Growing up in Hitler’s Germany

Klaus J Hansen. Queen’s Quarterly. Volume 103. Issue 1. Spring 1996.

It was the spring of 1945, perhaps late March or early April. The news from the front, both east and west, had not been good for some time and was getting progressively worse. The only thing to cheer us was a change in the weather, with an unseasonably warm spring sun thawing out the cold walls of our houses. We had shivered inside for lack of coal and wood, especially those of us who were evacuees from the north, assigned damp and dingy quarters in this Franconian town in the south of Germany. The sun now drew us out into the streets to breathe some of the fresh spring air.

I was sitting on the steps of an old baroque fountain in the market square, whose centrepiece was a statue of the Virgin Mary by a celebrated local artist of the period—today it is prominently displayed in tourist brochures of this picturesque town—when I saw a column of men in brown uniforms (a darker brown than that of Nazi party uniforms) marching three-abreast—or rather shuffling—down the main street. As they came closer I saw German soldiers—old men with rifles—guarding the column.

It didn’t take me long to realize that this was a group of Russian prisoners of war being forced to retreat before the advancing Allied armies. Their faces were ashen, large eyes sunken into hollow sockets, their uniforms hanging like scarecrow rags on skeletons—though, in retrospect, these men did not look quite as emaciated as the liberated concentration camp inmates whose pictures we would see a few months later, after the American occupation. Still, the shock was such that at first I sat frozen to the steps. When I finally managed to get up I could see a virtually endless column winding its way into the town. Some of the prisoners held up birdcages and baskets they had pieced together and woven from sticks and bamboo; they were shouting, or rather moaning, “Brot, Brot” (bread). Townswomen rushed up to the column, trading bread for these artifacts as the German guards tried to put a stop to the barter. But the column was long and the guards sparse, so many a loaf found its way to the prisoners. After I had regained my composure I rushed home and asked my mother for some bread; back on the main street, this was quickly torn from me by desperate hands. But as the columns kept coming, it was obvious that all the bread in town could do but little to alleviate the hunger of the prisoners, and compassion gave way to resignation and indifference.

I still recall how much I was struck by the intricate beauty of the prisoners’ artifacts, how much I desired one of these treasures, yet how I thought it inappropriate to trade a mere loaf of bread—scarce as it was even for us—for such expressions of human ingenuity and spirit. What struck me even more was the stark contrast between these delicate objects and those who had produced them—pathetic figures, Russian Untermenschen as they were called by the German propaganda—a term I also recall being applied to Jews. Even today, I suspect, some of these baskets and birdcages may well have survived, gracing the houses of good Franconian burghers, their current owners oblivious to the story of pathos and tragedy to which these objects are mute witnesses.

The columns must have been passing by for some time when I had to go on an errand. As I came near the fountain, I saw a Russian prisoner lying on the ground, a guard prodding him with his rifle butt. A small crowd began to form as the exasperated guard tried in vain to make the prisoner get up and move. “He’s going to shoot him,” someone said. “Serves the bastard right,” another voice replied. “He’s only a Russian.” “Russians are people, too,” someone countered. Several townspeople voiced agreement. At that moment the leader of our local Hitler Youth group joined the crowd. “Think how the Russians treat German prisoners of war,” he shouted. “Don’t be sentimental. I hope he gets shot.” The prisoner still hadn’t moved, and his execution seemed inevitable. The voices of protest had fallen silent. Why doesn’t someone speak up? I thought, though the presence of the Hitler Youth leader was sufficiently intimidating to keep me from protesting. I started to feel sick and slunk away, shaking. I was still trembling when I reached home, and when my mother asked what was the matter I couldn’t answer at first. I was bathed in cold sweat as I listened for that awful shot to ring out.

But it never did. I later learned that the guard had finally managed to get the prisoner back on his feet and into the column. Yet somehow that seemed little consolation. It was the first time in my life that I had an encounter utterly different from the evils and dangers of the world I had come to know—real or imaginary. Here was a world foreign to my experience, and yet real, close-by, and ordinary. Obviously such things happened. What I had seen, clearly, was not unusual or exceptional. Weeks later, during the American occupation, we would learn of the concentration camps, and many Germans would be unable to bring themselves to believe the horror stories, dismissing them as Allied propaganda. My mother was among those who for some time clung to the belief that Germans couldn’t be capable of such atrocities, and I fervently wished I could agree with her. What I had seen and heard by that beautiful fountain in the market square was historically insignificant compared to what was happening in the camps, yet it taught me enough that, wish as I might, I could no longer deny the human capacity for evil. Several years later, when I studied John Keats in school, I recognized this memory as a defining moment that had destroyed my ability to believe in the romantic correspondence between beauty and truth. Not that its marriage in Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” was an illusion. To Keats and his generation, it did indeed represent a profound truth. But to me that truth had been irretrievably shattered, as of course it had been for others even before my time. What I have also learned in retrospect is the great difficulty of resisting evil—demanding the kind of strength of character that I, for one, lacked at this fateful moment, just as many of my fellow-Germans did—the courageous few excepted.

