Hans, Germany 1929 to 1939
At this rate, my son will take a lifetime to put it all together and you’ll become impatient. I had better start filling in some details for you…
My name is Hans Kersten, Dr Hans Kersten, although I held other ranks during my life. I am dead, and have been so for nearly three years. My son seeks the truth, but I lived through troubled times, so he won’t find it all.
To begin at the beginning, I lived my childhood in a mixture of idyllic play and soul-destroying evil.
For most of us German children it has taken the cold eye of history to fully reveal the evil. At the time we didn’t see or even suspect evil until it was too late. In any case, as children there wasn’t much we could have done to influence matters back then.
I shall try to tell you the story as it happened to me. The evil of those times may distress you… but it was the price I paid for my childhood.
I will try to be honest about the ways and byways that formed the man and father that my son cannot reconcile with what he has found. These are things that I kept hidden for so many years.
I apologise for the times it is set in. The Jews of my story are victims and heroes. Their persecutors are and were neither.
I don’t think that I was ever really a Nazi. I was a German boy of the 1930s who grew up under a Nazi government. In my heart I was simply a good patriotic German boy.
When I was no longer a child and was no longer shielded from the truth of those years… then I was no longer able to be a German either. The burden of guilt for having enjoyed those years was just too great to bear.
After the war ended, a friend who had been moved to England as a DP, a displaced-person, invited me to join him in the new family he had found in London. So I left Germany, I had no reason to stay, and I have never been back. When medical conferences were held there, I have always found a good excuse not to be able to attend.
So, let me begin again… at the beginning, my beginning.
By the time I was born in late 1929 the terrible events of the First World War were long behind us. But… no one was able to forget how foolish politicians, vain royalty and incompetent generals had lost our Fatherland an empire and millions of its sons.
The Japanese had our islands in the Pacific. The English had our lands in Africa. Poland had taken a large area of the Reich, and France once again had the disputed areas of Alsace and Lorraine. There and in Austria and Czechoslovakia many millions of our ethnic Germans were isolated, lost to us.
The great neighbouring empire of Austria-Hungary had been dismembered in 1918. In many ways Austria seemed closer now. All those ethnic Germans were only a soft border away. We knew that one day soon they would be reunited with us in a Greater Reich. That time had not yet come… our government still lacked the courage to defy the French and English.
The victors from World War One still refused to permit us to build a powerful navy or create an air-force… Our young men had to be satisfied with gliders and elderly warships. But, we could design, and in one area we already excelled. Our Zeppelins made us masters of long range air travel, our airships could fly non-stop from Berlin to Buenos Aires!
The great disgrace for Germany was that there were large areas of the Fatherland where we were not even allowed to place troops. We were surrounded on all sides by hostile nations.
I entered the world five years after the hyperinflation hit Germany. That was when you needed a wheelbarrow to carry the money to buy a loaf of bread. Savings became worthless overnight unless they were held as stock in a foreign company… When the US stock market collapsed the following year, those foreign stocks in turn became worthless!
This was not a good time to be a German! I timed my arrival badly!
Things could have been worse. Papa was a doctor and doctors are almost always wealthier than their patients. Mama was good at chasing his bills for payment; but he was a good man who didn’t demand payment before seeing the patient. As a result, a lot of his bills were eventually paid in artwork, clocks and cutlery… our home resembled an antique shop!
He had himself been born in one of the Baltic states, an ethnic German in what was either Russia, Poland, Germany or any one of a ragbag of small countries. It depended on exactly when in that century you looked at the most current map.
As a young man he moved to Berlin to study medicine. He settled there to become a naturalised German and did heroic service in the First World War as an army doctor on our western front. He learned a lot about trauma surgery there. He said it left him with an ability to assess a patient very quickly. He used to say that it’s best to treat the patient before he dies.
“It’s much easier to treat the living than it is to cure the dead. I am a doctor not a pathologist!”
So there I was, the much-awaited child of a successful doctor who still had a uniform in the bedroom with his medals, an Iron Cross Second Class among them.
Medals don’t feed families and it had been ten years of “peace” before my Mama and Papa could afford to relax and “create” me.
When I was five, Chancellor von Papen gave up his resistance to the growth of National Socialism and Adolf Hitler’s NSDAP party and handed over the Chancellorship to him. I can’t remember the time before the Nazis ruled. Actually they never did… Nazis was what our enemies called us… to us the Party was the NSDAP.
