Friday 23 November 2012

When My Mother met Hitler, by Leslie Wilson

I don't have a photo of my mother as a teenager, but here she is
aged 20.

Gerda, my mother, was the daughter of a police officer, born in Germany, but living in Graz, Austria, where my grandfather had been posted at the Anschluss. She had a mother who suffered from depression, (though at this time my grandmother had only had one nervous breakdown, after months of persecution when my grandfather was in danger of losing not only his job, but his life.)

My grandmother disliked and feared the Nazis, which my mother understood as 'some kind of phobia connected with Hitler', and knew she had to be careful about mentioning him to her mother, for fear she should become ill again.
My grandmother after her first nervous breakdown

My grandfather had been reinstated in his job, largely because my grandmother had put on her best clothes and gone to plead for him with a high official who had fixed things in Berlin, as the documents I have seen confirm. He was doing well in his career now, but he was reticent about Hitler. Sometimes Gerda tried to ask him questions about the Führer, but he was non-commital and changed the subject.

It wasn't safe to tell your children how you felt. They might, quite innocently, say something at school, and the teachers might pass it on. My grandfather had decided to go along with a system he detested and he had to be very careful. 'I could have resisted,' he told my mother years later, 'but I thought about you and your mother.' If he had been taken to concentration camp and murdered there, there would have been no state money for them. They would have been left to the charity of relatives.

It was just before the outbreak of war, when Gerda was thirteen or fourteen, that Hitler visited Graz. She wrote: 'Everywhere I see pictures of Hitler surrounded by cheering crowds, ecstatic adoring youngsters, and I am beginning to envy those to whom he speaks.' Meanwhile, flags and banners adorned with swastikas and 'EIN VOLK, EIN REICH, EIN FÜHRER,' began to appear everywhere. It was only a year since Austria had been 'taken home into the Reich', to widespread jubilation, and now the Führer was coming in person. 'Excitement,' my mother wrote, 'grows to fever pitch.'
Graz in the Forties

And then she discovered the ecstatic truth. She had been chosen to be among those who met Hitler! She lay awake in her excitement, and was worried to see the next morning, that her mother looked pale and ill. Maybe it was the fact that the man she really regarded as Antichrist was coming to the city that filled my grandmother with horror. But she only went to lie down, so my mother was free to escape from the apartment, feeling slightly guilty, and run to the place where the schoolgirls were waiting for the Führer. 'Then,' she wrote, 'the intolerable waiting starts.'

Why did they choose my mother, the daughter of a man with a shadow in his past and a mother who had a psychological illness - which was bad news in the Nazi period? She wasn't even a member of the German Girls' League. She had joined at first, but had quickly left because she found it boring and annoying: 'Too much standing around for hours so you could form a swastika when some important person flew over,' she told me. She also said her teacher told her the family would lose their ration book if she left the League, but she did anyway, and the family did kept the ration book.
Gerda was probably chosen because she was a pretty girl with blonde hair. She looked like the Aryan ideal.
My mother's ID card from 1943. A typical
bad id document photo!

My mother described the roar of cheering as Hitler's motorcade approached them: 'Throats are choked with excitement, eyes blinded by tears of emotion; in a delirium of joy and happiness hands are raised to jubilant heights in the Hitler salute. At this instant everyone present feels that this is the moment in history to be talked about to children and grandchildren for years to come.

'Then, as in the close-up of a film, everything fades and there is only a fair-skinned face, a wing of fine dark hair falling across a broad forehead, the compelling gaze of hypnotic blue eyes, the firm grip of his hand, a flash of gold as he laughs at something I have said in reply to his question, something to do with school, I think. I am aware of my madly-pumping heart and the blood roaring in my ears when he smiles kindly, pats my cheek and moves on to the next child in line.'

Photograph: German Federal archive via Wikimedia Commons,
clipped by me. 

Afterwards, she wrote: 'the memory of the brief moment when I was actually speaking to the Führer, an event so momentous that it almost seems like a dream, makes all else pale into insignificance.'

