What was it like to grow up German during Hitler’s Third Reich? In this extraordinary book, Frederic C. Tubach returns to the country of his roots to interview average Germans who, like him, came of age between 1933 and 1945. Tubach sets their recollections and his own memories into a broad historical overview of Nazism—a regime that shaped minds through persuasion (meetings, Nazi Party rallies, the 1936 Olympics, the new mass media of radio and film) and coercion (violence and political suppression). The voices of this long-overlooked population—ordinary people who were neither victims nor perpetrators—reveal the rich complexity of their attitudes and emotions. The book also presents selections from approximately 80,000 unpublished letters (now archived in Berlin) written during the war by civilians and German soldiers. Tubach powerfully provides new insights into Germany’s most tragic years, offering a nuanced response to the abiding question of how a nation made the quantum leap from anti-Semitism to systematic genocide.
German Voices Memories of Life during Hitler's Third Reich
Jobs and the Olympic Games
Following the swift Nazi takeover in 1933, the interplay of persuasion and coercion alone was not enough to consolidate the party's authority. Other factors, including the Olympic Games of 1936, which legitimized the Nazi movement before the world, and the completion in 1937 of Hitler's first, successful Four-Year Economic Plan-profound displays of harmony and accomplishment, requiring three years of careful preparation on all levels of society-brought Hitler to the apex of power.
The generation growing up in the early 1930s saw hunger and unemployment all around them. If they lived in nice houses and their parents patronized the neighborhood butcher, baker, and grocer, these individuals nevertheless remember the beggars who knocked on their doors and asked for work, food, or handouts. "Meister, hast du keine Arbeit?" (Boss, don't you have any work?) still echoes in the memory of a man from Cologne, whose father owned a sizable carpentry shop. For the parents, who had no knowledge of rough and tumble, open-ended capitalism, such need was hard to take. Since Bismarck, the older generation had come to believe in social and economic stability, and whenever that broke down, they expected the state to step in and help.
After January 30, 1933, when Hitler was handed control in the German parliament, he lost no time in making his first move. On February 2, he presented his first Four-Year Plan to the public. Relief from economic hardship was exactly what Germans wanted to hear, and he addressed this fact directly:
We see in the terrible fate that has been haunting us since 1918 only an expression of our decay. However, the entire world is in the grips of a deep crisis. The historical balance of forces has been removed. The insane idea of victors and vanquished prevents any confidence from developing between nation and nation, and with that a chance for an economic recovery.
But the misery of our people is horrible. The proletariat of the hungry and unemployed millions in industry is now joined by the progressive deterioration of the entire middle class. If this general decay engulfs the German peasantry as well, then we will face a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.
Hitler, of course, was interested not only in providing his views of economic conditions, but also in evoking an apocalyptic vision of total collapse that only the Nazi movement could prevent.
During the three years leading up to the Olympic Games, most Germans-even those not fond of the Nazi regime-thought that the Nazis had made good on their promise to lift the German economy out of the depression. Those who, with the help of hindsight, now stress that Hitler was already mobilizing the German economy for war miss the point. The vast majority of Germans did not and could not know that mobilization for war was foremost in Hitler's mind. What they did know was that work materialized, living standards rose, and unemployment largely disappeared. On March 26, 1937, a few days before the general election of March 29, a student wrote a composition for a class assignment with the title "Wahlzeit" (Election time): "Now the German people have the chance to show their gratitude toward the Führer.... Things are moving, chimneys are smoking again, farmers are filled with hope, worker brigades till the land and soil, the army marches, youth sings and has faith, and the Saarland has returned home." He received an A-/B+ for his efforts.
This young student welcomed the advent of an astonishing new age of work, hope, and flag waving; for the millions of older Germans who had been unemployed, however, the changes came largely as a great relief. Looking back at the Nazi era after World War II, the child of a father who had been unemployed remarked:
After all, the party called itself, oddly enough, the National Socialist German Workers Party [National Sozialistische Deutsche Arberterpartei, or NSDAP]. Work was promised and work was created. Now we know the reasons why work was created. But you have to see it from the point of view of the father of a family, who had been unemployed for three, four, five, seven years and had to make do with a few pennies from social welfare. The Nazis gave him a uniform and boots. Hunger is what churned around in my stomach and intestines. Mother cried because she was unable to give us anything to eat, and we were four children. I can really understand that a father who looks at his children and finds a job will say, "Well, that is to the credit of Hitler." And then there was this immense propaganda effort that influenced the masses. I can really understand all of that.
