Webs of Destiny
By Roon Lewald
In the dark ages before tonsured monks from Lindisfarne and Ireland bore their Cross into the dense Teutonic forests, Nordic myths related that the destinies of men and gods were determined by three silent old crones who incessantly wove the myriad threads of individual lives into fateful patterns. The seamless web emerging from their spindles foretold which fallen heroes would soon join their companions in Odin’s heavenly drinking hall, or which chance meeting of man and maid would bless or haunt posterity with self-propagating chains of good or evil. When the calamitous pattern that finally emerged under their tireless hands brought the blazing timbers of Valhalla crashing down to bury the feasting gods and warriors, the old hags dropped their spindles and fled shrieking. The sway of the old gods over the world had ended.
Someone else must have picked up the fallen spindles and continued the work of the Norns. It was Arnold von Roon, a cousin of my father, who gave me my first glimpse of a stray thread of history that linked two continents and persons as disparate as a German parachute major, wartime South African saboteur Robey Leibbrandt and “Doctor Death”, the Apartheid-era physician who master-minded a grisly campaign of chemical and biological warfare against South African blacks and neighbouring African countries. A series of further coincidences showed me how blindly destiny weaves individual human lives into its vast patterns.
Arnold von Roon first swam into my ken shortly after I emigrated to Germany in 1971. He telephoned me out of the blue, explained who he was and asked whether my sister and I wished to take over the cost of maintaining the grave of my paternal grandmother, Margarethe Lewald (née von Roon), in Kassel. Unknown to us, a sense of familial duty had made him settle the cemetery charges for his Aunt Grethe’s grave out of his own pocket for many years after losing contact with my father, who had emigrated to South Africa in 1938.
Arnold was a former Wehrmacht paratroop major who was known to his regimental comrades by the English-sounding nickname “Ronnie” because he seemed a very model of a British gentleman officer. The modest, affable “Ronnie” was a real find – my first link with living German relatives who had known my father when he was a young pre-war music student in Berlin. The weavers of fate had spun very different careers for the two cousins. As the son of a half-Jewish senior civil servant, my father’s hopes of obtaining a teaching post at a Berlin music academy were thwarted by the Third Reich’s progressive denial of civic rights to “non-Aryans” under the infamous Nuremberg race laws. The night of the burning synagogues and the climactic horrors of the Shoa came later, but my father had thankfully emigrated to South Africa by then.
The two cousins met for the last time in the mid-1930s. At that time, my father had defied his authoritarian parent’s ban on the musical profession he had set his heart on. In doing so, he had abandoned the legal studies my grandfather had ordained as an entry ticket to a senior civil service career befitting the eldest son of His Excellency Moritz Otto Fidelio Lewald, retired acting administrator of the Prussian province of Hessen. Arnold and his mother came upon my good-looking father in the dashing, gold-tressed Hussar’s uniform of a lowly usher at the Ufapalast cinema along Berlin’s fashionable Kurfürstendamm boulevard. After my father showed them to their seats, Arnold’s mother whispered to Arnold: “That’s your cousin Albrecht Lewald. His father cut him off without a penny, and this is how he is financing his musical studies.” Von Roon told me later he was rather impressed by his somewhat older cousin’s dogged defiance of his father, who had struck Arnold as a perfect image of a stern, ramrod-straight Prussian senior official.
Arnold himself was the son of an infantry general and great-grandson of Field Marshal Albrecht Count von Roon, a Prussian war minister whose surname I myself bear as my Christian name. It was the old count’s radical military reforms that helped the Prussian-led German troops to smash the French Army at Sedan, setting the stage for the proclamation of the united German empire in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles in 1871. As pillars of the old Prussian soldier aristocracy, the Roons were so apolitically steeped in military tradition that Hitler’s rise to power did not deter young Arnold from joining the Wehrmacht. He became a cavalry officer as family tradition dictated, but soon switched from horseback to the rear gunner’s seat of a Heinkel biplane and gained his baptism of fire with the Condor Legion during the Spanish civil war. He then switched once more to join the paratroops, a brand-new type of unit that was to prove its military value when hand-picked paras speeded the Wehrmacht’s lightning conquest of France by smashing the “impregnable” Belgian frontier fortress of Eben Emael.
