Pole Honors Germany's Red Baron

Sunday, December 02, 2007

By RYAN LUCAS, Associated Press Writer


SWIDNICA, Poland — 

Baron Manfred von Richthofen buzzed above the muddy World War I battlefields in his red Fokker tri-plane, downing a record 80 Allied aircraft on his way to becoming the war's top fighter ace and earning the famed "Red Baron" nom de guerre.

But von Richthofen, who was shot down and killed just before his 26th birthday in 1918, has been a legend in limbo since Poland's borders moved west after World War II and swallowed the baron's hometown of Schweidnitz _ today called Swidnica.

The neglect has been largely due to apprehension about honoring a German, a legacy of the brutal Nazi invasion and occupation of World War II.

Swidnica resident Jerzy Gaszynski is trying to change that with a new memorial to the Red Baron, and reckons he might even pull in a few tourists at the same time.

"I think that with a figure this well-known around the world, it's a bit of a sin that he's not even that well-known here and that there's really no effort to remember him," Gaszynski said.

"Everybody here kind of said under their breath 'baron this, baron that,' but he was neglected, nobody was doing anything."

In June, Gaszynsnki erected a memorial plaque he sculpted in the garden of the von Richthofen family home, a three-story villa set among oak trees and other stately mansions.

The cast iron plaque, set atop a granite slab, bears a bust of the flying ace and the words: "In this house lived the best pilot of World War I, the Red Baron. Born May 2, 1892, he died in aerial combat April 21, 1918, Manfred von Richthofen."

Honoring a German soldier in Poland, which lost some 6 million citizens under the Nazi occupation, can still be a touchy issue. The two countries continue to wrestle with efforts by some Germans to regain property lost to Poland when the borders shifted west after World War II.

Gaszynski received a lukewarm response from town officials, and got a handful of snide e-mails and comments on his Internet forum.

"For many people, a German pilot means World War II," he said. "They look at him through the prism of World War II, but aviation in World War I functioned on entirely different rules."

Though he is best known as a combat ace, Gaszynski said the baron was so well respected as a person and noble adversary by his enemies that when he was shot down, British and Commonwealth troops buried him with full honors in Bertangles, near Amiens, France.

He was later exhumed and buried in Berlin in 1925, then moved again to Wiesbaden, Germany.

"His rivals respected him, and held such a funeral for him that I don't know if even his countrymen would have given him such a send-off," Gaszynski said. "So why should we in Poland be against him?"

Gaszynski enlisted a number of local companies to help pour cement and mount a granite slab for the memorial. He also sought out the help of an 80-year-old man who has lived in the former von Richthofen former home since 1950.

Jerzy Pawelski helped convince the six other families living in the apartments now located in the house to agree to the memorial.

"You have to respect every hero," Pawelski said. "It's an honor to live in the same villa as such a hero."

The Red Baron went to school at a building just off the main town square, lined with candy-colored townhouses. A granite monument dedicated to him stands in the park across the street from his childhood home.

But under communism, the Polish government strove to downplay the region's German history and Red Baron's story fell into the shadows while the monument fell into disrepair. Now, moss and graffiti cover the granite stones.

Von Richthofen joined Germany's fledgling Air Force in 1915, and shot down his first plane in September of the following year.

"He had an enormous innate skill," said Mark Whitmore, director of collections at the Imperial War Museum in London, which has the engine from the plane in which von Richthofen was shot down on permanent display.

"Like a lot of aces, he wasn't necessarily a brilliant aviator, in the sense of flying a plane like an airline pilot would. Where he was absolutely brilliant was flying a plane in combat, flying it absolutely to the edge of its capability and gaining the extra edge that makes all the difference, particularly in dogfighting."

Von Richthofen quickly moved up the ranks until he headed a squadron known as "The Flying Circus," one of Germany's premier aerial units.

"He was certainly a thorn in their (Allied) side, and they had an enormous amount of respect for the ability of the flying circus," Whitmore said.

Baron Hartmann von Richthofen, the son of Manfred's youngest brother, welcomed the Gaszynski's efforts to remember his uncle, calling them "a very good idea, certainly within the wishes of the family."

"He was an airman and fought against the British and the French on the western front. There's no real reason that we shouldn't (honor him). He was a decent man and a soldier like many others as well," he said in a telephone interview from the German city of Baden-Baden.

Swidnica locals also seem to be coming around to the idea.

"I don't know exactly where the house is, but he's a very interesting figure and warmly remembered around the world," said Wielsaw Michalak, 54, as he walked past von Richthofen's old school with his wife, Elzbieta. "He's a person that I think that could bring the spotlight on Swidnica."


Associated Press Writer David Rising contributed to this story from Berlin.

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