One of my interviewees recalled a remark of an anti-Nazi whom his father had known. Although this opponent of Hitler had fought against the Nazis in the 1920s, he still praised their economic accomplishments when he mused, "Is Hitler a genius or what?" The economic success attributed to the Nazis only added to Hitler's nimbus as savior-an aura carefully constructed since 1933. Hitler's magic lasted among the true believers throughout the war, in some cases to the very end. And Hitler himself believed in his own invincibility; had he not, after all, survived a whole string of assassination attempts?
By the late 1930s, propaganda had convinced the Germans not only that their economy was strong and growing stronger, but also that there was no war agenda hidden behind the economic data. Eventually, many critics began to waver in their negative views of the Nazis and to fall in line. One such individual, a good Catholic born in 1913, remarked, "In 1936-37-I still remember it well-pronouncements of the church were read from the pulpit that were considered to be propaganda against the Nazis.... I still remember my mother saying, 'Good God, how can they proclaim such stuff in church? After all, everything is turning out just fine.'"
The Nazis implemented programs to improve workers' lives and enhance their leisure time. The leadership was well aware that German labor had been a strong supporter of the socialists and communists, and they wanted to destroy the last vestiges of leftist loyalties among the working class. Robert Ley, for example, was in charge of the Deutsche Arbeiterfront (DAF, German Labor Front) and developed vacation philosophy and policy for workers:
When someone arrives at a beach resort, he must be able to forget his past right away. I would like to arrange things in such a way that he is swept off his feet immediately by a general mood filled with excitement, so much so that it will take his breath away and he will not come to his senses with all that music, dancing, theater visits, and so on. Up until now you needed seven days just to get adjusted to vacation time and to get in touch with other people. And during the last seven days you already had to get used again to the worries of everyday life. That must be stopped. Starting with the first hour, the vacationer must be submerged in an intoxicating environment [and it must last] up to the very last second, when he climbs back onto his train to go home. This is also the wish of der Führer, and so we want to construct this beach resort with these leisure principles in mind: a theater, a movie, evening shows, music, dance locales and so on.
Kraft durch Freude (KdF, Strength through Joy) was the Nazi organization charged with implementing vacation policy. It administered a wide range of activities, including propaganda rallies, theater performances, operas, symphony concerts, cabarets, nightclub acts, and group travel. Except for the meetings designed specifically for ideological advertising, many of these vacation programs had little explicit political content. During the 1930s Germans began to experience and enjoy mass entertainment and the glitzy, modern world of escapist illusion. The Nazi utopia of a Reich to last a thousand years and this world of entertainment mutually reinforced each other.
The Nazis never flagged in their efforts to control all aspects of leisure time. They developed, for instance, special cultural programs for the handicapped, such as the blind, the deaf, and those who had become invalids as a result of workplace injuries. Their efforts paid off. In 1934, only 9,111,663 participated in the KdF programs; by 1937, the number of participants had grown to 38,435,663-as the KdF authorities pointed out with utmost precision.
In the early years, the economic mobilization and upswing also included efforts to feed the hungry-not unlike the United States in the 1930s, but with an important addition. In a major campaign to collect money and food for the neediest citizens, the Nazis, thanks to their centralized command structure, were able to mobilize everyone down to the village and even city block level. Anyone who was employed, even for minimum wages, had to sacrifice 10 percent in additional taxes to benefit their poorest fellow citizens. The Nazis drove such efforts to collect money so hard, however, that in many communities complaints arose about the pressure to contribute. Grumblings were closely monitored by the party and, in more prolonged and severe cases, reported to the Gestapo.
By collecting money from every German household, the Nazis nurtured a sense of solidarity among all members of society, rich and poor, well fed and hungry. Nothing symbolized the Nazis' aid to the elderly, sick, and poor better than the ubiquitous Sammelbüchse (collection boxes) for small change. Painted bright red, the cone-shaped metal boxes had small slots on top surrounded by metal cuffs, meant for coins, as well as holes for depositing rolled up bills. A metal grate covered the slot on the inside, preventing deposited coins from escaping even if the box were turned upside down and shaken. These boxes had a dual function: to collect money and to make it apparent to every German that the Nazi state cared for everyone, even its weakest citizens. The younger generation could not fail to notice this display of altruism, which for the Nazis, of course, was also a way of inculcating a sense of loyalty to the regime. Virtually every German with spare change deposited money into these boxes. Such actions constituted one of the social elements of the National Socialist German Workers Party.