“Ronnie” himself earned a Knight’s Cross during the legendary airborne invasion of Crete. “That was a hairy business all right,” he admitted when I asked him about it over 40 years later. The first paras to land behind the coastal defences took the British by surprise because “the Tommies were expecting a naval assault, so they kept peering at the horizon instead of the sky.” But Ronnie’s lot had such a tough time holding their inadequate bridgeheads that General Student gave a do-or-die order to crash-land slow, tri-motored Ju-52 paratroop transports and towed gliders straight onto wreckage-strewn, still fiercely defended airstrips. The Germans lost as many as 50% of their troops, but the gamble succeeded.
Luftwaffe chief Goering had the propagandistically ballyhooed heroes of Crete flown to his private retreat at Karinhall, a huge, pseudo-Germanic “hunting lodge” in the eastern forests of Germany. Arnold and other Knight’s Cross holders were led to forest clearings, where Goering’s foresters handed each man a loaded gun and helped him to slay a tethered stag at short range – strictly observing protocol that required the number of antler points on the trophy to reflect each “sportsman’s” military rank. During the victory celebration that night, fat Hermann Goering waddled up the enormous wooden staircase and disappeared from sight. Soon afterwards, an aide escorted Arnold and several brother officers to a kind of top-floor playroom. There, said Arnold, he was greeted by the sight of the jovial Reichsmarschall sitting on the floor in his shirtsleeves, for all the world like a grown-up Billy Bunter. With a boyish grin on his chubby, perspiring face, he proudly showed off what may then have been the biggest and finest Märklin train layout in Europe. Listening to Ronnie’s story four decades later, it seemed to me that I could hear the Third Reich’s railway tracks rattling all night long outside Goering’s fantasy world as long, ghostly trains of sealed cattle trucks shuttled Jews, Sinti, homosexuals and other “sub-humans” from the far corners of Nazi-occupied Europe to death camps in Germany and eastern Europe.
A man of my Uncle Arnold’s generation and military conditioning was hardly an instinctive democrat and showed little interest in the antics of the politicians in the modern parliament, which he tartly dismissed as the “Bonner Quasselbude” (i.e. the “Bonn hot-air factory”). Yet he had no sympathies with the Nazi regime he had served so courageously, seeing his wartime exploits purely in terms of a soldier’s duty to his fatherland. “We had no choice,” one of his old regimental buddies told me at Arnold’s 80th birthday party – a sentiment which may not satisfy those modern Germans who bemoan the lack of effective resistance to the Hitler regime within the Wehrmacht, but accurately reflects the apolitical traditions of the officer caste from which Arnold sprang.
In personal terms, Uncle Arnold was a lovely man – a kind, unassuming septuagenarian who kept himself as fit as a flea by regularly scaling the mountains surrounding the apartment he shared with his charming wife Anneliese in the sub-Alpine region of Miesbach, a village to the south of Munich. When he took me up his “Hausberg” (favourite local mountain) one summer day, traditionally attired in huntsman’s green with a badger’s brush at the front of his hat, he kept striding or hopping from rock to rock ahead of my gasping, stumbling figure. Just a foothill, not a real Alp, he commented, but high enough for my unaccustomed eye to delight in a riot of small wild flowers that became increasingly tiny and more intensely coloured in the clear mountain air well above the treeline.
“Ssh – look,” he whispered at one stage, pointing to a bare rock wall looming high over us. My city-dweller’s eyes took some time to register what he had immediately spotted from so far below: the remote crags were spiked by the tiny heads of dozens of chamois, curiously regarding us from their lofty eyries to discover our intentions.
It was soon afterwards that Uncle Arnold’s studious preoccupation with military history confronted me with a thread that one of the Norns might well have dropped from her spindle. Proudly showing me the monthly paratroop journal he edited for contributors and readers all over the world, he said: “Here’s something that should interest you as a South African. What do you know about Robey Leibbrandt?”
