World War II: Children's Recollections--World War II (1939-45)

Figure 1.--This photograph of me was taken around Christmas. It was I believe 1940 and I was eight years old. The photograph was taken in my parents's garden (back yard). I am wearing a short wool coat. Notice the hood with a plaid lining. I also have on a wool balaklava type headwear. The long trousers had a blue stripe.

This personal commentary is a reply to the HBC question in the the HBC German movie page. The question is really a challenge for me to recall all what I have heard and seen and felt in connection with the Nazi-regime and the war. Thank you for this encouragement. I shall now start to give a report which is mainly my own present view, but many ideas I describe were really thought by many Germans around 1945. Perhaps this is a general description of the German way of seeing the things in those times.

Myself during the NAZI Era

I was born in December 1932, a few weeks before the Nazi-regime and Hitler took over. My family was rich, and we lived in the town of Hameln (Hamelin, the pied piper´s town) 40km south west of Hannover (Hanover). The earliest remembrance I have in this context was in November 9-10, 1938, when I was almost 6 years old. This was Reichs-Kristallnacht" (Nacht of the broken glass) when Jewish synagogues were burnt all over in Germany by the NAZIs. Next morning my next younger sister (4 years old) and I walked together with our nanny to the place where it happened. I do not know why she did this and later I forgot to ask her. Anyway I think she was more leftist than middle in her political conviction, and perhaps wanted us to be witness to this cruel event. Now at the location of the former synagogue a very impressive memorial has been erected. Apart from an iron plate with all the names of those who died or were tortured, it consists of a few rusted heavy iron constructions that reach into the street and make driving a little difficult. The rest of the compound is barren and has not been used again for houses or so. In 1939 I began school. In 1940 I was in the Black Forest (Schwarzwald) in a kind of boarding house where children can stay for recreation (Kinderheim), when the war against France began. The French border was only a few kilometres away. Immediately my mother came and took me home. We went by car, and from a high positioned road in the Black Forest, my mother showed me the Vosgues mountains which are in France (in Alsace).

My Family

Although my parents were not fully practicing NAZIs (they were both members in two less important nazi groupings), they somehow sympathy with the regime. My father was in World War as a soldier from the very beginning (Poland, Blitzkrieg--September 1939) to the very end. Since he was responsible for logistics in his military division, except in 1939 in Poland, he never fought in a battle. He was neither killed nor injured, and he became a prisoner of war only after the end of the war. He was second and finally first lieutenant. His division was in Poland, France, Russia and France again and at the end in Allgäu in Bavaria where he and the remainders of his division surrendered to the American Army in May 1945. He very seldom told us about the war. It seems that for him the war was too horrible to tell to his children. I have a letter he wrote a few weeks before the end of the war from Southern France in which he stated, we should do everything possible that the Russian will never come to Germany", and my interpretation is, that he was afraid of the revenge the Russians would take after all those destructions, cruelties and humiliations that Germans had made in the Soviet Union. And I have many of his photographs he made. My mother came frome a very rich and influential family. Her view was of course influenced from her descent. I remember her say a few months before the end of the war (ca 1944) to somebody, the situation is very "black". She used the English word, which I, however, understood because of my first English lectures in school.

My School

I rememember a few details about my school and the Hitler Jugend. I was in the younger division--the Deutche Jugend.

How the Germans Viewed the War

Like almost everybody, at least in the middle and upper classes, my motherfelt that the war against Soviet Union was just in so far as Stalin would have tried to conquer whole Europe and make it communist. But WE (i.e. Germans) did not succeed. Whether the view about the Soviet Union was right or not is difficult for me to decide, at least Stalin must have said something like that. On the other hand Hitler likewise said that the erection of Greater Germany and destruction of Bolshevism (which in his view includes the eradication of Jews and Zionism) was his goal. So the Soviet Union and the Russians were in the minds of many Germans very primitive and without any culture, and thus it was only right to sudue them and let them work for the benefit of the Germanic race. This view of many Germans, also the view of my parents (and of course of me too as a child)