I had a great aunt, a member of the older generation. She was the spinster sister of my step-grandfather and beloved by all the villagers for her volunteer work at the local kindergarten and at the home for the poor and sick. She was also known for her poetry, which mourned the dead and celebrated weddings and anniversaries. She wrote her poems in a neat notebook. This gentle old woman wrote "Heil Hitler" at the bottom of the page of each of her poems. Her world was simple. She liked Hitler because he fed the poor.
Young Germans may have been just as impressed by the antipoverty efforts of the Nazis, but for them these were plainly heady times. By 1936 earlier fears about unemployment had vanished. The young believed in better days to come, a secure future with fulfilling work, to be created in the new Germany they would inherit. For them it was all sunshine as the Zeppelin flew over the various regions of Germany, the swastika ablaze on its tailfins.
By 1936 the Nazis had succeeded in splitting the public sphere into two distinct but mutually supportive elements: the "big show," with its projection of a new utopia, on the one hand, and the ever more secretive application of violence against all those who opposed them or whom they considered undesirable, on the other. To create a vision of themselves as they wanted to be seen by others, however, they organized two grand events in addition: for Germans, the 1934 Nuremberg party rally; and for the rest of the world, the 1936 summer Olympic games.
The Nuremberg Party Rally
More than any other medium, Leni Riefenstahl's 1934 documentary film about the annual Nuremberg party rally, Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the will), introduced the Nazi Party to the astonished audience of the German population at large, and to this day it stands as a masterpiece of propaganda. There was no television, after all, and news consisted of after-the-fact reports in newspapers and visual summaries at the beginning of entertainment films. Only the radio projected the immediacy of the events the Nazis staged for public consumption, but the radio was a poor substitute for Nazi happenings that were arranged primarily for the eye. A stage was needed for Hitler's words, and a stage had to be seen to be appreciated. Riefenstahl's film had an enormous impact, particularly on the younger generation. It also set the tone for Nazi propaganda films in general, and eventually led to her internationally acclaimed documentary on the Berlin Olympics of 1936.
What made Triumph of the Will so effective as a visual introduction to the Nazi movement? The movie opens with a view out the window of an airplane. The spectator (eye of the camera) sees clouds move by swiftly as the plane descends for a landing-a new visual experience for most Germans, who had never flown in an airplane. The anonymous spectator, a German Everyman who takes in this novel scene-clouds, sky, and the city slowly unfolding below-though not identified until after the landing, is Hitler, who debarks to a tumultuous reception at the Nazi Party Rally in Nuremberg, the Reichsparteitag of 1934. In this opening scene, the identification between Hitler and the passive moviegoer takes place on a preconscious level: the eye of the camera and the eyes of the viewers watching the film in theaters all over Germany turn out to share Hitler's own field of vision as his JU-52 prepares to set down in Nuremberg.
The documentary then switches to individual Germans pursuing various private tasks as they prepare to participate in the mass rally. Their activities are familiar to all: the old woman peering out the window from behind geranium boxes; young men polishing their shoes, washing themselves, or playing catch in a springtime meadow. The backdrop to all this is a sun-drenched Nuremberg, the ancient and familiar city of the trade guilds and the Meistersinger, though now it is festooned with swastikas and striking streamers.
As the film continues, individual Germans slowly transform into a mass. In one scene, uniformed members of an Arbeitsdienst (work brigade) are lined up in formation, with each member shouting out in turn: "Comrade, where are you from?" and another member of the group answering, "From the Alps," or another, "From the seashore." The subliminal message is clear: only in this tightly knit formation is it possible for them to hear and contact each other, to ask questions and give answers as to their origins. The scene concludes with a ritual chant by the entire group that gives voice to their solidarity as one body.
