About twenty years ago I spent a few months in Germany visiting friends, and I had the opportunity to attend the birthday party of a dear friend’s father. Gathered there with him were other members of his generation, all of whom had lived through the painful decades of the ’30s and ’40s in Germany. He spoke tearfully of his brother, who had been killed on the Baltic coast in the latter stages of the War, and also of his wife’s brother, who died — gefallen or “fallen” was the word he used in both cases — as a Luftwaffe pilot. It was poignant to witness my friend’s parents reviving their ancient grief, but for me it was also a window into something elusive for most Americans, the German point of view of World War Two.
In fact, because of the scale and the nature of the crimes committed by the Nazi regime, including (but not limited to) the Holocaust, “the German point of view” is not only elusive; on a conscious or subconscious level for many of us outside Germany it has been something to be actively avoided, as if seeing the Nazi era from German shoes, even in the slightest, would make one somehow complicit in or forgiving of the atrocities perpetrated — tragically — in the name of the German people.
Nevertheless, over the years, on that trip and others, I have come to understand that for most Germans who lived through it, the experience was not defined by Nazi atrocities but rather by what they saw, naturally enough, as a patriotic war effort, punctuated by tremendous suffering and loss, to safeguard Europe from the perils of Bolshevism to the East, and to reclaim a place of pride from the Allies in the West, who had humiliated Germany in 1919.
Hitler’s Home Front: Memoirs of a Hitler Youth is a new book that also offers an intimate window on the German experience. It is the personal account of life in Nazi Germany for one boy and his family in the Rhineland. Hitler’s Home Front reminds me very much of the German TV miniseries from the 1980s, Heimat, which begins each episode proudly claiming the mantle of history “Made in Germany” — a not-so-subtle protest against non-German historians claiming the monopoly, as victors, on defining the truth of the Nazi era. Hitler’s Home Front definitely shares that tone at times, as if to say, “Hey, wait a minute, you can’t stop me from telling our side of it, too.”
Author Wilhelm Gehlen was born in 1933, the year Hitler took power. By the time World War Two ended in 1945, all 12-year-old Gehlen had ever known was the context of the Nazi system and the conflict it had created. The potential value of this book is therefore not simply that it offers a glimpse into a subject not often treated in English, but also that it might reveal a personal side of the fascist experience that most of the world has pledged to revile.
Gehlen’s storytelling often centers around food — the purchasing or scrounging of it, and the necessarily creative preparation and sometimes unappetizing consumption of it. We learn about the complex rationing system that was in place during the war, and to a degree about the government officials (some decent, some bureaucratic, some greedy and uncaring) who administered it. In cities, especially, food was often dangerously short, and sometimes he and his brother, along with many others, would resort to unofficial raids of anything from wrecked shipments to unattended bakeries. Gehlen also describes in great detail the recipes employed by family members, primarily his own mother. The book even offers a set of wartime German recipes as an appendix.
In the course of sharing these stories about food and the people who made and ate it, Gehlen gradually generates a picture of the personalities that populated his world. There was the kindly grandfather who had “seen it all before” and was skeptical of Nazi pronouncements and policies. Then there was the zealous older brother who believed wholeheartedly in the national cause as defined by Hitler and Goebbels. His mother comes through as a “mom” most people in the West would probably recognize, someone who would do anything to feed her family or see her children’s Hitler Youth parades on weekends. As he recalls it these many years later, Gehlen himself was a wry, scrappy boy too interested in the next meal and helping the people he cared about to be taken in by grand slogans or nationalistic flag-waving: “Some people might think that all the children of Germany were so indoctrinated by the Nazi political system that they readily looked forward to the day they would be old enough to be sworn into the Hitler Youth and march through the towns with banners waving. I can tell you that this was not the case” (113). Even when Gehlen became the 10-year-old runner for a local anti-aircraft battery, he appears to have done it less out of a sense of duty and more just to safeguard himself against looming hunger — and because he liked his flak-mates, such as “Gunny,” who commanded their quad-20mm unit.
The flak guns themselves reveal the fact that these people, soldiers and civilians alike, were embroiled in what was then called “Total War,” in which strategic bombing made any notion of a “frontline” moot; in Total War tanks are fair game, of course, but so are tractors and the farmers who grow the food that feeds the soldiers who man the tanks. Gehlen describes air attacks in which Allied fighter-bombers strafed anyone caught in the open. “I’m not saying we were explicitly targeted,” Gehlen offers, “but German children grew up to be German soldiers; we knew that and so did the Allies” (117).
