Perception is a difficult process to dissect and understand. In an instant the human mind will draw a conclusion of an experience by filtering that experience through a developed world view and an interpretation of the sensory environment. This process, which takes place at the speed of thought, facilitates a seamless construction of experience and belief that in turn creates reality. Critical to this point is that fact that this constructed reality is unique to the individual, the moment in time, and the surrounding circumstances. What we understand to be true is in fact true for us and this unfortunately includes the many flawed perceptions we maintain. Unlike a physical object that can be seen or touched, perception is invisible, often goes undetected and can be profoundly difficult to discern.
While it resides within illogical behavior perception also maintains residence in our rational acts, making each moment of human interpretation both exceptional and problematic. This is the dilemma we face when we try to understand what life was like in Germany under the Third Reich. In a word it was different for everyone. Change was profound on all levels as assumptions about what was reasonable were amended and discretion about what was intolerable were increasingly discarded. Children lived in a different world from soldiers who lived in a different world from civilian adults who lived in a different world from the Jews. For each of these groups and for every other, life in Germany under the Third Reich was unique. For our purpose here we will focus on the children, that generation whose formative years were so deeply influenced by their Führer and the war he brought to their backyards.
There can be little dispute that World War II was and continues to be a significant part of our history. Dramatic in its scope, profound in its impact, it is a moment in history that has been endlessly evaluated, researched, questioned, and analyzed. The resulting literature base is unfathomable and yet comprehension of this event eludes us. The journalistic query of “who, what, why, when, where, and how” will not produce a single answer but rather an endless litany of theories. History and memory are not synonymous and while neither holds exclusive rights to accuracy they are inextricably connected; residing in and around each other simultaneously. This mantra is silently repeated within the historiography of German life during World War II.
They were the future of the German Reich, the chosen ones. Swaddled in the belief they would one day rule the world they were the children of Nazi Germany. When interviewed years later, Katrin Thiele would remember her early childhood with astonishing clarity. The twelve years her father served within the Nazi Regime were filled with happy memories as she recalled being surrounded by people who loved her. After the war she could not fathom the horrifying stories of Nazi brutality had any relation to her life or the Nazi’s she knew that taught her the ideals she so believed in. Strangely enough her perception is not uncommon as Stargardt illustrates in his book Witnesses of War: Children’s Lives Under the Nazis. The book contains dozens of such accounts; children whose lives were literally formed by Nazi ideology and as such had difficulty adjusting to post-war life. Their parents could recall a time before Hitler, their children, the Hitler youth could not.
While this type of literature speaks to a very specific memory it does provide an invaluable insight into experiences most of us cannot comprehend. Stargardt reminds us that the children of this generation were most deeply marked by the Third Reich, the Nazi values and slogans were literally engrained amongst lessons of cleanliness, respect, and responsibility. Indoctrinated to believe in the value of service and self-sacrifice, these children grew into serving adults, unable to shed that Nazi characteristic. Though this kind of behavior is difficult to understand this type of literature, the actual recounting by the children who grew up during the Nazi Regime, can help clarify it. This is not work interpreted by a historian after the fact but rather an adult’s recollection of their childhood and as such comes fraught with potential inaccuracies; in the end that is its true benefit. Stargardt’s work reminds us this is simply human experience and while their recounting may be flawed its existence is now part of the historic story. His approach redefines our understanding of victimhood and forces us to see the subject, which is specifically Nazi Germany during the war, from a different perspective. Its value is in offering that option.
Witnesses to War and literature of its type illustrate how these children did not poses a moral system that would allow them to compare life under Hitler with life after his fall. Rather than abandon their own identity they simply avoided argument with the past. My Father’s Keeper: Children of Nazi Leaders reveals a wholly different side. These children, for the most part, did not consciously attempt to avoid their past but rather simply moved beyond it and on with their lives. The author’s father, a journalist himself, interviewed the children of very prominent Nazi officials; Frank, von Schirach, Baldur, Hess, Bormann, Göring, and Himmler. The work was lost for decades until discovered by his son who expanded on it by re-interviewing many of the same children. Contrasting their lives in 1959 when first interviewed with their lives in 2000, the book tries to uncover the challenges of being a child of an infamous Nazi perpetrator. Instead it offers a portrait of children who shed their Nazi past with ease.
Her name has become synonymous with evil ; Himmler, her father was considered the architect of the Holocaust. When she was interviewed in 1959 she made clear she believed she would one day write a book that would rehabilitate her father’s image. When re-interviewed in 2000 she remained true to that belief, working in a managerial position at Stille Hilfe, a non-profit organization that assists former leading National Socialists. She and several of the other children originally interviewed did not carry the burden their father’s victims did, reliving the torture and loss day after day. Instead when the war ended and society brought to justice many of the perpetrators, these children moved on. This type of literature is disturbing but does not stand alone; there are dozens of accounts from Nazi children who neither abandoned their ideology nor apologized for it later in life. The Germany they grew up in was good and their memory of it intact. While these children clearly lived a life of privilege, there were others who lived a nightmare. Between Dignity and Despair; Jewish Life in Nazi Germany chronicles the horrific experience Jews, specifically women and children, endured under the Nazi Regime.
