Primary sources for a writer can be really exciting! I’m sure we all know the difference between primary source and secondary sources but humor me as my English Composition Instructor instincts take over for a moment and I explain the two.
Primary sources are those which include firsthand accounts of events such as diaries, interviews, court records, and letters.
Secondary sources are those which interpret, comment on, critique, explain or evaluate events of primary sources.
As a historical writer research is my best friend. I’ve spent (never wasted, no, not me!) endless hours researching. As an 1830s fanatic most of my sources have been secondary. Occasionally I find a diary entry or two, but in general primary sources are limited (at least until I discover a way to time travel!). I think every writer hopes to find an endless supply of primary sources in their research that would help them paint a picture that makes that time period come alive in a way that all the secondary sources could never do. That unfortunately will most likely never happen for most of us, so when we do stumble across a primary source it excites us.
Over Christmas, while visiting the town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber (pronounced Roe-ten-burg), I stumbled across a firsthand account of the surrender of Rothenburg to American soldiers during World War 2.
Rothenburg is a well-preserved small medieval walled town in Germany. In German Rothenburg means “red fortress above the Tauber” and is named so because the town is located on a plateau overlooking the Tauber River. For the most part the town has been wonderfully preserved, though during World War 2 the town did suffer some damage. In March of 1945, Hitler had Germans stationed in Rothenburg with orders to fight to the end. On March 31, Americans dropped bombs over Rothenburg killing 39 people and destroying 306 houses, six public buildings, nine watch towers, and over 2,000 feet of the wall. The bombing was stopped by U.S. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy who knew about the historic importance of the town. He ordered US Army General Jacob L. Devers to not use artillery in taking the town. On April 17, 1945 American troops occupied Rothenburg.
The above description is what you will find on most sites and books that talk about the surrender of Rothenburg.
While in Rothenburg we stayed at the Hotel Spitzweg. The owner, who was the sweetest old man, has lived in Rothenburg his entire life. He was a young boy during World War 2 and he remembers the surrender of the town and tells a vastly different story from the above account. I’ve tried to recount it as accurately as possible here, without adding my own thoughts and opinions.
Account by Herr Hocher as related to Jennifer Hofmann on December 29, 2011:
Americans came to the gates to negotiate a surrender. However, there was only one person who knew English in town. The German officials sent for him to translate. It took him over an hour to arrive. He was bathing and getting “dressed” up so that he would be presentable to the Americans. In the meantime the tensions were rising between the two armies. When the interpreter was finally found and brought forward the town was surrendered and a catastrophe was avoided.
Herr Hocher, who was just a young boy, was running one of the empty shops. At this point at the end of the war the supplies were so few that all the shops were bare. When the American army started marching through town he went to stand outside his shop with all the other town’s people to welcome the Americans marching through town. (My interpretation on this, though he didn’t say so in so many words, but strongly implied it, was that the town’s people were happy about this surrender and thought that things would be better for them now because of it.) The shop owner next to Herr Hocher’s had forgotten to take down a large Nazi poster in his window that Hitler required every citizen to have. He realized it as the Army was marching by and quickly ran into his shop to tear it down.
This account is so different from what the history books tell. This just reminds me of how much information is left out of second hand accounts. You won’t find Herr Hocher’s telling of the surrender of Rothenburg in any book or article. And it makes me appreciate firsthand accounts so much more. Hopefully his story and the many others like his still out there will get recounted and live on for future generations to read and be enthralled by.