on foreign affairs from The Atlantic Monthly.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "The Road to Reunification"
(October 3, 2002)
Articles spanning the past century chronicle Germany's long, tortuous path toward unity.
The Atlantic Monthly | November 1939
t is not customary for Berlin taxi drivers to talk to their passengers, but when we stopped somewhere on Unter den Linden to let a long line of military trucks pass, my driver turned and asked casually, 'Read the papers this morning?' He handed me the B. Z. am Mittag, the morning tabloid. 'PACT BERLIN-MOSCOW, its glaring letters said, with a few triumphant subheads below.
Last Hours in Germany
by Herbert G. Sonthoff
'You know,' he went on, " Hitler is really a great guy. With that pact the Poles haven't got a chance. I bet you not one of these boys,' and he pointed to the heavy tanks now rattling by, 'will have to fire a single shot, or maybe just a few bullets to clean up the place. But this time there won't be any dead lists in the papers, and we'll have plenty to eat. No sir, Hitler won't get us into war. I don't want to be in the trenches, but I'd go—and I tell you, I'll never have to go. The British will never fight.'
He was a young man and said 'Heil Hitler' when I left the cab.
There was the 'man in the street.' To me he exemplified completely the effect of the Nazi propaganda machine. The way of thinking of the German people, based on their readiness to believe and trust their authorities, has been shrewdly utilized by their present rulers. I never believed in the reports of underground movements in Germany. What is essential to the formation of independent opinion is insistence on the right and opportunity to listen to the other side. But in Germany we have had small opportunity for that, what with the press, schools, movies, everything informative, cultural, and intellectual, gleichgeschaltet—lined up and coordinated with the idea Ich bin nichts—Deutschland ist alles. Whatever Hitler and his men did, whether they rationed food, controlled the universities, or persecuted the Jews, was declared to have been done in the interest of Germany, therefore was right and was so accepted. The people's natural sense of justice, righteousness, and fairness was submerged in a wave of nationalism, gradually producing the readiness to distrust everything 'foreign' and believe what the Wilhelmstrasse chose to lay before the public.
I had a luncheon appointment with Bruno and his father. Bruno was a former classmate of mine; we used to climb fences together and shared our earliest romances. Now I frequently teased him about the seriousness with which he took his leadership of a local Hitler Youth squad.
The old man was alone when I walked into the restaurant. 'The little Fuhrer is late,' I said.
'No,' his father replied, and hesitated until the waiter had set the table and left. 'Haven't you read the news? He got his army order this morning to report immediately in Silesia.' He looked very old suddenly. 'You know,' he resumed after a while, 'I have been all through the last war and I don't want my only son to get killed for what they call National Socialism. But I don't think there will be any war. The people won't stand for another war in so short a time, and Hitler is too smart not to realize that. He's just bluffing. Remember the Anschluss and Munich and the Memelland.'
We ate in silence. When we got up, I asked him to tell Bruno that I would never forget him. He held my hand for a moment: 'Don't think I have turned Nazi, but what can we do? There is no way of standing up against it. The young don't know anything else, and the old can find no political idea strong enough to replace this system. And, how should we get together, anyway?'
Here was the other side of the story: surrender of once-cherished principles in consequence of the constant hammering, of propaganda bombs on the weak fortress of individual conviction, a passive acceptance of anything official, tinged with suspicion and weary indifference.
And the young? When I talked with high-school or even university boys and the discussion turned to political matters, I would find them hardly ever able to be objective. They had not been taught to be tolerant. If I suggested, 'But there may be justice on both sides of this argument,' they showed suspicion and would say, 'You have been abroad, haven't you? Well . . .'
In their eyes I was a 'bad German.' They were the coming generation, and I realized that I should have to suffer from this attitude as long as I stayed in Germany. To some of us the principle of audiatur et altera pars seems more essential than thoughtless devotion to 'my country, right or wrong.' It was for this reason that I finally took advantage of the chance to leave that came to me by improbable good fortune.
This was my last day in Berlin, and I had about an hour free until my next appointment. I walked into one of the inexpensive movie houses around the Friedrichstrasse station. The newsreel was on. There were a few pictures of manoeuvres of the English navy, but they were not hissed. Goring reviewing air-force troops caused applauding murmurs and consenting smiles. Goebbels, shown as he opened some party gathering, was met with dead silence. Hitler, photographed as he rode up to the new chancellery building, received a few female 'Heils,' but the crowd remained tensely quiet. I recalled the times in 1933 and 1934 when every newsreel carrying pictures of the Fuhrer caused wild and roaring applause.
Werner was one of my best friends. He had recently taken his doctor's degree in Berlin, and he was working in a semi-governmental agency. I called for him there, and we took a last long walk through the Tiergarten.
'You are going,' he said, 'and you ought to go. Tell them over there that Germany will become again what she once was—not a first-class military power, but stronger in science, philosophy, and poetry than ever. National Socialism is just an interlude, dark and terrific, but there will be a new dawn. They think I'm a Nazi and therefore I can and must stay—there must be people ready for the change when it comes.'
'It won't come in our time.'
'It will, soon,' he replied. 'We are ready for anything now. Some of Hitler's' moves, like the taking-over of Czechoslovakia, the Russian alliance, and now the Occupation of Poland—all of them actions diametrically opposed to solemnly proclaimed Nazi principles—have completely destroyed the mental balance of the people. They have lost all their feeling of security. The pact was a terrible shake-up of their morale. Nothing will be unexpected now.'
I got on the ship twelve hours before they closed the border. In New York a girl reporter asked me the usual questions. 'What are your plans?' 'I have come to look for something.' 'Oh!' she said. 'A sense of life,' I continued, and had to laugh at the startled look on her face.
A few days ago a letter reached me, written by a German student after the outbreak of war: 'War is terrible, but there will always be wars. The world is fighting another war against Germany, and I am glad to take, up arms even though I may not survive. Germany must live, no matter under what political system. She must win, and she will.'
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Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; Nov 1939; Vol. 164, Iss. 000005; pp. 687-688.