Just when you think you’ve learnt everything you could ever know about Adolf Hitler, more amazing, surprising and terrifying details from his life and his reign of terror come to the surface, like in the new SBS series Hitler’s Secrets - a six-part expose by academics and historians of the monster behind the man.
Hitler and WWII are so firmly linked it’s impossible to think of one without the other. But it’s important to remember that while Hitler was intent on wiping out half of Europe, millions of people were doing their utmost to stop him. We’ve all heard the stories of Oskar Schindler and Anne Frank… Here are ten lesser-known heroes of WW2 who are a reminder to us all that even when it feels like it’s hopeless (or when it feels like the world is being run by a madman) that you are not powerless: there are always things you can do.
Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz
A reluctant member of the Nazi party workin’ 9-5 in admin during the German occupation of Denmark, Georg Duckwitz wasn’t exactly your card-carrying, goose-stepping, Hitler-heiling Hun. So when he overheard talk at the watercooler that Denmark’s Jews were about to be rounded up and sent to concentration camps, he knew he had to act, getting word to the head of the Danish resistance who subsequently arranged for the mass evacuation of nearly 10,000 Jews- 99% of the Jewish population- to nearby Sweden. His small but mighty act of rebellion complete, Duckwitz then went back to his desk and spent the rest of the war trying to fly under the radar.
A Soviet fighter pilot, Alexey Maresyev was shot down behind enemy lines in 1942 and spent almost three weeks trying to evade capture before finding his way back to Soviet territory. He arrived on Russian soil so badly wounded he needed to have both legs amputated which- for most people- would be enough to say, “You know what, I had a crack at this “battle” business, but I reckon I’m done.” Not Maresyev, who instead spent a year mastering his prosthetics before demanding he be returned to the skies where he spent the remainder of the war shooting down German fighter planes- 11 in total. He then got awarded the highest honour in the Soviet Union, aptly titled “Hero”, and had an opera written about him. In other words, life goals unlocked.
“We must find and destroy her. She is the most dangerous of Allied spies” was literally what the Gestapo said about American intelligence operative Virginia Hall who spent the early years of the war in France ducking in and out of Nazi territory, covering up her identity and gathering vital intelligence for the Allies. This was all despite the fact that the US wasn’t yet in the war, and despite the fact that women weren’t really considered as spies. Oh, and she had a prosthetic leg and walked with a fairly noticeable limp, which didn’t exactly allow her to, y’know, blend in to the furniture. Never mind. She escaped occupied territory not once- but several times- and spent the war training the French resistance, cutting German supply lines and generally causing havoc all while being hunted by Nazis.
Little more than a food supply manager for the Italian Army, Georgio- who spoke fluent Spanish- found himself at one point during the war living in Budapest, impersonating the Spanish ambassador. He had a few friends in high places in the Spanish government who went along with his deception- presumably because none of their own people would volunteer to leave neutral Spain to go be a diplomat in a war zone- and they provided him with a certain level of diplomatic immunity. In his role, he managed to arrange the safety and free passage to Spain of over 5000 Hungarian Jews, awarding them (fake) Spanish passports. For those he couldn’t get out he provided asylum, setting up “neutral” Spanish safe houses within Budapest.
Charles Joseph Coward
Coward by name but not by nature, this guy was a master of escape, breaking out of a total of seven German prison camps during WW2. While under lock and key he didn’t just rest on his laurels but took it upon himself to spy on Nazi troops, bribe prison guards for information, smuggle food to Jewish inmates and pass coded messages back to the British Red Cross. Now, before you start thinking he must have been pretty dumb to land in prison seven times, hold up: Coward voluntarily got himself arrested over and over again purely to gather information. And when he couldn’t get arrested, he smuggled himself in, even spending a night in Auschwitz (before smuggling himself out the next day) simply so he could report on what he’d seen. His efforts are estimated to have saved around 400 Jewish laborers from certain death.
The only woman in the French Foreign Legion, Travers was an ambulance driver who spent the war in Libya where, after fifteen days surrounded by German troops and running out of supplies, she made the impossible- and downright ballsy- decision to single-handedly evacuate her entire unit, leading a convoy of trucks on a daring nighttime escape through the desert. Her truck took 11 bullets but eventually she- and all the men behind her bringing up the rear- made it to safety. She spent the rest of the war in Europe, driving ambulances, trucks and tanks and generally just being a total badass before retiring to a life in the English countryside with her husband and kids before writing her autobiography at the age of 91.
Abdol Hossein Sardari
The so-called Schindler of Iran, Iranian diplomat Abdol Sardari was the boss at the Iranian consul in 1941 when war broke out and took it upon himself to protect the Jews of his country, issuing passports that faked their religion and identity in order to save them from Nazi government officials.
A Nepalese Gurkha soldier, Lacchiman Garung won the Victoria Cross for one particular act of insane heroism in 1945 when he single-handedly held off an advance by 200 Japanese soldiers who had attacked his wounded unit.
“Single-handed” isn’t an exaggeration: during the attack a Japanese grenade actually exploded in his right hand, blowing off his fingers and shattering his arm. Not one to let a little thing like this stop him (it’s merely a flesh wound, right?) he held his line and position for four hours, sending back the Japanese advance and personally killing 31 Japanese soldiers. So in other words, just another day at the office.
In 1940, Witold Pilecki, a member of the Polish underground, volunteered to be put into Auschwitz to gather information for the Allies. In the early days of the war little was known about Auschwitz- it was believed to be just a transit camp.
Pilecki spent two years in Auschwitz gathering information about the atrocities within the camp and reporting to the exiled Polish government in London who- along with the British- thought his findings were so unbelievable he must have been exaggerating. He eventually got out and fought against the Germans in the Warsaw uprising before being captured and executed by government forces.
Personally responsible for killing over 300 Nazis, Lyudmila Pavlichenko has the honour (?) of being the most successful female sniper in history. How does it feel having the blood of a crap-ton of German soldiers on your hands? “We mowed down Hitlerites like ripe grain”, was Pavlichenko’s response, so, in other words, “bovved”.
A national hero at the time, Pavlichenko once toured the US to great acclaim but has since been forgotten by the annals of history which is a shame because those Inglourious Basterds truly had nothing on this lady.
Hitler's Secrets airs on SBS every Saturday night at 8:35pm. Watch the first episode, streaming on SBS On Demand: