Jun 2011 Journal

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The ‘German malady’ (review)

by Louis Hagen
Stroud: The History Press (tel 01453 883 2332) 2011, 288 pp. paperback, illustrated, £14.99

The author was born in 1916 into a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin. His father was a banker who moved in high circles and had many influential friends. Hagen emigrated to England in 1936 and most of his family subsequently succeeded in leaving Germany. He acquired the name Haig during the war, in which he served with distinction and courage in the Glider Pilot Regiment, earning the Military Medal.
After the war Hagen wanted to get to grips with the great enigma of ‘what it had felt like to suffer from the German malady’ and to explode the theory that it had been the leaders and not the German people who had been responsible - a theory that ‘had been convenient for Germans and the Allies’ alike. To this end, he selected nine people he had known before 1936 and interviewed them in depth by recording their testimony word for word, in an attempt to reconstruct their lives. He was convinced from his own knowledge of them and by consulting archives and friends that their recollections were genuine.
This book was first published in 1951 under the title Follow My Leader and has now been reissued by his daughter. It is not a book for the fainthearted for some of the recollections are stomach-churning and distasteful. The nine people, who were given pseudonyms, comprise four out-and-out Nazis, three fellow travellers who were content to gain materially from the Third Reich without ever actively collaborating, and two who were opposed to the-Nazi regime. One of the latter was so by default: his mother, who died before he had reached the age of two, had been Jewish and so he was lumbered with the label Mischling. It is a wonder that he survived the war, but he did so with great difficulty and trauma. Two of the fellow travellers were members of the aristocracy. Once Hagen had gained their confidence, they were only too ready to talk about their experiences, and even the Nazis were remarkably frank about their attitudes to Hitler and the Jews.
One of the fellow travellers, Baroness Mausi von Westerode, is of special interest in that she had Communist leanings and friends, married a Jew (who was exiled to the mountains as he suffered from TB), left for France in 1938 with a passport engineered by her friend and admirer Herman Göring (sic), but returned after a short time because she was shocked by the dismal life of the German refugees there and persuaded herself that her place was in the Fatherland. For some years she lived the good life with her elitist friends – lobsters, caviar, tennis, riding and sailing – but eventually her Communist leanings and her Jewish husband led to Gestapo interrogations and her dispatch in 1943 to the Theresienstadt ghetto. Her experiences there were horrific, as one would expect, and her description of the state of the Jewish inmates hair-raising. Later she was put in charge of the many children and did her best to keep them alive with food that should have gone to adults, though batches were sent ‘east’ at regular intervals. After liberation by the Russians and all manner of trials and tribulations, she returned to war-torn Berlin, where eventually she and her surviving friends established a ‘salon’ for intellectuals and artists.
One of the Nazis, a woman who had been brought up to detest Jews and who adored Hitler, volunteered for the infamous Aryan stud farm Lebensborn, where she was duly impregnated by a young blond SS man. She was quite content to give up her baby after two weeks to be brought up in a special children’s home, and never saw it again. Many of her experiences during and after the war were wholly degrading and she finished up living with a Polish Jew who looked after her even though she despised him.
Hagen comes to certain conclusions. 1. That the Nazi Party ‘appealed irresistibly to the German character’ and encouraged envy. 2. It had encouraged ‘the worship of strength for its own sake ... the bully was someone to be admired, envied and respected’. 3. It encouraged mass hysteria. 4. ‘... 80% of ordinary Germans who now blame fate and their leaders for the rise of the Nazis supported the movement wholeheartedly and were in fact the party’s source of strength’. 5. Five out of the nine were guilty of allowing and supporting an evil government. 6. To claim that they were merely pawns – innocent and powerless – was a dangerous delusion. Hagen concludes that ‘we might have to look for the disease of Nazism not only in Germany but in the world – perhaps in our own hearts. Now, gentle reader, is the time for you to look.’
This collection of personal histories may not wholly explain why the German people embraced Hitler and his vile ideology, but it is a commendable attempt to shed some light on a disastrous period of German history.

Leslie Baruch Brent

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