- Historic Sites
Looking For The Good Germans
The victors divided the Germans into three groups: black (Nazi), white (innocent), and gray—that vast, vast area in between
June/july 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 4
If my status often puzzled the military, it absolutely bewildered my German interviewees. In accord with their national habit they would try to pile rank on me, with no clue to guide them, because we civilian specialists did not wear any insignia. Thus I would be addressed by such obscene exaggerations as “Colonel-Director-Commander,” upon which I would frown darkly and declare this was not enough.
“Your Honor … Your Excellency … ?”
“Still not enough. Remember that as far as you are concerned, I sit here representing the United States of America. Therefore you must address me by the same title you would address the President of the United States. ”
“Your Eminence … Your Worship …?”
“No! As ‘mister.’ Just plain ‘mister/ The same title as the President of the United States of America.”
Another linguistic curio was my discovery, after the first dozen interrogations, of a phenomenon with which I am still able to surprise professional philologists: namely, that the German language has no words for “fair” and “gentleman.” Again and again I would find interviewees, especially those with bad conscience, declaring hopefully that I would be “fair” in my treatment of them because I was assuredly a “gentleman.”
Why, I inquired finally, keep using the English words instead of German?
Because, it turned out, the nearest German word to “fair” was gerecht , meaning “just, granting the exact letter of the law,” something very different from the relaxed, compassionate con- cept of fairness. And the nearest German word for “gentleman” was Herr , connoting merely a man of noble birth or elevated social position.
In these daily confrontations one never knew when to expect extremes of drama. In our music section, Captain Edward Kilenyi, an international concert pianist in civil life, found himself facing a pre-war colleague who had given in totally to the Nazis. Kilenyi, now in uniform with a Colt .45 on his hip, told the man he could not possibly grant him clearance to perform in the U.S. zone but suggested that he might do better among the French, known to be cynical in these matters, or the British, who were tired and indifferent, or the Russians, who would probably clear him for the price of joining the Communist party.
Instead, the man went home and hanged himself.
I had a similar experience upon being informed by our intelligence section that one of our approved editors had in fact knuckled under during the Hitler era, writing numerous unsigned pro-Nazi editorials. With a thought for his wife and large brood of children, we permitted him simply to transfer to a modest church weekly.
One applicant turned on me and shot a barbed question that stings to this day: “How do you think you would have behaved under Hitler?”
One of Military Government’s major problems in this area was none other than Richard Strauss. The great musician had let himself be made the figurehead chief of the Nazi Culture Chamber. Loving the comforts of home, he simply could not pick himself up to go into exile as had Thomas Mann and other of his peers. Week after week, Strauss’s do-nothing son would descend
One Military Government headquarters in Garmisch-Partenkirchen to demand extra rations of coal and roast beef in the name of his father. “Do you want to be responsible for the death of the greatest genius of the twentieth century?” he would declaim. We solved the problem very neatly by obtaining for Strauss the first exit permit for a German from the American zone. Once he was safely on his way to Switzerland, the gloves were off, and the next time Strauss Junior went to Military Government to make demands, he was booted out of the building.
In the course of my interrogations, even in that stern soul-searching atmosphere, there was a host of weird conversations that I came to catalogue as “Dialogues from Walpurgisnacht,” the German equivalent of Halloween. One day a German newspaperman, whom I still identify in my mind as “Camel Face,” entered my office. He duly doubled-knocked on the door, then turned to me to utter his first, truly astonishing, words: “My mother was a bastard.”
“Very sad,” I said, “but wherein is that relevant?”
He proceeded to explain a closely guarded family secret. His mother had been fathered by a Jewish traveling salesman, which made her half-Jewish and Camel Face himself one-quarter Jewish, a horrendous infirmity in the Nazi era. But one day, alas, a homely female cousin whom Camel Face jilted after a long engagement gave away the secret to the authorities.
“At once,” said Camel Face, “I was made to suffer.”
“In what regard?” I asked.
“Immediately,” said Camel Face, “I was expelled from the SS.”