- 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
There was an inevitable answer. “In your family,” I said, showing him the door, “there are two bastards.”
As a companion piece to this, a woman interviewee one day told me how the Nazis had discriminated against her family. “My mother,” she said, “bore eight children for the F’fchrer, but he never sent her the Mother’s Medal to which she was entitled.”
Another bizarre tale, but a sunnier one, developed when I glanced through the Fragebogen of a very blond young German, the very model of the super-Aryan, who was applying for a job as a driver with our outfit. His record was absolutely flawless; he had not even been enrolled in a Nazi kindergarten.
“Wonderful, I said, “but now is this possible?”
“Ach,” he said, “didn’t you notice my given name?”
I looked more closely this time. Bizarre, in so perfect a Teutonic type. The name was Isidor. Yes, Isidor.
“My father,” the young man went on, “being a farmer and a devout Catholic, named me for the patron saint of the peasant, Saint Isidor. But every time I was enrolled in some organization, the Nazis expelled me. ‘Send him home, the Jew Isidor. ‘So I stayed on the farm all through the war and dug potatoes, and my father couldn’t have been happier. ”
But for me the most dramatic confrontation, one which became a turning point in my professional life, occurred with my very first interrogation. I had just set down my duffel bag on arriving from Paris when I was told to talk with a noted German travel writer, Kasimir Edschmid, who had published abroad in a dozen countries but had chosen to remain in Hitler’s Germany. He had engaged, he said, in an “inner emigration,” keeping his thoughts and soul apart from the Nazi regime.
(Later, when Edschmid published an apologia under this title, he was jeered by critics throughout the two Germanys, East and West.)
It was Edschmid who, when I chided him, flung at me the shattering question, “How do you think you would have behaved under Hitler?”
It was a question I could not shake off. It troubled quite a few of my fellow Americans, to a greater or lesser degree, who had to judge the Germans. In an attempt to answer it, I found myself latching on to the dossier of a young German newspaperman, exactly my own age and with a similar history as a journalist, who was described by informants as having been a fervent antiNazi and a gadfly to Nazi big shots in Bavaria before Hitler’s accession. But now he had been swallowed up somewhere in a French POW camp.
For the next year, in every moment I could steal from my assigned duties, and often going AWOL with self-forged orders, I tried to locate him and to learn how he had behaved under Hitler. He had become my alter ego. His story had become my story. When I learned how he had conducted himself under Nazism, I would find out how I myself would have stood up, or failed to.
Bit by bit, even before I finally located him, I uncovered his record in the Nazi era. It was a story of daring underground activities and practical compromises, of rough handling by the Gestapo and occasional capitulation, presumably for tactical reasons.
Finally, on the eve of my leaving the Army and Germany, he came before me. To my surprise, he bore not the slightest physical resemblance to myself. After a hearty handshake and exchange of pleasantries, he told me something that made my heart sink—for both of us. He told me that after an unbearable accumulation of pressures on himself and his new young wife, he had agreed to fill out an application for membership in the Nazi party. Before this could be acted upon, war broke out and he was drafted into the army.
Would that have been my own fate as a German? Would they have worn me down too in the end?
In my self-decreed identification with this German, I was forced to accept that as the judgment on myself. In practical terms, the ICD rules made it impossible for me to clear the man (or myself) immediately for a top editor’s job, as I had hoped, but I did manage to obtain enough of a dispensation for him to start work again as a reporter.
Altogether it was year of intense feeling and being. But, of course, the role also brought with it all sorts of compensations: easy living, inexpensive booze, cut-rate merchandise at the PX, good company, and the shelter of authority. For instance, at the last moment, as I was saying good-by to my German (and provenly anti-Nazi) secretary, she told me it had been most interesting to work with me, especially because of the dozen new German words I had created during my speeches at the opening of various newspapers.
“I made a lot of mistakes in German?”
“Well,” she said, “those were words that didn’t exist before you came to Germany, but I found them very interesting and even useful.”