Yet if few had such courage, I still like to think that it was only a minority who actively supported and participated in the horror of the camps and the mass liquidations in the East. Perhaps more typical was the reaction to atrocities such as the “Crystal Night” of 9 November 1938, when propaganda minister Josef Goebbels unleashed the storm-troopers in an orgy of violence against Jewish businesses and synagogues, resulting in the murder of some 80 Jews, and the arrest of some 20,000. The negative reaction of the German public was such that for a time the party leadership decided to be more discreet in its anti-Jewish measures, quickly releasing those arrested. At the same time, not a single perpetrator was prosecuted, and the public, seeing that order had been restored, was mollified, showing little genuine concern for the fate of Jewish neighbours.

Although I was only seven years old when these events occurred, I think I would have remembered them if the city of Kiel, where I was born 14 months before Hitler became chancellor, had been involved. A major naval port, Kiel never had a large Jewish population, and by 1938 most of the few remaining Jews may well have been forced to leave. Perhaps I was simply too young to be aware of anti-Semitism, or of Jewish people for that matter, even though the husband of my piano teacher, a cellist at the symphony, was Jewish (I only learned about this much later, when my teacher committed suicide after her husband was sent to a concentration camp).

My own memories until the outbreak of war in September 1939 were largely happy ones. I felt secure in a loving family that devoted its energies and loyalties to the Mormon religion rather than the Nazi state. Thus my early childhood recollections are of a vibrant Mormon community in Kiel (the capital of Schleswig-Holstein)—of Sunday school and church outings, of visits with children of church members, and of American missionaries having Sunday dinner at our home.

The first Mormon missionary arrived in Germany in 1840. A decade later Apostle John Taylor (who had himself joined the Mormon church in Toronto) arranged for the translation and publication of a German edition of the Book of Mormon—a quasi-biblical account of the inhabitants of ancient America, intended to supplement the Bible. However, significant numbers of Germans did not join the new, esoteric religion until after the establishment of religious liberty under Bismarck. By the time my paternal grandmother and some of her children (including my father, at the age of 12) were baptized in the chilly waters of Kiel harbour in the fall of 1917, there were about 10,000 Mormons in Germany, with several thousand having migrated to the United States (mostly Utah) prior to the war. By the 1930s, membership had increased to some 13,000, largely concentrated in major cities such as Hamburg, Konigsberg, Berlin, Frankfurt, Nuremberg and, of course, Kiel. One of these new members was my mother, who converted to Mormonism from Lutheranism about a year after she married my father in 1931—less than a year before Hitler became chancellor.

I cannot help but remember the ever-present symbols of the Nazi party and the Nazi state—the parades, the flags, the uniforms, the music, the salutes—especially in connection with the 1936 Olympic games, with the sailing events being held in Kiel. One of my earliest memories is of a torchlight parade that I watched from a window in our house, not knowing its significance. Still, the flags lining the street, the flickering reflection of the flames in windows, the brown uniforms of the singing men, the sharp clicking of their boots on the granite pavement all made an indelible impression—and not at all frightening. I remember seeing Hitler some years later, when he came to Kiel in 1938 for the launching of the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen; he seemed a small figure in a brown uniform, standing in a huge black open car slowly moving down the waterfront, his right arm bent in acknowledgment of the salutes of an admiring crowd shouting “Heil!” I frankly cannot recall if I too shouted “Heil,” though I probably conformed to the etiquette of the hour.

To a six-year-old, both Mormonism and National Socialism were part of the “given” world, with the latter more ubiquitous, and also more colourful and exciting. My father no doubt knew why Hitler had come to Kiel to christen a warship, but I was too young to understand at that time, although two years later, when the bombs of the RAF rained down on us, I certainly knew what was happening and why. War had shattered our idyllic existence in September of 1939, after a last memorable summer on the seacoast.

