July 20, 1944 marks a turning point in Germany’s history when a few brave men attempted the assassination of Adolf Hitler. Among them, Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg who represented the one beacon of hope that pierced the dark cloud of tyranny which had settled over Germany. Unfortunately, the bomb failed to kill Hitler. Nearly six thousand men and women were subsequently murdered in the wake of Hitler’s revenge; many strangled in front of cameras. Hitler gloated while watching these executions captured on film.
Stauffenberg was one of the first to die, his body shattered by bullets, burnt to ashes, and scattered over unknown fields. His pregnant wife Nina was arrested by the Gestapo, confined to a prison then later to a concentration camp. Though their children were given up for adoption, all survived the war and later reunited.
I was born in 1958, the son of a highly decorated World War II tank commander who grew up in the house of family Stauffenberg.
I learned first about Stauffenberg’s heroic action from my father who dismissively called him a traitor.
My father, a German officer like Stauffenberg, was sworn to defend and obey Adolf Hitler. He grudgingly admitted to me that he knew about the murder of Jews but chose to ignore it; his inaction in stark contrast to the decision made by Stauffenberg. My father’s inability to admit to what I saw as his mistakes led to conflict and the dissolution of our relationship. From conversations with Stauffenberg’s widow and personal study, I tried to discern what, unlike my own father, had motivated Stauffenberg to break his oath and attempt tyrannicide.
According to close confidants who survived Hitler’s revenge, Stauffenberg received reports about the mass murder of Jews and was convinced of their authenticity. He himself witnessed the events of November 9-10, 1938, euphemistically called Crystal Night, when most synagogues in Germany were burnt down. Ninety-one Jews were killed and an estimated 20,000 were sent to concentration camps. This not only symbolized the beginning of the end of Jewish life in Germany but also convinced Stauffenberg that such a tyrant had to be removed from power.
His strong personal sense of religious morality and justice conflicted with his commitment as an officer sworn to defend his nation. He discussed Hitler’s removal from power with close friends and confidants but at the same time continued to serve his fatherland in the war, which had turned Europe into an inferno. He himself was almost fatally wounded in North Africa in 1943, yet despite crippling injuries, he joined existing resistance groups, eventually emerging as their leader.
In the absence of suitable candidates he volunteered to carry the bomb and tried at least twice to detonate it in front of Hitler even if it meant sacrificing himself. On that fateful day the third attempt to kill Hitler failed. One can only imagine how many lives could have been saved had he succeeded.
What did I learn from his bravery? That a solid ethical and spiritual foundation and commitment to act along those principles defines a moral person. Furthermore, that as citizens of any country, we should not blindly follow our leaders but must critically judge them, finding the courage to object and even to disobey.
Stauffenberg was not a martyr or tragic hero. He was a man who followed his mind and heart. His sacrifice reverberates as a timeless message of hope throughout my life. We should not forget him and all the other men and women of July 20, 1944.Their sacrifice gave hope for a new generation of Germans like me.
“The Lord of the Flies is expanding his Reich;
All treasures. All blessings are swelling his might.
Down, down with the handful who doubt him.”
Stefan George, The Anti-Christ
Berlin, July 20, 1944, 6:00AM
The car was already waiting in front of the house. He was determined to close the buttons on his uniform but still struggled doing so with only three fingers on his left hand. This a reminder of the injuries sustained in Tunisia when the burst of machine gun fire from a British fighter-bomber hit the lightly armored vehicle in which he was traveling.
He remembered standing in the jeep when hearing the engine noise of the approaching plane. He noticed the elliptical wings so typical for a Spitfire attack fighter. At his command, the driver pulled to the side of the dirt road and he instinctively threw himself onto the ground, his hands covering his face and head. He shuddered thinking about it. His life had changed so dramatically in the fifteen months since the attack.
The burst of fire from one of the enemy fighter-bombers making a strafing run practically ripped off his right hand, forcing an amputation between the wrist and the elbow. The little finger and ring finger on his left hand and his left eye were torn apart by shrapnel and had to be removed as well. He had also suffered a minor injury to one of his knees, as well as innocuous shrapnel in the head.
