Life in the Third Reich

by Henry Metelmann

new perspective Volume 2. Number 3. March 1998

The writer, brought to Britain as a prisoner of war in 1946, was 11 years old when Hitler became Chancellor. He outlines his father's reaction to Nazism and his own attitudes and involvement in the Hitler Youth. Early call up followed by service in occupied France and South Russia ended at the battle of Stalingrad, in defeat and capture.

PEOPLE OFTEN SAY TO ME that to have lived under the Nazi Dictatorship - the 'Thousand Years Reich' - during its entire 12 years' period must have been terrible. In fact it wasn't, at least not as I saw it. For me it was just life. People the world over, I think, who are born into any given society and then grow up in it, see their own society as the natural and the right society and judge all others by how much, and in what ways, they differ from their own.

I was very happy that we had such a strong Fuehrer and even loved him probably for the same reasons as others love their king, their queen, president, religious or tribal leader. It was only when Nazism was smashed, in 1945, and the daily drip of suffocating propaganda ceased abruptly, that I began to wake up to the extent of my brainwash. Of course, those who suffer from it, are the last to know about their illness.

A Worker's family and Nazism

I was born into a poor working-class family in a north German industrial town in 1922. Before I was many months old, an out-of-spin inflation was ravaging the German economy. The price of bread had risen to about a million marks, real starvation was stalking the streets in the cities and a state of fear and utter helplessness was gripping the nation. This also brought a strong smell of revolution into the disturbed air.

Father was an unskilled labourer. He was lucky to have work at all, unlike about 7,000,000 who had not. Mother came from the country which probably saved us from the worst of food shortages. We were a loving family. Both my parents, though having had a very ordinary state school education, had a deep gut feeling and understanding of politics and history. They, for instance, considered the abolition of the Monarchy and the setting-up of the Weimar Republic in 1918 a positive advance towards democracy. But lateron they also hated the entire Nazi set-up as being nothing more than the German Establishment's installed tool for stopping and then rolling back the political and other advances the German people had already made since having thrown out the Kaiser and his lot.

My childhood was a happy one. We were poor, but so was everyone else in our working-class neighbourhood. The richer middle-class people lived farther out in the more comfortable suburbs and there was as good as no social contact between the classes.

I well remember 30 January 1933 when Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor (Prime Minister) of the Reich. At first there were only rumours, few of us had access to radio. But then Mother had found out for sure and came home crying, saying: 'How can Hindenburg (our President) do this to us, install gangsters in Government without giving us a chance to vote on it.'

The Hitler Youth

It was not long before a law decreed the existence of only one German Youth Organisation: the Hitler Youth. Since about the age of seven or eight I had been a member of the Christian Jungschar, a Scout Movement modelled on Baden-Powell's, which was then taken over. Though my father did not like the idea that I should join what he called the 'Brown Pest', he relented as under the then prevailing political circumstances he thought it unwise not to. Later, after I had left school and applied for locksmith apprenticeship with the railways, the first question on my application form was: when had I joined the Hitler Youth?

The structural system of that youth organisation was based on the military. Our group consisted of about 150 to 200 boys, subdivided into three troops - just like a company of soldiers. We met together, marched and played together, were lectured together and grew up together in close comradeship until the age of 18.

Every company had a Heim (home) which consisted of one or more large rooms in barns, cellars, disused factory halls or other empty buildings provided for us by their private owners. That's where we met two or three times a week. We decorated the Heim ourselves in a nationalist/militarist style. Swastika flags and other Nazi emblems had places of honour as well, of course, as decorated pictures of our Fuehrer. Swords, steel helmets and rifles were hanging against the walls intermingled with paintings of battle scenes, warships and 'greats' of German history. Our tables, benches and other furniture pieces were usually rough. But when we had our close togetherness there, we felt happy on our own. We were sure and proud that we were the future of Germany, come what may.

The Hitler Youth and the Future Nazi State

I wore mostly low-quality clothes at home which my mother sewed and knitted. In the Hitler Youth however I wore, what I thought was, a beautiful brown uniform with much leather, in which I imagined myself as one of Hitler's young soldiers. Our leaders, certainly the upper ranks, were from the middle classes, while we working-class boys were the foot soldiers. It was drilled into us that we were the privileged members of the Herren Rasse (master race) and that it was our God-given duty to bring order and sense into a wicked world, if necessary by force.

