Surviving Hitler

A street scene in a German town. A bunch of Sturmabteilung stormtroopers stands to the left. Just like in Hollywood movies, there are swastika banners everywhere. For anyone not supporting Hitler and the Nazis, it must’ve felt oppressive. Those who could had already left Germany. Those who didn’t get out in time and who were in opposition kept a low profile, unless they wanted to risk ending up in a Gestapo interrogation room or a concentration camp. Others didn’t mind. They had it better than in the 1920’s and 30’s, at least until the bombs started falling, and enjoyed the sense of order after a couple of chaotic decades.

Today is the 74th anniversary of the assassination attempt on Hitler – or rather, the assassination attempt that was closest to success, as there had been numerous attempts before the 20 July plot. Less than ten months later, the war was over for Germany. People could breathe again, but there were many who genuinely missed “the old times”. It’s a phenomenon that repeats itself over and over. Those who weren’t negatively affected by the oppression, or perhaps even thrived under it, bemoan that the good old days are gone. We see it in Russia today, where Stalin is partially rehabilitated.

Germany went through a de-Nazification process after the war, but save for the worst war criminals, officials, judges, doctors and other people who had been part of the system got away with a rap across the knuckles and made to promise to not do it again. Had every Party member and other sympathizers ben put in prison, the system would’ve collapsed and the rebuilding of Germany would’ve become much more difficult. That was the mistake the USA made in Iraq after ousting Saddam Hussein. By weeding out every Ba’ath Party member in the administration and army, the country collapsed and the seeds for the current situation in the Middle East were sown. There were draconian plans to make Germany unable to wage war again (see the “Morgenthau Plan”), but cooler heads fortunately prevailed.

Winning wars are easy compared to winning the peace. Unless the peace is seen as just by the involved parties, there will be resentment that could make conflicts flare up again. Never start a war without having a plan on what to do once it’s won.



Tomorrow belongs to us

A troop of boys, members of the Hitler-Jugend (HJ), stand to attention as their leaders make the Nazi salute. The photo is probably from a soldier’s album, documenting his life before entering the Reichsarbeitsdienst and then Army service. The Hitler Youth had its roots in groups in the early 1920’s, but got its name in 1926. It organized boys aged 14-18; those aged 10-14 belonged to Deutsches Jungvolk. After the Nazi rise to power in 1933, membership was voluntary, but access to higher studies, sports sites, etc, was much easier if one was a member. From 1936 onwards, membership was compulsory for “Aryan” boys. The purpose of HJ was twofold: to indoctrinate the German youth into Nazi thinking, and to condition them for Army service. Classes in Nazi ideology were an important feature, and through camps like the one in the photo above, where the boys marched and took part in field competitions, they got used to solve tasks in groups. When it was time for Army service, most of them were already prime recruit material.

As the war progressed, many members left HJ to volunteer for service in the Waffen-SS. Indeed, in 1943, the 12. SS-Panzerdivision “Hitlerjugend” was created, the bulk of the division made up from HJ members born in 1926. The division gained a reputation for ruthlessness and fanaticism, which was in part a result of their indoctrination. In many other places across Germany, HJ members made up the crews of antiaircraft guns, and when enemy forces closed in on the German borders, young boys were handed old rifles and Panzerfaust antitank weapons to stem the enemy advance. I knew a German who was 15 years old when the war ended. He and his comrades received training in the use of the Panzerfaust, but somehow he managed to avoid combat when the Red Army reached his village. Some of his friends weren’t that fortunate…

The video clip below is from the 1972 movie “Cabaret”, which is set in 1930. It captures some of the Nazi thinking, where the youth was destined to lead the country into the future. “Give me the child for the first seven years and I’ll show you the man” is a quote attributed to Aristotle and also the Jesuits. By taking children and indoctrinating them, totalitarian movements have aimed to shape the future. This is a chilling reminder of that. Never trust a regime which does that.


The destruction of Dortmund

The Hansaplatz in Dortmund, 10 May, 1943. Some of the city’s more than 530,000 inhabitants walk past the ruins after the British bombing raid during the night of 4-5 May. The arcade with its shops and cafés lining one side of the square is in ruins, and the 14th century Probsteikirche behind it has met the same fate. Dortmund, an industrial and administrative center in the Ruhr area in western Germany, was a prime target for the Royal Air Force, beginning with a couple of raids in April, 1942. The attack in May 1943, coupled with another attack 19 nights later, claimed the lives of some 1,400 people and made more than a quarter of the population homeless. The final attack took place on 12 March 1945, when 1,108 RAF aircraft dropped 4,851 tons of bombs on Dortmund, the heaviest single bombing of any European city in WW2.

