This article originally appeared in the February 1, 1983 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
In Hitler's Germany, my Germany, childhood ended at the age of 10, with admission to the Jungvolk, the junior branch of the Hitler Youth. Thereafter, we children became the political soldiers of the Third Reich.
In reality, though, the basic training of almost every child began at six, upon entrance to elementary school. For me, that year was 1933, three months after Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor. It was 50a years ago this week that Hitler came to power, and I have only a child's hazy recollection of the early years of his rule. But I vividly remember the wild enthusiasm of the people when German troops marched through my home town on March 7, 1936, in the process of taking back the Rhineland from the hated French.
I was born in Wittlich, a small wine-producing town just 20 miles east of the French border in the Moselle valley of the Rhineland. Under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, the Rhineland had not only been demilitarized, but placed under French occupation for 15 years. When France’s vastly superior army allowed fewer than 3000 German troops to re-enter the region without threatening to mobilize, the French handed Hitler the first of his bloodless conquests. There would be more appeasement ― over the Sudetenland, Austria, Czechoslovakia ― enough to convince Hitler he had become invincible, and that he could attack Poland with impunity. It was a delusion that may have cost as many as 50 million lives; certainly it changed the world.
None of this, of course, was apparent to the people of Wittlich in 1936. On that March evening, perched on the shoulders of my uncle, I watched a torchlight parade of brown-shirted storm troopers and Hitler Youth formations through a bunting-draped marketplace packed with what seemed to be the whole population. Clusters of people seemed to hang from the windows and balconies, and a continuous storm of “Heil Hitler” drowned out the music of the military band. Standing in an open Mercedes in front of the medieval city hall was the Führer himself, acknowledging the salute with an outstretched arm. It was the first time I had seen him, and I’ll never forget the rapture he evoked. On that evening, he surely symbolized the promise of a new Germany, a Reich that had once again found it’s rightful place in the sun.
• • •
Unlike our elders, we, the children of the ’30s, knew nothing of the freedom and turmoil of the Weimar Republic. From our first day in school, we received an almost daily dose of nationalist instruction. It was repeated endlessly that Adolf Hitler had restored German’s dignity and pride and freed us from the shackles of Versailles, the harsh peace treaty that plunged our country into more than a decade of bloody political turmoil. Even in working democracies, children do not question the veracity of what they are taught; we, who had never heard the bracing tones of dissent, never doubted that we were fortunate to live in a country of such glowing hopes.