He remembered little of what happened afterwards. An ambulance transported him to a local field hospital. As a high-ranking Lieutenant-Colonel in the General Staff of the 10th Panzer (tank) Division in North Africa, his survival and treatment was important.
Several days later he awoke in a dusty hot room in the 950th base military hospital in Tunis-Carthage. The military physicians explained to him the extent of his injuries. Pain flooded his body and the morphine injections clouded his consciousness. Not until his transfer back to Germany in mid-April did he truly realize what had happened to him.
There at the General Military Hospital in Munich, he met Nina again. He had yearned for her presence even though he did not know how she would react at the sight of his injuries.
But Nina was a strong woman. She maintained her composure except for a few brief seconds when he first turned his face toward hers. No, he was not the same man who, in 1934, sat impatiently as a model in the studio of his friend Frank Mehnert in Bamberg and later in Berlin. He reluctantly agreed after Frank, his close friend for many years, begged him to serve as a model. Frank had abandoned his law studies to become a sculptor and entered a competition to for a monument commissioned by the Sturmabteilung or SA, the paramilitary of the German Nazi Party. The monument was intended to express the idea of national resurgence and to glorify the SA troopers who had fallen in the struggle for national liberation. He remembered their discussions preceding this project.
“You are the prototype of the new German master race!” Frank exclaimed. “The way you carry yourself, the physical strength you radiate and your self-esteem serve as an ideal figure for the new German man, the dominating race, the true Aryan!’
“No, I have nothing do with those brutes!” he exclaimed angrily. “I was cast from a different mold. The Nazis would not like my image known as theirs. One day they even will regret that I sat to immortalize one of their so-called ‘heroes’. I am not one of them and I never will be!”
Nevertheless, Frank went ahead with his sculpturing, but Frank’s entry to the competition was rejected. How ironic, he thought. Was this a premonition on their part? Did the Nazis already realize that he was not one of them?
Despite the burning pain raging behind his now empty eye socket, he grinned thinking about that irony. Nina caught a glimpse of his grin “Why are you smiling? You should be happy to be alive,” she huffed angrily. Yes, for a short, but nevertheless poignant moment, his beloved Nina, the rock of Gibraltar in his life, lost her temper.
What he said next visibly stunned her. “I will kill him. I will kill Hitler!” he said calmly. It was not the content of his statement that shocked her but his calm and determined demeanor.
She swallowed hard and then responded almost matter-of-factly. “You are hardly in any shape to undertake such an act.”
He turned toward her trying to focus on her face with his one eye. She was so beautiful! She still looked so much like the sixteen year old girl he had met in Bamberg during his cavalry training. They both knew immediately that they were destined to be together and despite their parents initial reluctance, they decided to marry. They were engaged on his twenty-third birthday and married three years later on September 26, 1933 in her hometown of Bamberg. She was still as beautiful as ever. Her brown eyes complimented her prominent, evenly shaped nose and the skin of her oval face was smooth like alabaster stone. Her boyish hair cut enhanced her youthful appearance. At almost thirty years, her figure did not betray the fact that she had already borne him four children: Berthold Maria, born July 3, 1934, Heimeran, born July 9, 1936, Franz Ludwig, born May 4, 1938 and one daughter, Valerie, born November 15, 1940. His wife would bear him one more daughter but destiny would prevent him from ever holding her in his arms.
But all of this seemed so have taken place in a different time. The world was so different now! Since Hitler’s rise to power, everything had changed. Yes, initially he believed in Hitler’s promise to overcome Germany’s humiliation, symbolized by its acquiescence to the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty had forced Germany to accept sole responsibility for beginning the First World War, and imposed an enormous burden of financial retribution, crippling the country’s economy for years to come. For many Germans like him, this was a time of betrayal and loss on many levels, created by the harsh pressures exerted by the Allies. The actual peace negotiations began in Versailles, France, after the ceasefire on November 11, 1918. The negotiations were conducted by the victorious Allied forces, but the final conditions were imposed by the “Big Three:” the United States, France, and Great Britain.
