MY BIRTH AND DEATH AS A NAZI
KLAUS E. NEUMANN
or exactly half of my thirty-two years I lived under the rule of dictators. I spent eleven and a half under Hitler and four and a half under Stalin.
If today I were a stubborn fanatic, it would not be surprising. All my education and all that confronted me during my formative years was designed to turn me into a mental automation, living by a narrow set of rules others implanted in me. My brainwashing and mind-conditioning began early. I was born in pre-Hitler Germany, but joined the Nazi movement soon after Hitler seized power on Jan. 30. 1933. From then on I ran true to form: 1 delighted in singing the rousing songs of the Brownshirts, looked upon every propaganda slogan as a revelation of eternal truth, and endorsed without thinking everything the “God-sent” leaders in Berlin did. I was as good a young Nazi as they used to come.
“IT HAPPENED TO ME"
This is another of the series of personal-experience stories that will appear from time to time in Maclean's . . . stories told by its readers about sonic Interesting dramatic event in their lives.
HAVE YOU SUCH A STORY? If so, send it to the articles editor. Maclean's Magazine, 481 University Ave., Toronto. For stories accepted Maclean’s will pay the regular rates It offers for articles.
We begin with the child as soon as he is three years old. As soon tis he begins to think, he gets a little flag put in his hand. Then follows the school, the Hitler Youth, the S.A. (storm troopers) and military training. ffe don’t let him go! And when all this is past, then comes the Labor Front and takes him up again and tloes not let him go until the grave, whether he likes it or not.
DR. ROBERT LEY, LEADER OF THE NAZI LABOR FRONT
Today the world around me considers me a normal human being again. During the more than five years I have lived in this country nobody has accused me of still having Nazi leanings, and a surprisingly small number of people have ever suspected that I might have had a Nazi past. I take
this to be a certificate of complete recovery.
Some Canadians have told me that the immigration authorities would never have admitted me into Canada, had they found the slightest traces of Nazism on me. Things are not quite as simple as that. A screening can only separate the dangerous from the harmless cases, but Nazism is a state of mind—step by step it grows, and only gradually it dies again.
This explains why the two events that first affiliated and later cut me off from the Hitler movement did not have any real significance at all. Resolving to line up with the Brownshirts was no bigger a decision for me than it is for a Canadian boy to make up his mind about wanting a bicycle.
One day, early in 1933, I came home from school and asked my parents’ permission to join the Jungvolk, that part of the Hitler Youth to which boys of up to fourteen belonged.
“What do you want to do that for?” asked my parents, who at that time were still very suspicious of the new regime.
"It's such fun.” I told them. “They play such lovely games, and almost all of my classmates are in it already.” After a few weeks my parents gave in. I was nine years old.
My first open break with the Führer took place in 1944. about eleven years later. The army unit to which I belonged had been cut off from the rest of the German troops, and with a group of ten soldiers I was hiding in a dense Byelorussian forest to avoid being captured by the Russians, who —we had been warned—shot everybody they caught.
I was nineteen, the youngest in our group. A man of about forty, in civilian life a schoolteacher, continued on page 74
I was as go(&J a young Nai*?i as they used to come.
I worshiped Hitler, played at "killing" and knew Germans were superior. Now my greatest wonder is that I really believed it
My birth and death as a Nazi continued from page 34
As boys we were taught
to march and play war
■ . this was Hitler’s version of Sunday school”
tried to comfort me. “Don’t worry,” he said, “the Führer has not forgotten us. He will order a counterattack and get us out of here.”
But our entire central front in Russia had collapsed, and weary soldiers were
retreating as fast as they could. T could not share this man’s childish belief in the Hitler myth any more. “Like hell he will!" I shouted at him. “We are lost. Your Führer does not give a damn about us!"
I was right. Four weeks later we were led into a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp. When I cut the swastika from my uniform I knew that a whole world had come to an end, the only one I had ever known. It was replaced by inner
turmoil and chaos for many years to come.
Youth is the guarantor of the future'.