My jaw dropped at this unexpected question from such an unlikely source. Not much, I admitted, other than that Robey was a diehard Afrikaner opponent of British colonial rule in South Africa whose pro-Hitlerian sympathies led him to become a Nazi secret agent on the eve of World War II. Robey is still revered by ultra-nationalist Afrikaners today as the Nazi-trained saboteur whose underground organisation disrupted vital South African shipments of troops, commodities and war materiel to embattled Britain during the war. His fierce oratory attracted support from some 200-300 diehard Afrikaner opponents of British imperial rule and led pro-British Premier Jan Smuts’ government a merry dance until he was betrayed by a supporter and sentenced to death for high treason. Smuts later commuted the sentence to life imprisonment and the Afrikaner Nationalist government which ousted Smuts in a landslide 1948 election victory finally amnestied him.
Over 40 years later, Ronnie published in his monthly paratroop journal “Der Deutsche Fallschirmjäger” a detailed account of how German Abwehr (secret service) agents smuggled Leibbrandt from occupied France to South Africa for his destabilizing mission. It was a thrilling story I had never encountered before. Leibbrandt was a bull of a man, a boxer who won the light heavyweight bronze medal for South Africa at the 1934 Empire Games and participated in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Like many Afrikaners unable to forget how the hated British empire crushed two independent Boer republics in the 1898-1901 South African war, Leibrandt was enthralled by the Hitler regime’s challenge to British global power. He returned to Berlin in 1938, volunteered as a German paratrooper and was then recruited by the Abwehr as a secret agent. The Abwehr had great plans for him. Operation Weissdorn (Whitethorn), a secret plan to upset the pro-British Smuts government in strategically important South Africa, was designed around him by the Abwehr chief himself, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. Leibbrandt was trained as a saboteur in Germany to form an underground Nazi organisation in South Africa, sabotage the Smuts government’s war effort and perhaps even foment enough turmoil among pro-Nazi Afrikaners to stage a coup d’etat.
This article brought me into contact with Bernd Schaefer, a son of Leibbrandt who was born in 1940 to the fiancee he left behind in Germany when he left on his secret mission before the couple could marry (Leibbrandt later had .five children by the woman he married years after arriving in South Africa). Bernd, a retired school principal living in Stuttgart, was so fascinated by the father he never knew that he learned to speak Afrikaans fluently via the UNISA correspondence college. He flew to South Africa to learn more from his half-brothers and half-sisters in the late 1980s. After Bernd read the original version of my article, he attentioned me to a few factual errors. I am grateful for his friendly help in correcting the faults and fleshing out the Leibbrandt story with further details and personal impressions.
This is the picture that finally emerged of Leibbrandt’s epic voyage from the tiny harbour of Raimpol in Britanny in the Kyloe, a private luxury yacht used as a cover for secret Abwehr missions. I was riveted by the “Fallschirmjäger” article’s description of Leibbrandt as a pig-headedly obstinate (“dickschädliger”) Boer “who could not subordinate himself” and exasperated his Abwehr crewmates by his individualistic, risky behaviour. The article describes an incident in which Leibbrandt allegedly dashed below deck to fetch a submachine gun with which to fire at an enemy aircraft that was circling above, taking photos. The plane left before Leibrandt could fire. The Kyloe’s captain, Christian Nissen, is said to have upbraided him for putting the ship at risk, since the plane could have called in an Allied warship if fired on). Leibrandt allegedly replied “in all seriousness: ‘I would fire at the ship, then we could board it and attack the Britons.”
However, son Bernd dismisses this as one of many myths that have accreted around the Kyloe’s voyage. According to Captain Nissen’s log, he says, what actually happened is that the entire crew of the Kyloe and several escort vessels all fired at the plane and probably caused it to crash into the sea, because no alerted enemy warships subsequently showed up. Another story not borne out by facts is that Leibbrandt tried to fire at a patrolling British destroyer but was overpowered and locked up below by his alarmed crewmates. However, both the “Fallschirmjäger” article and Captain Nissen’s personal diary state that Nissen ordered two of his crew to shoot Leibbrandt and throw his body overboard if he endangered he safety of the ship.