Almost at once things became serious. The Reichstag fire that destroyed our parliament building was a terrible crime that, in the eye of history was used to justify the terrible changes that followed. The Chancellor, now our Fuhrer, suspended civil liberties in order to protect the homeland from communists and, as the NSDAP would have had us believe, the malign Jewish influences that they said had caused all Germany’s troubles.
The burning of the Reichstag building made little difference! Who needs a parliament building when the parliament no longer has a say in the running of the single-party state?
I was seven before I began to realise the strange world we lived in.
There had been children living higher up in our apartment block. They suddenly disappeared. I asked Mama where they had gone because now I had no one to play with. I asked her in the street and she looked nervous and glanced around…
“Quiet, not here. I shall tell you at home!”
She told me that the children were Jewish and had been sent abroad to live with relatives in America. “It’s safer for them.” she said. I didn’t understand safer. We lived in a quiet street with almost no traffic. She sat me down and tried to make it simple enough for even a seven-year-old to understand.
“The Fuhrer hates Jewish people. He blames them for everything that has gone wrong for our country since the time when Papa was an army doctor in the Great War,”
“The Fuhrer has decided that there should be no Jews in our country. He has taken all their money, and anyone who employs them or is friendly with them is in terrible trouble too.”
“The people upstairs have used steamship tickets that were sent to them by relatives in America. They have left everything and run. It was probably the best thing they could do… leave and start again in New York.”
I listened wide-eyed… They had been nice people… friends. Their father was a doctor. They came to dinner. Their boys played with my train-set. Gone!
“That’s wrong!” I said fiercely.
“No, you cannot say it is wrong.” said Mama patiently, but firmly.
“It is the Fuhrer’s will and the Party’s will. You cannot disagree with the Fuhrer! Unless you want to go to live in America!”
She smiled sadly…
“You see, it isn’t just the Party that agrees with the Fuhrer. The church, your teachers, all our neighbours, they all agree with the Fuhrer. He has prisons for people who disagree with him. There is even Breitenau… a prison just for children!”
She was making her point pretty clearly. Even a seven-year-old could understand there were things it wasn’t safe to even think!
She saw how sad I was at the loss of my friends.
“There will be other children to move in, and soon you will be old enough to join the Jungvolk and go camping, and play soldiers. It will be fun, you’ll see. We must enjoy what we have.”
“Now run along. Don’t ever discuss this with the neighbours or children at school. You may say the wrong thing! Remember… the Fuhrer has prisons for people who say the wrong thing.”
That was it. I never raised the question again.
My favourite uncle was Uncle Felix. Actually, he was my only uncle. He was my Papa’s brother so we had the same name… Kersten. He was Dr Felix Kersten and I was Hans Felix Kersten. My Papa named me for his brother. I am not sure that he was a favourite with Mama… he worked high in the Party… After asking about the Jewish neighbours I was sure that Mama wasn’t so happy with everything the Party was doing. Anyway, she said Uncle Felix wasn’t a Party member, because he was Finnish or maybe Swedish… it had changed a few times, she says.
Uncle Felix was doctor for Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler… yes I know it doesn’t sound likely but it’s true. Uncle Felix said that the Reichsfuhrer chose him because he had heard that he had been successfully treating Count Ciano in Italy… and he was Il Duce’s son-in-law, which either made it all less likely or more likely… anyway, look it up if you don’t believe me.
He was my favourite uncle and I’m pretty sure that I was his favourite nephew. He took me to all sorts of interesting places. He said that running around after Party leaders and their ailments could get very boring, so if it was the holidays then I could go with him for company.
Once the Hitler Youth became so important, my school teachers agreed that visiting party leaders was a good reason for missing school. Anyway, I think I learnt much more from Party leaders than I would have from my teachers.
When I was nine he took me with him to that year’s huge Party rally in Nuremberg. Its proper title was the Rally of Labour (catchy or what!) but people called it the Cathedral of Light.
I’m not sure if I was supposed to know, but the story was that Reichsminister Speer had failed to finish work on the stadium. So, to make it look splendid he commandeered 152 searchlights, and placed them around the edge of the Zeppelin Field, pointing straight up. At night they made a magic wall of light, but he was even cleverer than that. Instead of letting them seem to come to a point quickly he tilted each one outwards, just a little. That way the wall seemed to go on forever… till the light faded with distance. It was magical!
Uncle let me stay up to see it in the dark… The Fuhrer himself was there!
Uncle had to be close in case the Reichsfuhrer-SS needed him so we were in the stand for senior party members, only a few rows away from the Fuhrer’s. Near the Fuhrer was a very exotic special guest, Prince Chichibu, a brother of the Emperor of Japan. He had come for a personal meeting with the Fuhrer to strengthen ties between Japan and Germany… and there nearby was little me!