HITLER YOUTH SLOGAN
I grew up in a small village in Lower Saxony, situated in the poor agricultural district between Hamburg and Bremen. There the National Socialist movement had hardly any followers before 1933. But in due course every one of the Nazi organizations flourished there. The Hitler Youth was the first and it found spontaneous support.
As a child I had been playing cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers and all the other games boys play the world over. But the Jungvolk offered much finer attractions. For one thing, we had uniforms (perhaps there is an innate liking for uniforms in the German). It consisted of a brown shirt with “real leather buttons,” black corduroy shorts, a black cap and tie. Colored lanyards distinguished our leaders from the rest, and arm patches showed what tests we had passed.
We met twice a week. I enjoyed these meetings. Marching like soldiers, learning new songs, climbing trees and playing soccer—what boy wouldn't like that? At times we played war against a group from a neighboring village. The task was to “kill” as many of the enemy as possible, by tearing a wool thread from the opponent’s wrist.
One of the rooms in our public school had been made into a “Hitler Youth Home,” and here we were taught by boys hardly older than ourselves. We heard about the Führer (who said of himself that he had been “a little gang leader” as a boy), about the marvelous things the National Socialists were going to do for Germany, and about the “reactionaries” (nobody quite knew what they were) who stood in the way of progress and betterment.
Looking back at these lessons now. I can see that they contained all the features of Nazi ideology—of race supremacy, complete subordination of the individual under the power of the state, of imperialistic ambitions and of the brutal suppression of everything nonNazi and “non-Nordic." But the Nazi dogma was presented to us in bites, never too big to swallow, and therefore we swallowed it. This was a dictator’s version of a Sunday school.
At fourteen I joined the real Hitler Youth. The war had begun and now much more stress was put not only on the political side of our education, but on the military as well. We still “played,” but now we learned how to throw hand grenades and handle rilles. Similar training was given to us in the Reichsarbeitsdienst, the semimilitary labor service into which I was drafted for six months at seventeen. We were well trained when the time came for us to join the army.
Everyone in Germany is a National Socialist. The few outside the party arc either lunatics or idiots.
As long as dictators cannot bottlebreed their subjects — as in Huxley’s Brave New World — they will always find human nature their main obstacle.
It is impossible to turn people into a
truly homogeneous mass; there are many important sectors of a person’s life into which the arm of the authoritarian machine cannot reach, powerful as it may be.
I am indebted to several factors that my mind did not come completely and permanently under the spell of Nazi ideology. My country background, my parents’ home, my schools, my life in the army—these are the most important.
Our village is well over a thousand years old. It has its set ways. its traditions and customs. Yet it unhesitatingly accepted Nazism. 1 ascribe this to a certain lethargy on the part of our farmers, to their hope that Nazism could be lived with if only this strong and determined man Hitler gave them the better life he promised.
And life did become better for the majority of Germans during the first years. One must not forget that, to understand why the Nazis had such a firm grip over the Germans when later they revealed the true ambitions of their movement. By 1934 swastika flags were flying from almost every farmhouse on public holidays, and nobody had forced the farmers to hoist them.
Only a few of our people became Nazi fanatics; all the rest were fellow-travelers who never realized that through their uncritical acceptance of the dictatorship they were turned into its willing tools. Our shoemaker became leader of the storm troopers. (Today he is president of the village sports club.) Our schoolmaster. formerly head of the small group of Social Democrats in our village, became the local Nazi party leader. (He was jailed for a year after 1945. Today he teaches again and is a supporter of one of the coalition parties of the Adenauer government.)
But in spite of the intensity of this local organization I was never as strongly exposed to the full force of Nazi brainwashing as, say, a youth in a workers’ district of Berlin or the Ruhr. By the time a decree of the ministry for public enlightenment and propaganda in Berlin had reached our village, it had been watered down considerably.
In some ways the Nazi movement in our community reminds me of comic opera. The farmers were used to having their beer in the local pub in the evenings. After they had joined the storm troopers, they continued to meet in the pub, the only difference now being that on certain nights they wore brown shirts. Since there was hardly a house from which some relative had not gone to the United States, the inn was decorated with a large picture of the Statue of Liberty. This picture remained on the wall throughout the war. Nobody saw any reason for removing it.
