In Defense of Dietrich

Hauptmann Hans Dietrich is a good guy. Really, he is. He likes kids and dogs and smiled once in the pilot episode. Blind Arab ladies can’t resist him, and he really wishes the SS would go away and leave everybody alone. He’s got the world against him and he just keeps on going. He’s a soldier, after all, and a German. They don’t just quit when things get rough. They drink their own body weight in beer, and they invent poison gas and Tiger tanks, and then they continue trudging inexorably onwards and upwards like Sisyphus.

If we were to tabulate all the times he lost to Sergeant Troy and his Rats, nearly every episode he appears in would make the count. This isn’t because the poor man is a complete dunderhead. He would have been demoted or shot a dozen times over by now for all his failings if he was. But Troy is a master tactician who pulls no punches and has backup plans for his backup plans. That which he did not plan for he proceeds to plan for anyway on the fly. Dietrich has his rules, and he obeys them. Troy has no rules, which drives Dietrich insane. Thus, a beautiful rivalry is born.

To further expound on Dietrich’s good points and talent: he’s managed to make officer and keep it. He’s earned the Iron Cross 1st Class and he even wears it when the prop department remembers to give it to him. (He might have even earned the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, but he keeps leaving it on people’s graves so the jury is out on that one.) He’s fluent in native Arab dialects and appears to have enough of a grasp of their culture to not be just another rude tourist. Most importantly, he’s just plain smart. Both he and Troy are wily psychologists and can guess people’s intentions before those selfsame people even know they have them, making them both the best and worst possible opponents for each other to have. Dietrich knows the Rats’ favorite tricks by heart, forcing them to keep coming up with more.

So with all these things in his favor, why can’t he ever win? There are times when he’s so close to victory he can practically smell it, but then the Rats slip from his hands yet again and he has to go home and start all over with a new set of toys, because they exploded all of his other ones on their way out. As good as Troy is at his job, we can’t give him all our kudos every time a German convoy blows up, or he wriggles out of Dietrich’s grasp like it was nothing. That would let our Hauptmann off the hook too easily. If Troy was truly the better man, then the captain could be written off as unable to help his failure. What can he do but lose, pitted against a true master? It gives him no credit in his own defeat, and he deserves some. Allow me to explain.

Yes, Troy kicks his butt a lot, and he does a darn good job of it, too, but sometimes it’s because Dietrich simply buckles. He does it with the utmost grace, he does it without making it look like he does it, but he most certainly does it. In The Street Urchin Raid he takes all of three seconds to assess the situation and give up, practically gift-wrapping Sarina and her brother as he hands them over to the Rats–because he’s got guns pointed at him, yes (recall, too, the Gestapo guy was the one who set off the firefight when our Hauptmann would probably have let the Rats go without batting an eye), but also for another, more quiet reason:

It’s the right thing to do. Not the subjective right of his mission and the mindset of his superiors, but the objective, moral right of simple humanity. Humanity is a driving factor in Dietrich’s motivations and in his failures. It influences all his decisions, even if it doesn’t ultimately sway them one direction or another. And while he won’t be the first to admit it, Dietrich knows that sometimes humanity doesn’t exactly align with the Nazi mindset. We all know he knows, which is what makes him such a fascinating character. He’s a bad guy, yes, but an awfully good one.

Besides, when he spends half his screen time making faces like this, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him.

Troy’s humane, too, in a way that makes him ruthless. Whatever it takes to stop the enemy, he’ll do it, because the sooner the Germans are beaten, the sooner their conquest of the world will stop claiming lives. For him, it’s a strength. For Dietrich, it’s a weakness. He simply can’t win against Troy, not because he’s incapable, but because he lacks a key component in his enemy’s makeup: conviction. Troy believes in the cause he’s fighting for with all his heart and soul. He would die for it any day–because it’s a good cause. He knows it, and Dietrich knows it. This is part of our Hauptmann’s problem.