An influential book at the time was written by Edwin Erich Dwinger Und Gott schweigt..?" (And God Remains Silent, 1936, Eugen Diederichs Verlag, Jena). My parents had it. Now, a few weeks ago I found a copy somewhere in a second hand book shop and bought it and read it for the first time. I am sure that most of what Dwinger wrote is fiction. Dwinger decribes the story of a young German communist who in 1933 emigrated to Soviet Union to flee the NAZIs and find the true socialism. But he found the greatest cruelty done by the Bolshevists against everybody else (including German settlers invited in Tsarina Katharina the Great´s time, and including their own economy and society and wealth). Finally he being deeply disappointed and repentantly travelled back to Germany (which was already NAZI Germany) and approached the first policeman asking him "Arrest me, I was a communist!". There existed more such books, illustrated weekly papers, films and songs etc, but it is difficult for me to see how far the accusations against Stalin and his regime are true, Such books still appear today that are not NAZI books, but some are and it is not worth to talk about them here because they no longer reflect the view of most Germans. I am sure that the Stalin regime was extremely cruel and self-destructive. But surely much had been exaggerated and was (and still is) believed by Germans and still influences the views of many Germans. Even many citicens in former GDR (former communist East Germany) still have a similar view about the cruelty of the Red Army, in many cases based on personal experiences.

So this was the intellectual background to my parents´ generation´s attitude towards Bolshevism and Jewdaism. The other Allied nations were not considered as that bad. After all, many former Germans live in America (even the American General and later president Eisenhower had a German name). The English nation is of Germanic origin--like we Germans. Near the end of the War many Germans thought it only realistic if the Allies would start fighting against the Soviet Union together with the German Wehrmacht and defeat them to the benefit of the Russians and the world as such, in order to liberate the world from the threat of Bolshevism.

But somehow we were all very much afraid what would happen if the Red Army would take over. And indeed many bad things really happened. Most of us did not know what Germans had done in Warshaw Ghetto or in the KZs. The state of information was very poor. We heard this and that but prefered to believe the official Nazi propaganda because it was less horrible or even more beautiful, easier to live with.

How the Germans Viewed the Coming Defeat

Around 1945 most Germans were rather confused and it was of course very difficult to judge what would be right, what wrong. We all were very afraid of being conquered by any enemy. We soon could experience what we ourselves had done to others before: being humiliated by a force that was not ours. The Morgenthau Plan was a threat to all: there was even a rumor that Morgenthau wanted all boys and young men be castrated in order to diminish this dangerous nation. (I can understand Morgenthau, after all he was a Jew!) Since most of us knew what war means, there was an atmosphere of utter helplessness. Humiliation, suffering, destruction, loss of structure, death was not far. In a letter that my mother wrote to my father in April 1945 (which was not delivered and came back), she expressed her deep and helpless concern about what would happen to their children, what would be our future. However, after the War, the fate of our family and many surviving Germans in Western Germany was much more prosperous than before--I may say, thanks to the foreign forces that defeated the German Hitler Reich. Germans in the East as well as Eastern European countries did not have that luck. So at least for a certain period many of us suffered a similar fate that we made other people to suffer.

How I, My Friends, and Family Thought under Occupation

My mother more than my father did not easily convert to the new post-War situation. Like many Germans they felt unjustly treated by the winning nations and by existence. Often she was embarrassed and felt offended by the defeat. This shows that she was conservative, but not necessarily that she was rightist.

When the war was over in May 1945, I was 12 years old. Everybody knew that war is something very horrible. Though my town was almost not bombed, we heard of the devastating bombing of Hannover and Bielefeld. In many nights I saw the red shine of burning Hannover from about 40 km distance. Many people I knew died or lost their relatives and houses and belongings. But I never heard about the concentration camps (KZs) until about February 1945 when a friend told me the first news about them. In those days there seems to have been made a few minor announcements by German broadcasting. But we could hardly believe what later became truth. In course of the years after the war we slowly slowly became aware of many facts--but could only after years accept that this information was actuallytrue. Still many of us, including me as a boy, tried to excuse or disbelieve what we heard. I was brought up under Nazi regime and had experienced it as a good and very bright time. How could all this have been fake?

