When the German people passively accepted the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which made every Jew a noncitizen, they accepted the legal distinction that made possible the brutalities of the late ’30s and the genocide of the ’40s. Most Germans remained indifferent, and many agreed that the Jews had no right to live in Germany. Even to us fanatics in the Hitler Youth, though, the term “Final Solution” did not yet carry the horrifying meaning that later became apparent.
When I first heard the term, in 1940, it came in a context that had long since been familiar: the phrase in full was “the final solution to the Jewish question,” and “the Jewish question” was of course a common term by then. Specifically, we in the Hitler Youth were told that the final settlement of this issue would involve the deportation of those Jews who had not voluntarily emigrated. These recalcitrants would be shipped to conquered Poland to “atone for their crimes with the labor of their hands.” After seven years of education in hate, it seemed a just fate
And so millions of Jews were indeed shipped east, first to work but finally to die. Not for their crimes, but for ours.
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In the spring of 1939, I passed the entrance test for the Gymnasium, or high school. High school education was then the exception, not the rule, but my grandparents wanted me to become a priest. Hitler or no Hitler, the priesthood was still a respected calling in the Rhineland. On numerous occasions I served Mass as an altar boy in Hitler Youth uniform, since our parades and marches frequently took place on Sunday mornings. It wasn’t until early in 1944, when I had been accepted as an officer cadet by the Luftwaffe, that a Gestapo captain by the name of Schwertfeger posed an obvious question. The captain had the task of ascertaining that I was racially pure, which meant untainted by Jewish blood for four generations. “Tell me,” he said with a thin smile, as he studied my file, “how can you serve the Führer and the Pope with equal loyalty?” I looked at him with some astonishment: it had never occurred to me there could possibly be a clash. Many Nazis were stout Catholics, and the Führer himself had been baptized, though he did not practice. By that time, I had changed my ambitions anyway. I had discovered flying and girls, precisely in that order. All I wanted to become was Luftwaffe fighter ace.