And unless one was Jewish, a Gypsy, or a political opponent of Nazism, the Germany of the ’30s had indeed become a land of hope. It’s no exaggeration to say that if Hitler had died in 1938, he would have been celebrated as one of the greatest statesmen in German history, despite the persecution of the Jews (violent anti-Semitism had become an ugly feature of public German life by then, but very few would have predicted it would end in genocide).
On April 20, 1938, Hitler’s 49th birthday, I joined the Jungvolk. Like many of my peers, I could hardly wait to give my oath of eternal loyalty to the Führer and receive the dagger with “Blut und Ehre” (“Blood and honor”) engraved on it. Even more thrilling, I was chosen as one of two 10-year-olds who would represent our district Jungvolk at the Nuremberg Party Congress that September. It was a particularly bright moment to be a young German. We had taken Austria “home” that year, as well as the Sudetenland, the largely German-speaking border region of Czechoslovakia. In my own home town, business was humming: we were in the third line of defense of the “Westwall,” and hundreds of townspeople were employed in the construction of bunkers. My grandparents had no trouble selling all the wine their farm produced. That summer, a Panzer battalion had been moved into a complex of new barracks, bringing more prosperity to local businesses. The Panzer officer who inspected our Hitler Youth formation on the day the new facilities opened was a Colonel Erwin Rommel; just five years later he would be a field marshal, at the height of his fame as the “desert fox.” Although our songs celebrated the joy of dying for Germany, death was the last thing on our minds at the Party Congress.
I have never forgotten the words Hitler addressed to us in his harsh, mesmerizing voice. “You, my youth,” he shouted, “are destined to become the leaders of a glorious future world under the supremacy of our new National Socialist order.” To many of my peers, this promise became a sentence of death. But in that storm of 100,000 voices, screaming in an almost primeval frenzy of assent, I reaffirmed the oath of fealty I would not break as long as Hitler lived.
That evening, in the huge tent city we shared with thousands of storm troopers, we were visited by the Reich leader of the Hitler Youth, 31-year-old Baldur von Schirach, a minor aristocrat whose mother was an American (years later, at a Hitler Youth leaders’ conference, I heard him mention with obvious pride that one of his ancestors had signed the Declaration of Independence). After he had inspected our formations, lined up between endless rows of white tents, we crowded around him near a huge log fire to sing songs. That suited Schirach’s naïve, mystical quality perfectly. It was he who had written the words to the Hitler Youth anthem, and he who used to equate Hitler with God (by saying, for example, that “He who serves the Führer serves Germany, and he who serves Germany serves God”).