You might condemn me, reader, for having gone along with all this, what I now recognise as obvious nonsense. But the point to remember is that I, as well as the millions of others, did go along with it. And we did it in the best of faith. Nazi 'education' had only six years from 1933 to 1939 to forge us into a youth committed to carry out later, unquestioningly, what our rulers wanted us to do. I am convinced that without our forced upbringing in the Hitler Youth it would have been impossible for Germany to militarily occupy Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Yugoslavia, Greece and an area of the Soviet Union larger than four times the size of Great Britain and hold them down in an iron grip for four to five years.

Before I joined the Hitler Youth I never really had been on a holiday. Such an extravagance was not for the likes of us. It was only after joining that I was taken to see and experience the beauty of my country.

I loved it in the camps. They were set up in the most gorgeous places in the mountains, by the sea, along rivers and in forests. We learned patriotism there in songs and words, about battles and conquering and dying a hero's death. There was much sport and we all had to learn to swim, we were instructed about military formations and how soldiers move in the countryside unseen and yet observe everything. We learned how to shoot, throw handgrenades and how to storm trenches. We went on long marches with heavy packs to become tough and in the evenings sat around bonfires, sang and were told about our glorious past, of wars and battles. Old soldiers were sometimes brought in to lecture us on German soldiers' heroism which brought us often close to tears from emotion and filled us with love for our Fatherland and Fuehrer.

Concentration on the Totalitarian State

We knew that there were Concentration Camps. Everyone did. But hardly any of us had seen one, though the Neuengamme Camp was not far from where we lived. Our understanding of them was that they were work camps where anti-German elements like Communists, criminals, Jewish money grabbers, wayward professors, homosexuals and Bible punchers were locked up to do useful work for Germany for the first time. And we all thought that that was only right. When a neighbour of ours, a local Trades Unionist leader from the docks, was taken to Neuengamme Camp in the middle of one night, I, about 14 years old, became for the first time aware of the political nature of the camps. By having taken one anti-Nazi out of our working-class neighbourhood, the rest, like my father, were effectively subdued. Where, up to then, he had fearlessly stood up for workers' rights in a vicious money-orientated capitalist society, he now begged me not to repeat outside what he was saying inside our home.

At every national day, that included the Fuehrer's birthday, our Jesuit-educated Minister of Propanda, Goebbels, called for Flaggen heraus (out with the flags) which people then put out of their windows. They made our drab streets look like colourful passages.

There were many party rallies. Apart from the great annual one at Nuremberg, which Hitler himself often attended. Whenever he came to the northern part of our country, our group always went and were placed in a special roped-in area close to the speaker's rostrum. In this way I was close to the Fuehrer several times and able to watch his every gesture, his every move, listened to his every word and with the rest went into a dizzy, applauding him, shooting my arm into the air and shouting: Heil, heil, heil … I was sure that he was our saviour who would clear our sacred country of the 'Jewish/Plutocratic/Bolshevik world conspiracy', and at last would set us free. My conviction was totally sincere. I was prepared to struggle for, to kill and, if necessary, to die for my Fuehrer and country. Such, as I now realise, was my na‹vety.

I remember the Reichstagsbrand when the Parliament building in Berlin went up in flames. A mentally disturbed Dutch Communist, Marinus van der Lubbe, was blamed for it and executed. The Nuremberg Tribunal after the war established that the Nazis themselves, the brown SA, who had come through an underground tunnel from Goering's near-by villa and had set the curtains and woodwork alight with petrol. We were told in the Hitler Youth that a Communist coup had thus been averted and that our Fuehrer, as a response, had declared the Communist party illegal. That, by the way, was very handy for getting rid of the about 20 per cent of MPs, the Communists, who were the only ones who dared to vote against Hitler's policies.

It was in the summer of 1934 when the Nazi party almost ripped itself to pieces in an orgy of killings (The Night of the Long Knives). I learned from my father that the Establishment was very adverse to the idea that Hitler's street fighting mob, the SA, had swollen to about 3,000,000 and many were in possession of weapons. As a condition for keeping him in office, it demanded from him to at least neutralise the SA. He very obediently did so in one cruel night when, under its leader, Ernst Roehm, the SA held their Annual Congress at Wiessee near Munich. Accompanied by Goering, Goebbels and strong black SS detachments, they forced their way into the hotels where many top leaders were summarily executed in their beds. We were told that our far-seeing Fuehrer, by that decisive action, had prevented a coup against our nation. Most people were stunned and frightened, including Dad. It was in this way, step by step, that the Fascist dictatorship was established in the controlling heart of Europe.

Expansion and War Preparations

Nazism received an important propaganda uplift in 1937. King Edward VIII had abdicated 10 months earlier and with his wife paid a highly publicised visit to our Fuehrer. It occurred at a time when no statesman, caring for his reputation, would have touched Hitler with a barge pole. The then Duke of Windsor made his 'famous' statement that 'the German youth was a lucky one to live in such a great society'. Father's explanation was that Herr von Coburg-Gotha was interested in setting up a bulwark against revolution from the east for which there was no better force than the Nazis.

To my eyes, events were now running along splendidly for Germany. The shackles of Versailles were torn asunder by German military occupation of the demilitarised Rhineland. Not long after that the Fuehrer liberated his native Austria. Next, with the help of the British and French at Munich, Czechoslovakia was sold down the drain and ended up as a Protectorate of Germany. All of us youngsters were so proud and, while my parents worried about the threatening clouds of war, I believed my Hitler Youth teaching that war was a necessary cleansing process for the human race.

Goering was now building a strong modern Luftwaffe which was tried out during the Spanish Civil War against the defenceless people of the Basque town of Guernica. The 'heroic' deed of our Legion Condor, who had carried out the bombing, was on all our lips. And, when I told my father, whom I dearly loved in spite of all our quarrels, that the Communists of Guernica had received what they deserved, he, for the only time in my life, hit me in rage.

I remember the Kristall Nacht when synagogues all over Germany went up in flames, when many Jews were killed and their shops were ransacked in an orgy of shameful madness. An official at the German Paris Embassy, Ernst von Rath, had been shot dead by a Jew, Herschel Gruenspan, which had set the spark to the explosion. Goebbels claimed that it had been a spontaneous action by an infuriated German people who had had enough of Jewish crimes against our nation. Father pointed out that the action could only have been organised by the government as it happened during one night in thousands of places hundreds of miles apart. I, however, kept on believing that our government could tell no lies.

War

After the Prague occupation came the turn of the Poles. They, so we were told, were abominably mistreating German nationals in their country and, to top it all, had concluded an anti-German Pact with Britain. When their threatening armies were said to be marching up to our border, people's emotions, firmly fired by the Nazi controlled media, were running high. It was then that Hitler struck. On 1 September 1939, he announced in a powerful speech that he had had enough and that 'German guns had been firing "back'' into Poland since the early hours of that morning'. The war had begun. I listened to that speech as I listened to all Fuehrer speeches and was overcome with joy and pride. The smothering uncertainty, like a cloud, was lifted from our vision. The moment of truth had arrived. And we were sure that no one would dare, nor be able, to stop us. Such was our arrogance. However, for me, there was also a case for disappointment. Being not quite 17 years old, I thought that I had been born too late to take an active part in the Fuehrer's Blitzkrieg. But, as it worked out, my worry was not necessary. When I was 18 I was called up to the Panzers. What higher level could a human being reach, I thought, than becoming a German Panzer soldier.

Active Service and Defeat

I was sent to France to make up the number of our Occupation Army. From there, in the winter of 1941, we were taken on a long trek to Russia. I was not yet 19 when I drove into my first battle and found the spectacle of hundreds of fallen corpses, strewn all over the field, both disturbing and very frightening. How far from Christ's teaching had I strayed? But we won the Crimean campaign. I lost several close friends and made myself believe that they had fallen for Germany.

But then came Stalingrad, the mother of all battles as the Russians later called it. We arrived with the 6th Army at that city on the Volga in the autumn of 1942. And when the winter set in, and we clearly had been unable to 'crack the nut', it began to dawn on me that the moment of truth now really had arrived. I want to state that only after my nose was rubbed into the dirt and snow of Stalingrad, and only after the living hell was beaten out of us, that I began to doubt.

I am an old man now of 73. I fully and unreservedly accept my guilt of having been an active member of Hitler's ghastly war machine. But I also sometimes wonder to what extent I, too, perhaps had been a victim of it all and how, in terms of guilt, I stand as compared with those who, for instance, made a deal with Hitler at Munich and like someone whom my father called Herr von Coburg-Gotha.

Words and concepts to note

abominable: loathsome, morally detestable.

arrogance: hugely excessive pride, massive presumption and unreasonable self-importance.

Questions to consider

w Why, in your view, did the writer's political opinions so often differ from his father's opinions?

w Is the writer's moral guilt greater than that of the 'Men of Munich' (1938)?

w What light does the writer shed on the strength of Weimar democracy and the power of the traditional ‚lites?

Life in the Third Reich by Henry Metelmann. new perspective 1997

Henry Metelmann came to Britain as a prisoner of war. After his release in 1948 he stayed in Britain, married and brought up a family. He is the author of Through Hell For Hitler (1990).

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