Similar transformations of the individual are repeated throughout the documentary, up to the climax, when approximately 100,000 Nazi Party members, all assembled on the Nuremberg rally grounds, are organized into two huge blocks of black (the brown color of the Nazi uniforms in a black-and-white film) separated by a broad white concrete pathway, on which Hitler walks, slowly and silently, up to the tribune and the speaker's platform. The masses now become an aesthetic foil; all individual differences are obliterated in a metamorphosis that presents only one individual, Adolf Hitler, in splendid isolation. This central scene of the Nazi celebration brings us back to the beginning of the documentary, where the eye that sees is initially our own; the propaganda equation is solved as we have become him, and he us.
Depicted in this way, the masses are a centerpiece of Nazi aesthetics, signifying power. The film creates a realm of its own, one in isolation from anything around it, and Hitler emerges in the middle as a self-contained symbol devoid of any contingencies. This quasi-religious Hitler persona, created over time, first appeared full-blown in this film. The cinematic images were replete with self-referential significance, while nothing was said about any moral sensibilities the passive participants might have brought, whether to the stadium in Nuremberg or to the movie theaters all over Germany. The Germans and the world had never seen anything like it.
What about German moviegoers curious about their new leader? In a series of visual tableaux, they are coaxed to identify with the enthusiastic masses. But the masses in this rightwing revolution have little in common with the masses of the French Revolution, who were the subjects of their history, storming the barricades and bringing down the old order. They also share nothing with the more recent revolution, that of the Communists in 1917, who took over streets and towns and murdered the czar. The Germans who participated at Nuremberg were portrayed as representing the entire Volk, but in reality they were a prop for Hitler in his big show. To create such a grand impression, members of the various Nazi organizations from the entire country came together, arriving by train, bus, and bicycle and filling the parade grounds with the brown uniform of the Nazi Party. For anonymous moviegoers sitting in darkened theaters, it was all a novel experience, disconnected from their daily lives.
For most Germans, that broad band of white concrete on which Hitler slowly marched up to the speaker's platform in Nuremberg created an extraordinary, defining image and moment. A few years later, a different broad band of concrete appeared as an expansion of the utopia: the Autobahn, flowing through forests and fields, over hills and mountains. While most Germans did not yet own a Volkswagen, some started to buy coupons that eventually would qualify determined savers to drive the new roads in these cars built for the Volk. In taverns all over Germany, old and young gathered around the radio to listen to coverage of the car races now being held on the marvelous new highways of speed. Shock and mourning swept the country when a popular racecar driver exceeded safe limits and a side wind thrust his car off the road, hurling him to his death in a forest clearing between Heidelberg and Frankfurt. A spectacular event typical of the new Germany, it embodied daredevilry, heroism, and violent death.
Most documentary films about Hitler, the weekly movie theater newsreels (die Wochenschau), and many newspaper photos from the time included masses of people as a charismatic backdrop to the Führer's appearances. The presence of large crowds projected solidarity and implied the Nazi movement's great power from the beginning. But large numbers did not necessarily appear automatically or spontaneously; rather, Nazi organizers closed schools, offices, and often factories in advance and ordered the local population to appear at these events. Hannelore Schmidt, wife of the former chancellor of the Federal Republic, Helmut Schmidt, notes that attendance at the rallies was more or less mandatory. On one occasion, she recalls, "Hitler was visiting Hamburg.... Schools remained closed for that day, because all pupils were to line up on the road between the airport and the city center. Our school had been assigned to stand at the Alsterkrugchaussee, where we lined up in three rows. I had firmly decided neither to raise my hand nor to shout."
By contrast, the Germans who had joined the Nazi movement felt elated to participate in this new Germany. They also felt a special sense of entitlement, one denied the rest of the population. They returned all aglow from Nuremberg, basking in what Germans called the innerer Reichstagsparteitag (inner party rally)-an ironic term that described the heightened emotion a participant enjoyed at one of these glorious events. As time went on, the term was applied to any personal experience that made you happy.
The Olympic Games of 1936
On the occasion of the Olympic Games in Berlin, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels addressed a gathering of the international press with the following words: "We did not intend to place Potemkin villages before your eyes. You may freely move around in Germany among our people. Thus you can observe the Germans at work and as they celebrate the games; you will see how the people have become better and happier.... I ask you to consider in what a [terrible] condition we had to take over this country and to keep in mind the incredible crisis that we had to overcome during the last three and a half years."
