Frederic Turbach’s book, German Voices: Memories of Life During Hitler’s Third Reich, is a fascinating picture of a child’s life in Nazi Germany. For me, reading this book and the interview below helped me understand more about the environment Nazi youth grew up in. In movies such as “The Boy in the Pajamas” and “Schindler’s List”, children of Nazi Germany are consistently portrayed as unsympathetic little twats. They tattle on the Jewish children, turn Jews in, and have loud annoying voices. Yet what I think Frederic Turbach’s book and story teaches is that these children are a product of an environment. If a child from birth grows up in a world where all he knows is what he taught in Nazi Youth , then he is a product of his environment. The moral question after this then, is as a product of this environment, is he to be held responsible for his/her actions? This question has always fascinated me, and is one I do not have yet an answer for. For, on the one hand, one could argue that he is a free-thinking human being who should know right from wrong. On the other hand however, one could point out there is not possible way for him to know right from wrong, for he/she grew up in a world where the standard “right” was called wrong, and the “wrong,” right. Through Turbach’s interview below, I feel one gets a rounded sense of what a powerful effect Nazi Germany managed to have in shaping children’s beliefs, using harmless subjects as sports and incentives, thus understanding better the environment Nazi children were nurtured in.
How did the project get started?
At a German conference, some older members met privately to discuss their experiences between 1933 and 1945. It was difficult for us; the stories were fresh and raw. I realized there was no collective memory to contextualize our individual stories and create a public arena.
What did you discover?
They were quite honest. Some were Nazis from the beginning. Others were opposed. Some families were deeply split. Clearly our monolithic notion of the average German, which comes from what I call staged reality—Goebbels’s propaganda and Leni Riefenstahl movies like Triumph of the Will—isn’t true. I wanted to capture how Germans actually were as I grew up. That is difficult, and not exact, but very suggestive and more accurate than assuming the Nazi Party spoke for them all.
How did Nazi-staged reality help suppress dissent early on?
People wanted to believe in it because it was so comforting. Meanwhile the violence that had filled German cities from the end of World War I ceased—or seemed to. So people found it easier to believe because on the surface, things seemed calmer. Once Hitler came to power in 1933, he and the SS immediately started to push the Brown Shirts [stormtroopers whose whose violent tactics helped secure the Nazi rise to power] into the background. Violence had to be kept out of sight of most Germans. Public executions were no longer announced, by order of Himmler. Every-thing was to be kept as quiet as possible to allow the Nazis to consolidate power and win over the German people.
By improving the national economy?
Besides big projects like the autobahns, every town had collection boxes for the poor, painted in bright red, about 10 inches high, a tangible presence in everyday life. Everyone, even poor people, gave, knowing someone poorer than they were would get it. That created incredible solidarity: we are creating a new Germany and starting with this box. It was powerful; the Nazis’ big ideas had a humble physical representation that touched everyone. It also meant, “if you do this, you have helped Hitler.”
For kids, what was the Nazis’ biggest hook?
Our natural fascination with sports. Very powerful, and the Nazis knew very well how to use it. You went to school and got your grades, but there was another reward system at work: if you do well at sports, you’ll move up in the Hitler Youth ranks. It forced you to assess yourself. My grades were OK, I was rather slight and not too strong, so I realized the thing for me was long distance running, because I had ambition and tenacity. The better you did, the more you moved up. The 1936 Olympics made this even more important to us. The big German cigarette makers made coupons of German Olympic stars, which we collected. They were gods to us, just as Riefenstahl represented them in the film Olympia.
How else did they mold your behavior?
I was 13 when I was picked, one of five out of 50 kids in my school, to attend a Nazi development camp for the Future Little Elite. One kid brought a condom. He blew it up to make it a balloon. We opened the window and threw it out. A Nazi youth leader found it. He knew our room was where it came from. He lined us up and grilled each of us really hard. But we showed solidarity; we did not reveal who did it. They really liked that. That’s what they wanted. They weren’t interested in morality or social behavior. They wanted us to show solidarity about this rogue act. The message was, “You can do what you want, you can let your teenage violent impulses out, it doesn’t matter, as long as you do it for us.” This was never discussed. They just congratulated us on sticking together and dismissed us.
How effective were these techniques?
Many people today think all Germans then were like Muslim extremists in madrasahs now: we only read Mein Kampf the way they only read the Koran. No. Family, school, and church: these three forces worked on us too. It varied with individual experience. But in school there was, for the most part, not much difference from the Weimar Republic and earlier.
Wasn’t there indoctrination?
That was largely pursued indirectly by some Nazi teachers. They wanted us to read about Germanic myths. But we weren’t examined on their preferences. Most of us read what students had always read.
What about the Hitler Youth?
We had to belong, and there were meetings twice a week, but what the leaders said was emotional and inconsistent. The Nazis weren’t as far advanced, in that way, as Stalinist Russia, which strictly maintained a very developed ideology and total control over every aspect of everyday life. Family was more important for most of us. If the family was anti-Nazi, odds were the child would be. That’s a big reason the Nazis wanted to undermine the family.
People from a religious family usually had a kind of protective coating: “Christ is more important than Hitler.” They might only think it or say it under their breath, but many felt it.
You say Kristallnacht—the attacks on Jewish businesses and homes in late 1938—changed everything. Why?
It ended the summer of our innocence. For young Germans, the 1930s were just wonderful. The red flags with swastikas, the zeppelin Hitler sent to fly all over Germany, the Austrians wanting to become part of it—to us, it was just like sunlight and peace and eating again. Things were moving up! Of course, Jews were being eliminated from the professions; the Nuremburg Laws of 1935 prohibited intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews. But until all the Jewish shops were attacked, the violence was off camera. Kristallnacht suddenly brought it right next door. The Jewish shoemaker for my village no longer was there. Life was upset. It was like 9/11, a collective unease started. Many said, “This is the beginning of war.” For some, there was an undertone of anti-Semitism: “The Jews will take revenge.” But we all sensed something fundamental had changed: peace was finished.
What happened when the war started?
Hitler had the people behind him through the French campaign. With only Britain left, many felt we would make peace. Why not? We have revenge for the Versailles Treaty, we’re marching down the Champs Élysées, we have united Germans to build a new Europe; this is what we hoped for. The moment Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, a change was palpable. The huge apprehension about attacking this mass of Slavic and Asiatic humanity mixed with Communists—for the first time appeared a phrase you heard more as the war progressed: “Hitler did so well in the 1930s he must know what he’s doing now.” Then came Pearl Harbor; doubts really grew. Germans remembered the doughboys of World War I decided victory. They had extensive connections with America. They knew its power and potential.
And the Gestapo tracked these changes in attitudes.
Very carefully, yes. Hitler never trusted the German people. There was extensive surveillance, down to the city block—a party member watched and reported any deviance. People were executed for making a bad joke about Hitler.
How could Germans not have known about the death camps?
The word used to describe what was happening to the Jews was “relocation.” Even in their own reports, the SS did not reveal what went on in the camps. When mass extermination started in 1941, the Jews were gone from Germany. Where were they? People simply didn’t ask, because “relocation” had an ominous ring, and they were scared to find out. When the Allies began seriously bombing Germany, Germans forgot about the Jews altogether. Then Stalingrad showed everyone we were in trouble, and Goebbels announced total war; the partisans, the Communists, the Slavs, the Jews—they’re all against us. Germans stopped asking, “What happened to the Jews?” So the truth didn’t get out. If it had, it would have been very dangerous, probably fatal, to say it.