Germany itself was excluded from the negotiations, and its foreign minister signed the final treaty on June 28, 1919, under protest. Its harsh terms included the surrender of parts of German territory to France and the forfeiture of its colonies in Africa. The Allied powers also dismantled Germany’s military structure to reduce its future ability to wage war.
On the morning of January 30, 1933 when Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany, no one could have anticipated what would happen next. He had to admit that he was blinded by Hitler’s energetic policy to reject the Versailles Treaty, intensify Germany’s rearmament, eject French troops from the Ruhr area, and reunite Austria and the Sudeten region with Germany. The invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 started the Second World War and he was sucked deep into it.
Before the war, as a young officer, he became more and more successful, enjoying various promotions. He was often the youngest of his rank, thanks to his variety of skills and outstanding organizational abilities. But he was not too busy to witness the early warning signs of Hitler’s dark side – the systematic exclusion of Jews from society and the infamous so-called ‘Kristallnacht’ – Crystal Night – the Night of Broken Glass. On that single night, November 9–10, 1938, 92 Jews were murdered, and 25,000–30,000 were arrested and deported to concentration camps. Hundreds of synagogues were destroyed, among them the beautiful Bamberg Synagogue, located not more than one hundred feet away from their house on Schuetzenstrasse. Nina told him about what happened in his beloved Bamberg.
Several Jews living on their street were dragged out of their homes and beaten by the mob. Nobody was spared. The synagogue was attacked and ignited. The wooden interior and the roof of the massive stone building caught fire, the air filled with the rancid smoke of the burning synagogue.
The orange glow of the raging fire lit the grey November sky, the flickering flames casting eerie shadows on their house. Later, the fire department placed explosives on the wall of the synagogue and after the walls collapsed, razed the building.
No, he did not love Jews. Yes, he knew Jews He had Jewish friends and even his own brother Alexander had married in 1937 Melitta Schiller, whose father came from a Jewish fur-trading family and had become a Protestant while young
The Jewish culture was different from his and he supported efforts to provide them with the opportunity to emigrate and leave Germany for good. But Germans should not act like that. Behavior and decisions should be based on ethics and careful consideration of all the options. Aristocrats should lead the common people. Aristocrats and not the plebs should rule. Hitler and his henchmen were attracting common criminals with a violent past. The Storm Troopers ruled the street. That was not the Germany he envisioned! Not the Germany he wanted to see rise from the ashes of destruction! No, as a faithful Catholic, he recalled the Gospel of Mark portraying the life of Jesus and his uncompromising message: Love God and love your neighbor. No, he could not identify with the violence of the Nazi mob! Hitler whipped the people into a wild frenzy of hatred against anyone who opposed him, especially the Jews. But until this 9th day of November, 1938, he still failed to realize to what length the Nazis were willing to go to address the so-called “Jewish problem.”
The horrifying truth was worse than he ever could have imagined. He remembered a conversation he had with a young Major at the General Staff Headquarters at the Russian Front. It was August 1942 and the searing heat of the Russian summer dried out the ground. The gusty wind and the heavy tanks produced thick clouds of dusts which covered his uniform, face and hair. Mayor Robert Steiger reported the troop movements which he carefully tracked to guarantee the steady supply of food, water, cloth and ammunition for the German troops fighting their way deep into the Soviet empire.
They developed a trusted, almost close relationship and he quickly discovered that the young Major was also an educated man, fond of reading Greek classic literature. One night they were sitting together in a tiny makeshift office in their dilapidated headquarters located in a former school building. The air felt hot and sticky and the room filled with the stench of kerosene lights. The firing of the German and Russian artillery was audible as a mere rumble in the distance; a constant reminder of the war which had already consumed so many thousands of German soldiers.
He liked this serious and thoughtful Major who, at the age of 29, was just a few years his junior. “Robert, you are so silent today,” he remarked cautiously.
The young Major did not seem to listen. He stared blankly at crumbling wall of the room. Then he answered. “You remember the story of Agamemnon?”
“Of course I do,” he replied. “Homer’s Iliad is one of my favorite books of Greek literature.”