The only “enemy of the state” we had was our butcher. He had been a member of the isolationist and royalist Hanoverian Party, and he was not prepared to budge. On official holidays he would put out the old Hanoverian flag instead of the swastika. It was not until the war had started that his friends were able to convince him that it was dangerous for him to do so.
He was as stubbornly independent about adopting the Nazi greeting— raising the right arm and saying, “Heil Hitler!” Everybody accepted it. save the butcher. To "educate this sorehead” was one of the tasks of our Hitler Youth group. Whenever we passed him we would shout a loud "Heil Hitler!” Always he replied, “Good day.” When 1 returned to Germany in 1948 I met him again, and I was ashamed: only then could I see how much character and courage this man had shown.
My father, coming from a family that
had provided forest engineers for the Prussian government for eight generations, was nationalist. His switching over to the Nazi movement is illustrative of the way in which Hitler was able to force the support of the large nationalist element.
At first my father did not want to have anything to do with the Brownshirts. But one day he was "advised" by his superiors that he’d better associate with one of the Nazi organizations. He picked the least conspicuous, the National Socialist Peoples Welfare. Then one day he re-
ceived a letter from the party, informing him that "in recognition of his valuable services" to the welfare organization he was now offered the privilege of a party membership. He did not dare to decline it, of course.
Intellectual activity is a danger to the building of character.
My parents’ home did a lot to give me at least a glimpse of another world outside the Nazi orbit. There was the Jewish
question, for one thing. I was constantly exposed to anti-Jewish propaganda, but mother's best childhood friend had been a Jewish girl. How could all Jews be “bad" then?
Even though a party member, my father stayed away from Nazi rallies as much as he could, and 1 learned from him to become somewhat of an outsider myself. The weekly routine of Hitler Youth meetings became boring to me when 1 grew older, and often I stayed away. This didn’t always go unnoticed. One day two boys on their way to a
meeting came by to pick me up. Mother told them I was sick. They replied, “He may be sick, but the Führer certainly will not like it if he does riot come to our meetings!”
Looking back, I find that for me school —the “second column in the edifice of National Socialist youth education”— was amazingly liberal. At least, it was as free as it could be under the circumstances. I attended high school in Bremerhaven, and this town—and my teachers —seemed to have inherited much of the coolness toward Hitler for which Bre-
men, its mother city, was famous. Bremen was the only German city Hitler had vowed never to visit for a second time. On his first visit the Hitler Youth had been ordered to form the customary “living rope” to keep back the cheering crowds. But when Hitler arrived there were no crowds. Being ignored like that doesn’t go over well with a vain dictator.
The majority of our teachers were non-Nazi. Many of them had been living abroad for a number of years, and they saw to it that our outlook on the world was widened beyond the state-prescribed
limits. They familiarized us with every “outcast” in science and the arts. We would be told, for instance, that a man like Spengler was “undesirable” now, but . . . And then they would explain to us in detail what his thoughts and teachings had been.
The same applied to Heine, the poet, who was outlawed because he had been a Jew. We read most of his works after we found copies of his writings on a remote shelf in an old bookstore in Bremerhaven. Since we knew that the old bookseller would not be able to sell them
to us at any price, we stole them.
The director of our school was arrested for having relations with friends abroad which were “incompatible with his position as an educator of German youth,” and a successor was appointed. But he too was anti-Nazi, and constantly warned us against volunteering for the armed forces: “Boys, the war will last long enough for everyone of you to get his fair share!” He also was dubious of what would happen if the Germans should win the war. “You will be administrative officers in some remote part of Russia or Poland for the next twenty years,” he predicted. The risks he took were great, for statements like these were dangerous during the war.
Trying to sort out the factors that prevented me from becoming a completely thoughtless and soulless tool of dictatorship, and that later laid the foundation for a new outlook, may appear to be an attempt at whitewashing myself politically. I have no intention of doing this since it’s my contention that everybody who was a child of the beginning of the Hitler regime could not help becoming anything else but a Nazi. If only one possible world exists, there is not much choice.