It is also on record that Leibrandt angrily refused an order to take a German radio operator along on his mission. Schaefer defends his father’s insubordination because the man’s inability to speak English or Afrikaans made him a security risk. “He wouldn’t take orders because he saw himself as an Afrikaner who wanted to save his country, not a German soldier,” says Schaefer. When the Kyloe finally reached the Eastern Cape coast at Koringkorrel Bay, north of Cape Town, Leibbrandt, wearing only shorts and sandals, steered a rubber dinghy loaded with sabotage gear alone towards the share. The boat overturned and the equipment was lost, but the powerful Afrikaner performed the almost superhuman feat of swimming safely ashore in a pounding surf. Reading the vividly described adventure so many years later, I felt I could see it all as if I had been there myself. My God, I thought, what a lunatic — but what a man, with that berserk Afrikaner courage that his orderly German crewmates found hard to live with. As the Kyloe headed homewards, they proposed a relieved toast: ”Let’s drink to Robey – as long as he’s in hell and not on board!”
Bernd Schaefer’s research and talks with his South African family have left him with concrete impressions of a father he greatly admired as a youth, though he entirely rejects the Nazi ideals Leibrandt clung to until he died in 1966. “He was a typically obstinate Boer, easy to inspire, undiplomatically straight-forward and unable to accept criticism,” says Schaefer. “But he was a real man. I greatly respect him because he was prepared to defend what he stood for with his last drop of blood.”
When I was visiting my father in South Africa in the 1980s, we were invited to the spacious home of one of his singing pupils in Pretoria’s Nob Hill suburb of Waterkloof Ridge. This pupil was a highly accomplished singer with a lovely soprano who was very well known on South African opera and concert stages. She was a gentle, quietly attractive woman of whom my family was very fond – a kind, generous person who proved a devoted friend to my aging, widowed father in his declining years. I still have a tape of her sensitive recordings of a cycle of Afrikaans poems my father had set to music. I was somewhat surprised when I met her husband because he was such a very different kind of person: a large, heavily built man several years older, beside whom his wife seemed fragile and girlishly dependent.
Afrikaners respectfully address older men as “Oom” (uncle), and “Oom Koos” (equivalent to “Uncle Jack”) had an air of authority that made the honorific address seem imperative. His deceptively slow-moving bulk was muscular for his age and he had the knowing, level gaze of a man who has seen and done many things the general public knows little about. Before retiring, he had in fact risen to the rank of brigadier-general after a long career in the paramilitary South African police force – at a time when the police were a pillar of the secretive security establishment that kept the Apartheid regime going by fair means or foul. I was therefore a bit nervous and talked too much when, in deference to South African male protocol, I joined him in his beautifully landscaped garden at the open grill where he was scientifically roasting braaivleis (barbecue meat). “Just imagine, Oom Koos,” I chattered away, “I recently read a fascinating article about Robey Leibbrandt. In a journal edited by a German relative of mine, of all things.”
Oom Koos grunted and called out to his wife: “Meidjie (Little Maid), bring me some beer. I need to douse this meat, it’s charring a bit.”
When “Meidjie” had dutifully done his bidding, I resumed my tale and finished off with that dramatic moment when Leibbrandt swam ashore to launch his career of sabotage.
The old policeman grinned and said slowly and deliberately: “Ja, ek weet (Yes, I know)”.
“Hoe meen jy nou, Oom Koos? (What do you mean by that, Oom Koos?)”
He paused for effect, looked straight into my eyes and declared: “Ek was daar! (I was there!).”
Visibly enjoying old memories of youthful derring-do far beyond the pale of legality and political correctness, the old policeman told me he was one of the pro-Nazi Afrikaners who waited on the beach for Leibbrandt’s yacht to heave into view that night. “It’s the sort of thing you do when you’re young. We had our sports, but we made our peace with the government after the war,” he said. Then he clammed up again, but soon set off on another tack. He told me that his eldest son, a highly qualified cardiologist at a Pretoria hospital whose attentive, skilful treatment impressed my mother when she consulted him on one occasion, had given up his well-paid post to a join a secret commando operating “somewhere in the bush”. “You know what these young fellows are like,” he commented with apparent pride.
