Ilse’s story was the first of many. The news from Lüneburg was no different from what was happening in Hamburg. Uniformed Nazis marched self-importantly through the city day and night, often harassing shopkeepers and pedestrians, shoving them off the sidewalk. Children followed them everywhere, imitating their every move. Everyone was expected to obey official orders. Disagreements were not tolerated. People were required to salute. Curfews were enforced. No one could do anything unless they had the proper documents.
While it seemed people had lost many of their individual rights, no one seemed to be bothered by the new rules. Business and politics went on as usual. After all, it was for the good of the country, people told each other.
Photographs of the newly appointed Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, der Führer, were everywhere. Newsreels showed him giving speeches to thousands of cheering supporters, playing with children, accepting flowers from adoring young women, cutting ribbons to open new factories, relaxing in his mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden.
Newspapers and radios proclaimed daily that Germany was finally again on the road to greatness. In fact, the only threats to the country’s return to its former glory, the commentators argued, were the Jews who controlled all the money. Get rid of the Jews and all would be like it was before Germany’s defeat in the Great War! And these public proclamations quickly influenced everyday life. People ignored behaviors they once would have found shocking.
Hans saw Jews pulled from their homes or stores and beaten. Whispered rumors circulated that Jews, and anyone who spoke against the Nazis, disappeared overnight. Once, Hans saw several young women scrubbing down the sidewalk on their hands and knees with toothbrushes, while an officer stood over them, laughing. Hans looked away and quickly walked around them.
Uncle Hendrik applauded the Nazi actions and insisted Hans become a member of the Hitler Youth, Hitlerjugend, or HJ, as it was known.
“We all must be prepared,” he loudly lectured Hans at every opportunity. “The whole world is the enemy of the German Volk. They humiliated our great country after the war. They took all our money. They left us with nothing. Hitler is absolutely right when he says the world is jealous of our Nordic superiority. We are the master race! And we need to get rid of these damn Jews! They are to blame! Germany for the Germans!”
While participation in the Hitlerjugend was said to be voluntary, Hans discovered everyone was expected to join. In fact, the Hitler Youth controlled everything students did outside home and school.
His uncle gladly paid for the required uniform of a brown shirt, black shorts, a belt, shoulder strap, a brown peaked hat, and scarf. Around his upper left arm Hans wore an armband bearing the black Nazi swastika inside a white diamond on a field of red and white. The daily songs, parades and drills, and the athletic competitions all reinforced Hans’ sense of adventure and his excitement in really acting like a soldier.
The long-awaited day finally arrived for Hans’ formal induction in to the national movement. These ceremonies took place on April 20, Hitler’s birthday, as a special present from young people to their Führer. In the large hall decorated with flags, all the boys and girls recited the official oath in front of adult officers and proud family members:
“I promise, in the Hitler Youth, to do my duty at all times, in love and faithfulness, to help the Führer – so help me God. Our banner means more to us than death.”
Each boy was personally presented with a special dagger inscribed with the words: “Blood and Honor”.
Hans couldn’t have been prouder when he was chosen to be an officer. He wore a special armband and received an ornate certificate, which his uncle immediately hung on the wall of his shop. Hans loved the feeling of power his new position gave him. When he gave marching orders, others marched! When he spoke, other boys obeyed! Finally, he no longer felt like a poor outsider. Finally, he belonged.
While Hans enjoyed all the physical activities, the required lectures about the glories of The Third Reich, the term describing the Nazi’s new national government failed to interest him. He couldn’t understand Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, or the conflicts among the many political parties that had been fighting for power since 1924. But, because passing a difficult written test was necessary for boys to be leaders in the movement, Hans dutifully learned everything taught in the required new government textbooks. Even so, as he learned more about the Nazis, he began to wonder about some of their ideas and illustrations.
One photograph in particular disturbed him. In it, handsome young men with blonde hair and blue eyes were pictured on a cross-country run, wearing clean white shorts. The picture next to it showed a group of shabbily dressed, dark-haired, dark-eyed boys with grim expressions standing aimlessly on a street corner littered with trash. The caption read: “Should Germany’s Young People Look Like This, Or This?”
Hans felt a momentary shock. While he had blue eyes, his hair was dark. But what bothered him even more was that, next to the second picture, someone had scrawled in pencil: “Erschießen! Shoot them!” He quickly erased it, making sure no one could see what had been written.