What sort of a youth was I when the war was well under way and Ï was about to be drafted? Since I was not too much blessed with soldierly virtues I never excelled as a Hitler Youth leader, the normal thing to be for a boy who went to high school. Not being very good at athletics, which were stressed in the Hitler Youth as well as in school, I developed a strong dislike for mass sports and mass activities in general.
“The man who was never wrong”
The fact that I did not look like a Nordic superman also gave me the feeling of being second-class. But there came a day I was glad I failed to measure up to the ideal. That was when some SS came to look for volunteers among our Hitler Youth formations. We were lined up in the market square and the officers passed down rank after rank, looking everyone straight in the eye, presumably searching for some “Nordic gleam.” A young man with dark curly hair, grey eyes and a bent nose, I wasn’t even considered. I hadn’t yet developed the distaste for the SS that later on I shared with the rest of the regular army but, I remember, I was happy not to be among the “chosen few.”
Five youngsters were picked, and after some bullying they “volunteered.” Only two of them returned from the war. One of them is blind, the other unharmed and active in Neo-Fascist activities.
But even without receiving this “last polish” of an SS indoctrination, my picture of the world was distorted enough: Hitler was the kingpin of our universe, a chosen man who wanted to do nothing but good for the German people and could not err or fail. He had godlike qualities, and it was only the “small Führers”, who made mistakes. “If only the Führer knew about them!” people sighed, but Hitler himself was unassailable.
To us it was clear that there were no people quite as good and able as the Germans. But not even all Germans were equal. The Nazi Old Guard (party members who had joined before 1933) were better than the others, and some of the Germans living in Eastern Europe who were naturalized during the war only became “Germans, Group 3” because they had Polish grandfathers or Russian grandmothers.
Outside the country we looked for friends among the other Germanic races, and the British we regarded as close
„.jousins. The fact that Hitler always admired the British and hoped to come to /an understanding with them was clearly reflected in our history books. Those books were rapidly changed after the war began, and by 1940 my brother and 1 played a popular game called Bombing England. It consisted of a piece of cardboard with the map of Great Britain on it. The cities were marked by holes into which small plastic “bombs” had to be flipped. You scored a hundred points for hitting London and fewer points for the smaller cities.
The French were decadent, we believed, and the Slavs inferior, while the Jews were considered outright evil. On the Jews everything sinister and bad was pinned. We had two Jew'ish families in our town who, with the help of friends, escaped to England, but not before even in our remote community a fanatic mob had smashed their belongings and ruined their homes.
We knew that concentration camps existed into which the incurable enemies of the new order were being put. But since the camps were the least advertised of Nazi achievements, I never learned about the cruelties committed there until after the war. Only once did I meet an SS soldier in Russia who had been stationed in one of these camps. “We have a large consumption of human working material in those camps” was all he was prepared to tell me about them.
Long before 1939 people in Germany were scared of another war. But our youths were taught that war was a natural thing. Considerable war enthusiasm had thus been created. It lessened, however, as more and more battles were lost. My best school friend despaired. “There is only one thing left for me—to sacrifice myself for the Führer” he wrote me in early 1944. Two weeks later he was killed in action. But the majority of us had turned into bitter cynics by that time. “Better an end in horror than horror without end” we said about the war that would not end.
Many of the novelties Nazi education introduced remained fragmentary because of the war—among them the attempts to make it honorable for a German girl “to present the Führer with a child” (an illegitimate one), to make it almost compulsory for every family to have at least three children, and to introduce a new “German religion” on a large scale.
How much my own morals had become warped under the lulling fog of propaganda is demonstrated to me now when I remember the day the first Russian prisoners arrived in our town to be led to a nearby camp. As soon as the doors of their boxcars were opened, halfstarved men emerged and, in their desperation to find something to eat, they even collected the grass from the ground. Some were dead on arrival; others collapsed and died during the march to the compounds. A truck collected the corpses.
