I spent two years and three months living in Germany. To be fair, it was technically two years and five months but I did take leave time.
I arrived in Germany in 1985. Forty years after the end of WWII.
Once I became comfortable with my new surroundings, and the closeness of living with my company of MP’s got to be too much for me, I would take a day here and there to go out in the two different towns I lived in (Kitzingen and Bad Kissingen). Sometimes it was in the day time, sometimes it was at night. Just me. Walking around.
Some of the places were okay but didn’t feel like ‘me’, so I’d move on. Some places I liked and I would go back again and again. It’s amazing to make new friends after they see you a few times. Especially the older Germans. The younger Germans didn’t seem to like American soldiers much. I understood it back then, I still understand it.
The older Germans, at least in my experience, as I didn’t walk around like I owned the place, didn’t walk around like I was the one who won WWII, and most importantly didn’t judge them, would actually talk to you, get to know you. And even though I was curious I didn’t ask too many questions.
Funny thing that. When you don’t demand answers with questions sometimes you get answers any way.
One woman in Kitzingen at my favorite café/bakery (I don’t recall the name but it was in the Marketplatz) served serious ass expresso, mean brochen ham and Swiss sandwiches and was the daughter of a Nazi party official. She was fifteen when Hitler came into power. She once told me “we listened because he said what we wanted to hear, what we thought we saw after Versailles”. I asked her why she thought that.
“He said things that were in our hearts and we admired him for it. We did not know, did not want to know after a long time, that he truly meant to do what he did. He promised to make Germans and Germany great, like we once were”. I wrote her words down in my journal after I got back to my barracks.
I remember having to think about her words. I had no idea what she meant by that.
I made friends with the old guy in the toy store. Wooden toys. I did a double take. Little shop about two blocks from the Chinese restaurant and to the left I think if you were facing the restaurant. I used to buy wood Christmas ornaments and send them home. He also made Prussian soldiers for a nice profit, hand painted. He used to talk to them. He was pretty blunt about Hitler. Again from my journal.
“He was not much to look at. You would see him, slight, that ridiculous mustache, but then he would speak. We Germans, we like a man who can speak plainly. He did. He promised us things we wanted. We were angry, we were poor and hungry. Did you know that your soul can get hungry”?
I had no clue what he meant by that last sentence. I was nineteen and twenty when I was in Kitzingen. I was doing good to sort of understand Shakespeare.
When I got to Bad Kissingen I again became a barracks rat until I got comfortable. Sometime after I got comfortable I would take a book and go walking around, or my note book journal. I found a bar (go figure, me finding a bar) that seemed a little higher class than where I normally hung out. I was thirsty and a beer or five sounded good. So I went in.
I found a frosty reception. I was dressed like an American. Older gentlemen (I was twenty and a smidge everyone was older to me) eyeballed me. The conversations stopped or dropped in to low tones. I sat at the bar. The bar maid was thirty fiveish, blonde hair, tired eyes. I remember her telling me that they (said older German men) didn’t like me. I asked why. She said “old Nazi bastards”. Okay, that was an eye opener. She also said something to the effect of “they wear suits now, but not back then”. Even with that reception I went back time and time again. Yes, sometimes I’m an asshole.
The most interesting man I met was a taxi driver. He said (depending on the day/night) that he was fifty-six or fifty-eight. His left hand was missing fingers. And when he moved the little note pad he had fixed to his dash board you could see his runes. He’d driven them into his dashboard. Illegal as hell as I understand it. Waffen SS. Eastern Front. He used to say he was a lucky one. He got frostbite bad enough to lose fingers and get his ass out of Russia.
He was also blunt as hell. I once told him that his runes were illegal. He laughed and asked me “what can they do to me?” Okay, he had me on that one. I mean hell, if he was telling the truth then cops wouldn’t scare a man who survived the Eastern Front.
When he drove during the day I would sometimes find him taking his dinner at the train station. I wasn’t going anywhere but they served Guinness and I was really liking it at that point in my life. He’d drink a few German beers and we’d talk. It must have taken four or five months before he really talked to me. Again my habit of not asking obvious pain in the ass questions allowed him to make his decision to talk to me.
I did ask him one early evening why he joined the Waffen SS. I was expecting a lot of answers but not the one I got. “My brother was one of Rohm’s boys. I had to erase that stain from my family”.
He used to look up to his brother, loved hearing the stories of him beating up “those stupid communists, those unionists, those Jews”.
I rarely asked the hard questions, I wasn’t sure he would answer. Once I did. I asked why did you follow Hitler?
Again a blunt answer. “The bastard said what I wanted to hear. Did I hate Jews? Yes. Did I hate communists? Yes. He made it so that you could say you hated someone. You could go to a rally and say you hated someone. He could stir the hate in you, you let it and when the party came to power you could do what you wanted to someone you hated”.
For a long time after I came back from Germany I wanted to put away what I’d heard from some of these people. It sounds odd, but the people I remember the most aren’t the ones who said ‘we didn’t know’ or ‘we were told what to think’; the one’s I remember the most are these people. Because they were as honest as they allowed themselves. They didn’t really apologize for it and I didn’t ask them too. It wasn’t and still isn’t my place. I wasn’t there.
I am however here. Now.
Watching a man who claims to be presidential material. And I see the same thing in his crowd of supporters that I saw glimpses of 31 years ago.
I see people standing up to this man and his supporters this time. Not enough. But more this time than did in the 1930s and 1940s.
A man who uses the First Amendment to say what he has to say, a man who incites violence on protestors who are also using the First Amendment (even if it’s just a sign or t shirts or silence), a man who professes to make a country “great again”, a man who can wrap a crowd into a frenzy using nationalism, a man who scapegoats anyone he doesn’t like or who questions him. A man who asks those in the crowd to take an oath to him with a raised right hand. A man who makes statements then says he does not recall the statement (even though it’s on video).
A man who says what a segment of the population wants to hear.
During basic training back in 1985 we had a class on brainwashing. It began with my training company entering our class room. We were told that a female Soviet soldier was going to be giving us a class. There was the usual “you will show her respect” statement. Then we were told we were better than Soviet soldiers and when she entered we were to stand up and chant USA. She entered. We chanted.
She spoke. We chanted USA.
She spoke again. In a Midwestern accent and said “It’s that easy”. She then introduced herself as an officer in the US Army.
Think totalitarianism, fascism, a dictatorship can’t happen here? Think again.
I’ve heard for the last 8 years’ people call the President a “socialist dictator”. If he was, y’all would be in jail. Oddly you people are not.
Oddly, for the last 8 years, people have protested the current President without being escorted out, pushed, spit upon, and beaten by the crowd.
One man currently running for President has used his 1st Amendment right to incite and invite his “followers” to use violence against protesters. Going so far as say he’d like to punch a protester in the face.
Okay, call off your security, call off your Secret Service detail and go ahead and try. Just you and a protester.
I’m sure he appears to be the type of man who “speaks his mind” and that “he says what I’m thinking”.
Yeah, people in 1930’s and 1940’s Germany thought the same thing.