As the rally got into its stride, the Fuhrer acknowledged the roar from the massed uniformed men. He was smiling around him, and… he smiled and waved to me. I must have been an unusual sight. There can’t have been more than a handful of kinder in the stadium, and I was certainly the only one in the VIP stand!
I was totally dazzled by his gaze, and did my very best salute… I swear I got a personal nod of approval. I may have been the only boy there that night who was too young even for a Jungvolk uniform. I was definitely the only one that the Fuhrer greeted personally. I was so proud I cried.
Uncle Felix saw how much it meant to me and took me again the following year, this time to the “Rally of Greater Germany”. They were on a roll with catchy titles! The Greater Germany bit was to celebrate the annexation of Austria to Germany that had taken place earlier in the year. This time I was ten and wearing the uniform of the Jungvolk that I had just been allowed to join on my tenth birthday.
After that I was so excited that I started to badger our Jungvolksfuhrer to let me take part somehow. He said not to be so silly… there was no way any Jungvolk could participate. It was an occasion when only the SS and the very best Jugend drummers could perform.
I gave up on him, and worked on my uncle instead. He in turn worked on Herr Goebbels. They were all rather amused by my enthusiasm. Eventually it was Herr Goebbel’s secretary who came up with the solution.
In the summer of 1939 I was shipped off to Berchtesgaden and the Berghof. It was arranged that so long as I was tall enough to carry it off, and good enough at drumming to not disgrace them, then the Berchtesgaden Jugend drum corps would dress me in the smallest uniform they could find and hide me in their midst. They were scheduled to be part of the Jugend display for the Fuhrer at the 1939 Congress, the Rally of Peace, on the Zeppelin Field at Nuremberg.
I had a month of training. The Berghof chef’s son Rolf was one of the best drummers in the corps and was given the task of bringing me up to standard in a month. I swear my hands were bleeding by the end of the first week, but I wasn’t going to risk my place. They healed… or maybe I got used to the pain. By the end of the month I was ready.
So, was it all a great success? Well yes and no!
The “Rally of Peace” ran out of Peace!
It was cancelled at the last minute because it was suddenly too late to celebrate the Party’s desire for peace. Only one day before its planned date, on September 1, we invaded Poland and started World War Two!
Actually, if you believed Herr Goebbels, Poland attacked us… but if you didn’t think the Poles were insane and if you had seen and quietly listened to the SS preparations at the Reichsfuhrer-SS’s office (nobody noticed me anymore, I was part of the furniture) then we invaded them!
So peace was out… for a while!
I was dreadfully disappointed. It was my disappointment and Herr Himmler’s secretary that resulted in a private display for the Fuhrer on the magnificent terrace of his home, the Berghof.
The Berchtesgaden Jugend drum corps’ efforts and subterfuge were a success in the end, and I was very popular with the boys for having caused the Berghof display. It was a great occasion because by that time we had Poland in our grasp and the Fuhrer was in a very jovial mood!
Rolf, the chef’s son and my drum-meister became a great friend. When uncle visited the Berghof he would drop me off at Rolf’s home. We played together when we were young… he was two years older than I. We took the Fuhrer’s dog Blondi for long walks and played hide and seek in the woods. We avoided the path where the Fuhrer took his daily stroll. The Fuhrer was kind and greeted us if he saw us, but… his SS bodyguards were very nervous, even of boys… so it was much safer to stay at a distance and take advantage of meeting him more formally within the Berghof.
Later, as we got older, or perhaps as I got older, our games turned to the universal teenage boy games. I let him think it was new for me when he showed me how to masturbate. It wasn’t of course… older more knowledgeable hands than his had seen to that.
I wished that it had been him, but… life is the way it is… our first is always whoever gets to us first. It would be nice if it could have been a beautiful boy, the memories would bring more pleasure… and less remembered pain. But, there you are… it’s too late to worry about it now… My family fed in hard times… and I learned a lifetime skill.
Perhaps it was just as well that Rolf and I never became lovers. I was 15 when I visited the Berghof and found he was gone… the army had him. A few months later I saw the chef and asked after Rolf…
“He was killed on the Eastern Front… some bastard Russian got him!”
I hugged him and said how sorry I was.
I asked Uncle Felix to make sure that the Fuhrer knew.
A few days later Rolf’s dad was looking happy and proud.
The Fuhrer had heard of his loss and had personally presented him with the medal Rolf was due for bravery.
My friend had lost his son but had gained the Fuhrer’s praise… it seemed to be sufficient, and I was pleased for him.
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