Sunday 23 October 2011

We Were Born To Die For Germany

by Leslie Wilson

First the Nazis killed disabled children, Jewish children, Roma children, Slav children; then the 'Aryan' children started to die in air-raids and later in battle. In 1945 the shrinking borders of the Reich were defended by young lads and sometimes even by girls. By the time it was only a ten-pfennig tram ride between the Eastern and the Western Fronts, little lads as young as twelve were being conscripted to fight in the battles. One of the things that started me writing 'Last Train from Kummersdorf' was the account I read of these children being gunned down by the SS when they cracked. Hitler thought that was OK. After all, death was what the German youth had been trained for.  'We were born to die for Germany.'

And while their leader was committing suicide in the bunker, little German girls were being raped by soldiers of the Red Army.

One of the famous horrors of this death-fest was Magda Goebbels' killing of her own children in Hitler's bunker. She and her husband chose to bring them there - she could have escaped with them to Switzerland - but she didn't want to survive the Nazi regime and she decided that her children shouldn't be forced to live in the terrible world that would succeed it. 'Our magnificent idea is dying, and with it everything that is admirable and beautiful that I have experienced in my life.'
The accounts of how she drugged the children vary - some say they were given an injection, others 'medicine', but when they were asleep, she went to each and cracked a poison capsule into their mouths. Later, when the Russians entered the bunker, they found them lying there. But Helga, the eldest, had heavy bruising to her face, which suggests that she wasn't as heavily drugged as the rest, and struggled against her mother.
Recently, I was sent a copy of a novel about Helga; 'The Girl in the Bunker,' which I read with interest, and finally, with distaste, I'm afraid. I'm not attempting a review of this title because I haven't really got the necessary distance to do so. Rather, I want to talk about the feelings it engendered in me.
I have always been horrified by Magda Goebbels's action - yet I found that this novel actually diluted my sympathy for Helga and her siblings, and this was because - though this is to the credit of the author - she so credibly portrayed Helga's Nazified little soul. Even at the end, when Helga was trying to escape her death, she was still hoping to run away and keep the Nazi flame burning somewhere. I'm sure that is how she did feel. Why would she have any other views? She was a princess, under Nazism. A star.

'You're not like the others,' a soldier says to Helga in the novel. But she is. Not like her parents, Hitler, and his floozie Eva Braun, but like the other Nazis who didn't want to commit suicide. If she'd lived, she might have changed, but this novel can't show us that.

Helga Goebbels's anguish lasted for only a few minutes before she died. Of course it is appalling that a mother would be so attached to Nazism that she chose to murder them - but compare that to the Jewish children who died in the gas chambers, or who cowered, naked and terrified, in front of the mass grave they had been forced to help dig, often having to see the brutal murder of others before it was their turn. Or to the little girls who were gang-raped, sometimes to death, or to my own mother, who escaped from the Russians who wanted to rape her, in May, up into the freezing Austrian mountains, all on her own for days and days till she finally collapsed onto a road - and was found, luckily, by a British Army patrol. There must have been many others who weren't so lucky.

Towards the end of Tracey S. Rosenberg's novel, the author makes the German chauffeur rape one of the children as they wait to be driven to the bunker. I couldn't bear that. There is no evidence for that - OK, I know it's fiction - and given the relatively easy death the children had, this episode really sticks in my gullet.

This is my personal, emotional, maybe extreme reaction. But given the shadow that my mother's experiences cast on my childhood, since she confided her story to me when I was eight - I feel entitled to express it.

What is this glamour - as Ian Kershaw puts it - that attracts so many British readers to Hitler and his circle? Is it really an attempt to find out what went wrong, or is it a kind of 'Hello' syndrome, a fascination with celebs, no matter how monstrous or criminal? Or does it validate the view of Germans which, alas, still hangs around in the British psyche, that they are all genetically and culturally debased and evil? Forgive me - I know there are many other people who hold a far friendlier view.

Why is a Nazi princess so fascinating?

Here are some Germans you should read about. Yad Vashem has a whole list of them. People like Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, a Nazi functionary who warned the Danish resistance that their Jewish citizens were about to be deported. Without him, the Danes wouldn't have succeeded in their spectacular rescue operation. Or Elisabeth Abegg the prototype for my fictional Quaker Agnes Hummel in 'Saving Rafael,' who hid Jews, and helped them to safety. Or Bernt Engelmann, who as a young lad also helped rescue Jews and opponents of Hitler. There are many more. Isn't the extreme of lovingness and courage as worth hearing about as the extreme of evil?