My reaction to seeing that? I knew perfectly well that this sort of treatment was inhuman and cruel. Yet I seemed paralyzed to raise any real protest within myself. I had been told too often that the Russians were our most-hated enemies, that they were subhuman. When four years later I found myself in a similar condition of starvation in a Soviet POW
IS YOUR SUBSCRIPTION DUE?
Subscribers receiving notice of the approaching expiration of their subscriptions are reminded of the necessity of sending in their renewal orders promptly.
The demand for copies to fill new orders is so great that we cannot guarantee the mailing of even a single issue beyond the period covered by your subscription.
camp, I knew better and learned to admire the kindness and charity of the Russians, the Poles, the Lithuanians, and— last but not least—the Jewish people who saved many of us by giving us from the little food they had for themselves.
The enthusiasm — once stopped — cannot be aroused again if desired.
A book put out by “German anti-Fascists in Canada” during the war. advised that only extreme shock would rid the
German youth of its stubborn adherence to Nazi ideology. This shock treatment began for me as soon as I was drafted into the army. For four months I was trained to be a Morse-code operator, and then l was sent off to Russia.
Hearing about the “necessary fight for Lebensraum” and of the “justified claim of the German people for the rolling wheatfields of the Ukraine” is very well, but doing the fighting is a different thing. I shall never forget the day when I was led into the front line. There had been much fighting back and forth during the
winter, and now, in spring, the ground was littered with shell splinters and pitted with shell holes. From one of them protruded the felt boot of a Russian soldier. From under the water in another the pale face of a dead Russian looked at me. A third was occupied by the wellgroomed, booted leg of a German officer —just the leg.
This was in 1943, and the war in Russia was brutal and naked. It had nothing of the playing-field romanticism Dr. Goebbels’ busy pen still tried to adorn it with. The only “sporty” aspect 1 remem-
her was the propaganda leaflets the Russians were shooting over to us. They were invitations to surrender: “A thousand lovely legs are waiting for you! And bring the cover of your eating kit—we serve pudding after every meal!”
If my year and a quarter as a soldier in Russia provided some shock treatment, the four and a half years I spent as a prisoner of war did much more so. I spent this time in the camps in Lithuania and the Ukraine in a constant numbness of mind. My main concerns day after day were how to get enough to eat and if and when I would be sent home.
When the doors of our prison closed behind us in August 1944, the war was not over yet. But we knew that Germany and Hitler were doomed. An anti-Nazi group of our own captured generals urged us to prepare ourselves for a new democratic Germany, but it later turned out that their idea of democracy was nothing but thinly disguised Communism.
The treatment we received and the things we observed did not encourage us to become followers of still another authoritarian idea. One morning while waiting for our breakfast (thin cabbage soup and a piece of bread), we noticed that a new slogan had been painted on the wall: “The Soviet Union—the Paradise of the Workers and Peasants!” That same day, while working at the railroad station, we witnessed the deportation of several truckloads of Lithuanian peasants. They arrived, kneeling on an open truck, their heads shorn, their faces frightened. A Soviet soldier guarded them with a Tommy gun. They were forced to kneel again on the pavement until they were shoved into boxcars and the doors locked behind them.
After having had pneumonia twice and suffering from the effects of malnutrition, a “medical examination” (consisting of feeling the fat left on my ribs) established that I was unable to work. In addition I was suspected of having tuberculosis, and my release was ordered in October 1948.
On our way through East Germany flabby-faced Communist officials greeted us with long speeches, praising the blessings of the new regime. But in the streets we saw that shops advertised “artificial bean-soup powder” and saccharin, and we realized that the people here were again in the grip of another mind-conditioning machine.
Crossing over into West Germany was a dramatic moment. We passed the last Red Army soldier on whose booth we read for the last time the omnipresent slogan “Glory be to the Great Stalin,” and then we saw a British guard and the Union Jack flying above him. Salvation Army workers gave us the first sandwiches and cocoa we had had in years. There were priests and welfare workers to greet us. Automobiles brought us into the camp in Friedland, where Bing Crosby (over the loudspeaker) greeted us with “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine!”
“Do you realize what all this means?” I asked my friend. “Now we are free and we can say and do what we want!” We tried hard to keep back tears.