Nevertheless, Hans was completely swept up in the Nazi youth movement. He looked forward to the demonstrations and candlelight vigils. He thrilled to the cheers and applause given to frenzied speakers who shouted to huge audiences about self-sacrifice, loyalty and brotherhood under a banner that proclaimed: “Adolf Hitler, We are Ready, as Always, to Fight for You to the End!”
Hans remembered one evening when the members of his Hamburg group watched a movie based on a real event. Herbert Norkus, a twelve year old Hitlerjunge, lay wounded on a street, repeatedly stabbed by members of the rival Communist party. Uniformed Nazi soldiers ran towards him and gently lifted his head. The dying boy smiled faintly and whispered his last words: “The flag is fluttering!”
Every boy in the audience stood up and cheered. Like Hans, every boy wanted to give up his life for the cause! Every boy wanted to be a hero!
After the film, Hans’ HJ brigade assembled for a huge rally and torch-lit parade. Column after column of Hitlerjungen proudly marched in perfect formations, drums beating, trumpets blaring. The rally’s leader, an important Unterführer, raised his arm and screamed, “Heil Hitler!” A thousand young voices returned his shout and began singing a favorite song: “Heute gehört uns Deutschland, morgen die ganze Welt!” “Today, Germany belongs to us, tomorrow the whole world!”
The Unterführer ordered the young people to use their torches to light a huge bonfire. Then, at his command, they eagerly hurled books once considered great German literature into the blaze. “We are cleaning the libraries of the un-German spirit, den undeutschen Geist.” Hans found himself cheering, “Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Hail Victory!” and giving the Nazi salute in a sea of upraised arms and chanting voices repeating their leader’s words.
Still, there were times Hans worried about things he saw and heard, although he would never share his questions with anyone. Germans were now ordered to report on other Germans who spoke out against the Nazis, even if it was just a casual remark or personal opinion.
This included turning in family members and friends to the authorities. Hans remembered one Hitlerjugend girl who bragged about reporting her parents for not wanting to fly the Nazi flag.
One evening, after a meeting of the HJ, Hans and his friends stopped for coffee. He started to ask them about a beating he witnessed a week earlier but stopped himself. He was sure what had happened was wrong, but he didn’t want to get into trouble or be reported. So, instead, he replayed the event over and over in his mind, asking himself, “What else could I have done?”
That day, a Sunday, was Hans’ only day off. After services at St. Michaeliskirche, he walked to a park in the center of Hamburg. He used his small allowance to treat himself to a Franzbrötchen, a delicious cinnamon sugar-filled pastry with raisins and brown sugar.
The scene looked like a picture postcard: families picnicking; children chasing each other on the lawn; cyclists leisurely pedaling along well-manicured paths. A gentle breeze caught the sounds of boys’ voices laughing and talking. He looked up to see several of his friends from the nearby Catholic school crossing an old stone bridge over a narrow canal.
His wave to them was cut short when a group of Hitlerjungen emerged from the trees and marched to the center of the bridge. Words were exchanged. In what seemed like a matter of seconds, the boys were beaten, and his friend, Wolfgang, thrown over the side of the bridge. It was at least a seven-foot drop into the water. The bullies spat contemptuously on their other victims, kicked each boy in the ribs, and went on their way, slapping each other on the back and laughing derisively.
Hans started to shout after them, but the words suddenly stuck in his throat. He didn’t say anything. Instead, he ran to the riverbank to pull Wolfgang to safety. Dazed and shivering, the boy stumbled into the rocky shallows. Blood flowed down his face from a deep gash on the side of his head.
When he finally recognized Hans, Wolfgang’s eyes narrowed with fear.
“Are you with them?”
“No, of course not! What happened?”
“You just saw what happened. We got beaten up.”
“Yes, but why? You’re not Jewish.”
Wolfgang shook his head in disbelief. “What? Are you stupid? It doesn’t make any difference! My friends and I belong to a Catholic youth group. No one can be part of anything unless it’s Hitlerjugend. That’s why we got beaten up. No one is safe! I’m not even allowed in school now. My headmaster got a letter saying I was expelled because I hadn’t joined the Hitlerjugend. He told my parents I had to leave that day! That’s why I go to the Catholic school now.”
“I didn’t know,” Hans apologized.
“Well, you should know,” Wolfgang retorted with disgust. “I guess you’re just too busy marching. And you certainly didn’t do anything to stop them, either!”
He turned his back on Hans and clawed his way slowly up the steep bank.
Afterwards, Hans realized no one in the park even seemed to notice.