Josiphine said...

Another amazing German to add you your list would be Dietrich Bonhoeffer, :)

Rebecca Herman said...

That novel sounds depressing - I don't think I'll be reading it...

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes, of course Bonhoeffer - and also the White Rose kids, Hans and Sophie Scholl, and the wives of Jewish men who demonstrated outside the place their husbands had been taken to, prior to deportation, and got them released. The ones on the list above, basically, are far less well known, at least outside Germany.
Ruth Andreas-Friedrich and her daughter, Karin, are also worth finding out about.. and there's Schindler.

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

I can certainly feel your anger, Leslie. A very thought-provoking blog but I think I'll give the book you mention a miss.

Susan Price said...

An impressive blog, Leslie. As to why people find the Nazis glamorous - it's because the passing of time has rubbed the sharp edges off. So people see the English Civil War as 'romantic' instead of the grinding, brutal WAR that it was. I'm guilty of this glamourisation myself, in my Sterkarm books - the border reivers weren't romantic, they were thugs.
But the harsh immediacy has gone, and all that's left is an exciting story.

Rebecca Herman said...

Well, my first thought when I learned about the Goebbels children sometime back was "I thought the Nazis couldn't get even worse, but some of them even murdered their OWN children!" I certainly think that most of the other children that died in the war suffered more, but many people find it particularly gruesome when a parent kills their own child. So I wonder if some of the interest in such a book would be for the shock/horror factor?

michelle lovric said...

Helga looks a chilling little creature.
Very interesting post, Leslie, and I admire you for turning to the light.

Leslie Wilson said...

She was very intelligent - so was her father, Josef Goebbels - and Hitler's favourite, according to observers. Which frankly, doesn't necessarily constitute a recommendation. But hey - some of the Nazi leaders' offspring who did survive got new insights and dedicated their lives to countering their parents' 'ideals'. Others remained dedicated Nazis. I did find it poignant that Goering's great-niece, who looks very like him, apparently, had herself sterilised so that she wouldn't pass on her 'bad genes.' She lives in California and is really good friends with Jewish neighbours on both sides. I'm sad about her self-hatred, but glad that she's rejected the hatred of Jews that Hitler tried to leave, in his will, to the German people. Largely, they didn't want this hideous legacy either. Most modern Germans would appal him, hurrah!

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to note that the photograph isn't of Helga; it's of her younger sister Holde.

Here's a picture of all six Goebbels children. Helga's the dark-haired one in the upper left:

Tracey Shanks said...

I'm sorry but I have to point out that I have read 'The Girl In The Bunker' and there is no such rape scene! The girls being driven to the bunker is right at the start of the book, not at the end as suggested here, and there's certainly no child rape involved.

Alison Summers said...

Surely the freedom to write about whomever we choose is one of the things the Allies were fighting for? A child on whichever side of a war has her choices limited by her parents. Helga was a victim. It would have taken more than intelligence to resist the messages she grew up with. I found the book compelling, poignant and shocking.

Leslie Wilson said...

Sorry I got the wrong Goebbels girl - I found it on the Internet, which all goes to show how unreliable the Internet can be - I didn't have any pictures of the children among my library of 3rd Reich books.

Alison - of course everyone has the freedom to write about what they choose. But I also have the freedom to have my own, very personal, response to a book,based on my family history and what my mother experienced in 1945, and the freedom to express that.Can you imagine what it's like, as an eight year-old, to sit by your weeping mother and hear her talking about her terror, about seeing a child who was dying of internal bleeding because of gang-rape, about a man crucified on his own barn door for trying to protect his wife and daughters? These are things that stamp one's psyche and they do affect the way one responds to stories of the Third Reich.

As for the child rape, it comes at the end, page 249 - 'he shoved me against the car and the soldiers were laughing' Hilde tells Helga 'he lashed his tongue in my ear, and his hands pushed.. he said tell my crippled freak of a father I wasn't worth the price of a gold necklace.' If I've got that wrong, I surely wouldn't be the only one.

none said...

I found this article very interesting, although as a rule I try to avoid stories around the holocaust and WWII because I find them too distressing.