It was slow and at first almost indiscernible. While no one could pinpoint an exact date it was clear that something had begun to change once Hitler came to power as Chancellor. In the days, weeks and months that followed Jews would see their world shrink as they retreated to a place somewhere in the shadows. This is of course a well researched and documented subject; the atrocities that befell the Jews at the hands of Hitler and his Nazi Regime are known to all through countless memoirs from survivors, scores of academic research into the political, economic, and social structure of the Nazi’s, and innumerable probes into the Nazi leaders themselves. Though each of these approaches yields profound insight into a time period that produced incalculable anguish Between Dignity and Despair takes a completely different road through this horror.
Marion Kaplan is herself the child of Jewish immigrants from Nazi Germany. Her parents were “lucky” as she put it, meeting in America in 1939. Her future extended family, the aunts, uncles, and cousins she would never meet were either killed or scattered across the globe in the German-Jewish Diaspora. While her own story is not unique her approach to this subject is. Rather than re-tell the horrors of the Holocaust or dissect the minds of the mad-men who orchestrated it she looked at daily life in Nazi Germany from the perspective of the average Jewish person in general and its women in particular. This is not a looking back approach but rather a looking through; over the course of daily life and through the eyes of those who lived it Kaplan re-creates the shrinking world German Jews found themselves in during World War II. One of the hallmarks of the book, and there are many, is the detail given to the mundane. Despite the heinous conditions life must go on; food must be bought, dinner must be served, clothes must be washed, and children must go to school in a world where they were no longer welcome.
Theirs was not a world of privilege or ease. Fear and terror were constant as they struggled with the daily challenge of survival. They had unknowingly become the enemy of their own country and its citizens and government would make clear that fact. This type of literature forces the reader to see their own life from a different perspective. The horrors of the Holocaust are incomprehensible but surely most of us, when reaching for a cold beverage from our well stocked refrigerator, can better appreciate the difficulties the Jews faced at the Nazi’s hands. Between Dignity and Despair and literature like it bring the immensity of this event to a personally digestible portion and it is without doubt distasteful.
The facts of German life during the war are well documented. Unemployment had reached nearly fifty percent of the working population by the time Hitler became Chancellor. By the time Germany invaded Poland that number had dropped to a few hundred thousand. Of course propaganda and records manipulation, which would become the Nazi hallmark, helped reduce those numbers. Regardless, unemployment was reduced and with it lifestyle conditions improved. Moral and national pride also received a much needed boost with the Kraft durch Freude (KdF) insuring that German’s enjoyed leisure time, a habit still very much a part of German culture today. The documentation is rich with examples that illustrate a good life in Germany during the war. Sadly there is even more illustrating how very difficult it was. These verifiable facts paint a picture of German life during World War II but it is black and white.
While historians will make painstaking efforts to critically validate any and all sources, in the end the historic record as a body of work is the interpretation of the historian. If the event occurred within the historian’s lifetime, his or her own collective memory is likely to become infused into the interpretation as well. While memory is an unreliable source to validate facts it does speak directly to the belief system of a group or culture and what is deemed important enough to remember. Of course few would argue that World War II remains a black moment in human history. The enormous literature base that resulted has tried to reconcile the event from a political, social, and economic perspective and many good historic works have resulted. None however can ever be the single authority on the subject. While historians attempt to eschew drama and emotion from this subject, the schism it creates is often where memory resides. Where German life during the war is concerned that memory is unique to each person who experienced it. Wise council will direct us to the verifiable works, the confirmed facts and figures. Good scholarship will encourage us to look further. In the end we discover that life in Germany during World War II truly resided somewhere between “dignity and despair”.
Kaplan, Marion. Between Dignity and Despair; Jewish Life in Nazi Germany. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Lebert, Stephen & Lebert, Norbert. My Father’s Keeper: Children of Nazi Leaders. Boston: Little Brown & Company, 2001.
Plowright, John. The Causes, Course and Outcomes of World War Two. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.
Roseman, Mark. The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2002
Shipley, Thomas F, & Zacks, Jeffrey. Understanding Events: From Perception to Action. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008
Stargardt, Nicholas. Witnesses of War; Children’s Lives Under the Nazis. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006
 Thomas F. Shipley & Jeffrey M. Zacks. Understanding Events: From Perception to Action. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
 Ibid, 317
 Mark Roseman, The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution. (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2002)
 Nicholas Stargardt, Witnesses of War; Children’s Lives Under the Nazis. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006).
 Ibid, 5
 Stephen and Norbert Lebert, My Father’s Keeper: Children of Nazi Leaders. (Boston, Little, Brown, & Company, 2001).
 Ibid, 113
 Marion Kaplan. Between Dignity and Despair; Jewish Life in Nazi Germany. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
 Marion Kaplan, 159
 John Plowright, The Causes, Course and Outcomes of World War Two. (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007).
 Ibid, 72.