Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Nazis

I read some information from Opa’s book and just some online stuff about the Nazis. My reaction was a short, yet censored one. I’m trying to keep this blog appropriate. But yeah, my feelings and gut, knee-jerk reaction- pretty close to a verbal vomit. History is astonishing. Opa wrote in his memoirs about the history of what was happening in the world, particularly Germany, around the time of his birth and into his high school years. All italicized quotes in this blog post are from Opa’s book, “From Nazi Germany to a Career in Freedom.”
Paris Peace Conference where
the Treaty was signed

President Wilson’s Versailles Peace Treaty with Germany was signed on June 28, 1919. His main objectives were to create the League of Nations, and to achieve disarmament of all nations. It turned out, however, in spite of President Wilson’s opposition, that the practical demands of the French and the British became the chief architects of the peace. Germany, by now defeated and demoralized, was forced to pay reparations at a level that was impossible for Germany to afford. Hunger, starvation and complete demoralization resulted.

Opa was very lucky to have lived in the relative wealth that he did. Germany was crippled after World War 1 by a peace treaty that seemed to be more about revenge than peace. In Opa’s perspective, President Woodrow Wilson hoped for better but could not stop the French and British governments from their unrealistic requests for reparations. Germany not only lost the past war, but they also lost any hope for their future. Inflation was a plague to the German people... 

One of the early, devastating results was inflation. The new conversion rates were announced every Tuesday; I believe it was at noon. My father, as all other employees, was paid in paper money. The old German Mark was replaced with printed currency of such values as thousands, millions, and billions of marks. My mother would meet my father at the office when he was paid, and would immediately buy whatever food was available before the value of the money would go down even more.

Kids making kites out of useless currency
I remember in my Senior year of High School, I had a history teacher that was actually quite good. (I say this surprisingly because my Senior year was a bit of a twilight zone, I moved to a new town before my senior year and went through the motions of school to graduate so I could skip on to college. I don’t remember a huge amount from this school because it was pretty bad. The history guy was refreshingly good. I even tried to google him so I could tell him that, but I found nothing because I don’t remember his first name. Oh well.) Back to history- my teacher taught us that the crippling peace treaty left a nation of hopelessness and created a space for someone like Hitler to wield his power. The Germans were looking for hope, leadership, someone who cared about Germany and wanted it to thrive. They wanted someone who would fight for their survival. They wanted someone to blame. Hitler provided all of that. And so much devastatingly more. Germany was torn by the chaos of competing political parties, (Opa named three dominant parties: Nazis, Nationalists, and Communists) each militant in their endeavor to take Germany to a higher level. Everyone had a different idea of how Germany could be better, stronger, and WIN. Hitler’s idea seemed to make the most sense and feel the strongest.

Opa remembered the day Hitler was elected, he was 12.  

On that fateful day my father was late coming home from work. My mother had supper ready, so when he finally came, she asked, “What kept you?”- “Haven’t you listened to the radio?” He replied, “Hitler has been appointed Reich Chancellor.” (That was a position in the German government equivalent to President in the U.S.) My sister started to cry; my mother left the room. I asked my father, “What does that mean?” He looked at me as sternly as I had ever seen him and said, “Son, that means another World War!”
Hitler being appointed Reich Chancellor
After a quiet dinner, Opa had a long conversation with his father that night.  Opa remembers his conversation being interrupted by the Nazis marching down his street, celebrating the victory.  If you remember, he lived on a main street in Berlin, a common street for parades and demonstrations.
We were interrupted by music from the street. We looked out, and here came a torch parade of Nazi Brownshirts and Blackshirts (SS) marching down the street, celebrating the Nazi victory. They had a band, and they were singing. Among the songs they were singing was the “Horst Wessel Song,” that translates into something like this: “When the Storm Soldiers march to battle, they march with high morale; but when Jewish blood will squirt from our knives, things will go twice as well.”
It’s like watching an historical depiction of Lord of the Flies and realizing it actually happened, and worse, and horrifyingly accurate. How did this happen? Opa struggled with this question and made it a point to study the holocaust and the Nazi’s rise to power.

Opa remembers the schools closing after Hitler was elected FOR TWO MONTHS. Can you imagine? Teachers just had to deal. Students probably were fine with it. But when they arrived back to school it was to brand new curriculum, brand new books jam-packed with not-so-subtle Nazi propaganda. 

When they opened again, there were major changes in the curricula; primarily, there were entirely new textbooks. One new course was added in most schools: Genetics, with the aim of showing the “superiority” of the Aryan race over all other races; particularly, of course, Jews, Gypsies, Negroes, etc. Even songbooks were changed. One very popular German song is the “Lorelei,” which is based on an old German folktale. The song was written by Heinriche Heine (one of my favored authors) who was a Jew, and the music was composed by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdi, also a Jew. The new songbook stated, “Author unknown, composer F.M. Bartholdi” (Bartholdi is not considered a Jewish name, but “Mendelssohn” most certainly is.)