This statement was perfectly crafted for the festive occasion. Only a discerning architect with political savvy might have noticed that the monumental façade of the Olympia Stadium in Berlin was indeed a Potemkin village, despite Goebbels's claim to the contrary. Indeed, the virtual reality that he proclaimed to the international press hid more than it revealed. Any German reporters who sat in that press conference were no longer free to express their own views or those of their newspapers. Goebbels had seen to that several years earlier. Already on April 13, 1933, a report on a meeting of the local press association in Berlin summarized its plight succinctly: "The way things are now, it seems that the only question that remains for the press is to express its readiness to pay homage voluntarily to the rise of Nazi nationalism or to stand aside and watch as events take their course beyond everyone's control.... The principle of journalistic neutrality no longer has a right to exist. There is no self-evident validity for the press, except inasmuch as it participates in the greater and much more important Nazi transformation of the nation."
The Nazis left nothing to chance, and control of the means of communication allowed them to invent or evoke any social condition they needed as a way of furthering their goals. To this end they passed laws that specified in great detail the new role of the press. Editors and publishers needed one simple qualification: loyalty to the Nazi party. The authorities paid close attention to permissible topics of publication, as well as the notion of deviance. Essentially, any point of view did not adhere to the party line was considered deviant-though if any such reporters or publications still existed in 1936, they had long lost their accreditation and their ability to publish, let alone to be admitted to this international gathering. The Nazis' justifications were clear: "We [the Nazis] have never hidden our opinion-even during the times we were in the opposition-that we considered it political insanity to grant the individual free reign over self-expression to further an absolute freedom of thought and opinion, since granting this absolute freedom does damage to the body politic of the entire nation."
With the Berlin Olympics the Nazis were catapulted onto the international stage. It was a great coup to present the new Germany to the world without major disruptions. Although the American Olympic Committee (AOC) considered a boycott partially because of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws of 1935, the Nazis made every effort to prevent such an act. They even contemplated asking the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Belgian Henri de Baillet-Latour, to go to the United States to intercede on their behalf. This became unnecessary, however, when rumors spread that AOC president Avery Brundage had claimed that Jews were not suppressed in Nazi Germany and, further, that African Americans had not been treated any too well during the 1932 games in Los Angeles either.
A few Jewish Germans participated in the 1936 games. One athlete, Helene Mayer, an instructor at San Francisco City College in the late 1940s, was a tall, lanky, blond Jewish-German immigrant-a gold medalist in fencing in the 1928 Olympic games in Amsterdam-who heeded the Nazis' call to participate in the 1936 games on behalf of Germany. According to both Jewish and Nazi laws, she fell between the cracks. Her father was Jewish, but her mother was not, which made her a non-Jew by Jewish law. By Nazi law, however, she certainly was Jewish; they accepted her for the duration of the games, however, because she might earn a medal for the Reich. And she did: a silver medal in fencing.
Olympic events in Berlin were carefully planned to present an image of a modern, united, forward-looking nation. The great majority of people who attended the games were impressed. A German visitor from one of the provinces put it this way: "Truly, this city has adorned itself in a festive garb. Clean, scrubbed down, freshly painted house fronts, clean streets on which you could not find even the smallest piece of paper. This cleanliness really gets the attention of the visitors. The main street, Unter den Linden, is no longer recognizable. The endless row of flags and the ocean of lights at nightfall when the new lanterns are lit leave a profound impression on us visitors, and it even impresses the Berliners, who are not easily fooled."
Foreigners were impressed as well. For one, the American author Thomas Wolfe was so taken by the spectacle that he wrote a story about it. One of his friends reported that Wolfe also fell in love with a pretty German woman, which made his trip to Berlin a completely intoxicating experience. Almost as an afterthought, Wolfe mentioned police hauling a person off a train, but he was too captivated by the brilliance of the Olympic spectacle to pay much attention. As he rhapsodized, "Such a beautiful green cannot be found anywhere else in the entire world." By contrast, a Jewish German woman, who surely disliked the fascistic flavor and fanfare surrounding the games, commented after the fact on foreigners' reactions to the event: "Well, they all came to the Olympic games of 1936! The athletes and politicians! In their sweat suits, in uniforms or formal attire. They were all filled with enthusiasm. They did their business with the German government. Whereas we thought that the believers in democracy now had the opportunity to put pressure on the Nazis-break diplomatic relations, close German businesses and trade offices and the offices of major firms abroad. That would have led to some results."