Iliad, the “Tale of Ilium,” or Troy was composed around 800 B.C. by a single creative genius, Homer. For the Greeks, the Iliad had almost the same role the Bible had in his life; it was a guide for moral instruction. The book was written in sublime poetry and he once tried to memorize it in its entirety. The book vividly describes a few days in the struggle between the Greeks and the Trojans that lasted more than ten years.
“Why do you refer to Homer? What’s on your mind?”
Robert did not seem to listen and continued talking in an almost monotone voice. “The story of the Iliad begins with a dispute among the gods because Eris, the goddess of discord, was not invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the goddess of the sea. When she came anyway, she was refused admittance and, in a rage, threw a golden apple amongst the goddesses to be given to the fairest. The gods requested that Zeus decide which one was the fairest. Knowing that choosing any of them would bring him the hatred of the other two, Zeus did not want to take part in the decision and delegated the decision to Paris. Aphrodite, Hera and Athena offered bribes to Paris as he chose among them. Hera offered ownership of all of Europe and Asia; Athena offered skill in battle, wisdom and the abilities of the greatest warriors; and Aphrodite offered the love of the most beautiful woman on Earth, Helen of Sparta. Aphrodite then let her robe fall, exposing her nudity. Paris chose Aphrodite—and Helen. Although Helen was already married to King Menelaus of Sparta, she eloped with Paris and he decided to take her with him to Troy…”
He paused and stared at him, a blank look in his eyes. “You know what happened next?” he asked.
Yes, of course he knew. His father, Alfred Schenk Count von Stauffenberg, served in the royal court at Stuttgart as a Lord Chamberlain and had access to the vast impressive royal library. He sometimes allowed him to sneak into the library. At an early age, he had read many Greek classics including Homer’s Iliad. “Yes Agamemnon, the brother of King Menelaus, led the fleet that was to sail to Troy to retrieve Helen. However, the ships could not sail because there was no wind. An oracle indicated to Agamemnon that the winds did not blow because the gods were outraged and would not be satisfied unless Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon, was sacrificed and …”
Robert, with a dry smile curling his small lips, picked up the story and continued. “..and Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter. Subsequently, the winds returned and the fleet sailed to Troy. The struggle for the city of Troy lasted ten years, during which time the Trojans were too bound by honor to give Helen back and the Greeks were too bound by honor to return her home. When it was over, Hector and Achilles were dead while Agamemnon, the villain, returned home as the victor. But he was murdered by his wife because he had acquiesced to the sacrifice of their daughter. His action represented an act of Hybris, an outrageous arrogance by which power is used to inflict pain upon the innocent. Agamemnon believed in his duty to conquer Troy and return home in glory. At any price! He was morally blind and the absence of moral vision led him to commit hybris.”
A deafening silence settled in the room, even the rumbling of the artillery seeming to have faded. “Why did you tell me the story of Agamemnon?” he asked.
Robert straightened his back and turned towards him again, and forcefully without hesitancy in his voice said, “Hitler is morally blind! He ordered us to kill millions of Jews! He leads us into the abyss of history!”
He was stunned. “What do you mean?” he asked.
Robert’s voice was strained now and the blank stare faded, replaced by a look of pain. “I have seen it with my own eyes! The SS, Hitler’s henchmen, are shooting and murdering thousands of Jews. Men, women, children are being rounded up in their villages, led by the local mob of Gentiles out into fields, forced to dig deep ditches, and then shot in the back.”
He was visibly agitated now pacing the small room like a caged animal. “They shoot them but often they are not even dead before the next group is forced to stand on their bodies and then they are being shot too and the next and the next and …”
Robert slumped onto a chair, burying his face into his hands. He was sobbing. “I saw everything and the images of these people are seared into my memory. Some screamed. Most just succumbed to their fate. Mothers holding their small children attempting to console them. All of them shot.”
He looked up now staring at him with bloodshot eyes. “Claus, we are murderers! We are murdering Jews! They lied to us. Jews are not being resettled. They kill them! They will kill all of them! They are shooting Jews in masses. Hitler will not stop until all of them are dead. These crimes must not be allowed to continue!”Yes, he had heard rumors of Jews being killed. But he was told they were Partisans. No, he was not naïve but this could not be true. Robert must be wrong.