When we returned from our holidays to Kiel in late August of that year the city was rife with rumours of war, and when news came that Hitler’s armies had invaded Poland on the first day of September, I was old enough to notice the pall that suddenly seemed to enshroud the city like a fog—but worse, without the reassuring boom of the harbour foghorns. The women’s eyes were red, and my grandmother sobbed, perhaps in memory of the son she had lost on a submarine in the previous war. When, in the spring of 1941, hopes of a quick victory seemed ever more remote, the authorities decided to evacuate the schoolchildren to the south of Germany to escape the relentless hammering of the city by the RAF.

Rural Franconia seemed safe enough from British bombers, but to a nine-year-old from a large city this was an alien world dominated by the Catholic church—no Mormons and hardly a Nazi, or so it seemed. I learned over time that there were, to be sure, more Nazis than first met the eye. Still, the difference in the political climate between Kiel and Franconia was striking. Because—as I later learned—Kiel had a sizable contingent of socialists and communists, especially in the shipyards, Nazis had been militant and aggressive in suppressing these. As a result, Kiel was pervaded by a palpable Nazi atmosphere, whereas the Franconian region to which my younger brother and I were evacuated was a centre of passive resistance to the Nazis, largely because of its deeply rooted Catholic tradition which, ironically, helped these people resist the cultural encroachment of Nazism more effectively than the more widely-scattered Mormons who, encapsulated in their sectarian world, simply preferred to pretend that Nazism didn’t exist.

This opposition did not lead to spectacular acts of open resistance, but to a permanent war of attrition against representatives of the party, aided and abetted by the head of the county government, who escaped being sent to a concentration camp only because he enjoyed the support of passive opponents of the regime in the higher echelons of the state government. Because Dr Niedermayer’s reports were among the most forthright, intelligent, and informative (and because, by sheer luck, they escaped destruction) they have become a celebrated primary source of popular opinion under the Nazis, and the basis for two major studies.

At the age of ten, about a year after my arrival in Franconia, I was inducted into the Jungvolk (the junior branch of the Hitler Youth), which required me to attend public Nazi functions. Because Dr Niedermayer was a devout Catholic, the Nazi leaders scheduled party festivities for Sunday mornings, in direct competition with mass. Dr Niedermayer had no choice but to attend these, but he did so in his black going-to-church suit, grimly and unsmilingly sitting through the affairs conducted by party functionaries in their brown uniforms.

If party uniforms were unpopular, membership in the SS was widely regarded as sacrilegious. When one young man nevertheless volunteered for the Schutz-Staffel, I overheard some peasant women whispering that God would punish him. After news reached the town that he had been killed on the Russian front, there were some who saw this as divine retribution. Of course as the war progressed, many young men died, mostly in Russia, even if they were ordinary draftees. For the most part, people were fatalistic about the war, often maintaining their grim resignation even as the dreaded news arrived about fathers, sons, and brothers killed in action.

Riding the commuter train to the gymnasium, I overheard many a conversation critical of the regime. One evening a half-dozen SS recruits—somewhat inebriated—began singing obscene anti-Semitic songs: “Yes, if the Jew’s blood runs down the knife, it goes twice as well,” and so on. An elderly man, in a rage, rebuked the singers, telling them to sing decent songs or to shut up. A young woman intervened on behalf of the SS: they were risking their lives for the fatherland and should be allowed some fun. Outnumbered, the old man had to concede defeat. I also overheard many jokes at the expense of Goering and Goebbels, but never Hitler.

If most people didn’t much like the Nazis, they did make an exception in the case of the Fuhrer, who somehow was seen as being above the party. I recall an altercation between my mother and the mayor, a party stalwart who was in the habit of parading around town in his brown uniform. He would have her sent to Dachau if she didn’t obey orders, he threatened. She countered by saying that if anyone deserved the concentration camp it was him—the local party leader. If only the Fuhrer knew of such abuses he would surely put a stop to them (such recollections, in a personal way, confirm the observations by Ian Kershaw in his brilliant study of the “Hitler Myth”). As for Dachau and other camps we had heard about, I was certainly under the impression that they were for dissident Germans or so-called “asocial elements,” people who refused to pull their weight in the war effort. As for the Holocaust, we would learn of it only after the liberation of the camps by the Allies.

Because ambivalence about the Nazi regime did not extend to Hitler, the population of our town was genuinely shocked when we learned that a group of high-ranking officers had attempted to assassinate him on 20 July 1944. Within a day or two of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s unsuccessful plot, the Gauleiter of our region organized a demonstration at the foot of the castle near town, where some members of the Stauffenberg family lived. Along with other Nazi organizations, the Jungvolk were ordered to attend. Embarrassed that he harboured members of this family in his Gau (and doubtless frustrated at his inability to exact revenge on Stauffenberg, who had been summarily shot in Berlin), the Gauleiter, with raised fists, led those assembled in a chorus of epithets against the “nest of traitors” on the hill, whose local patriarch was an uncle of Claus. The ensuing mass arrests included all members of the extended family, even small children, in a vendetta of guilt by association—Sippenhaft, as Himmler called it. I was distressed by the attempt on Hitler’s life, but recoiled from the prevailing mob psychology, though I knew enough to keep my feelings to myself.

