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Why they shouted ‘Heil Hitler’

German children make a kite out of virtually worthless paper money in 1923

Would I have stood up and exposed the Nazi evils? Or just gone along quietly?

In a village in Poland in 1942 you, as a member of a company of German soldiers, are raising your rifle at a crowd of women, children and the elderly. Your commander has given leave to any soldier not to take part in the massacre. Out of 500 soldiers only 15 choose to opt out: three per cent. Are you one of them?

Would I have been one of them? I can’t tell because I did not live in Germany between the wars. And I am aware that, notwithstanding my free will, I am a product of my personal history, and that must be strongly influenced by the culture in which I have lived.

The best picture I have read of that culture is in Sebastian Haffner’s memoirs, Defying Hitler. His account takes us from his schooldays in World War I to leaving Germany in 1933. Later he became a distinguished journalist. He returned to Germany in 1954 and died in 1999.

In trying to understand the Germans’ criminal behaviour over three decades, I first wondered whether that nation had particular characteristics which led them to accept Nazi actions. Haffner reminds us that Bismarck described how German moral courage, never a strong characteristic, disappeared in front of authority: “insubordination [is] altogether impossible for the German military – whoever happens to be in power”.

Elsewhere, Haffner refers to the German inability to recognise “the stink” of evil social activity. They might have argued and debated the Nazi system but Germans were not capable of standing back and simply recognising the odour of evil.

In his later summary Haffner describes Germany, with all its historical fine qualities, as being destroyed by nationalism. By nationalism he means an unrealistic attitude of conceit and admiration for anything German. This created an unquestionable vanity which assumed that the state, whatever its condition happened to be, must be defended, promoted and obeyed. Those who stood back, reflected and questioned were disloyal and already slipping into treachery.

Against this background the day-to-day circumstances of Germany, following the Great War, were extraordinary. The shock of military defeat destroyed, at least at that time, all the confidence built up over the centuries. The Treaty of Versailles was seen by many as a betrayal by civilian government of the courageous army. Ordered society was replaced by factions of the left and right. All was uncertainty and fear. Add to that gross hyperinflation of the currency and you have a society crying out for a saviour.

And Hitler was in the wings. His first significant appearance was during the Beer Hall Putsch, followed by a period in jail. And in prison he started to write Mein Kampf. This set out his racist ideology, which justified any actions that promoted Aryanism, including grabbing Lebens-raum (“living space”) in countries to the east. The book identified the Jewish population as part of an international plot to take over countries from within. It set out a programme whereby the rights of the citizen were replaced by the aims of Nazism, leaving liberals afraid to offer criticism even with their friends in case they were betrayed to the authorities. By 1939, Mein Kampf had sold more than five million copies.

And now I have to ask myself how I would have behaved as a German in the 1930s. Would I have stood up and publicly exposed the Nazi evils? I wouldn’t have been standing up for long. And I have family. Would I instead have gone along quietly, trying to avoid any guilty actions?

The German Catholic Church seems to have followed such a cautious agenda, with some success. It was fortunate in that its numbers were so large that the Nazis did not dare destroy it – although it was suspected that, once the war was won, it would have been outlawed.

I might have looked back through my life as a young German and seen my crippled, disordered country rescued by the Nazis, under an inspirational leader, and turned once again into a nation of consequence. While recognising the evil elements, might I have thought that this was a price that had to be paid: stability versus chaos?

I think back to the 1930s and the Spanish Civil War, where many good people, including the then editor of the Catholic Herald, accepted that the bloody restoration of order under Franco’s autocratic government was preferable to the uncontrolled chaos of a republican victory.

I hope I would have been a hero, but I fear I might have failed the ultimate test. At the least I have come to understand how the ordinary, good Germans of that generation would have shouted out “Heil Hitler!” along with their comrades.

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