He doesn’t believe in his own cause. If anything, he believes in Troy’s more: the integrity of it, the truth and firm, undeniable evidence that it is the good in a world of bad. He has moral conviction, he has patriotism even, but not the fanaticism he needs to believe in the ultimate end the Nazis are pushing towards. He’s on the wrong side; his leaders and ideals and goals are crap and he knows it. He’s a nice guy trying to make his way through an awful situation as best he can. By doing his job and hoping for the best, he ignores the harm he does because A: it’s his duty as a soldier to follow orders and B: he, just like his Ratty opponents, is outfitted with a marvelous sense of self-preservation.

Nobody wants to die in this war. That’s why they fight so hard. But you get the feeling that Dietrich sometimes wonders just what it is he lives and fights for. His own personal goal seems to be carrying out Rommel’s idea of Krieg Ohne Hass–War Without Hate–and, to put it simply, enduring. If he grins and bears it, it’ll eventually go away. He’s no fool; he sees that the Allies will probably win this fight (especially if they keep hiring lunatics like Troy). And maybe a small part of him knows it’s best that they do, if he can’t go all the way and actually want it to happen. All he can try and do is put off the inevitable for as long as he can, because he might be fully aware he’s going to crash and burn one day but that doesn’t mean he’ll just give up and do it right now. It’s his duty to keep on keeping on, and as long as he can walk, he’ll do it.

To err is human. Dietrich’s one comfort by the end of this series is that he is very, undeniably human.

I’m firmly convinced that Dietrich is a competent commander. Whenever his superiors feel the need to insult, threaten, or reprimand him, the only blemish on his record they can find to use as leverage is his failure to permanently vanquish the Rats (because one must admit, he does vanquish them an awful lot. They’re just good at getting un-vanquished just as fast). In conventional warfare he must be brilliant, because his men respect him and he keeps getting trusted with all these ammo dumps to guard and missions to carry out. (He fails them all, of course, except technically Touch and Go Raid because he did acquire the plans he went in to find. It wasn’t his fault they were about baseball.)

Man Questioning His Life Choices, 1942 (colorized)

It’s the Rats, then, that make up the sum of his struggles. Without them, he could overlook so much of the inner workings of war and just do his job. But he knows them too well; he’s too obsessed with finally catching them and wiping that black mark from his otherwise-spotless record. It’s personal to him. Acknowledging their brilliance and superiority means acknowledging that they’re human, a step that he can never take back after making. If they’re human, then so is everyone else. War is war, but how does one justify fighting and killing for a cause one knows to be wrong? The Rats have ruined Dietrich and fixed him–he can never be numb to his actions or their consequences ever again.

So Dietrich needs some credit in his failure. If he didn’t fail, he wouldn’t have that niggling conscience in the back of his mind that makes him question his orders and end up ruining his own plans to save civilians like Truce At Aburah. He would be able to just kill the Rats the minute they came into his line of fire. He would have the wild-eyed radicalism needed to give him one last push over the edge to barbaric amorality. But he doesn’t want it. So he keeps losing…with a little help from Troy, of course, because one must give the devil his due.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the masterpiece of a mess that is Hans Dietrich.


6 thoughts on “In Defense of Dietrich

  1. I remember watching this show and being impressed with the depth this character had. It is so easy to dehumanize and make your bad guys almost ridiculously menacing (especially when it comes to WW2 stories considering the subject matter and the awful acts committed during that time) but they made Dietrich feel like a real person and I always found that interesting and thought-provoking.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s amazing how deep Rat Patrol can get once you really start delving past the shoot-’em-up, hokey action sequences. Maybe it’s just fans like myself reading into it, but at least analyzing episodes and characters keeps me off the streets. Dietrich was unique among his fellow villains, particularly for a German in a show about WW2. Even in Combat!, which is admittedly more realistic, the few “good” Germans don’t last long. Luckily Dietrich has plot armor for days! I think if they’d made him too stereotypical like they wanted to in the beginning, RP wouldn’t have lasted the two seasons it did.


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