Re-reading her account of the meeting takes me right to the heart of the German and Austrian experience of the mass Nazi event, something so powerful and adrenaline-fuelled that it would sweep you away even if you weren't one of the favoured ones. I remember seeing a TV programme about Jews who survived Nazism by hiding; one of them, in Berlin, would go to Nazi events because you were safer in a crowd, and he said he'd so often wished they had let him be part of it, it had felt so marvellous.

And Hitler had charm - though the gold tooth is less appealing. In those days it wasn't as off-putting as it would be now. Hitler was good with children. You can see that charm in some old videos - I have never liked to see it, I don't want to be beguiled by him even for a second, and yet if one doesn't see it, how can one understand his success?

I had to let myself feel it when I wrote, in Saving Rafael, about Jenny going to see Hitler with her school, and even though she and her family hated him and she was far more aware than my mother, she too was caught up in the mass experience, a communal high that was temporarily irresistible.

My mother did tell me about it, and about Hitler's intensely blue eyes, when I was a child - but it was a different kind of telling than she or anyone else had dreamed of on that day. Now Hitler had been exposed as exactly what my grandmother always knew he was, the quintessence of evil, though she had been accused of phobia and mania for doing so.

Shadow of War, by Gerda Erika Baker, Lion publishing, 1990


Joan Lennon said...

Thank you for posting this - it was gripping.

Katherine Langrish said...

Whew. You're right, somehow one needs to understand the Hitler charisma somehow really did work - if only to avoid it.

Sue Purkiss said...

Wow! This gets me closer to understanding 'Hitler's Dark Charisma'than the TV series of that name which is on at the moment. Fascinating.

frances thomas said...

A most compelling story. Thank you for posting it, Leslie. It's always good to be reminded how dangerous charisma can be

Anonymous said...

The charismatic principle is one of the factors that enables leaders of people to entrance their followers. Hitler certainly added to it, and this account that is not seen in history books was really compelling to read. Thank you for posting.

Leslie Wilson said...

I'm so grateful to my mother for writing down her memories in such an honest and immediate manner..

Susan Price said...

Your mother's diary is a valuable historical resource. Thank you for this.

Anonymous said...

That's very interesting. My German aunt, who was also a child during WW2, said similar things.

Alex said...

I found this to be a very interesting post. I have a friend who lived in Graz at the same time as your mother. She has a photo of herself taken the day Hitler visited Graz and she was chosen to present flowers to him. She was only about 4, so her recollections aren't as good as your mom, but there are definite similarities. I can't wait to read Shadow of War now.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

It wasn't just his charisma that made him so successful, of course, even though he couldn't have done what he did without it. He led Germany out of deep recession with nationalistic jingos, promises of glory, unity and greatness. And he gave them people to blame for Germany's economic troubles; people to hate - the disabled, the sick, the left-wing, the foreigners, the gays. A lesson that equally needs to be remembered for I see shades of it in the UK now and it sends goosebumps down my back.
Thank you, Leslie.

Nicola Morgan said...

Utterly, utterly fascinating. Leslie, as you say, wonderful that your mother wrote it all down so honestly and with such emotion. Her story is a really important piece of history and important for everyone to try to understand the psychology. Thanks so much for telling us.

Leslie Wilson said...

It is a worry nowadays, Marie-Louise, I so totally agree. Though it's worth remembering that the murder of disabled people wasn't ever popular, and had to go underground after one of the German cardinals preached against it. All the same, every time my grandmother was hospitalised for her psychological illness, my mother was afraid she'd be murdered.
'Shadow of War' is out of print now, but there are plenty of copies available on Abebooks. I don't agree with all of my mother's angle on Nazi Germany, but I'm very glad she wrote it.

Ann Turnbull said...

Thank you for posting this, Leslie. Hitler's charisma is something we need to understand. And I thought the way you handled it in Saving Rafael was absolutely convincing.