My Father, the Mensch

Holocaust memorial, Berlin

Postwar Germany, according to the writer Manfred Jurgensen, who grew up there, was “a period which often posed much more danger than the war itself. Severe deprivation, starvation and death were everywhere. This generation grew up without any real parental guidance and direction, and living through the years where all norms of society were virtually absent, it’s amazing so many young Germans grew up to be decent members of society.”  [Link].

This is true, but  I could safely travel alone as a six-year old boy by train from Frankfurt to Berne.  And I wasn’t the only one.  Although postwar Germany was in many ways a profoundly, unimaginably terrible place — William Manchester calls it “one vast Bedlam” — there was also much spontaneous kindness, compassion, and heroism.[ref] Ilse Margret-Vogel captures some of this in her Berlin wartime memoirs, Bad Times, Good Friends, Harcourt-Brace NY 1992, ISBN 0-15-205528-2[/ref]

Without belittling Jurgensen’s amazement at the decency of so many young Germans who grew up in this Bedlam, it’s useful to recognize that moral values don’t come only from imitating positive models, like saints.  Decency can arise just as well, and perhaps more compellingly so, as a reaction to the absence of moral values.  There is a French proverb,  “L’adversité fait l’homme, et le bonheur des monstres” —  hardship makes men, prosperity makes monsters.

The generation that built German fascism had childhoods in the relatively structured and normal years prior to World War I, yet birthed monstrosities whose enormity and atrocity boggle the comprehension.  The postwar generation of Germans, growing up amidst the terrible consequences of that monstrosity, has worked hard to achieve normalcy, decency, and a sense of self-respect.   The postwar generation’s project of truth telling and moral reconstruction, like the physical rebuilding of the country, involved millions of individuals, and sometimes required explosive demolition of the old facades.  You see the results now in many places: memorials to the Holocaust, exhibitions of Gestapo atrocities, museums of former prisons, wall plaques honoring victims and resistance heroes, films, dramas, books — a whole culture of truth telling, a labor of taking responsibility and recapturing empathy.  To be sure, there is also a fatigue with this stirring up of the past, even though there is much that remains to be stirred up, and there are disturbing fringe elements who deny or ennoble the atrocities, and there are depressing layers of complacency and willful stupidity.  But we Americans can’t climb on too high a horse about problems like those.

One of the things I missed by emigrating from Germany as a boy of eleven was participation in my generation’s coming to grips with the legacy of its parents and struggling to find a new foundation for feelings of self-worth.  In writing this blog, perhaps I may catch up with some of my German peers in their truth-telling project.  Better late than never!

The psychological climate of postwar Germany was heavy with fatigue and grief.  Large numbers of people were shellshocked, numb, fatigued, dazed, lost, at their wits’ end.  Even when the situation gradually improved and the survivors picked themselves up and started anew, there remained a more lasting burden of repression and denial that became visible to me only years after I had left.

I got a small, almost comical glimpse of this blanket of denial in the early years in Frankfurt, when my mother hung some of our pillowcases out to dry.  Featherbeds were standard in those days, and were commonly covered in red cotton.  The red pillowcases looked so pretty hanging out on the railing in the sun that I picked one up, held it over my head, and started down the stairs waving it in the breeze.  My mother quickly stopped me, giving anxious looks around to see if neighbors had spotted me.  It meant nothing to me at the time, but much later I understood.  Waving the red flag had cost many Germans their lives.

Everything that brought to the surface the events of those days had to be suppressed.  Sigmund Freud saw the psychological mechanism of repression as characteristic of civilization in general.  He could not have imagined the mountainous weight of repression that burdened the psyche of adult Germans in the Allied zones after the war.  Everybody knew something about somebody, everybody had something to hide, and living together in peace meant pretending ignorance about all of it.  Just about every face was a facade, every life story probably a lie, every intimacy an invitation to treachery.  People buried their truths behind multiple walls of lies and silences, until they forgot themselves.