It was the RAF that flew most of the bombing missions against the about 260 German cities and towns that had been targeted for destruction. The British leadership under Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris (a man who would’ve ended up accused of war crimes if he had been in another uniform) thought, largely erroneously, that the war production would cease and the will of the German people would be broken by heavy area bombing of industrial and residential areas. Part of it was revenge for the Luftwaffe attacks on British cities, and the destruction of Hamburg and Dresden alone were enough to get even when it came to the death count. Poor precision (in many cases, the raids completely failed to hit the intended targets) and the dehousing strategy called for area bombing, most of it conducted at night. One tactic deployed was to drop incendiary bombs mixed with high explosive bombs with time fuses. When the rescue workers and fire-fighters were out, trying to put out the fires and helping people trapped in the ruins, the HE bombs went off, killing the rescue personnel.

A Luftwaffe officer can be seen in the photo. His boss, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, claimed in a speech to his Luftwaffe in September 1939 that “No enemy bomber can reach the Ruhr. If one reaches the Ruhr, my name is not Göring. You can call me Meyer.” The Luftwaffe had a cap that the pilots and other personnel came to call the “Hermann Meyer cap” in a sarcastic nod to his boast…

When American troops captured Dortmund on 13 April 1945, 98 % of the city center was in ruins after 106 bomb raids, the final raid making Dortmund the most heavily bombed city in Germany. Few of Dortmund’s historical buildings were rebuilt, and the neo-gothic arcade in the photo was replaced with an ugly, functionalist counterpart. The Probsteikirche was restored, but the face of Dortmund had been changed forever. Thanks to extensive construction of air raid shelters, the number of killed was relatively low at 6,341 people in total. A further 15,520 Dortmund men who served in the Wehrmacht never returned home. About 5,000 Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables” had been deported to concentration camps in the east, and it can be surmised that very few of them survived.

Unexploded bombs are still found buried in the ground in German cities, and Dortmund is no exception. In November 2013, a 1.8 ton British bomb was found, and 20,000 people had to be evacuated while experts defused and removed it. The war is still present, and the last victims of the bombs haven’t been claimed yet.

Signs of a welfare state

A squad of soldiers relaxes outside a Nazi party office in the village of Vossenack near the French border. It’s during the “Phoney War” in the autumn of 1939, but the area won’t see any action until almost exactly five years later, when the village will be laid in ruins during the bitter Battle of the Hürtgen Forest. On the wall of the house are a couple of enameled signs, one for the NSDAP Ortsgruppe Vossenack Amt f. Volkswohlfahrt, and the other for the Hilfstelle Mutter u. Kind.

The Volkswohlfahrt – the National Socialist People’s Welfare – was the Nazi party’s social welfare program, which provided old age insurance, rent supplements, unemployment and disability benefits, old-age homes, interest-free loans for married couples, and healthcare insurance. One of the NSV branches, the Office of Institutional and Special Welfare, was responsible for travelers’ aid at railway stations; relief for ex-convicts; ‘support’ for re-migrants from abroad; assistance for the physically disabled, hard-of-hearing, deaf, mute, and blind; relief for the elderly, homeless and alcoholics; and the fight against illicit drugs and epidemics. This was all well and good, and a relief for a people who had lived through the hard times after World War 1 and the Depression. That is, unless you were a Jew or some other “undesirable”, like the mentally handicapped murdered in the “Aktion T4” program…

The Hilfstelle Mutter u. Kind (“Relief Point Mother and Child”, part of the Peoples’ Welfare) was there to support mothers with children. The Nazi view on women was that they should be mothers and housewives first and foremost, and not out there working or advocating equal rights. The failure to tap into the labor pool by employing women, instead relying on forced labor from occupied countries, created a problem for the German wartime economy. Most other countries mobilized the workforce by replacing the men who left their jobs to go to war with women, who built the tanks, planes and ships needed to wage the war.

To the young men in the photo, the Nazi Party was probably seen as a force of good for society. With a strong state providing for its citizens, serving as a soldier seemed like a reasonable price to pay. The Nazi economy was a giant on clay feet, and there would’ve been a collapse sooner or later, had it not been for the war and the plundering of the occupied territories. Neither that nor the cataclysm that would raze Vossenack and Germany in a few years were something that the soldiers outside that office expected to happen. Poland had been beaten, and France and Britain might call off the hostilities. What could possibly go wrong?