In a discussion I was having elsewhere about The Book Thief, I suggested that it might be more interesting to read about the Germans who were Nazis rather than those who weren't. After all, the people who took a stand against Nazism are the people we (no doubt wrongly in many cases) believe ourselves to be. It's much harder to face up to the possibility that people just like us were huge fans of the gas chambers.

Leslie Wilson said...

I agree - up to a point. But I go into schools and most of the kids who have learned about the Holocaust don't know that there was anyone in Germany who helped theJews. They think all that heroism happened outside Germany - and it colorers their view of today's Germans. They have heard so much about Nazis and it makes British people often feel like superior beings. Not everyone, of course, but there are plenty.

Leslie Wilson said...

Sorry about the typo, I meant colours.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Excellent post Leslie and it has generated a very powerful discussion which I have read with interest. I do think it is important to record the deeds of good Germans. This is because young Germans - who had nothing whatsoever to do with the Nazis - need these stories to give them hope that not all Germans behaved the same way. I have had the opportunity to point the way to young Germans towards some of these stories and they find this supportive and helpful. This is not to negate Nazism but to show that there were many different responses.

Alex Macfarlane said...

There is this deep fascination with the Nazis in the UK. I think it stems from much more than arrogance and pride. Perhaps it is more of a landmark in British history where you can see the end of empire and the society that created it. The rigidity of the class structure gave way to socialised medicine and education and British people experienced a social mobility that was beyond the expectations of previous generations. Bombs did not discriminate between rich and poor, we were really 'all in it together'. So yes, it is looked back on with some swollen pride and jingoism of the small island standing alone against a mighty foe, but it is far more important to remember it as the catalyst of change that made modern Britain.

Yebini said...

I found this very interesting and informing. I took sudden great interest in the Goebbels children, and especially Helga. I was wondering, why was she struggling? Was it because she wanted to live, or did she just didn't want to die in her mother's hands? We will never know, but it was nice to see in your perspective and theory. A very high-quality blog; we need more of these on Internet.
Thank you!

Anonymous said...

It is not okay that you accept a fictional book about a killed child as truth. If someone writes a book about Anne Frank and says she killed kitens for joy you dislike her too?

The Goebbels children were perhaps the only children in Germany which knew nothing about the Nazis. They all weren't even in the Hitler Youth. I bet you did not know this fact.
The boy stayed home from school for nearly a year and was taught at home by a nurse, saw no other children. He was nine when he died, so he was only the first year at school. The two youngest were never in school. They had no friends, played only with their siblings. These children were absolutely innocent.

And even IF they would have been raised in the Nazism- and they weren't!- they would have been still innocent. You cannot blame a child for its education, for what is in its head. You only can judge adults.

Even the people which were high in their twenties did get after war by the americans the paper that they were to young to know. ('Persilschein').
I bet you did not even know this.

Leslie Wilson said...

Prusai - I think you misunderstood me when I said my sympathy was diluted. Diluting my sympathy does not mean doing away with it, but rather, slightly weakening it. Of course it remains a dreadful crime that the Goebbels children were murdered. Nor would I say that they were guilty of the Nazi crimes. However, when I thought the account of Helga's Nazi sympathies was convincing, that was not based on just believing the book. I did do quite a bit of background reading on the Goebbels children before I wrote that blog, and I saw nothing that would make me imagine that the children were not raised with Nazi attitudes. Indeed, that would be scarcely credible, just as the ignorance of small Bruno in 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' is not historically credible.
If Magda Goebbels believed Nazism was so wonderful her children must be murdered to prevent them living in a world without it, why would she keep them in ignorance of its tenets? I am not talking about knowledge of the extermination camps here, which is altogether a trickier area. I have not come across any evidence that the children were not taught Nazism by their tutors. Granted, there are many things I do not know, though I have read extensively about the era, but if I did see such assertions, I would frankly doubt them.
I think you are making the mistake of confusing innocence with ignorance, and also, in the case of children, with harmlessness. I heard a survivor of Auschwitz describe how the other children in his primary school were turned against him by Nazi teaching (in a town in Czechoslovakia that was taken over by Hungary). Of course the children were being criminally used by adults, but the small Josef Perl was still damaged by it. I haven't, let me emphasize, seen anything that suggests the Goebbels children came into contact with Jews to hurt them. But I did find it credible, given the historical facts, that Helga would have had the attitudes she was portrayed as having. When I read historical fiction, one of the things I look at is whether the fiction actually fits with history (and when I write it, I try to achieve the same thing).
What I was writing about in the blog was also my own emotional response to the portrayal of the girl in the book. I did not find her sympathetic, and I have a right to do so. But as I said, had any of the children lived, they might well have come to reject Nazism. Or not. We cannot know.
I don't know what there is in your background - since I think you are German - to make you feel so angry about what I wrote, but you might go back and read what I have written about my family background in the blog and in the comments, and then you might perhaps understand my feelings a little better.

Anonymous said...

I think you may not have read as much as I did, perhaps other things, as the book you are talking about, but I tell you, here are many things in normal reach, open to read for everybody, which will never be translated.
You are right, I am from Germany. And many people wrote a few memories down or spoke about, and so often it was not enough to translate or put into a book or so. Perhaps the book from the Goebbels children's nurse is translated. Perhaps it is not, but though it may have been, there were other nurses who only spoke a few things to a newspaper, and such sources you did not read. Maybe Traudel Junge was translated. But other secretaries who knew the children, as Bunhilde Pomsel, who was Goebgel's secretary, told about them and I think you could not read what she told. Or people like Rochus Misch. Not every word was translated, and there are enough who said these children grew up without any knowledge about what was going on. On Schwanenwerder still lives a man (he is the former police chief in Berlin) who was Helmut Goebbels' friend. He often speaks about the family, and you may not have heard or read every word he said about the children, it's as I only hear a few things about, let's say, the family of the american president.
The Goebbels' children did not know what happened in KZs or so. You do not tell your children those things. My mother knew KZs did exist, my family spoke about, but not every detail, because she was a child. She felt with the jews and wanted to feed them but was not allowd because everybody was afraid what would happen. So she decided to ring at the doors of Jews when she had to collect money for the Nazis with the BDM. She said when she was grown up how much this must have shocked those neighbours to see a girl with the arm up, in uniform, saying 'Heil Hitler, give me money for the Führer!' but it was goodhearted from her side, she wanted to show them she liked them as everybody. She too was an innocent child.
But though she knew the Jews had a cruel time and were killed she did not know they were murdered in gas chambers and then burned or such cruel details, you don't want to tell your children because you don't want to breakl their hearts. Perhaps Goebbels knew that his children, which were friendly, would have negative feelings against him? Who knows. And as I said before, even IF they knew they were still innocent till the moment they would have been grown up and old enough to decide. There is a reason why you cannot elect while you are ten or so.
(First part of my comment, I have tio split)

Anonymous said...

By the way, and this I cannot proof, so I only say it beneath the other things: My mother knew the Goebbel's children a little bit, they had a concertedly friend. So I can tell you: Helga was a very nice and peaceful child, while Hilde was a little bit 'high-nosed' and not so nice (but much to nice to die of course!).
I had forgotten this blog, found it now again, and when I read I again became very angry. I feel so with these poor children which were thrown away like dirt. I feel with all the jewish or disabled... children, but they got their honour back, and the Goebbels children will never.
Rochus Misch suffered till the moment he died that he knew what was going on in the moment the children were made 'ready for death', he told us that Helga cried and had to be pushed upstairs, he saw it but could not change what came. He said he would have loved to see a plate in Berlin for the children because they were victims too, but of course this would never be possible. He was right, in every point.
Their grandmother searched after war's end for the children and asked and asked but never found out what happened. First she lost her jewish husband by the Nazis and then her beloved grandchildren. She hated Goebbels from the very first moment from her whole heart and had to carry the sin of this name. So the children do, till today.

No, I do not confuse ignorance or whatever. I was brought up in hate against every little bit what is Nazi, and by the way, I am not stupid. But you mix the Goebbels father with his children. It does not make a child a nasty person to have a mean father or to sit as a toddler on the lap of someone you dislike.
Again, you should not forget I have some more sources here that you in America or wherever you may be cannot have, I had my family which lived in these years and could tell me, and also again: A ten- or twelve year old child IS always innocent, even IF it is brought up in Nazism, but these children were not. Not their parents brought them up, the nurses, servants, grandmothers (both against the Nazis!) and others did, and these were normal people. And don't forget, Helga was in her whole spirit like a younger child because of that well cared life. She still played with dolls at the time of her death.
( The stories of my family I told here are under my copyright)

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