My days in the Hitler Youth were happy ones, by and large: I was young, and I was becoming a fanatic. My grandparents, who raised me, were apolitical people whose farm was better off under the Nazis. My father had been a Social Democrat who never applied for Nazi Party membership; it’s possible that he might have challenged my growing allegiance to Hitler, but he and my mother had moved away from the farm to run a family business, and I did not see my parents often in those years. Once during the war years, when he visited and saw me preening in my uniform, he told me I looked like a little clown. Certainly he never had my blind faith in the Führer. For my part, I thought his point of view was simplistic, out of touch with the truth about the Reich: after all, he had never been to high school, and I considered myself better-educated than he. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944, in the hysteria after the attempted assassination of Hitler, but was released after one night in custody. He lived to tell me what a fool I had been.
Could I have learned from him earlier? I don’t know. The Nazis worked hard at binding us children to Germany and to Hitler, and they might have won me away from even the most determined parental opposition. Certainly the regime never wavered from its primary domestic goal of reshaping the young, and thus the future. “I don’t need you all that badly,” Hitler once shouted to a rally of farm workers. “I already own your children.”
For once, he wasn’t exaggerating,
• • •
But Hitler did not draw his support solely from us children of the Reich, and it still baffles me that out elders and our educators gave him equal assent. The explanation lies partly, of course, in his undeniable success in restoring full employment and economic order to a devastated nation, where six million were unemployed in a population of 66 million. “You’ve got to hand it to Hitler,” said my grandmother, who equated idleness with villainy. “He puts everybody to work, even the damned Gypsies.”
That was in 1938, and by then the number of unemployed had sunk to a miniscule 200,000 out of a workforce of 25 million. It was an impressive achievement, even if it depended on conscription and a vastly expanded army, on massive rearmament and public-works programs (such as the construction of the autobahns), and finally on the introduction of compulsory labor service for all young Germans. The only other national leader who could be compared to Hitler in so thoroughly remaking a whole society in the ’30s was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Like Roosevelt, Hitler captured the souls of many of his countrymen by giving them economic security at a time of economic chaos. In Germany, though, the worldwide depression of the ‘30s was the second such calamity in a decade. In December of 1923, you could have exchanged 4.2 billion marks for a single dollar. A man needed a wheelbarrow full of currency to pay his rent, provided the landlord would accept the stuff at all. My grandfather had to pay the mortgage on his land with wine and meat ― and he was one of the lucky ones: he could still feed his family, and he didn’t lose his farm. Millions of Germans bartered away everything they had. Inflation and unemployment not only devastated their traditional victims in the working class, but wiped out much of Germany’s middle-class as well.