Not so phoney

This undated photo might puzzle the casual observer, but it tells a story that’s not widely known even among WW2 buffs. Ten men, ages between 20-50 years, sit in a room with straw mattresses, the writing on the blackboard saying “Flüchtinge Westwall” (“Refugees Westwall”). What is it all about, one might ask? Here’s is my interpretation, but one that I’m pretty sure is correct.

The place is somewhere in the Saarland, a German state sharing a border with France, and the time is September 1939. The Saarland had been occupied by French and British forces between 1920 and 1935, as a result of WW1. When World War 2 broke out with the attack on Poland on 1 September 1939, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany a couple of days later. Allied forces took up positions along the border, which was weakly defended by the Germans. In fact, the German ammunition reserves would’ve only lasted for a couple of weeks, had the Allies made a decisive attack. As it was, eleven French divisions advanced a few kilometers into the Saarland on 7 September.

The area was defended by the German 1st Army, and the intent was to provoke the Germans to shift troops from Poland to the Western Front, aiding the Poles in their struggle. 20 German villages were evacuated. The Germans didn’t take the bait, and after just a week, the French forces withdrew back to the border. This was one of a very few offensive actions taken, after which the opposing sides contended themselves with glaring at each other across the border, entering the eight-month period known as “the Phoney War”. The German border fortifications were called the “Siegfried Line” by the British, but that name actually referred to a defensive line during WW1; the Germans called the line the “Westwall“. The fortifications were in no way ready in 1939.

So what about the men in the photo? They are probably from the villages evacuated in face of the French attack. Being of military age, they would’ve risked internment if they had stayed. But where are their families? It’s possible that the men were separated out by the German army, and ready to be conscripted into the army if need be. Some of them were probably called up, while others went back to work their fields. It would be another five years before war came their way again.

Bread and circuses

Part of living in a militarized state is the martial pageantry, and Nazi Germany excelled at that. Parades served several purposes: they showed off the might of the military forces, they established the power of the state, and they served as a focus for displays of patriotism. By the heavy use of the swastika, which was a party symbol turned into a national emblem, the NSDAP was effectively telling the people that – to paraphrase Louis XIV – “the state is us”.

The photo above shows a parade in some major German city. I haven’t been able to identify the building, but none of my Berlin maps and guidebooks from 1923 – 1936 show a stately building like the one in the picture. A company of sailors march past the tribune, which is full of military top brass and Party functionaries. Men in Sturmabteilung uniforms salute the troops, as do the civilians out in the streets to gawk at the display.

The initial victories were celebrated with parades through Berlin, but as the war progressed and the victories dried up, the parades were more Party business than military. The enthusiasm shown in the newsreels shouldn’t be interpreted as the Germans were 100 % Nazi, but that many years of hardship and humiliation were exchanged for successes that promised a brighter future.

Carefully orchestrated propaganda reinforced national pride, and laid the credit for the victories at the feet of the Führer. As in all 20th century dictatorships, the image of the strong leader was a priority. The fact that the “true believers” were convinced that miracle weapons and the genius of Hitler would turn the fortunes of war even as the Allies crossed the German borders in 1945, just goes on to show how effective the propaganda was.

All in the family

This German family portrait shows the men engaged in different aspects of the Nazi state. Judging by the uniforms, it was taken in 1934 or later. The father is a member of the SA – the Sturmabteilung, the infamous Stormtroopers – with the rank of SA-Scharführer (equivalent to an Army NCO), and wearing the brown service tunic introduced in 1932. The two sleeve rings (SA-Ehrenstreifen) identify him as an “old fighter” with a join date of 1931 (those who joined after the Nazi power-grab in 1933 were seen as opportunists by some). He wears two sports badges, the Deutsches Reiterabzeichen and the Deutsches Fahrerabzeichen (the German horse rider’s and the horse-and-wagon driver’s badges, respectively).

The younger son (on the left) is in the RAD (Reichsarbeitsdienst, National Labor Service), doing his compulsory six months of service with the rank of Arbeitsmann (worker). The older son is wearing the old-style Army service tunic used for parades and other formal occasions. While the mother and daughter are in civilian clothing, it’s a rather safe bet that the are engaged in a Nazi organization for women or two, as the Party permeated every aspect of the State. Some Germans embraced the new order with enthusiasm, while others paid lip service and did the minimum in order to not appear in opposition.

It is hard for those of us who live in democratic countries to imagine life back then. What would one do? Go for it all, just hang on, or be a rebel? The Nazi state never had a complete grip on the German people, but enough people went along with it for it to work, even though the much-touted “Thousand Year Reich” only lasted for twelve years…


Thanks to Axis History Forum members HPL2008 and Waleed Y. Majeed for the identification of the SA uniform.