“Karlshorst, as it had meanwhile developed, was a small town in which everyone knew everyone, as well as their predilections, bad habits, quirks, and vanities. And also their affairs, minor marriage crises, or children’s school reports. Since spring 1933 everyone knew, too, whom he could trust and with whom caution was necessary. A civil servant from Number 12 suddenly shaved his head and started going around in his National Socialist Motor Corps uniform, even when he wasn’t on driving duty; the uncle of the newlyweds in the corner house was a big shot in the party and drove up every second Sunday wearing his golden brown uniform; Harry Kehl, with whom we played football in the street, had risen to section leader in the Deutsches Jungvolk (the junior version of the Hitler Youth), and in order to convince everyone of his new importance he wore the red-and-white cord of his rank even on his sailor suit. Once I heard him loudly reciting the Hitler Youth “camp prayer” to the house walls: “Du Volk aus der Tiefe / Du Volk in der Nacht / vergiss nicht das Feuer / bleib’ auf der Wacht!” (Translation: You, nation from the depths / You, nation in the night / don’t forget the fire / Stay on your guard!) and a little later a somewhat older girl from the street parallel to our own sent my brother packing at the door of her apartment, saying no one was allowed to enter unless they had read Mein Kampf.”
Joachim Fest, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood, p. 58-59.
For young students of World War II, “How did this happen?” is a common question that teachers and professors are frequently asked. Answering that question has consumed generations of historians, and answers continue to be researched and debated.
What is memorable about the above passage from Joachim Fest is that it describes a process in a common, small German city from one who was there—and whose father was one of the few who refused to ally himself with the Nazi party because of his principles. Born in 1926, Fest would intellectually and spiritually resist the Nazis growing up, but he did serve in the German Army at the end of the war. After the war, he would spend his life as a journalist and historian of Nazi Germany, the country and times that molded his life. His 2006 memoir Not I became a tremendous best seller in Germany. Fest did not claim the work to be either a strict history or biography—much of it is in fact focused upon the figure of this father, and Fest took a literary approach to his story since he was basing much of his writing on his own memories, but it gained much attention as a rare story of personal witness from one who had stood against the Nazi storm that engulfed the world in unparalleled destruction.
In the above recollection of life in his hometown Karlshorst in the early months of the Hitler regime, what impresses the reader most is how a boy of seven notices the sudden changes in the behavior of his familiar surroundings, his everyday neighbors. In my view and experience, since children tend to notice what other children are doing more than the world of adults, the most impactful observation young Joachim makes is of his football friend Harry Kehl. Not only does Harry openly show off his dedication through the red-and-white cord that he wears regardless of outfit, but his chanting of the “camp prayer” captures perfectly the moment of euphoria and change that so many Germans wished for in 1933. In the worst year of the global depression, the boy’s prayer is a chant for action, movement, and renewed spirit. It should be noted that at this exact same time, the US economy was suffering from an unprecedented banking crisis when the Roosevelt administration was sworn in, and the following burst of action restored American faith in democracy and the future to a degree. Unemployment stood at 25% throughout the United States in 1933; in southern Germany, unemployment rates were over 40%. In Germany, after so much had gone wrong in the previous few years, Fest’s passage portraying a fellow child chanting at the house walls distills the moment. It is not the act of a thinking agent, but the newly inflated spirit that something could be done to overcome the present despair.
The icing on the literary cake in the passage is the girl who refuses to allow young Joachim’s brother into her building without having read Mein Kampf. A book that would soon be mandatory for all Germany homes and even used in place of the Bible in Nazi wedding ceremonies, it was seldom read due to its turgid prose. One can imagine that many Germans identified with the idea of struggle that Hitler invoked in his title. One can only lament that Germans had not read deeper and taken more seriously the ideas Hitler promoted in his book, looking beyond the rousing chants to the means he proposed to overcome Germany’s current struggle.
“A place can evoke the history that occurred there, but through words our minds truly gain perspectives and understanding of what it was like to know, feel, experience, hope, fail, triumph, and live through events from which we ourselves were absent. The written word is our most intricate map to retrace and reconstruct what we think happened, and ultimately brings us back to ourselves.”
– Keith Huxen, PhD , Senior Director of Research and History, The National WWII Museum
Keith is the former Senior Director of Research and History in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum.