Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Prison
In almost twenty years of service over more than forty years, I met some of the best people it has ever been my good fortune to meet, and some of the worst.
In the fall, I took a class in contemporary Russian literature. One of the books we read was a memoir by the Russian billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky titled “My Fellow Prisoners.” The short book was a series of sketches about men he met serving a ten-year sentence from 2003-2013. Khodorkovsky was the first and richest billionaire that Vladimir Putin jailed as he consolidated his power during his first term as President.
As soon as the discussion started, it was clear that neither the professor nor the other students knew any Nazis. Certainly none of them had ever knowingly spent time with a Nazi.
Alexander, the 19-year-old Nazi in a Russian prison was “a real-life Nazi—that’s to say a member of one of Russia’s numerous National-Socialist groups. Alexander is no fool; he got through his secondary school exams (in prison), is interested in philosophy and politics, wants to teach later on.”
Khodorkovsky wants know why Alexander is a Nazi, “I’ve never been able to understand how Nazism could be a phenomenon in a country where so many people lost their lives fighting it.” They can talk and get along because they have a common enemy in the guard and a common purpose in someday walking out of prison.
Reading Khodorkovsky reminded me of a Nazi I served with. He was my platoon sergeant in an Army Reserve tank company in the early 80s. Within a few years he would be promoted to Command Sergeant Major and be activated for Operation Desert Storm. Sergeant First Class Michael Wittmann* was competent, thorough, took care of his men, knew his equipment, and did not believe The Holocaust happened, or it wasn’t as bad as the Jewish propaganda said it was. He collected German memorabilia, had reworked an Wehrmacht MG 42 machinegun to fire the NATO ammo our tanks used, and some of the soldiers in the unit said he had a picture of himself in dress uniform with a swastika.
For Mike, I was a good tank commander with active duty experience. He got me promoted to staff sergeant and made me a section leader, in charge of two tanks. We had a common enemy, the Soviet horde that was going to invade Western Europe, and a common mission to train for that fight.
Mike knew America defeated the Nazis, but he also knew that defeating Japan was what got America into World War II. Defeating Germany, in his view, was about protecting our allies England and France. He could celebrate America’s victory in World War II and still admire Nazi ideology. "America First" was active in America and supporting Nazis right up until the time America declared war on Germany.
With a similar selective perception, Alexander, Khodorkovsky’s Nazi, could deny the horrors of The Holocaust that in some cases happened on the soil of the Russia itself and many former Soviet states. He knew the Russian armies defeated the invading German army, but Alexander could still admire the invader’s ideology.
Mike enlisted during the Vietnam War. He knew that the mostly teenage soldiers who defeated Hitler’s armies were not fighting for ideology, they were fighting beside their buddies against the enemy in front of them. Only civilians believe soldiers fight for great causes.
In an irony I should have pursued further, Mike’s family and neighbors may have known my Jewish father. My Dad was the Commandant of the Afrika Korps prison camp in Reading, Pennsylvania, on what is now the Reading Airport. The six hundred prisoners were allowed to work on local farms and paid ten cents a day by the farmers, many of whom were German immigrants in the previous century.
The prisoners knew the camp Commandant was Jewish and a former middleweight boxer. When one of their officers made a remark in German about the new Commandant being a Jew, my father knocked him out. My father grew up speaking Yiddish at home so he could understand German. Mike would have heard stories about the German POWs working on the farms during the war. My father told me some of the prisoners stayed in the United States after the war.
I met up with Mike early in 2016. He is retired and a big supporter of Trump. We spoke a little about the old days, but it was pretty clear we were not going to be friends. We no longer had a common purpose, and if we were not openly enemies, we certainly represented what each of us thought was killing America.
When we served together, I could look at Mike as I looked at all racists, as dinosaurs. I just had to wait for them to go extinct. I was wrong about that. Nazis and white supremacists have come out in the open with a champion in the White House.
In the 80s I saw the Nazi I served with as just another racist in an Army that was dealing with integration better than the rest of the country. I never imagined then that the racial divides of the 50s that were getting better in the 80s would come roaring back in the 21st Century.
*Michael Wittmann is not his real name, but the name of WWII German tank commander of considerable reputation. Wittmann is buried in the German Cemetery in Normandy I visited.