposition to the regime.
After the war, Weixler returned to Kondomari and was given a customary welcome in the local café. It is recorded that the welcome was brief, no doubt the sense of loss being felt intensely by the surviving villagers. Later Weixler’s photographs were finally brought to a wider audience through the investigative research of two Greek journalists, Vassos Mathiopoulos and Kostas Papapetrou.
And so we stand before the memorial to those who were murdered on the outskirts of the village all those years ago. The names of those murdered are listed to the left of the classical-style stile standing behind the ceremonial stone grave site. And beyond the entrance is another stile depicting the Cretan resistance to the German occupation of their island.
What touches me is the fact that this is no sterile memorial, rarely visited and alone. This memorial – like so many others across Crete and Greece – stands in the village where these terrible events took place. It is a living memorial, many local residents being related to those remembered here.
These were ordinary civilians, with their lives ahead of them, struck down in their prime by a ruthless force, acting contrary to the laws of war. This was murder, pure and simple. And on that day, Franz-Peter Weixler was outraged. He protested. He helped some escape and he ensured that this crime was documented and would not be forgotten. It is fitting that the memorial includes a mural reproducing some of the photographs taken by Franz-Peter Weixler on that terrible day.
The Nuremberg Testimony of Franz-Peter Weixler is available on-line at Cornell University Law Library (USA) and his photographs at the German Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv).
*Jim Claven is a trained historian and freelance writer.