It forever changed my life
During the mid-2000s, when I was lecturing on Nazi Germany to students in my 10th grade World History class, a student spoke out that his father was a member of the Hitler Youth. “That’s interesting!” I replied. “Would you like him to speak to our class?” my student responded. I paused. This student was a tall red-headed kid, a good student with an engaging personality. I was intimidated by the thought of some big, brusque German guy showing up to my classroom. What would he say? Would he be antisemitic? How bad could it be? Realizing that this would be a unique experience for my students, I accepted the offer and arranged the paperwork with the office.
The day of the visit, I was a bit nervous. I expected a hulk of a man donning lederhosen to come through the door. I was stunned when the hall monitor escorted a genteel gray-haired man of thin stature to my classroom. He was clearly up in age when he fathered my student. I surmised that the difference in body size between father and son was in part due to the poor diet my student’s father experienced during the war years. His story forever changed my perception of Nazi-era Germans.
Heinz was about eight when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. He lived in Berlin with his parents and older brother. Heinz explained how all (non-Jewish) German boys were forced to join the Hitler Youth. He described it as being like the Boy Scouts with athletic activities, camping, and survival skills. He enjoyed the experience.
When the war heated up, Hitler sent children out of Berlin. Heinz and his brother went to live with a random family on a farm in Czechoslovakia. They returned home after the war to bad news—the worst. Their father was forced to join the army and was sent to the Russian front; he never returned. His mother was killed by shrapnel during the American bombing of Berlin. The boys were sent to an orphanage. At age 18, Heinz found his way to the United States. He enlisted in the U.S. military, served in Vietnam, and became a U.S. citizen. Heinz was a proud American, whose hatred of Adolph Hitler was profound. His story had many students—and myself—close to tears.
Hitler’s hatred of the Jews, the Slavs, and most non-German Europeans combined with his blind aggression to conquer Europe resulted in an estimated 70-85 million deaths, including 6-7.4 million German deaths (World Population Review). He brought shame and destruction to his homeland—the Fatherland.
Meeting Heinz changed how I presented Germans in WWII. I continued to teach how Hitler assumed power with the backing of only 37% of the German population, meaning that most Germans did not support his ideology (The Nation). Having watched the movie “Das Boot,” I explained that not all German soldiers or sailors were eager to fight for Hitler; they had no choice. I still noted how Germans living near a Concentration Camp knew what was going on there. What changed was that I had empathy for the German population who were ultimately prisoners of their fuhrer’s quest for power.
A month into Putin’s War, it is impossible not to make comparisons. Both Hitler and Putin are examples of power-crazed dictators determined to attack their neighbors in their greedy pursuit of territory. They both used propaganda to sell their twisted beliefs to their citizenry, and ultimately they brought suffering to their own people.