In the wake of the “officers’ plot” a spirit of fear and suspicion began to seep like an evil mist into all channels and crevices of society. I recall men in dark suits sitting in the back row of our Mormon church meetings in Nuremberg. “Gestapo,” someone would whisper. Conversations would be guarded, lest we inadvertently make remarks that might land us in the concentration camp—in our case Dachau; no week passed without our local newspaper reporting that someone had been arrested and dispatched there.

Yet in spite of this growing psychological terror, as a member of the Jungvolk I felt a sense of loyalty to the Fuhrer and to the Reich. Somehow I did not feel intimidated by the Jungvolk, but rather enjoyed the games, the outings, the camaraderie. Our leaders were scarcely older than we were, and kept indoctrination to a minimum, perhaps because they knew little more than the rest of us, only sharing a general sense of loyalty to Fuhrer and country. The Hitler Youth, we suspected, was different; in any case, we found their local leader intimidating.

As for any potential conflict between Mormonism and Nazism, this was not something to which I gave much thought. Perhaps my mother considered it unwise to confuse our young minds unduly. I know that she regarded herself as a nonpolitical person, albeit one who felt a duty to both God and country, without perceiving any contradiction. So it came as a profound shock when my father, home on furlough from the military (perhaps sometime in 1944), gathered us together, closed the door, and launched into a frank discussion on the fate of Germany.

The war was lost, he said, or in any case had better be, for it was an unjust war, and had been so from the beginning. Why then, he asked rhetorically, had he allowed himself to be drafted into the military? Because as a Mormon he was obedient to the principles of his religion. The “Twelfth Article of Faith” enjoined us to be subject to secular governments: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honouring and sustaining the law.” If a government was unjust, the sin was upon them. Of course, that did not allow anyone to carry out orders that were against the laws of God. When my father was drafted, he had fervently prayed that he would never have to do this, and his prayers had been answered. He also had been allowed to do some good. He had helped deliver the babies of Polish peasants and had distributed medical supplies among needy Norwegians. If it had been God’s will, our family would have escaped the war, but my father had been unable to obtain visas allowing our family to emigrate to America before the outbreak of hostilities. He now realized that if Germany should win the war it would go badly for us. For the time being, Hitler had bigger fish to fry, but if he should somehow triumph over the Allies, the Mormons would be among his next victims. My father thought we would be spared this fate because Germany would be defeated. Then, finally, we would be able to leave for America … if we survived the war, God willing.

These words left me truly stunned, and though I loved, admired, and respected my father immensely, I am not sure they truly sank in. The idea of emigrating to America now filled me with unimaginable dread. Not only did I love my country, but to me America had become a truly horrible place. This impression was based not so much on the Allied air raids and Goebbels’ radio propaganda, but on a film, mostly clippings from newsreels and documentaries that collectively portrayed the seamy, ugly, criminal side of American society. To an impressionable 12-year-old, such pictures seemed irrefutable, so much so that the very thought of having to go to America made me literally ill. I would be condemned to that frightening, vice-ridden country—unless Germany won the war. And so I was torn by a terrible internal conflict, though my hopes for victory, like those of even the most fanatical Nazis, dwindled rapidly after the Battle of the Bulge and the collapse of the eastern front. Of course my hostile reaction to America and what it represented was in marked contradiction to my experiences before the war, when I had frequent and close contact with Mormon missionaries, and is a telling illustration of the power of propaganda over those of an impressionable age.

Thus it is not surprising that even if, in retrospect, my encounter with the Russian prisoners became a defining moment in my life, as the war moved to its irrevocable conclusion I clung to some vestiges of loyalty to Fuhrer and country. At about the same time that the Russian prisoners wound their way through our town, the Jungvolk were sent to Bamberg for a training course in local defence. We didn’t actually get to shoot antitank bazookas ourselves, but watched demonstrations on the assumption that when the time came we would quickly learn by doing. We were told to emulate the Hitler Youth, who had acted so heroically in the defence of Berlin, with a number of members being personally decorated by the Fuhrer. More realistically, we were trained to carry and deliver messages for the local defence authorities.