But that night he did not challenge Robert because he appeared to be in such distress.
He must suffer from combat fatigue, he thought.
Unfortunately, he was unable to continue their conversation. The next day Robert was ordered back to his unit and soon thereafter he heard that he was killed in action.
He could not forget Roberts words describing the horror allegedly taking place in the territories conquered by the German troops. Could it be true? Were the events of Kristallnacht in Bamberg just one part of Hitler’s overall strategy to wipe out the Jews from Europe? The seeds of doubt were planted in his mind. Germany’s future was at stake but he swore an oath of honor to Adolf Hitler, our Führer, our leader! What can be done? What can one man do?
Bamberg, April 2007
It was still early in the morning when we arrived in my hometown. The early flight from Tel Aviv forced me to skip a nights sleep, but the excitement of my visit kept me wide awake.
Even though, it was not the first time since I returned to Bamberg I still felt compelled, almost driven, to explore and understand my motivation that lead me to change my life so dramatically almost twenty years ago. I was yearning to reunite with my childhood memories I tried to repress for so many years. My children’s curiosity in their ancestry and my determination to finally verbalize my emotions and feelings pushed me forward to trace back my childhood.
My son Tal accompanied me on this trip. He just arrived from Miami and we met in Frankfurt to travel together by car on the picturesque Bavarian country roads along gently curved meandering rivers, through villages consisting of charming old stone houses with half-timbering, and through forests providing cover for wild boars and deer.
My eighteen-year-old son a native-born Israeli, also called Sabre, was curious to understand my motivation to change my life so radically. Several years earlier I reluctantly shared my life story with him and his younger sister Jade who both encouraged me to unlock my secrets.
Now it was time to explain to him what has separated me from my father and honor the man who influenced my thinking decades after his violent death. It was time to come home.
“ Dad, how many more miles to go?” Tal asked me after having napped for an hour while I was driving.
“ We already passed the county line. Just look to your left and you will see the old palace in Pommersfelden,” I replied.
At that moment we could see the lavish county house built in the 17th century for the Prince-Bishop of Bamberg. It was built from local yellow sandstone and still well preserved after almost three hundred years.
“ They really took care of their religious leaders in those times,” I remarked sarcastically.
My son just silently gazed at the building.
“ Well I guess he was not Jewish,” he said dryly.
Soon thereafter we entered the outskirts of the city passing by the US Army Installations, also called the Warner Barracks, in which during World War II German Army units were stationed.
“ During World War II my father, your grandfather, served here as a battalion commander of a German Army tank unit. About fifteen years earlier another German officer served here in the 17th Cavalry regiment. The same officer later attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler. I will show you were I met this brave man, even though he was already dead.”
My son looked at me in disbelief.
“ What do you mean?” he asked.
“You will see,” I replied.
My son already knew my life story. I remember the day about three years ago when he asked me the simple question.
“ Dad, who is my grandfather? Why have you not told me anything about your father? “
His question baffled me and I initially did not know how to respond.
Should I tell him the truth, or lie to him as I did so often before when I was asked about my father? I lied to my wife, his mother, I lied to my in-laws, I lied to the military intelligence officer in Israel who confronted me about my fathers past.
I remember that I hesitated for a moment and then, after taking a long breath, I answered slowly and in a measured voice.
“My father, your grandfather, was an officer in the German Army during the Second World War. He was a believer in Hitler’s war, a highly decorated tank commander, who received the Iron Cross for his wartime accomplishment.”
I never forget my son’s facial expression, He was fascinated and horrified at the same time.
“ Is that the reason why you never told me?”
“Yes, that’s the reason,” I sighed.
How could people comprehend that I had a Nazi father? I was afraid telling them the whole story. Explaining everybody what drove me away from my father, my family, towards Judaism and finally to Israel. I wanted to leave everything
behind and forget. But I had to realize that this is impossible and that I had to face the demons of my past. I had to face my father’s past too.
