Eric C. Rust, U-Boat Commander Oskar Kusch; Anatomy of a Nazi-era Betrayal and Judicial Murder. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2020. ISBN-10:168247514X. 348 pages.
By Peter Hooker
Eric Rust, former naval officer and currently a historian at Baylor University, is the author of numerous books and articles concerning the Second World War at sea, including Naval Officers under Hitler: The Story of Crew 34, which could be considered a prequel to his latest work U-Boat Commander Oskar Kusch: Anatomy of a Nazi-Era Betrayal and Judicial Murder. The book is the first full-length study in English to examine the life, death, and remembrance of Oskar Kusch, commander of U-boat U-154. Kusch’s impressive career at sea ended in tragedy when three of his officers submitted a report claiming that Kusch’s remarks about the Nazi Party while in command of U-154 undermined the fighting spirit of the crew. Kusch was put on trial, found guilty, and executed in 1944. Instead of ending his book with the execution, Rust goes on to explore the post-war efforts of Kusch’s family and friends to seek justice and the efforts by the judiciary and former naval personnel of the Nazi regime who condemned Kusch to undermine such efforts.
U-boat Commander is a well-researched and immersive work of scholarship. Rust effectively challenges the characterisation of camaraderie amongst U-boat crews during the Second World War, the still enduring myth of the German Navy remaining relatively independent of the Nazi regime, as well as providing a distinct case study of German military and naval personnel who fell victim to the atrocities committed by the state. The book vividly details life on board a German U-boat, as well as German society before, during, and after the war. Indeed, Rust argues that Kusch represents a shift in the German U-boat service as the officers and personnel who grew up during the Weimar Republic era were slowly replaced by a younger generation who were seeped in the ideology of Nazism.
Most of the book’s focus is given to Kusch’s political aversion to Nazism, drawing attention to his activities in the youth group, Sudlegion, which advocated dissimilar views to that of Nazism, and the circle of trusted friends with whom Kusch shared his views about politics and criticisms of the Nazi Party. On the other hand, as Rust points out, Kusch was a loyal and proud German officer, enthusiastic about serving his country and commanding a U-boat, and did nothing to openly diminish the morale of his men. Nonetheless, concerned more with maintaining ideological conformity, the court found Kusch guilty and sentenced him to death, although the persecution had only sought a ten year gaol sentence. In order to reconstruct Kusch’s views and personality, parts of the book relies on speculation due to lack of evidence. Fragmented, incomplete, or simply unavailable records are an obstacle for most historians, however, the extent to which Kusch’s behaviour can be considered opposition or critique of the Nazi regime could have been more thoroughly teased out.
Crucially, Rust gives plenty of consideration for the people who shaped the life and memory of Kusch. Most notable perhaps is Rust’s examination of Ulrich Abel, the man who brought Kusch to trial. Rust explores Abel’s life before the war, including his legal studies and service in the merchant marine and service in the war before becoming Kusch’s First Watch Officer on U-154. Rust goes beyond the tension on board U-154 to explore the home life of both men throughout the war, reflecting on the different life trajectories of the two men, and how their experiences outside of a U-boat shaped their overall perceptions of the war, Nazism, and their shipmates. Here U-boat Commander truly stands out as a more holistic treatment of the unfolding drama of Kusch’s life.
Although vividly written, the prose does take peculiar turns of phrase and clichés. The attack on Pearl Harbour, for example, is described as having “changed the character of the war forever like a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky” (49). Later the sentence of death conferred on Kusch hit the court attendees “like lightening from a blue sky” (203). Kusch’s political remarks about the Nazi Party are described as having “ricocheted…as if they had hit an armoured turret.” (202). The characterisation of Kusch does verge on hagiography at times. Rust asserts that “Kusch would not have been Kusch had he not brought up such deficiencies” concerning the increasingly outdated technology and tactics of the German war effort at sea to his officers (140). In another instance the reader is informed that it was “brave and fearless Kusch to the rescue” to repair a jammed aft hydroplane on a U-boat despite frigid waters (51). A quote from Robert F. Kennedy is used to summarise Kusch’s bravery and moral courage (286).
The chapters dealing with the memory of Kusch is where U-boat Commander also stands out. Rust showcases “a profound breakdown of denazification efforts” that resulted “frequently in the practical or symbolic re-conviction of victims” of the Nazi regime in post-war Germany (258). Rust’s examination of post-war efforts to condemn Kusch’s judgers and rehabilitate his exemplary service record reveals how judicial and service personnel formerly under the Nazi regime colluded to prevent their prosecution. Kusch was effectively put on trial once again and his name besmirched with further exaggerated or outright falsehoods. In the backdrop of Cold War politics, efforts to seek justice for Kusch were continuously undermined. Only in the 1980s was Kusch’s life reappraised, with academics and retired naval personnel spearheading efforts to dispel the rumours and falsehoods about his life.
Rust acknowledges that investigations into Kusch’s political views and execution over the last forty years has “fuelled a bitter debate whose full resolution remains elusive” (280). Was Kusch a staunch opponent of Nazism and tragic victim of the regime? A devoted though independently minded patriotic German officer? Did his behaviour constitutive resistance to the towards the Nazi regime, critique, or passive resistance? Ultimately, Kusch remains an enigmatic figure by the end of U-boat Commander. Still, the book marks the first English language contribution to the debate in an ambitious, well-researched, and thoroughly intriguing work of scholarship. Arguably the greatest value of this work is the detail given to the people who helped shape the course of Kusch’s life, death, and memory. U-boat Commander certainly deserves a sport on the shelf of readers interested in the German war effort at sea, the judicial system in Nazi Germany, as well as academics.
Peter Hooker is a recently submitted PhD candidate with the University of Newcastle, Australia. He specialises in maritime history from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. His PhD thesis examines American maritime prisoners of war during the War of 1812. Previously, he has contributed to the British Library James Cook: The Voyages Exhibit, as well as published articles within his field of research. He has also written an award winning Honours Thesis, which comparatively examined German and Japanese naval strategy during the interwar period, and also devotes his time to the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney.