Naval Officers under Hitler: The Men of Crew 34. By Eric C. Rust. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1991, paperback reprint 2017.
Reviewed by Gregory P. Gilbert
AT the beginning of 1934 a group of German 17 to 18 year olds commenced their service in the German Navy. Ever since their time of joining they were known as Crew 34.
These teens were to be trained to become naval officers. They were to uphold the values and traditions of German naval professionals, the same values and traditions which had once underpinned the Kaiser’s Imperial Navy, or ‘Kaiserliche Marine’, during World War I and which now underpinned the Weimar Republic’s ‘Reichsmarine’. It was not long, however, before the lives of this group of 318 men changed forever because in 1935 Adolf Hitler assumed full power over the German nation and this included the newly renamed ‘Kriegsmarine’. The name ‘Kriegsmarine’ in essence said it all for between 1935 and 1945 the men of Crew 34 served as junior naval officers in the most destructive war in their nation’s history. During World War II 122 members of Crew 34 lost their lives, adding up to some 41 per cent of those who served. The majority lost their lives at sea in aircraft or submarines, although many executive officers in the major surface combatants, patrol boats and mine warfare vessels sacrificed themselves for the German motherland.
‘Naval Officers under Hitler’ is a group biography of the men of Crew 34. It is an unusual social history that provides information, data, background and memories of this selective group of German naval officers. By using archival sources, personal interviews and correspondence Eric Rust is able to weave a very informative narrative image of these men. This book is not content with recording operational histories, rather it concentrates on the psychological, professional and political aspects of their naval service. Most importantly it questions the difference between those who believed they served as dedicated, unpolitical, naval professionals and those who were Nazis as well as naval commanders. How unpolitical can a group of carefully selected naval officers be? Especially when they were mostly Upper Middle Class, well-educated, of high physical and racial standards (according to the German Navy), and from mostly conservative (definitely not working class) families. Even if not intentional, the men of Crew 34 were naturally in favour of many of the Nazi Party’s policies and clearly were prepared to turn a blind eye to some of the Nazis’ greatest atrocities.
While they served as German naval officers there is much in ‘Naval Officers under Hitler’ that challenges our own preconceptions of naval people. The book is a mirror where the reflection is a harsher and nastier version of our own structures, policies and culture. Australians and many of our close allies see themselves as ‘democratic’ and indeed many (about 50 per cent) of the Crew 34 naval officers who survived WWII were to join the West German Navy, or ‘Bundesmarine’, when given the opportunity during the 1950s. Most of these men saw themselves as good democrats with strong conservative values who opposed communism, anarchists and undisciplined leftist movements. If we believe what they have said in interviews and/or responses to questionnaires, most members of Crew 34 were naval professionals and not Nazi sympathisers. They regarded themselves as members of an elite force who went into harm’s way to defend their homeland. Whether their homeland under Hitler and the Nazis committed genocide, and destroyed much of Europe, was not a legitimate concern for the members of Crew 34 as long as they performed their naval operations in a professional manner.
‘Naval Officers under Hitler’ is a rewarding read. Well written and always offering new perspectives, it has the potential to challenge the mindset of many naval officers and sailors. Overall ‘Naval Officers under Hitler’ is highly recommended.
Aside: For those who are absorbed by their day-to-day operational tasks or perhaps even strive for mediocrity – attempting to achieve the minimum necessary without pulling their heads too far out of the water – ‘Naval Officers under Hitler’ will probably not be of immediate advantage. Hopefully future historians will not have to look back on the ADFA Class of 2014 (or the like) and write a group biography about Australian naval officers fighting in a war of national survival under a modern day dictator.