Soon thereafter my son told the story at school. Obviously, in a private Jewish school such a story raised not only the eyebrows of the teacher but also led to my appearance in the principles office. I then shared my life story with him and soon to others and at doing so I slowly overcame my fear and shame.
I was hitting the breaks hard to avoid running the red light.
“ Dad, are you daydreaming?” my soon admonished me.
“Yes, just for a moment. Let’s park the car and then we walk.”
I parked the car in an underground garage near the old city and when we emerged from the escalator I felt compelled walking along the same narrow streets I walked so many years ago with my father.
We strolled along narrow alleyways covered by cobblestones worn smooth by centuries of horses hooves and human feet. The streets lined by medieval buildings carefully maintained and left virtually unscathed by the Second World War.
A war which not only left many German cities in ruins but shattered countless lives.
For my father the war was a thrill and he considered himself a hero. After the war he was imprisoned by the American army and returned to Germany a year later witnessing the total destruction. He felt humiliated and deprived of his ideals. He began from scratch and when I as born twelve years later he tried raising me the same way as he was raised by his father.
Like most Germans, my father believed that the country had to be rebuilt, but the people were uncertain how to pursue that goal. While he believed in honor, strength, and perseverance, these same values were being questioned and even mocked by the young generation whose anger was expressed in the student rebellion of the 1960s. Anarchism and even terrorism threatened to spread, adding to my father’s feelings of anger and helplessness.
My father’s character was shaped in fundamental ways by my grandfather. Grandfather Reinhardt was born into a Prussian military family, serving with distinction in the First World War, in which he lost his right leg and suffered multiple wounds. When he returned home to a defeated Germany, he felt humiliated and confused about the defeat of his proud and mighty nation. How could his beloved Germany have endured the daily death of thousands of young soldiers? How could it have suffered such a crushing defeat?
He could think of only one explanation for the country’s situation, which he preached to my father every day. Communists and Social Democrats, most of them of Jewish descent, had sabotaged the efforts of loyal German troops and subverted the country through a thousand secret plots and betrayals.
As far as I could gather, my grandfather was the family’s dominating figure, and his firm beliefs became family truths. He demanded absolute obedience from everyone and tolerated no questioning of his authority or his version of reality. He ordered all his male children – my father and his four brothers – to serve in the Army and allowed them to contemplate no other career. My father and his brothers dared not question him nor deviate from the path he laid down for them.
However, my grandfather’s untimely death deprived my father of his primary role model, confusing and perhaps wounding him so deeply that he refused to even talk with me about him. My grandfather died on a gray winter day in 1930; several weeks later my grandmother Wilhelmina succumbed to influenza. My father was twelve years old at the time, the youngest of four brothers and four sisters. He was sent away to live with relatives and separated from his siblings. I remember asking him about his brothers and sisters, my uncles and aunts. He was tightlipped about the subject and reacted angrily when I pressed him about his past.
As he grew into a young man, he adopted his father’s version of Germany’s sorry plight in the wake of the First World War. This version of the truth included not only the alleged subversive activities of the Jews and the Communists who hatched “secret deals with the enemy” to guarantee their own survival, but also the weakness of the Germans led by Emperor Wilhelm, who had succumbed to the post-war demands of the Allies.
Chief among the crimes of Emperor Wilhelm, in the view of my father and grandfather, was his acceptance of the Treaty of Versailles. It forced Germany to accept sole responsibility for beginning the First World War, and imposed an enormous burden of financial retribution on the country, crippling its economy for years to come. For many Germans like my grandfather, this was a time of betrayal and loss on many levels, created by the harsh pressures exerted by the Allies. The actual peace negotiations began in Versailles, France, after the ceasefire on November 11, 1918. The negotiations were conducted by the victorious Allied forces, but the final conditions were laid down by the “Big Three”: the United States, France, and Great Britain.
Germany itself was excluded from the negotiations, and its foreign minister signed the final treaty on June 28, 1919, under protest. Its harsh terms included the surrender of parts of German territory to France and the forfeiture of its colonies in Africa. The Allied powers also dismantled Germany’s military structure to reduce its ability to wage war again.