Although he gave no details, he seemed to be hinting at the type of clandestine operation the white minority regime was running to destabilize neighbouring black countries, especially Namibia and Mozambique. Details of frequently brutal secret operations in these border areas did not emerge until the white minority regime surrendered power to Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress in 1995. A trail of sabotage, rape, torture and murder left by the Apartheid-era operations was revealed at the subsequent hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
The thread of history I had followed since Arnold von Roon led me to the article about Leibbrandt’s wartime voyage to South Africa took a final twist before it disappeared from my view. Back at home in Germany a few years later, I read reports about the TRC’s sensational 1998 hearing of Wouter Basson, a man described in media reports as “Doctor Death” or “the Josef Mengele of South Africa”. I was stunned to realise that this was none other than that son of Oom Koos who had so mysteriously disappeared from public view in the 1980s.
Basson was allegedly hired in 1981 to form and run “Project Coast”, a secret operation that recruited about 200 researchers from around the world to build up a formidable chemical and biological warfare capability in violation of the international BTWC agreement. Basson and his heavily government-subsidized project were allegedly involved in attacks and assassinations against the regime’s anti-apartheid opponents, using highly sophisticated lethal toxins, biogenetically engineered substances and mass-produced drugs said to have included toxically laced or abortion-inducing forms of Ecstasy. One project involved distributing such drugs among African women to curb black population growth by making them sterile. He himself allegedly arranged the killing of 200 imprisoned SWAPO freedom fighters in Namibia. Basson allegedly used his widespread international connections to divulge information about advanced chemical and biological weapons to countries including Libya. He is also suspected of having traded in arms and nuclear materials.
In a trial lasting 30 months, Basson faced 67 charges including 229 murder counts, theft, fraud, embezzlement of a total of some $4 million, drug trafficking and drug possession. His defence skillfully contested the accusations on technicalities. The judge successively dismissed all charges and granted him amnesty in 2002, ruling among other things that the South African court could not prosecute crimes committed outside the country in Namibia. Today, the unrepentant Basson remains a free, wealthy man with influential connections in Europe and the USA.
Though I met his father and retain fond, grateful memories of his sweet-natured mother because of her musical artistry and moral support of my ailing father in the last years of his life, I never personally encountered Wouter Basson. I therefore cannot presume to judge the complex motives that might have inspired such an exceptionally intelligent, gifted man’s reputed crimes against humanity. I can only state that, to me, his deeds represent one individual personal culmination of interlinked historical patterns that go very far back in time, even if they did not start taking shape until a century or so ago. And that is a very short period indeed by the standards of the Norns.
The 19th century was a turbulent era in both Europe and faraway Southern Africa that contained curious analogies and eventually interwove the destinies of two related peoples – the Germans and the Afrikaners, themselves descended from Dutch and German settlers. The belated forging of Bismarck’s united German empire “in blood and iron” in 1871 filled the old Central European power vacuum with a powerful, militantly expansionist young state that was too politically immature to live in peace with its neighbours. Led by an autocratic Prussian monarchy, the German nation consequently marched vaingloriously into the catastrophe of World War I and reeled from its crushing defeat into the genocidal lunacy of the Third Reich. At the southern tip of Africa meanwhile, the fiercely independent spirit of Boer pioneer farmers in a rugged land forged the Afrikaner nation in the crucible of the Anglo-Boer War. The defeat of the two independent Boer republics by the mighty British Empire rigidified Afrikanerdom’s hatred of the victors as well as its most primitive racist instincts, with fearful long-term consequences for both white and black South Africans. These two historic patterns in regions that were separated by thousands of miles finally intermeshed when the rise of the Third Reich made the interests of extremists in both countries converge.
And so a young soldier named Arnold von Roon, just one individual among millions of Germans embroiled in Hitler’s war, found himself watching fat Hermann Goering play with his toy trains as cattle trucks bore their human freight to extermination camps in the real world outside, while Oom Koos and his young fellow-conspirers hid on a dark beach to welcome the fomenter of yet another diehard Afrikaner rebellion against British colonial dominance. And finally, several decades later, the scientific methods of human destruction developed by Nazi chemists and doctors culminated in the biochemical warfare project supervised by Oom Koos’s son. Following these strange connections, I learned little about the cataclysms of the 20th century that professional historians have not already researched exhaustively. However, I vicariously followed individuals whose lives were intertwined by fate into bygone worlds I had not personally experienced. That journey left me feeling a bit like Oom Koos: “Yes, I know. I was there.”