“The details of Sergeant York’s exploit were created by the imagination of a fertile mind. Probably the product of a typical American megalomania.”—First Lieutenant (Reserve) Paul Jürgen Vollmer
This statement appeared in Die Entstehung von Kriegslegenden Feststellungen über die angebliche Heldentat des amerikanischen Sergeanten York am 8.10.18.
That official German government report—“The Origin of War Legends: An Investigation of the Alleged Feat of Sergeant York, October 8, 1918”— was researched and written in 1929 by a military historian as a retort to a Swedish newspaper story lionizing Alvin York.
The Hemmets Journal article had outraged a German citizen, who complained to the War Ministry. The ministry directed the National Archive to seek testimony from men present at the York incident.
The report, meant to debunk the York story and restore German honor, illuminates the persistent bitterness among Germany’s military classes regarding the York saga.
The 27-page report’s author, a military historian identified only as “Otto,” said his brief had been to pin down the origins of the “York legend.” Otto likely was Otto Korfes, Ph.D., who had ended World War I with the Magdeburg-based Seventh Prussian Infantry Division.
Between 1920 and 1937, Korfes was attached to the German National Archive at Potsdam as a military historian. During World War II, Korfes commanded the 295th Infantry Division. He was captured at Stalingrad.
Otto researched and wrote the report with aid f rom Lieutenant Colonel Carl H. Müller, a U.S. Army historian. Müller spent 1928-32 working in Potsdam under a deal allowing the former combatants to study one another’s wartime records.
In tones of chagrin, outrage, and denial, witness after German witness scorned the York story as fiction, even fantasy. In his text, Otto endorses these diatribes by likening American accounts of the incident to martial fables familiar to German readers.
In such legends, fighting men risk all to grasp falling flags and rally comrades to victory or endanger life and limb to blow up an enemy fortification.
“War legends usually are based on actual events, the facts of which are greatly embellished by the imagination of the person involved, or of the latter’s contemporaries, or of later generations,” Otto wrote.
Müller asked Otto for a copy for the U.S. Army War College. With a carbon, Otto sent a letter explaining that Germany was shelving his conclusions.
“We are not interested in releasing to the Press anything concerning this affair,” Otto wrote. “If the newspapers should print another article, however, which, in connection with the alleged feat of Sergeant York, might have the tendency of depreciating the name of the German army…we will immediately disprove the article with the aid of the material at hand…”
Otto asked Müller to step in on Germany’s behalf should the American media hype the York story. “We would appreciate very much your seeing that similar steps be taken in the United States, in the event that this case receives further notice,” the German historian wrote to his former collaborator.
“Any publication on our part is to serve merely as a defense against unjustified accusations.”
In 1936, the War College had Otto’s report translated into English. The German original probably was destroyed in a 1944 Allied bombing raid on Potsdam. For decades, the American translation languished classified and unread at the U.S. National Archives, first in downtown Washington, and later at College Park, Maryland.
In 1985, David D. Lee referenced Otto’s report in Sergeant York: An American Hero. The 1929 German affidavits do not disprove York’s story, Lee noted.
Otto’s report is “flawed at its base,” author Douglas Mastriano said in Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne.
“The speed, shock, and surprise [of York’s attack] caught both sides off guard,” Mastriano wrote. “The Germans had trouble believing that so few Americans could capture so many of their soldiers…and launched an effort to script a rebuttal. The premise was that it was impossible for this to happen to German soldiers…”
A passage in the 1929 German testimony illuminates the sorry state of the 210th Prussian Reserve Infantry, whose members surrendered en masse to York’s squad in the Argonne on October 8, 1918.
“The fighting value of the men in the trenches had sunk very low,” the commander of a neighboring unit, the 11th Company of the 212th Prussian Reserve Infantry said. “Our men simply would no longer go over the top.”