A German filmmaker whom I met and loved some years ago, Claudia von Aleman, made a documentary about her mother, in which she asks her mother what she did during the Nazi time.  As the camera is running, there is a long, painful silence.  I have never seen a commercial film with such a prolonged and intensely discomforting scene.  Finally the camera cuts away, its point made.

Tearing the Silence is the apt title of a book of interviews with postwar Germans who emigrated to America.  The author is the German-American writer Ursula Hegi, author of the best-selling novel, Stones from the River, and other works of fiction.  Her contributors reveal how they have tried to come to grips in the American context with the atrocities committed before their birth in Germany.   They all had, as I do, the “grace of late birth.”  Yet the monstrosities committed in the name of Germany cast their shadow over the innocent offspring.  Some felt a guilt and shame similar to the anguish of survivors.  Some felt resentment at being blamed for the crimes of their parents.  All had to struggle with a national identity, a defining label, that was synonymous with genocide and barbarity.

How did that go with me?  As a small child in Fürstenhagen (“the Village” here) I could not fathom any of it.  A farm boy pushed me into the stinging nettles and a neighbor girl hit me pointblank in the face with a rock, but I did not understand the political motivation of these acts, or our household’s chronic shortage of food in a village of prosperous farmsteads, until many years later.  My political identity as an opponent of the regime was already cast before I had any inkling of how the sides were drawn.

I owe that to my mother.  Before the war, in Berlin, my mother was active in the underground fraction of the German Protestant Church (the Bekennende Kirche or BK) and had been arrested and briefly interrogated by the Gestapo; she was the first theology student to be so honored.  She went to Basel to study theology with Karl Barth, a liberal theologian who was forced out of his professorship at Bonn, and out of Germany, because he refused to sign a loyalty oath to Hitler.  There she met my father, a kindred spirit.  Back in Germany, my father was arrested by the Gestapo and held for months.  On his release he was drafted into the German army. He was sent to the Eastern Front, a death sentence.  I was not yet four when the war ended. In Frankfurt after the war, my mother worked as secretary to Eugen Kogon, a prominent anti-Nazi writer, concentration camp survivor, and anti-Nazi political theoretician, until emigrating to the United States.

In the postwar climate in Germany, when everyone strove to prove that they had been anti-Nazi all along, these were good credentials.  My mother had put together a credible and uplifting story.  In the past year, when I gained access to the documentary record deposited in various German archives — the Germans are very good at archives! — I was able to confirm that in its main outlines, the story is true.  Yet I also became aware of some issues that made me intensely uncomfortable.  I deal with them here.

My Father’s 1934 Membership in the SA

In the Spring of 1934, shortly after the end of his compulsory year of labor service, my father joined the S.A. and remained in it for a year.  The S.A. were the notorious brownshirts, hoodlums and thugs who made their mark by breaking up peaceful demonstrations by Social Democrats and Communists in the pivotal election campaigns of 1932 and earlier.  What was my father doing joining this fascist organization just at the beginning of his theology studies at the university in Marburg?  We’ll never know; he never mentions it in any of the correspondence that has survived.  People who have studied this period tell me that in 1934 pretty much all the students belonged to the SA — its ranks in 1934 had swelled to four million members —  and that for some students it was a way of avoiding the pressure to join the Nazi party.

1934 was, in any event, a pivotal year for the SA.  At the beginning of the year, the SA chief Ernst Röhm was making headlines with the declaration that the National Socialist revolution was not over, and that a second phase was underway aimed at implementing the “socialist” planks of the Nazi platform, including the nationalization of big industry and confiscation of  large landed estates.  The SA’s core membership was drawn heavily from working class and unemployed elements who took the “socialist” rhetoric of the Nazi party at face value.  Röhm’s declarations, together with his ambition to have the SA replace the regular army, brought Röhm into sharp collision with Hitler, for whom the “socialist” planks were nothing more than windowdressing, and who relied on the support of the biggest industrialists (such as Krupp) and bankers, as well as the regular army (the Wehrmacht).  After weeks of intrigue and infighting, on June 29, 1934, Hitler, supported by the SS, the Gestapo, and elements of the regular army, claimed that Röhm intended a putsch, and in the next few days he had Röhm and about 200 other top SA leaders and allies arrested and executed.  This blow, known variously as “the night of the long knives” or the “Röhm Putsch” (even though no putsch was actually planned), broke the back of the SA, and its influence dwindled.[ref]This account is drawn mainly from the German Wikipedia article, “Röhm Putsch“.  The English language Wikipedia article, Knight of the Long Knives,  is also informative.[/ref]