But later a heavy guilty consience grew, particularly with regard to the Jews and the Eastern European peoples. Still I am surprised when a Jew addresses me without blaming us about what happened. And a lot of literature appeared on the market by which it was attempted to work off and understand what had happened. Many Germans had the feeling as if something was pulled from their eyes and an original and clear eyesight had come back. In school we read and heard a lot of such literature. We saw movies and theatrical plays about the war and what happened thereafter, such as the famous Draussen vor der Tür (Outside the Door) by Borchert. It describes the fate of a lost soldier who years after the war comes back home from Siberia and finds a new family around his wife. The least that happened within us was, "never again!" I think it worked. And as a consequence it is still very difficult for a German leading politician to convince the Germans that a certain war is necessary and Germans should be sent to the front there.

On the other hand, demonstrations and actions against the Vietnam war were strongly backed by great parts of the German population. Here you can find the reason why many Germans heavily objected to the war against Serbia and later against the Taliban or rather the Afghan people. [HBC note: We do not agree here that the American actions agains Al Khaida and the Taliban can in any way be viewed a a war against the Afghan people.] And I believe that the Green party which in part stood behind the decisions of our foreign minister (who is a Green) in September will not be elected again for the next Bundestag. When I start to look at movies such as about KZs, it is difficult for me to see the whole film, one or a few scenes are enough to touch me for days, and again I start thinking and brooding. In a film I saw a woman about whom the commander said to another soldier "shoot her" and I feel an enourmous pitty about her, as if I myself was the victim. And at times in dreams I see bombers destroying towns burning or such things--although I never had such experiences directly.

How the Germans in General Viewed and Judged what Had Happened

Towards the end of the war, and more so after the war, almost all patriotism disappeared. There were only a few exceptions, but these people dared not to say anything about their patriotism publicly. To be a Nazi or sympathize with them did at that point of the process not mean that one is an ardent patriot. I think, to remain a NAZI at that moment meant, not to lose one´s self-respect. I think what people thought was something like, "I should not be so cowardish and escape from what I have vowed for only a few years earlier". But many party members or especially members of NAZI organizations (it was virtually impossdible not to join such organizations) were not ardent NAZIs, but rather purely nominal members not really convinced. It was this easy for them just to change their convictions. They were what after the decline of the communist regime in Germany was called a "Wendehals" (wryneck in English, a bird that can turn its head and sight by more than 180° without changing the position of its body (in latin Jynx torquilla). Many years after the War at least in West Germany we still had a lot of political discussions about certain persons who had been active NAZIs and now are honourable high status politicians, such as the former Bundeskanzler (chanceler) Kiesinger.

Of course, for many defeat and occupation by the Allied troops was a relief. The NAZI tyranny was most heavily felt by those who were arrested in the KZs and similar institutions. For many it was just the end of all war suffering like bombing. As I wrote before, the arrival of the Red Army was mostly feared.

How do Germans React When They See World War II Movies or TV Programmes

The answer is a little difficult for me since I seldom see TV or movies. My own reaction you can see from the above text. The East Germans seem to be more sensitive than the Westerners. This may be because the East German regime made more of a point of informing the population about the NAZIs. The West German regime tried to forget a little of the NAZI past. (Originally I´m West German, but since 1994 I live in the East). However, I believe that the general opposition against all war activities, even military activities is a wide spread reaction though not very strong as it should be according to my feeling. Still there is little sympathy for any type of military in Germany. There is still another aspect: if one sees violent scenes such as in war movies etc, at least in a man´s soul, also in some women´s souls, violence is more than accepted, in a deep layer of your soul or so you become greedy to see it. This is also the case with scenes of military displays and processions, especially Prussian military music.

Draußen vor der Tür

I add a short text from Wolfgang Borchert. It is in German as I did not find an English translation of his Draußen vor der Tür. A HBC reader has kindly prepared a readable English translations of this difficult passage.

Aryaman Stefan Wellershaus

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Created: July 27, 2002
Last updated: August 5, 2002