THE Monday after Palm Sunday, we were attacked by fighter-bombers, P-51s, who strafed and bombed the town for half an hour, leaving two men dead and much damage to houses and streets. As we anticipated, Easter wasn’t much of a holiday, with a great deal of anxiety over the imminent arrival of American troops, and the rumbling from the front getting louder every day.

April 14 was a bright and sunny day. Learning of a commotion at the railway station, I made my way to the platform and watched people plundering a boxcar filled with uniforms. The authorities seemed unconcerned, and while I debated whether to join in the fray, I felt a hand clamp onto my shoulder. I turned around and found myself facing one of the adjutants of the local Kreisleiter, with alcohol on his breath. He ordered me, as a member of the Jungvolk, to follow him to party headquarters. There I met a comrade who likewise had been commandeered. Both of us were somewhat anxious, especially since the inebriated Nazi kept nervously toying with his pistol. Yet he seemed friendly, and even offered us ajar of pears from the party larder. They were truly delicious. We hadn’t tasted anything like them in years.

Nevertheless, my anxiety increased. My mother didn’t know where I was, and the Americans might arrive at any time. After what seemed an endless wait, the Nazi official asked for one of us to volunteer to carry a message to a local farmer. Because the farmer was a neighbour, I offered to go. The message was a requisition for a team and wagon—no doubt so the Nazis could flee. After delivering the letter, I stopped at home to let my mother know what had happened. Overjoyed to see me, she was horrified to learn that I had been told to report back to party headquarters.

It so happened that a retreating troop of German soldiers had stopped in town for a rest, and a handful of men were relaxing in our living room as my mother brewed pots of ersatz coffee for them. When the man in charge overheard the conversation with my mother he intervened, saying firmly that I was not to return to party headquarters. But I had an order, I objected. He countered by saying that he, too, had the authority to give orders, and he ordered me to stay. But if they caught me they could shoot me as a traitor, I replied timidly. He laughed, saying he would see who would shoot whom, though he was sure we would never see those cowards again. In truth, in those last days the shooting of “traitors” became commonplace all over Germany. Only days earlier we were shocked to learn that none other than the Gauleiter, the indignant official who had wanted to wreak vengeance on the Stauffenbergs, had been caught with his entourage by an SS patrol as he attempted to flee the city of Bayreuth; they had been lined up against trees and shot.

Even as we spoke, P-51s began diving on the town, their cannons hammering away, so that we had no choice but to duck into our shelter. Although the soldiers assured us that they had no intention of making a stand, an 88 mm anti-aircraft gun under another command had dug in on the outskirts of town. I remembered these guns only too well as the mainstay of the air defence in Kiel, where their enormous reports had rattled our air-raid shelter. Knowing that they were a formidable anti-tank weapon, I expected the worst and was not surprised that the ensuing duel with the us army’s advancing Sherman tanks lasted several hours. By late evening, an eerie stillness settled over the town as we emerged from our shelters. The sky was ablaze, but the centre of town had been spared. We spent half the night wetting down our roofs until the flying sparks subsided.

In the morning I made a cautious foray to the market square. A Sherman tank, its engine idling, had taken up position by St Mary’s fountain. Its enormous gun had no doubt helped set the town afire. It was a good thing the 88mm hadn’t been positioned on the square. A single shell from the tank would have blown the fountain to bits. (Later I learned that a direct hit from a Sherman had blown up the 88’s ammunition depot, taking out the gun and its entire crew at the same time.) Suddenly the turret hatch opened and an American soldier emerged. He jumped to the ground, waved, and tossed me a small package which I caught instinctively. I mumbled words of thanks in my awkward school English, then turned around and walked home, examining the package. It didn’t take me long to recognize it as chewing gum, which I remembered well from the Mormon missionaries before the war. I felt confused, wondering if I should have accepted the gum. Yet I worried even more about my desertion from party headquarters the day before, not that I expected enraged Nazis to pursue me with their pistols. And what about my colleague from the Jungvolk? How had he come through the final collapse of Nazi power in our town? Though I hoped he was safe, I also hoped I wouldn’t meet him. If I did I knew I would feel ashamed. As I turned into our street a column of German soldiers marched by, now prisoners of war guarded by an American. I recognized the leader of the troop, who waved to me and smiled. “Thank God it’s over,” he said. “Give my regards to your mother.”

Certainly for us the war was over, and when we learned of Hitler’s suicide in his bunker on April 30, a fateful chapter in our lives seemed to have closed. Strangely, I didn’t mourn Hitler, perhaps because some painful lessons had already begun to sink in. But in a sense the war was not over, and never would be. Too much had happened that could never be undone. I would forever be in Hitler’s shadow—as would our entire generation.