One has to remember that the BK clergy, like the German clergy almost as a body, were neither Communist nor Social Democrats, the two major alternative voting blocks in the late Weimar Republic.  Martin Niemöller, a founding member of the BK and its chief spokesperson until his arrest in 1937, had voted for the Nazis in the 1932 election that brought Hitler to power.[ref]Barnett, op. cit. p. 27[/ref]  In the early days of 1934, many members of the BK had illusions about the Nazi party and its program, and hoped to find a place within it.  Eberhard Bethge, a leading member of the BK and later one of its historians, wrote

One could, I think, yield to the illusion during the first three years of the Nazi period that even a pastor or a theologian could find his place in the party and, thereby, in the new German society which the party wanted.  We were proud when one of us marched in an SA uniform in 1934.  Then the difficulties of that became greater and greater. [ref]Quoted in Victoria Barnett, For the soul of the people, Protestant protest against Hitler, p. 32[/ref]

Even membership in the Nazi party was, in those early days, considered compatible with membership in the BK.  Pastor Wilhelm Niemöller, the younger brother of Martin Niemöller and an early activist  in the BK, was a Nazi party member, and when the party tried to throw him out because of his BK organizing activities, he appealed his expulsion and, after a year’s struggle, was readmitted. [ref]Barnett, op.cit., p. 34[/ref]  But by the summer of 1936, when the Nazi state began mass arrests of BK clergy, riding these two horses became next to impossible.  I’ve sketched a very short history here.

"Is fanatical follower of the BK and belongs neither to the N.S. Student Assn nor to any other NS organizations."

My father left the SA on March 1, 1935.  He never joined any other organization.  His non-membership was noted in November, 1935, in his application for financial aid at the university in Tübingen, where he transferred after the year at Marburg.[18]  It was recorded again by an official of the Gestapo in October 1939, while he was in prison: “Is fanatical follower of the BK and belongs neither to the National Socialist Student Association nor to any other National Socialist organizations.” [77]

My Father’s 1939 Release from Prison

More troublesome is the issue of how my father got out of prison.  There are two versions, my mother’s, and the Gestapo’s.  My mother writes, in her memoirs,

A cousin of Pastor Nicolaus [Heinrich Brüggensiecker], who was known in the family as not being a Nazi, was informed by Nicolaus’ parents of his cousin’s imprisonment by the GESTAPO. He was outraged. On leave at Christmas Eve he appeared in his lieutenant’s uniform at the prison in Frankfurt demanding that the GESTAPO release Pastor Nicolaus. All the GESTAPO officers were drunk to the hilt. They released the “swine.”[ref]The reference to “swine” stems from my mother’s earlier effort to have my father released on the ground that the Wehrmacht had drafted him; the Gestapo official at the prison had yelled at her, “Out of the question!  The swine is unworthy of the front!” [/ref]

Daring exploits such as this Christmas Eve jailhouse rescue probably did occur, and not only in the movies.  But the documents in the Gestapo archives give a different version of my father’s release.  The file shows that my father was imprisoned because and so long as he refused to answer questions about his first theological exam: where had it taken place, who had administered it, and so forth.  But on December 23, he told his jailers that he was now ready to make a statement, and the next day, Christmas Eve, he signed a two-page document that gave the date and place of the exam, named the examiners, and named his brother-in-law, Helmut Wolf, as the courier who had brought him the examination papers.  A copy of the statement with what appears to be my father’s signature is in the file.  My father was released the day he signed the statement.