5th Grade Biology Nazi Book
I read a selection from a German biology book that was reprinted during this time for 5th graders. I found it at the link under the picture. It was listed as an archive of Nazi propaganda.. Keep in mind 5th graders are around 10 years old. It basically covers survival of the fittest and applies it to humanity (specifically German Aryans) and comes up with these principles that can be learned from the truths of nature: 1) Those who survive must fight to do it, and must fight for the species, even if it means sacrificing themselves.  2) Marriage, whatever- it’s all about babies, the more babies you have, the better chances your species has of surviving, 3) The weak and unhelpful get eliminated (and should be), 4) Life can be summed up in the phrase: fight to survive. SO- basically 5th grade German boys and girls were taught to grow up, get married, have lots of babies and be prepared to fight for your country or be punished. But only if you care about your people. Because if you don’t do any of these, then you are making the statement that you do not wish for your people to survive.  This do-or-die mentality was very relevant to a nation of people who were starving under the heel of debts to be repaid to other nations. The information was written in such a way that it felt logical. Jason and I did the math, and realized that it was possible to have been in school from Kindergarten through graduation and had nothing but Nazi curriculum. How astonishingly scary. Who stands a chance under such indoctrination?

I wonder if Opa’s ability to see past this propaganda was in part because he was not so desperate and impoverished like many of his fellow Germans. Or perhaps having a mother who was Jewish and clearly not vermin helped his perspective. I think it was largely due to the education and world-knowledge that he was exposed to with a teacher for a mother and a newspaper editor for a father. Or maybe, even more important, was the courage necessary to resist.

It is not a new or uncommon idea that if you work hard enough, fight hard enough, struggle hard enough, you will be successful. The problem begins when you must push weaker people aside, or under, in order to come out on top. The Nazis had no concern for the weak, the goal was to rise up despite all costs. You might be standing on skulls, but you will be the epic evolutionary winner. And according to the Nazis, this is something to be proud of, that nature INTENDED. And when you’ve been at the bottom, the idea that you are destined to be the best is hard to resist.

Opa resisted.  And I thank him for that legacy.  

As we entered school, there was a teacher at the main gate, and we were required to give the Nazi salute (outstretch the right arm and say “Heil Hitler”). I couldn’t bring myself to do that, and normally found a way to enter through another door (which we really weren’t supposed to do), or go early. One time my head teacher was at the entrance. It was too late to back out, so I just walked in and ignored him. He called me into his office and chewed me out. He said, “Doeppner, I understand your feelings, but I don’t like being ignored. The least you can do is give me an old-fashioned “good Morning” when you come in.” The next day, when I went through the door, I said, “Good morning, Dr. Widder.” He said “Heil Hitler,” and winked at me. (It took a tremendous amount of courage for him not to report me!)
German boys giving the Nazi Salute, Sept 1933
He also refused to reciprocate the Heil Hitler salute in rallies that he and his classmates were made to attend.  He refused to believe the lies Hitler produced, even when he was forced as a high school student to attend a rally with Hitler standing four rows away with Mussolini, Goering, and Goebbels.   
One time, there was an outdoor meeting attended by the “bigwigs:” There were Hitler, Goering, Goebbels and, as guest of honor, Mussolini. The first two rows were occupied by the SS (“Schutzstaffel,” the infamous Nazi organization responsible, among other crimes, for most of the Holocaust murders). Then came two or three rows of us high school students, and then the public. During all these speeches, which seemed to last forever, I had only one thought: Wouldn’t this be an excellent time for France or England to drop a bomb on this place? No such thing happened, of course, and we were bused back to our schools.
He refused ultimately to be in the service to Hitler’s regime, dodging the draft into Hitler’s army.
After graduation from high school, I was called to the police, where my passport was stamped “for identification only; not valid for foreign travel.” The reason: I was about to be drafted into the German Army!! I decided right then to leave Germany illegally...


  1. You might want to read "On Hitler's Mountain". It's a great book similar to this--a girl growing up in the Berchtesgaden area. I grew up in southern Germany among many people who participated and did not participate in the war effort. It was always so difficult to reconcile the loving people I knew with the Nazi movement but it also helped me understand that kind of evil can spring up anywhere if we aren't careful. I would be interested to read more!

    1. Abby- thank you for your comment! I looked up that book and after Christmas, will be sure to get it and read it. Thank you for the recommendation. I learned that the author lives (or recently lived) in DC- I may have to try to connect with her at some point! Thanks again for your insight.


I would love to hear feedback! Share your thoughts and your stories.