German visitor Reinhard Gross sent me a useful clarification on the 2010 Ethics Alarms tribute to Henri Salmide, who as a German soldier in World War II saved the French port of Bordeaux by defying orders to blow it up and blowing up his German superiors instead. You can read the post on Salmide, an Ethics Hero Emeritus, here, and his New York Times obituary here. It’s an inspiring story, and if you are not familiar with Salmide, you should be.
Salmide lived the rest of his life as a French citizen in Bordeaux, and until late in life was seldom noted for his heroic act in France, so strong was the bias against him as a former German soldier. I asked Reinhard what the attitude in Germany was toward Salmide, and his Comment of the Day was the response. It also provides some insight on the the long and painful process the German culture must work through, as the German people come to terms with the dark Nazi period, when their society and its values were so horribly warped, with such tragic consequences for Germany and the world.
Here is Reinhold Gross’s Comment of the Day on the post Ethics Hero Emeritus: Henri Salmide, 1919-2010…and I thank him for reminding me of Henri Salmide’s courageous and ethical act:
“I am afraid that still very few people know about him, but as a Bordeaux High School is caring about Henri Salmide’s memory, I hope that at least the German exchange students will hear about him. If you walk the streets of Bordeaux, every bookshop sells the books written on him.
“Fortunately, the general opinion in Germany has changed and people who turned against Hitler and his hangmen are no longer considered as traitors or deserters, but have found their place in the memory of our people. Luckily the “old soldiers” who considered them as cowards are passing away.
“This started in the 90s, when the grandchildren started to ask questions. Now many war memorials carry an additional plate commemorating these people and the victims of prosecution. I was born in 1953, and when I started asking questions, it often happened that I upset people. Nobody wanted to talk about the war and the Nazis. At our cemetery there is a stone with the names of a dozen Ukrainian forced laborers, more or less tortured to death ,and they wrote on it ” deceased during WW II”. What hypocrisy there is still today!”
11 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “Ethics Hero Emeritus: Henri Salmide, 1919-2010””
Thanks for re-posting this. I am in the middle of watching a history series, “The Last Days of World War II,” for about the third time through, on a Military History channel. The same channel airs other documentaries about the war in Europe, as does at least one other channel. There is no mention of Henri/Heinrich that I can recall in any of the histories. That is disappointing. I had never heard of him. He obviously made an extraordinary difference in that war. Thanks also to Reinhold Gross.
No, he made no difference to the war, at least in his eyes (arguably it sped up the western front, though more likely it just spared the cost of other supply routes). In fact, that lay behind his motives: as he saw it, saving Bordeaux made no difference to the war but made a lot of difference to the people who would have been destroyed along with Bordeaux.
Regardless of how he felt that it didn’t change the inevitable *final* outcome of the war, it did change, however minutely the timing of that outcome. That means it did change the war. A super detailed crunching of the numbers would reveal a certain amount of additional time slogging across France because a primary port of debarkation was unavailable. The time spent reparing Bordeaux meant additional time relying on less efficient supply points, which then translates into slower reapply of the forward line of troops. Which then means longer exposure to German attacks and more delay between offensive operations. That ultimately means more casualties. It made a difference for more than just Bordeaux.
Then there’s the little matter of preventing all the deaths of innocent French. What Salmide felt mad this particular oreder evil was that the war was clearly lost—there was no tactical value in destroying the ports and killing people at that point—it was just pure, vengeful, viciousness.
I don’t disagree with that, but that was his identified reason, I was simply pointing out that there were secondary and tertiary benefits.
Highly efficient supply point = faster moving offensive = shorter duration = less direct combat engagements = fewer casualties = tangible benefit.
Ah… no, with hindsight there probably weren’t any “secondary and tertiary benefits”. That’s not to argue that that was known by either side at the time, since they didn’t know how other prongs of attack would develop. But a secondary landing to D-Day went in later in Brittany, with little opposition by then (I once met someone who was in it), and the Riviera landings made very good progress. Given the natural and man-made (Paris-oriented) communications from Bordeaux, anything going in through there early on would have had to divert along the coast to the Loire valley (already accessible more directly from the Atlantic, e.g. the port of L’Orient), or would have had to follow roughly the route of the Canal du Midi to the Rhone valley (already accessible more directly from the Mediterranean) before turning north, or would have had to go through natural bottlenecks little alleviated by the hand of man. And that would have continued until the front had pushed so far east that more of the man-made communications via Paris opened up – but that would also have freed up much of the channel coast, with its many ports of various sizes.
So I don’t think that the actual developments were furthered by the saving of Bordeaux, just the cost of clearing some of the actual destruction in other ports, but it still made sense for the Germans to plan on destroying Bordeaux and for the Allies to plan on trying to get it, because neither of them knew that the other facts on the ground would develop that way. Bordeaux might have ended up vital, had things gone otherwise.
And that is why I put “arguably” in my original comment, since both that case and the opposite can be made, and why the point I considered most relevant wasn’t the actual or contingent value of Bordeaux to the war effort but Salmide’s personal assessment of it. Ironically, his failure to appreciate the wider strategic issues was set right by how things turned out after all – arguably.
No, you are correct. I withdraw my arguments. In the back of my mind I completely I switched Bordeaux with one of the ports on France’s northern coast. Upon map review I quick scan of history, you are correct. The destruction/salvation of Bordeaux was completely immaterial to any tactical or strategic effort.
Do you know how rare it is for anyone to do this, here or anywhere? Ethics Hero of the Day, tex.
I wouldn’t go that far Jack. It wasn’t without internal resistance before accepting I was flat out wrong. When I second guessed myself to confirm on a map Bordeaux’s location (only to be chagrinned) there was a tiny amount of web-surfing to find some proof that at least a couple tons of allied shipping made it through Bordeaux so I could save a modicum of face. I did find it quite educational though, I hadn’t really known until that research effort that Bordeaux wasn’t even secured until German capitulation in May of ’45.
Thanks again to you and P.M. Your follow-up and P.M.’s prior knowledge helped me to learn much, and saved time I probably would not have spent as fruitfully or efficiently in learning what I learned from you.
Thanks Tex (“CM”) and P.M. Lawrence for your comments – I appreciate being corrected for any false impression I had about the significance of Salmide’s actions concerning the port of Bordeaux. That helps me to feel more literate in WW2 history. I do still think his courage was extraordinary.