He signed the statement on the advice of the BK’s emissaries.  BK lawyer Paul Schulze zur Wiesche, head of the BK’s national legal department, after conferring with the prominent BK pastor Otto Fricke in Frankfurt, and with the support of the national BK council of brethren in Berlin, wrote that in his visit to Albrecht and to his fellow prisoner Hans Schulz:

I emphasized above all that these two assistant preachers have an erroneous idea of the “directives” of the leadership of the BK in the Rhineland — namely, they assume that it is their duty to refuse absolutely to testify. But the leadership of the BK takes the position that when confronted with testimonial statements, one can calmly declare that one does not dispute the content of these statements; and one has to help the young people to abandon these false ideas.[ref]Quoted in About My Father (2)[/ref]

Pastor Fricke, whom my mother held in very high esteem, no doubt repeated this message in his own visit on December 20.   A vital point in dissolving my father’s resistance, very likely, was the assurance that his examiners — senior clergy in the BK — had meanwhile come forward and revealed their roles; there had been a separate proceeding in Düsseldorf where, in the words of national BK chairman Kurt Scharf, “the whole matter of exams was settled and closed with the state police.”[ref]Letter, Scharf to Hesse, Oct. 19, 1939.  Of course, this settlement was only temporary.  In the spring of 1941, the regime opened a new wave of repression against the BK and put a final stop to its education and examinations.  See brief discussion and sources here.[/ref].   This allowed my father to say, in his Christmas Eve statement:

Three months ago I made no statements because I was not able to take responsibility for exposing the business of the church, such as examinations, to criminal prosecution. […]  In view of the fact that the persons in questions have in the meantime identified themselves, I am no longer bound by these considerations.

But then he goes on, in the final sentence:

Our church cannot and never will bind its members to a pledge of solidarity. It must allow each individual the personal responsibility of standing up, to the extent of his personal belief, for the freedom and purity of the gospel of salvation.

That sentence sprang from a tortured conscience.  Yes, the BK leadership at the highest level had advised him that the “directive” of the Rhineland council of brethren did not mean what he thought it meant, and yes, the names of his BK examiners were already public (or at least police) knowledge, but still, naming names — and naming his brother-in-law Helmut Wolf as courier! — had to arouse powerful feelings of guilt that could hardly be quenched by a rhetorical formula like “standing up … for the freedom and purity of the gospel of salvation,” whatever that meant.  Gospel or no gospel, you didn’t rat out your comrades.  My mother, in her memoirs, had put the matter plainly in regard to her own arrest and interrogation by the Gestapo in Berlin in 1937:

The people in the (underground) church organization in which I indeed was involved helping Jews had a solemn understanding and commitment that we would divulge absolutely nothing and nobody’s name to the Gestapo. The only answer we would ever give to any question would be: “Ich verweigere die Aussage.” (I refuse to answer.) And this is what I said again and again and again.[ref]Memoirs[/ref]

There wouldn’t be much of an underground organization (church or otherwise)  if its members named one another to the Gestapo.  And so, in signing the Christmas Eve statement that secured his release from prison, my father entered the realm of moral shadows.

What did my mother know?  It’s possible that she knew the true story of his release, but chose to join with my father and with Brüggensiecker in fabricating the more palatable tale of the drunken guards and the Christmas eve jailhouse rescue.  It’s also possible that my father and Brüggensiecker concocted the rescue story between them and kept my mother in the dark.  Germany  was full of secrets like this.  It’s too late now to ask her, and I don’t know that I would have confronted her on the issue during her lifetime, had I known.  She had enough pain and disillusionment in her life.

I have an obvious bias in this matter.  If my father had not been released from prison, but sent to a concentration camp — and the order to send him was filled out and awaiting Berlin’s signature — I would not have existed.[ref]It’s also possible that he would have been released, though somewhat later, without signing the statement; efforts were underway to transfer him and Schulz to Düsseldorf, where the decree outlawing the BK’s examinations was not being enforced at that moment, or where an amnesty was in place, according to a Nov. 13  letter from Hasse to Schulze zur Wiesche. [99][/ref]  It is difficult to see clearly where the needle of the balance scale settles when one’s life hangs on one side, and a fundamental principle on the other.  That, of course, was the same dilemma my father faced, but much more urgently.

I can say two things in his defense.