In his treatment of the Allied fighter-bombers and elsewhere, Gehlen flips the orthodoxy of judgment on its head, underlining the cruel fates of German civilians at the hands of the Allies while downplaying to one degree or another the crimes committed by their own government in Berlin. He agrees that Nazi leaders turned out to be criminals, even though most people had had no objection to the Nazi policies they felt had solved many of Germany’s prewar problems. Gehlen also acknowledges the existence of concentration camps for political prisoners, but he says relatively little about what happened to Jews and others sent to their deaths in such camps — and when he does, he employs euphemism that seems to echo the original Nazi explanation of their fate: “Several thousand Jews lived in the city [of München-Gladbach] in 1938, but they were all deported to the East within a few years” (159). In contrast, he spares no judgment when recounting (second-hand) the plight of German refugees on the Eastern front: “Russian T-34 tanks appeared out of the blizzard, and seeing the trek [of civilian refugees], they opened up with all they had, raking the group from left to right with machine guns. The tanks just smashed into the humanity and rolled forward and back over prams with babies in them, over men, women and children and their carts… Many other refugees had similar tales to tell and just how many died or were murdered on those frozen treks will never be known, but estimates run into the hundreds of thousands” (147).
Gehlen’s desire to revise, or perhaps from his perspective to “redress,” the narrative of the Second World War becomes apparent early on in the book, as in this segment about the German invasion of western Poland on September 1, 1939: “[T]hree days later, Great Britain and France declared war on us. What is often forgotten is that sixteen days after that, Russia invaded Poland from the east. Did those countries then declare war on Russia? I think not” (9). Because France and Britain had in fact guaranteed Poland’s security, presumably against all potential invaders, one can perhaps see the kernel of Gehlen’s complaint, but in the end this objection comes off like a naive and ineffective deflection of responsibility for starting the war. Many people do see Stalin as a monster on a par with Hitler, and the Western Allies’ aerial campaign against civilian Germany was undeniably brutal and indiscriminate, but neither fact should change our judgment of Hitler’s nefarious initiatives.
To be fair, telling the German side of the war in a satisfying way to an English-language audience is probably a tall order from the outset. Any book that aims to share a picture of life as it was for “everyday Germans” in Germany during the Second World War — especially if the narrative has a tone of “how hard it was” — may start at something of a disadvantage. (“Hey, want to hear how we Germans lived through and survived the War?” “Um, no thanks. To be honest, you guys started it, and it was really, really, really bad for millions of other people, so whatever you went through, well, the rest of us just have a hard time sympathizing too much.”) I find myself troubled by the way Hitler’s Home Front ultimately tells the story as if this was just another family in just another society at war — like the citizens of any other belligerent nation — when every fiber of my American-taught being tells me Nazi Germany was not a wartime society like any other. The enormity of the crimes perpetrated by the Nazi regime makes it difficult (even for someone like me, a Germanophile with German roots who speaks the language with dear German friends and loves visiting the country) to connect with such a neutral characterization of those years.
Was everybody in Germany a Nazi? No. Should we expect a 12-year-old to understand and reject all the wrongs we now see that his society was perpetrating at the time? Probably not. Should we even necessarily expect every book written about life in Nazi Germany to apologize again and again for the ghastly transgressions of its leaders? Honestly, I am not sure. Clearly, that is not the kind of book Gehlen set out to write, at any rate. The trouble is, Gehlen was not 12 years old when he wrote this memoir. He was well into his eighties, and I find it difficult to appreciate his story in the absence of more self-awareness or acknowledgment that the world he grew up in was, well…evil — even if the people he loved were indeed just “normal people” living through something bigger than themselves.
There is an undeniably dramatic and potentially instructive story of human experience to be told here, but this memoir feels like a lost opportunity. In today’s world of ongoing mass indoctrination — by fundamentalist groups, by nationalist groups, by religious groups, by social media, by commercial marketing, by political parties of all stripes — the story of a child raised entirely under fascism could serve as a valuable reflection point. Unfortunately, Mr. Gehlen’s narrative sheds little light on social issues of that magnitude.
In closing the book, Gehlen draws lessons and reflects on how today’s Germany compares to Hitler’s Germany. When he writes, “‘Papers, please’ is heard a lot more today in Germany than it ever was during the Third Reich” (157), the apologist subtext appears to be, “The Third Reich and the people in it weren’t as bad as everyone claims.” In the same section Gehlen then comes to the much-anticipated statement of what his childhood taught him, and might teach the rest of us, about life: “The war did teach us children of the Reich one essential thing: Never take it for granted that you will not go hungry someday” (158). These two observations, that modern states feel like security states, and that we live in a world where the potential for shocking instability still lingers, may be worth heeding, but I was hoping for much more.
Hitler’s Home Front: Memoirs of a Hitler Youth proceeds from the rather uncomplicated goal of describing what life was like in one part of Germany during the Third Reich, but for many, reading this autobiographical account may not be quite so simple. Gehlen’s memoir is not the historically enlightening and philosophically sensitive view of one of history’s great, perplexing tragedies I had hoped it would be. Instead, it feels like little more than a survival story told in a moral vacuum.
In the end, the most unsettling possibility and the greatest takeaway from this book may be that in fact Mr. Gehlen is absolutely right in saying the Germany he grew up in was full of “normal” people just like you and me. In that case, none of us can afford to become complacent now. All citizens of powerful, “normal” nations today must not forget to question their own countries’ actions, or assume that they are immune to the kind of demagogic, twisted, insidious magic that only a lifetime ago held Hitler’s home front in its thrall. The lovely people of that generation that I met twenty years ago were not monsters at all, and perhaps that is what should scare us the most.