Of course, such minority voices were drowned out by the grandeur of the games, which outdid even the elaborate party rally at Nuremberg staged primarily for Germans two years previously. Now, in Berlin, the entire world was the audience, and on the whole, it liked what it saw. Most Americans who remember the Berlin games point to Hitler's refusal to shake the hand of Jesse Owens, winner of three gold medals and star of the event. But the evidence seems to indicate that Hitler was not even in the stadium at the time. Originally, to be sure, Hitler wanted to shake the hands only of German medal winners. When the IOC deemed that unacceptable, he stopped shaking hands altogether. The Nazis resented the prowess of "non-Aryan" athletes and convinced themselves that "Aryan" people did best in middle-distance races, spear throwing, and in non-Olympic contests such as stone throwing. It is reported that the Nazi racist par excellence, the notorious Julius Streicher, the NSDAP regional head of Franconia and editor of the virulently anti-Semitic paper Der Stürmer, sat in the VIP loges, a riding whip across his knees, and demonstratively refrained from applauding any medal winners with dark skin. As one anti-Nazi visitor to the games noted, however, the general public filling the stadium did not share these views. "I was there," he said. "The American Owens, a black, won. His victorious efforts were accompanied by the jubilant applause of the public, while at the same time I could see that no one in the loges reserved for prominent Nazis joined in the applause." The radio broadcasts of Jesse Owens's races confirm that he was, indeed, loudly cheered on by the general spectators.
The racist undertone of the games, and of German sports in general, was not obvious; after all, the Nazis wanted to impress people, not hit them over the head with their hidden agenda. Slogans such as "The poisoning of sports by the Jews," for example-a cant with no other purpose than to radicalize Nazi activists and exploit traditional anti-Semitism-were suppressed during the 1936 games. Indeed, Nazi timing about how, when, and to what degree to state their views was carefully calibrated when it came to the Olympics, because gaining international acceptance was at that point more pressing than the need to push their racist agenda. "Our National Socialist educational objectives in the broadest sense can accept the type of Olympic games as presently constituted only to a limited degree, because these games are shaped by an ethos emanating from a world that has been made obsolete by the revolutionary uprising of National Socialism." One Nazi sports functionary commented, "Every means is fine as long as it makes the task of der Führer easier, and nothing is more timely at this point than improving our international relations through sports."
In retrospect, it is now obvious that behind the public display of harmony and enthusiasm over the games, the Nazis were pursuing hidden agendas. Despite the splendid rhetoric that celebrated the prowess of the individual athletes-as seen, for example, in the aura of heroics portrayed by Leni Riefenstahl in her documentary of the games-the Nazis were busy developing a strident, racist ideology of sports.
Already in the nineteenth century, the Turnvater (founding father of gymnastics) Friedrich Jahn (1778-1852) linked sports with nationalism. During the Third Reich, the Nazis gave their own peculiar twist to this tradition, calling it Wehrertüchtigung (training for defense)-a term sufficiently vague for the unsuspecting participants, but clear enough to those who could see that it implied physical fitness for military purposes. The year 1935 was declared the Year of Defense Training, with the focus on a national sports competition that attracted 4.3 million young Germans. By 1937, shooting and paramilitary games were included in these competitive games, and 30,700 shooting ranges were built expressly for this purpose.
Although the Nazis stressed the virtues and enjoyment of physical competition, the ultimate goal of these games was military preparedness. As Nazi propagandist Heinz Wetzel explained, "The army should no longer have to teach the young man the basics of military training, as has been the custom ... but the army will take the recruit who has already been trained to physical perfection, leaving only the task of making a soldier out of him." During this era, as young Germans were becoming inextricably linked with the Nazi movement, they did not realize that these keen and enjoyable competitions had an ulterior purpose. Any racist ideology that was promulgated was secondary for the participants, since these young athletes simply wanted to compete well. I was proud to come in second out of forty-five competitors in a shooting competition, for example. It didn't dawn on me that this target practice against a bull's eye affixed to a bale of hay was designed to make me adept at shooting human beings.
