We continue with the interview Carl Schmitt’s sons Peter and David Schmitt gave shortly after coming home from service on the front lines in Italy late in World War II. (Click here for Part 1 and Part 2.)
The boys had become familiar with the Italian language and culture during their stay in Italy with their family shortly before war broke out in 1939. This knowledge held them in good stead as technical officers assigned to the headquarters of the 86th Infantry Regiment. As members of the famed 10th Mountain Division, they were part of the advance team which sent back reports of German positions and relayed orders to front line troops.
Here the young men speak of the culture and mindset of both the fascists and the resistance on the Italian side as well as the German soldiers with insight beyond their years. Their maturity also shows through in their comments on what the American soldier was capable of under the enormous pressure and confusion of war.
Talking to the Italians through northern Italy, the Schmitts understood their helplessness under Fascist rule. David called the Fascists a clique. When they marched on Rome and seized power, the first thing they did was to confiscate all weapons. “A man couldn’t even shoot a squirrel,” he said. “And the people couldn’t have anything to eat unless they belonged to the Fascist union,” Peter protested indignantly.
David spoke of the hatred of the Italians for militarism and their surprise to find American military etiquette not so strict as their own. He used to go to different homes in the evening, to chat or play games, perhaps wearing his old clothes. When the family discovered he was a Sergeant, they’d exclaim, “You’re a Sergeant, and you go around with privates!” Such a situation would never occur in the Fascist Army. “Their officers feel so much superiority,” commented Peter.
The German soldier, on the other hand, Peter Schmitt said, would do anything for obedience. There were a number of instances when they had shot American medics going to the aid of the wounded under the protection of the Red Cross flag. On the other hand, they themselves would advance, carrying the same flag, the Americans would hold fire, and the Germans would throw grenades. A lot of the captured Germans were old men. “They seemed so human. You wondered how they could do these things.” Peter thought it was because the German soldier turns into a different person when he receives an order. “He’ll do anything he’s ordered to do; his mind goes blank, and he’s just a robot.”
“But we mustn’t forget some of the things our fellows did,” said David, who had been listening intently to his brother’s comments. “Some had killed in cold blood,” he said hesitantly. Afterwards, these men developed a sort of terror, more intense than the normal combat fear. “It’s a matter of doing what isn’t morally right,” David observed. For example, the man who sees his buddy knocked off, may lose his head and kill the German who wanted to surrender and could have been taken prisoner. His guilty feelings grow, building up fear. Doctors know this, David said, because of a medicine administered under the influence of which “a man tells what’s on his mind.”