The first point is that he remained a BK member in good standing.  On my father’s return to Essen, he continued working as a vicar in the BK as an illegal, off the government payroll, unlike the official clergy, until he was drafted, sometime in the spring of 1940.  He applied for and obtained leave from the military in the fall, studied for and took the second set of clandestine exams with the BK, and was ordained in the BK, still as an illegal, until he was called back into the military in the spring of 1941.   His death was noted and mourned in the few remaining BK newsletters of the time.  He remained true to his calling.

The second point is that all of the examiners whom he identified in his Christmas Eve statement — senior BK clergy — survived the Nazi period and the war, and most of them went on to have important church careers in postwar Germany. [ref]See About my Father (3)[/ref]  His statement identifying them was not the cause of their mortality.   His brother-in-law Helmut Wolf, whom he identified as courier, was not arrested, but was drafted into the military along with virtually every other Protestant clergyman who was not a Nazi, and survived my father by three years.

I cannot love my father as a saint.  I have to embrace him, and I do, as a flawed, divided, internally contradicted person — a Mensch, a human being.

My Father’s Military Service in 1940

My father was released from prison in Frankfurt on December 24, 1939, and promptly went to Essen.  The military order that inducted him for the Eastern front took effect on April 1, 1941.  My mother’s memoirs give the impression that he faced the moral and political issue of military service and underwent his military training then, in 1941, for the first time:

We were married for almost six months when the dreaded postcard arrived: Draft starting April 1, 1941. We were devastated with rage and fear. My husband did not want to be a soldier in Hitler’s army and he did not want to march into other people’s land and shoot and kill. In this fascist state there was no way out as “conscientious objector” – this category was nonexistent. There was no way to escape to another country – the borders were all closed or overrun by Hitler’s armies. If a man refused to fight in the war, I he would be shot by the military. The only way out would be suicide. Suicide was no way out for him. Besides, I, his wife, was pregnant with our first baby. Turmoil in his heart and mind, he went.

On April 1, 1941, the military started to train my I husband.[ref]Memoirs [/ref]

My mother’s memoirs have a gap in the year 1940.  In fact, my father was drafted into the Wehrmacht in the spring of 1940 — the exact date is not known, but was not later than April 1 — and served in a reserve batallion in the invasion and occupation of France.   The evidence for it is not only the records of the Wehrmacht, which give the number of his regiment and division, but also my father’s own letters to the dean of the BK’s clandestine educational service, Johannes Schlingensiepen, in which he describes his unit’s path across the Maginot Line and asks for Schlingensiepen’s (“Jensen’s”) assistance in getting a leave of absence to complete his studies.[ref]See About my Father (2)[/ref]   My mother also knew at the time — how could she not — that Albrecht served in France; in her letter of April 2, 1940, to Helmut Gollwitzer, who was himself then in the German military on the Western front, she writes that Nico “is now also a recruit in West Prussia”  — “West Prussia” being an ironic reference to France.[ref]See Postscript[/ref]  Yet in her reminiscences decades after the events, this first period of military service is completely missing.

My father’s letters from 1940 give no evidence of the kind of soul-searching agony that my mother describes for 1941.  The initial military induction order arrived at my father’s home in Essen in late 1939, while my father was in the Gestapo prison, and was suspended during his incarceration.  Its revival upon his release could not have been a surprise, and service in the military at that time, when resistance to the German invasions was relatively light, must have appeared as preferable by far to rotting in a Gestapo prison.  My father’s letter of  July 16, 1940, to Schlingensiepen even looks at his military service as staking a claim for better treatment for the clergy after the war.   [ref]See Postscript[/ref]  And in his initial letter from the Eastern front, dated April 3 1941, while all was still quiet there, his initial concern is

Now I have to suffer a lot because due to my vacation I missed out on promotions, so that my former peers are now my superiors.  It would be a great relief for me if this situation were to change.  But of course that can happen very quickly with the Prussians.  Don’t count this as a complaint, it’s only a careful staking out of a position. […]  The general mood here is that we are in the final stage of the war, and are only waiting for the finish.[111]

