Some of you may have seen the three part series, “Our Mothers, our Fathers”, screened on Saturday evenings on BBC2 recently. The three short films give a brutally honest and moving account of the moral dilemmas faced by ordinary young Germans during the Nazi regime. Each episode charts the brutalisation of German youth and the suppression of common humanity which occurred once idealism met reality in the crucible of battle.
The screening of the programmes, originally a production for German TV and watched by over 1.9 million viewers, portrays the instilled racism of the 1920s/30s generation and how they were made obedient to Hitler’s authority. The story of five young friends, Greta, a singer, Charlotte, a nurse, Victor, a German Jew, and Wilhelp and Frielhelm, both soldiers, it illustrates the power of Nazi indoctrination and its power to corrupt human decency; all five are left deeply traumatised by their experiences of Total War on the Eastern Front. The happy optimism of youth soon plunges into pessimistic despair at the prospect of defeat after Stalingrad – thoughts that they dare not voice.
How was such mind control achieved, in what was, before 1932, a nominally Christian society admired for its education and renowned academic achievement? In answering that question, the power of education, albeit in this case for ill, is clearly shown.
From the very beginning, the Nazi party went out of its way to foster the uncritical loyalty of the younger generation. It swiftly took control of the German youth movements and the educational apparatus from secondary school to university. Central to this programme was the fostering of the Hitler Youth Movement, a semi-military organisation founded in 1924 that recruited boys and girls aged 14 – 18, together with its sister organisation Bund Deucher Mendel – the League of German Girl. By 1930 it had recruited over 25,000 members and set up a junior branch for boys between 10 – 14, and girls between 10 – 18.
After 1933, when Baldur Von Schirach became the first Reich Youth Leader, membership grew six-fold, reaching eight million by 1940. Its “doctrines”, virtually the Nazi educational curriculum, taught Aryan superiority, aggressive anti-religious sentiments, toleration of bullying and physical punishment, a moral duty to spy on parents and neighbours, and that sports prowess was more important than academic achievement. This latter had the predictable result of Germany’s international reputation for educational excellence being lost.
The final film of the series shows the five friends meeting after the war in a now deserted cafe where they had spent their last evening before it. Now, though, they are unable to speak to one another, traumatised by guilt and shame; Greta for what she had done to save her boyfriend Viktor from the hands of the SS, Charlotte for having casually betrayed a Jewish nurse who helped her, the young men for having shot Russian women and children as partisans.
In the end, however, the film’s production is a testimony to how much Germany has demonstrated its sincerity in facing up to its past and come to terms with it.