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U-boat Commander Oskar Kusch: Anatomy of a Nazi-Era Betrayal and Judicial Murder by Eric Rust

Reviewed by Sarandis Papadopoulos, Ph.D.

U.S. Dept. of the Navy, Arlington, Virginia

Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2020. Index. xxv + 340, illus. $45.00.

In 1951, American novelist Herman Wouk published The Caine Mutiny. With drama equaling that award-winning novel, Eric Rust here tells the story of German U-boat Lieutenant Oskar Kusch, recounting wartime characters whose divergent motives and actions wound up in a tragic real courtroom scene conducted seven years earlier. The facts were these: after a lengthy time at sea, Kusch’s former executive officer on the German submarine U-154, Lieutenant Ulrich Abel—coincidentally a trained lawyer—levelled accusations (after taking issue with Kusch’s two personnel evaluations) of disloyalty to Nazism, portraying his former commander as a defeatist coward. In a one-day trial the Navy found Kusch guilty and sentenced him to death, a penalty confirmed up the service hierarchy and carried out in May 1944. Despite failed postwar attempts to prosecute his judge for war crimes, Kusch’s rehabilitation from this “judicial murder” of the title only succeeded in the 1990s, due to diligent German historians led by Heinrich Walle.

Author Eric Rust is a professor of German history at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas. Along with past service as a West German Navy officer, he is the author of Naval Officers under Hitler: The Story of Crew 34, a study of one class at the German Navy School, their wartime experiences, and the influences of National Socialism on the service. That work tackled the idea of the Kriegsmarine as an apolitical organization, separate from the wider crimes of the Third Reich, especially the brutal Soviet-German war and the Holocaust. The subject of the current work, Kusch, was three years junior to the officers of Rust’s earlier study, his case used here to highlight more of the German political-military relationship.

Kusch was a native Berliner, from a prosperous, literate, middle-class family. He joined the prewar Kriegsmarine to fulfill a naval career ambition, seeing no contradiction between his own critical thinker politics and patriotic service. He volunteered for submarine duty, serving as a training and watch officer. Becoming a wartime executive officer, talent and success then let Kusch take over the French-based U-154 starting in early 1943. From that point, the arc of his fate descended. Despite relative success off Brazil, damaging several Allied ships, his reservist second-in-command Abel, and young chief engineer, convinced themselves Kusch hated the National Socialist regime. A second, less productive patrol followed, although the U-154 crew proved fortunate to survive the deadly summer. Abel left to assume command of another U-boat, as recommended by Kusch, although he disliked his captain’s criticism. Only at that point did Abel publicly reveal his suspicions to the Navy, outside normal channels.

Briskly written chapters cover Kusch’s and Abel’s biographies, with Rust employing their careers to set the context of Germany’s naval situation before 1939 and wartime everyday lives. The caesura in their personal relations began once the officers met, when Kusch pulled a picture of Adolf Hitler off a U-154 bulkhead, denouncing its display as “idolatry.” (83) The ensuing two patrols receive a chapter each, followed by ones dealing with Abel’s charges, the trial, Kusch’s incarceration, and his execution. Another chapter, “Wakes,” outlines how the accusers died on U-boats, the postwar careers of others, while Kusch’s family unsuccessfully sought to reverse this miscarriage of justice. In summary, Rust considers his subject a genuinely talented, confident officer, trusted by his sailors, but Kusch was too outspoken for his own good. (295) In contrast, Abel turned over his former commanding officer to a “politically corrupt and ideologically obsequious naval justice apparatus.” (288)

This is an exhaustively researched work, vividly portraying its personalities. Rust tackles the narrative clearly and compellingly portrays Kusch as naïve for believing Navy service would shield him from Nazism. His accuser Abel is leniently shown, for example, suffering the loss of his family apartment during July 1943 Allied air raids on Hamburg. The presiding naval judge, Karl-Heinrich Hagemann, railroaded Kusch for “undermining fighting power,” chairing the panel which sentenced him to death, despite the prosecution’s recommended penalty of ten years in prison. Damningly, Navy leadership from flotilla commander Captain Hans Rösing to Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, any of whom could have stayed the sentence, betrayed Kusch. There was a “band of brothers” in the U-bootswaffe, but the Kriegsmarine leadership had long-since subordinated that imperative to proving their loyalty to the National Socialist regime, or avoid repeating the mutinies of 1918, all out of self-preservation. (295)

Alien to non-German historians, these politicized loyalties both to survivors of the suicidal U-boat campaign and their leaders, notably Dönitz, outlasted the Second World War. After 1945, when Kusch’s family pressed to hold naval judge Hagemann accountable for crimes against humanity, German courts, largely staffed by former National Socialist legal officials, twice found him not guilty. Discouragingly, former senior leaders involved also closed ranks to protect themselves and their reputations: Dönitz insisted Kusch was shot to preserve discipline. (292) Returning to the climax of Wouk’s novel, a fictional U.S. Marine Corps lawyer warns the mutineers that weariness and fear affect everyone seeking to deliver professional combat performance, the sole important characteristic in war. Here, Rust convinces readers that in the Kriegsmarine combat success mattered, but strictly in the context of political loyalty to the National Socialist regime. Hitler would argue the two were inseparable.

In this admirable book, one might wish for a bit more on internal Kriegsmarine seams, between regular officers and reservists, and how both viewed the enlisted sailors they led. U-boat crews were tight knit, and believed Dönitz that to abandon their war would mean killing their families, by allowing greater Allied effort against German cities. But Kusch was seen differently by all three groups, with reservists seemingly most politicized, sailors least; why? The objection is minor, for there are limits to what we can know about the past, and this story is complete. Rust has researched every character to the limit, even interviewing the daughter of Kusch’s fiancée and Abel’s now-deceased widow. This work stands as a model of what a mid-career military biography should be, useful in undergraduate and graduate courses. At the end, we can only lament that able people serve criminal regimes, even when they disagree with them, while others will brutally exploit their authority to coordinate the defense of dictators, even after the fact.

The opinions expressed here at strictly those of the authors, and should not be construed as those of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.

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