It was only three months later, when it became clear that this was not the end of the war, but just the beginning, that there is a profound change of tone.  Then, and only then, comes the soul-searching and the memorable passages that appear, in retrospect, like a prophecy out of the Book of Revelation:

But what kind of soldier am I?  God alone knows how torn up is the heart of a Christian in this war on this side.  But He alone also lets me know with granite certainty that I can only live now and forever by his mercy.  Because I really survive from day to day, from hour to hour, only because and insofar as I am raised out of the death pit of guilt — my guilt and the guilt of our beloved people, this people that is persecuted, betrayed, and shamed, and suffers itself to be shamed — into life under his merciful freedom.  If this certainty were not more total for me than the whole totality of our State, which will one day be shattered to pieces like a clay pot, then I would have to commit suicide today, or, if I were a lesser man, I would have to drink myself unconscious.

Instead, I praise with all brothers in spirit the lord on the cross “who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned man, purchased my freedom from all sins, from death and the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with his sacred precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death, so that I may be his and that I may live under him in his kingdom and serve him.”

That is my salvation from wrongdoing, and if I have a hope for our country, then it is this:  when it is shattered to pieces — and God does not suffer contempt, he is the true LORD — that it may know that God himself has done it, by his immeasurably hard grace, in order to wake it up once again, and this time hopefully forever, from its boundless dreams — dreams that cost too much blood, innocent blood — and, if it please HIM, to give it a new beginning.

Private Albrecht Nicolaus, have you gone totally mad?  Well, where am I?  Where?  I stand at the gates of Russia and I am supposed to be fanatically enthusiastic and win, win, win at any cost.  But if the censorship reads this letter, then I will be liquidated tomorrow, a saboteur of victory, a miserable traitor.  Quo vadis, Germania!

My mother, of course, knew my father better than I did.  In her description of how he felt when he received his first induction order, she may well have been describing his inner state at that time.  But it’s more likely, given the record of his earlier correspondence, that she was projecting his final agonized concept of June 1941, at the gates of the Soviet Union, backward in time, and in the process sweeping under the carpet his military service in France in 1940, which fit ill into the picture.   Despite or perhaps because of my mother’s very rigid and upright moral idealism, she was not free of the temptation, so endemic among postwar Germans, of justifying, rationalizing, and airbrushing family history.

Why Does it Matter?

Why is truth important?  Wouldn’t it be better to gloss over the flaws in the family picture, to let skeletons stay in the closet?  Certainly, it’s more pleasant to bask in the reflection of an idealized father and mother than to come to grips with how they really were.  The trouble with two-dimensional images of ancestors is that they distort self-knowledge.  Self-knowledge is indispensable in real, three-dimensional life.  If I think that my father was invulnerable to Gestapo pressure, I will think that I, too, am above displaying weakness under duress.  This belief disarms me; it whispers to me that I am prepared to meet any challenge, when I am not. Paradoxically, the illusion of invulnerability renders me vulnerable.  The illusion of strength makes me weak.  But if I know that my father, who was a very principled, strong-willed and devout man, could be maneuvered and coerced into repudiating his bond of solidarity with his fellow believers, then I will be on guard against the same weakness in myself.  I will be alert to my own failings, my own vulnerabilities.  Forewarned is forearmed. One hopes of course that the occasion to test this knowledge in a Gestapo-type prison situation never arises again.  But self-knowledge matters in more than situations of extreme duress; it matters always, in war and peace, in hostility and in love; it matters every day.  Self-knowledge is a true mirror for the knowledge of others and of the world generally.  It is both the result of and the precondition for living in reality.

Does it diminish my love and respect for my parents to know their weaknesses?  Not at all.  They both took enormous risks under overwhelmingly difficult circumstances to stand up for their beliefs and to assist victims of persecution.  They helped to keep alive the moral reputation of the German Protestant church, and indirectly of the German people.  To know that imperfect human beings were able to rise to these heights, under those conditions, is enormously empowering.  It means that heroism is within the reach of ordinary, flawed persons, everyone.  With that knowledge, one becomes invincible.

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