Yet in actuality, failure in any sport marked one as a second-rate member of Nazi youth society; soon, by extension, a serious physical handicap marked individuals as having ein unwertes Leben (a life of no value). In time, most young people began to sense the deadly serious underpinnings at work in the sporting events. All performances were recorded in participants' dossiers. I, for one, knew I would fail in short-distance running, so in one of the important regional sports competitions I deliberately tripped and pretended to stumble a few steps after the start; in that way, no record of a poor result in the 100-meter dash could be held against me.
In all this the young were never told that they were being trained for military fitness. Yet the ultimate goal was war preparation. As time went on, war preparation included as one of its key elements propaganda against the Jews. The Nazi ideology of sports carried racism to the extreme, and the idea of a battle for supremacy of the races gradually took on an apocalyptic tone, somewhat akin to today's apocalyptic talk of a war between civilizations. Between contending civilizations-so the Nazi cry then and the ideological call to arms now-there can be no compromise and no end until one is victorious over the other. Wetzel wrote:
Jews plan to soften and feminize the male and turn him into an internationalist. And to achieve their goals, they employ-clever as they are-sports, that is, competitive battle. They leave all politics out of this, and with internationalism as their goal, they propagate the idea that peaceful competition should replace battle-hardened, competitive fighting, claiming that sports should unite the peoples of the world and prepare them for noble, peaceful deeds. But they are silent about the fact that this pacification of sports should be under the control of the Jews.
For young non-Jewish Germans, every winning performance in competitive sports meant a move up the rungs of a ladder. At the top of the ladder were the German Olympic medal winners. In the description of an Olympic shot-put athlete, the Nazis constructed a glorious and exaggerated vision of the "perfect man" that almost defies communication outside their peculiar world:
The iron shot put enraptures us in a mysterious joy. It releases forces in us that normally only the earth, untrammeled nature, and the sun itself are able to bestow. Firmly rooted in the earth's foundation, his head held high up to the heavens, reaching toward the sun, man [the athlete] tests his coiled strength playfully.... He takes the shot put, bends his knee and his sun-drenched, naked body, and then thrusts the shot put forcefully into the air. In one mighty gesture, the body leaves its bent posture, a powerful stream leaves the gravitational center of the body, fills thighs, knees, powerful leg muscles up to mighty shoulders and all the way up to the fingertips, and for a moment the body is motionless, immobile as if cast in bronze.
The sexual undertone is unmistakable. In this context, physical strength and sensual stamina have nothing to do with individual self-expression. Rather, the athlete represents collective power, a power that is open to all kinds of projections. This flight of metaphoric fancy also inspired many of the songs young Germans were taught, such as "Wildgänse rauschen durch die Nacht" (Wild geese flutter through the night), which tells of the birds' "shrill screams northward, unsteady flight-watch out, watch out, the world is full of murder." Other songs assured us that "the frightful night is now behind us, we move in silence, we move without words, we move on to perdition," or "as long as the flame of freedom burns, the world is not small." Many such songs contained an undertone that blended dreams of glory with readiness for death. Death and sacrifice were very often presented in a context that combined everyday events of nature with the charisma of Germany under Hitler: "'Germany must live, even if we have to die.' Profound experiences and sacred rituals shape the Hitler Youth as the rain and storm rages against their tents." New laws prevailed in this virtual reality, which turned things upside down. Heroic perdition was good, and Nazi orders spelled freedom in a seamless, persuasive continuum that eliminated all rational discourse or personal reflection.
If young Germans did not think of actual war at the time, neither did most of their elders. Of course, it was the Nazi leadership that was planning the "dark night" for which they were told to prepare, but that was beyond the comprehension of the general population. Gymnasium (college preparatory school) history lessons about classical antiquity taught that it was heroic to accept one's fate. At the time of the 1936 Olympics, the dark night had not yet arrived for most non-Jewish Germans. Knowledge of the growing number of Nazi victims was not widespread. For the rest of Germany and, indeed, for the rest of the world who came to watch, the 1936 games evoked only sunshine, flag-waving, and celebration of the winners by enthusiastic throngs of spectators.
While the Nazis managed to foreground the aesthetic aspects of the Olympic Games in 1936, by 1938 power games behind sports became explicit, and Nazi ideology now openly promoted the ultimate goal behind Wehrertüchtigung. Wetzel again: "The grand historical deeds of our nation are not merely the result of the historical decisions made by our leaders, but ... these deeds are also the result of the physical efforts of all of us." Tragically, the ultimate winners of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin were not the athletes, but Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.