As a result, my father had no army he could serve, no war he could fight. He often asked himself why he was born into such “shallow” and “humiliating” times, when Germany was ruled by politicians lacking aristocratic backgrounds and demeaned by journalists who mocked authority. I imagine my father was an intelligent and ambitious young man, fascinated by uniforms and marches, who wanted to be a soldier. Unfortunately for him, Germany’s armed forces were but a vestige of their former might.
My father grew up hearing and eventually believing that the Treaty of Versailles was stifling not only the growth but also the very existence of his country. He was eager to find a way to break the perceived chains of oppression. He learned that Germany must expand to accommodate its growing population.
“We need our Lebensraum – our living space,” he heard often, referring to the vast expanse of land to the East. This, people began to say, would be the new frontier of a mighty Germany. One of the people saying this most determinedly, of course, was Adolf Hitler, who was just rising to power when my grandfather died in 1930. According to Hitler’s race-based ideology, all Germans belonged to the Aryan race whose pure blood contained the soul of the people.
According to this ideology, God had created the Aryans to be the perfect culture, both physically and spiritually. Their blood-based spiritual energy would fuel the final emergence of German culture as the ultimate expression of a perfected humanity.
To dilute this blood with that of any non-Aryan populations would jeopardize the perfection of Aryan culture. Therefore the proper national strategy would require the removal of all non-Aryans from Germany and the addition of sufficient land to allow the growth of the Aryan population. So Hitler declared in his infamous book Mein Kampf which struck a responsive chord in Germans who believed it was their destiny to dominate Europe and the World.
Such a vision, of course, held strong appeal for my father. Hitler provided him with a new father figure to replace my grandfather, as well as a practical strategy for reclaiming the former greatness of Germany. He was therefore exhilarated to be sent to NAPOLA. He thrived under the severe conditions of the academy which enforced rigorous discipline and banned all discussions. Emotions were considered inferior qualities, unbecoming for a true German, and their expression was not permitted in this breeding ground of Aryan manhood.
The NAPOLA curriculum was geared toward one goal: obedience. German students were expected to become servants of the state, strict discipline was maintained at all times in both the school and home environments. They learned only what was determined by the Nazi ideology to be “good” for Germany and would support Germany’s advancement. If a field of study or a particular view was not approved by the Nazi party, it was “bad” for Germany and not taught. Teachers had to represent the Aryan race and the Nazi party ideology. Any doubt about either quality triggered immediate removal from their teaching position. Students were taught to obey natural rules, beginning with survival of the fittest. The disabled and the weak had no place in the new Germany.
Cruel physical education programs forced the students to exercise outdoors in winter wearing only shorts and to swim in icy water. Any digression from the rules resulted in severe physical punishment and humiliating expulsion. The academy’s mandate was to create a new breed of German leaders. My father wanted to be one of this new breed and to lead his own troops to conquer the world. Germany, he thought, would not be defeated again.
On January 31, 1933 Adolf Hitler became Germany’s new Chancellor, promising to restore the nation to a position of power and glory. He would begin by removing all those elements that contributed to Germany’s defeat. Few people realized the systemic and deliberate deceit hidden in his promises, and those who did so publicly, quietly disappeared. My father, like the majority, responded positively to Hitler’s vision, eagerly joining the new German army at a time when war was on everyone’s mind. He shared the popular view that Germany’s might needed to be restored and believed that it was the duty of every loyal and right-minded German to do his part.
Little did he know that this new start for Germany would signify the beginning of its demise. Thirteen years of Hitler’s totalitarian rule eternally tarnished Germany’s image, destroyed countless lives, and stained the national soul for generations.
When I was growing up, we had contentious debates about my father’s own decisions as a young man, while he lamented my generation’s absence of national commitment. He could not understand how, as a young German, I could not identify with the ideals he still believed in; nor could I make him see how those ideals were discredited by the blood of millions of Nazi Germany’s victims.
My son noticed that my mind was clouded by my childhood memories which were triggered by my encounter with my past.
“Dad,” he said softly. “Where are we going too? What do you want to show me?”
I glanced at him thankfully.
“ We are going to the house where I grew up. Where it all began. Where I lived in the shadow of the man who influenced my life.”
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