But these happy moments were not the real homecoming of the young Nazi who had gone out to conquer the world for his Führer. That began when I attempted to build a new world for myself in which to live and to believe. As I stood in the small railway station of our town, hardly anybody recognized me in my worn-out Russian uniform coat and my canvas-covered wooden-soled shoes. I felt like an empty shell, spit out by the war. I was twenty-three; my profession: pupil.
Life had returned to normal. There
still were the scars of the war, but the signs of a new prosperity already became apparent. I was looked after by welfare organizations and physicians, but nobody could do anything to cure the deep confusion in my mind. For years I refused to read or talk about politics and war.
Everything that you are you are through me and everything that I am I am through you.
ADOLF HITLER TO HIS OLD GUARD
At the Nuremberg trials Baldur von
Schirach, the supreme leader of the Hitler Youth, had declared that he was sorry he had misled the German youth. He got a prison term, but that did not straighten out the German youth again. In our town and village democracy seemed to have been accepted with the same eagerness with which Nazism had been embraced earlier. Parties of different leanings were active—Social Democrats, the Hanoverians. Christian Democrats. I wondered where they had been between 1933 and 1945.
There also were the Neo-Fascists. 1 went to some of their rallies to cover
the events for the small newspaper I had begun to work for. It all looked so familiar. There were the flags, the brass bands, the rousing speeches in which fortitude of voice replaced logic, and the Saalordner with their Führer-you-commandand-we’ll-follow faces, ready to bounce anybody who dared to have an opinion of his own. They only wanted to pick the good features of National Socialism, they proclaimed. I was glad to see that the German voters did not give them a chance to pick at all.
I never was “democratized” in an organized way. My re-education and reorientation came about very slowly and gradually. In postwar Germany there was a chance now to read widely, to listen to people with opposing views, to observe the mechanism of a democratic state at work. And this new shaping of my mind was continued after I came to Canada in 1951.
Around 1953 it was demonstrated to me how deep-reaching a dictatorial education really is. I never saw Hitler in person, but his picture had always been around. As in Orwell’s 1984, the “Big Brother” had always been “watching me,” from the walls of railway stations, from advertising posters, from books and propaganda leaflets. At a time when I was firmly convinced that Hitler and his movement had long been discarded by me, I saw his picture in a Canadian magazine. I was surprised that only now— for the first time—I was able to look at the picture of this man as I would look at the photograph of any other person. Even though he was not “my Führer” any more, I must—in my subconscious —still have considered him somebody extraordinary and special.
With my neighbors I was recently leafing through a book of quotations from Nazi leaders. It contained such presumptions as:
Hitler is lonely. So is God. Hitler is
like God.—Dr. Frank, Nazi minister
and such silliness as:
Proper breathing is a means of acquiring heroic national mentality. The art of breathing was formerly characteristic of true Aryanism and known to all Aryan leaders . .. Let the people again practice the old Aryan wisdom.— Weltpolitische Rundschau, Berlin;
The rabbit, it is certain, is no German animal, if only for its painful timidity. It is an immigrant who enjoys a guest’s privilege. As for the lion, one sees in him indisputably German fundamental characteristics. Thus one could call him a German abroad.—General Ludendorff.
The neighbor interrupted at one point. Looking at me doubtfully, she said, “Did you really believe things like these?”
“Of course,” I had to answer, but it seemed very strange to me that I ever really had.
Sometimes I am frightened when I think what product might have evolved if my brainwashing had been more highpressured than it was. My classmate, who served in the SS. still believes that a Fascist dictatorship is an ideal world to live in, and he is busy trying to establish a new one.
The scars the past has left on me are an extreme scepticism, the rejection of any pressure on my mind (even if only exercised by an innocent vacuum-cleaner salesman) and a suspicion of all group and mass activities (even of a company outing). There is also a lot of cynicism in me now, and secretly I envy people who can still trustingly believe in persons or causes without having to subject them to a painstaking questioning and testing. But even that is a small price to pay for having escaped from permanent mental enslavement or even mental annihilation. ★