Oct 2010 Journal

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Germany and the Germans: some reflections

Although I had the misfortune to be born in Germany, I consider myself lucky nevertheless to have been born in the city of Hamburg. Rightly or wrongly, I have always had the feeling that in Hamburg Nazism had less of a hold and that anti-Semitism was less rife there than in any other major city in Germany. I am unaware of Jewish people having been physically assaulted in Hamburg as they were elsewhere in the country. On Kristallnacht, in the part of the city where I lived we were completely unaware that anything untoward was happening. I was not woken up to the fact until I arrived at the Talmud-Thora-Schule, next to the main orthodox synagogue, the following morning. The building of the Tempel, the liberal synagogue, incidentally, survives to this day, complete with Hebrew inscription - doubtless, one has to say, for no other reason than that it was considered potentially too useful a building to be destroyed!

I left Hamburg on the very first Kindertransport and returned, in British uniform, in time to celebrate VE Day there. Some time later, I encountered a good many pre-war ‘Aryan’ friends and acquaintances, notably my still oldest friend. His family’s attitude had been exemplified by the fact that the first thing one saw on entering their flat was an Imperial German flag! His father had insisted he go with me to the local swimming pool, although, probably unbeknown to me, we were no longer allowed to visit it. I clearly recall being politely told about this by other boys there - not being in any way accosted or thrown out but merely warned that I could get into serious trouble.

A lady friend of a friend of my mother had been due to visit England in the summer of ’39 but her visit was cancelled due to the obvious imminence of war. My mother’s friend meanwhile managed to escape to England and my mother entrusted her with jewellery to take along. The dear lady carried the package of jewellery with her wherever she went throughout the war years and duly handed it over to me.

Having joined the army in a spirit of aggressiveness towards Germany and everything German, many of us German refugees soon mellowed in our feelings. (My mother and many relatives perished in the Holocaust.) Indeed, I have yet to meet a German refugee member of the British forces, subsequently stationed in Germany, who continued to retain the antagonism we all started out with.

A thought I have had for some time will doubtless provoke controversy. There were, of course, two quite different groups of Jews living in Germany: Jews who happened to be living in Germany and Germans who happened to be Jews. What action, I wonder, would members of the latter group in particular have taken had Hitler and his gang perpetrated their atrocities ‘only’ against some other group – gypsies or homosexuals, for example? In South Africa there were, fortunately, notable Jewish anti-apartheid activists. I am ashamed to say that, while hopefully not actively encouraging it, there was certainly a considerable proportion of the Jewish population who were quite happy to condone it.

One recognises that it is impossible to imagine that anything like Nazism or the associated violent anti-Semitism could ever have been possible in this great country where we had the good fortune to find refuge. It is not difficult, however, to think of at least two European countries where a Hitler might well have gained power and where his evil deeds might well have found as many eager participants and a population which would largely have condoned it.

One more aspect which I have not seen mentioned: Germany was, after all, quite a young entity, made up of many much smaller countries which happened to speak the same language (more or less!). In other respects, they are probably as diverse as the English, the Scots and the people of Wales. While it is undoubtedly true that all of Germany, and indeed Austria, accepted the Nazi creed to a greater or lesser extent, one wonders what proportion of the most ardent activists were Prussian.
 

John D. Phillip

previous article:Lost cities of the Mediterranean
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