• Adrian J. Boas

On Intransigence and Desperation

On his 56th birthday Hitler decorates twelve-year-old boys with the Iron Cross for their heroism in defending Berlin.

History never exactly repeats itself, but it sometimes makes a reasonably good attempt at doing so. In the spring of 1945, the Russian army approached the outskirts of Berlin. The capital of the Third Reich was under heavy bombardment. Almost all of the conquered lands and most of Germany itself had fallen to the Allies and Hitler's subordinates were abandoning him like rats from a sinking ship, but the dictator continued almost to the final moments to believe that somehow the situation could be reversed. He refused to acknowledge the reality that was staring him in the face. One notable, tragic and indeed pathetic example of this was his appointment of children to take on the role of adult soldiers in the defence of Berlin. Project Werewolf which commenced in February 1945 trained children to serve as spies and saboteurs, with the intention of sending them behind Allied lines. Most of these unfortunate children quickly fell captive or were killed. On April 23rd, just one week before he committed suicide, Hitler had battalions of Hitler Youth sent out to defend the route he expected to be used by a relief army under General Walther Wenck. Hitler was either unaware that by that time that army no longer existed or chose to ignore the fact. Dressed in over-size uniforms and helmets thousands of boys taking part in these actions were killed or wounded.

We can draw an analogy between the situation in Berlin in April 1945 and that in Jerusalem in September 1187. At that time most of the kingdom of Jerusalem had already fallen to the Ayyubid army under Saladin. Eraclius, the patriarch of Jerusalem, wrote a desperate letter to Pope Urban III informing him that most of the cities and fortresses of the kingdom had already fallen.* He lists Gibelet, Beirut, Sidon, Acre, Tiberias, Nazareth, Sebastia, Nablus, Haifa, Caesarea, Arsuf, Jaffa, Ascalon, Lydda, Ibelin, Toron of the Knights (Latrun), Mirabel, Bethlehem and Hebron. Other than Jerusalem, only the city of Tyre and a couple of fortresses were still in Frankish hands. As for the capital itself, he wrote: "...not a single inhabitant can go outside its walls". To impress upon the pope the desperation of the situation he used quotes from various Biblical sources, not least the book of Lamentations. But the patriarch appears to have been clinging to the delusion that if only Urban would be willing to come to their aid things could still be turned around. Like Hitler, Eraclius was in complete denial of reality. Saladin was only about 60 kilometres away, a single day's march at the most, whereas, just to get the patriarch's letter from Jerusalem to Rome would take several months and then word would have to be sent out to Western leaders, armies would need to be organised, funded, supplied and then shipped out. There was as much chance of that happening in time to save Jerusalem as there was for the crumbling forces of the Third Reich to save Berlin in the spring of 1945. And another similarity between the situation in these two cities seven and a half centuries apart is the way in which Balian thought to deal with the lack of fighting men. Jerusalem in September 1187 was crowded with civilian refugees, but almost all of its defenders had fallen or been taken captive in July at the Battle of Hattin. There were few people capable of playing a serious role in the defence of the city, and only two knights. Balian attempted to resolve this by knighting every boy of noble family over the age of sixteen.

To us looking back there is of course a world of difference between the Kingdom of Jerusalem and Nazi Germany, between Hitler and Goebbels one the one hand and Eraclius and Balian on the other, and there is indeed a vast chasm between the motivations, methods and the systematic genocide employed by the Nazis compared with the Holy Wars of medieval Islam and Christianity. But the enmity between the opposing sides in both cases and the cruelty employed was as harsh in the Middle Ages as it was in the twentieth century.

*Malcolm Barber and Keith Bate, Letters from the East. Crusaders, Pilgrims and Settlers in the 12th-13th Centuries, Farnham, U.K and Burlington, U.S.A., 2013, pp. 80-82.