I had a remarkable telephone conversation with a German who has spent his entire life trying to come to grips with the fact that his parents were Nazis, his mother enamored with Hitler and his father a soldier on the Russian front. He was 10 years old when the war ended, and more years passed before he began to learn enough to ask questions which his parents would never answer. His entire life since has been devoted to learning the truth of the Nazi atrocities and living with “an overwhelming guilt over what we Germans did to the Jewish people.” This despite his obvious personal innocence.
Soon after this conversation, I read a memoir by Sebastian Haffner. Titled “Defying Hitler,” it was written in 1939 just after the author, then in his early 30s, had left Germany. Haffner powerfully presents what he characterizes as a nationwide nervous breakdown that paralyzed German opposition to Hitler. His own “defiance” was mainly in his mind, where he struggled to maintain a sense of personal morality.
Almost the precise age of my primary character in my new novel-in-progress, Haffner’s internal struggles offer rich pathways into the mind of my fictional Berthold Becker, although their lives were very different. Haffner was a passive Nazi. Becker was active (or will be when I write it), performing deeds evil enough to qualify him for trial at Nuremberg. What did he think as he committed those horrific acts? Did he, like Haffner, struggle to defend a personal, internal morality even as he was an important participant in the Nazi flood of mechanized, methodical death? That’s what I hope to be able to write.
Next came a conversation with Dr. Andreas Heusler, a highly regarded historian who directs the Jewish section of the Munich City Archives. Among many other topics, we discussed German guilt, which Dr. Heusler indicated was still pervasive but not often spoken of.
I asked Dr. Heusler whether there had been opportunities to stop Hitler, with particular focus on the capitulation of the Catholic Church before and after the 1933 Concordat. Dr. Heusler ‘s response was telling. He stated that Cardinal Faulhaber, archbishop of Munich during the entire period of Nazi ascendency and through the war years, was an “untouchable” figure who could have spoken out with personal impunity. Faulhaber, who had spoken forcefully against Hitler’s brutal anti-semitism in the 1920s, later offered no criticism of even the worst Nazi atrocities against Jews.
The reasons for Cardinal Faulhaber’s reticence are, I believe, crucial to an understanding of why the attitudes of the fictional Berthold Becker, along with those of millions of actual Germans, developed as they did. I hope to pursue this line further next week in a meeting tentatively scheduled with a historian attached to the Munich archdiocese. As Pat often says, “Good luck.”
To conclude an exhausting two days, from Collioure to Barcelona and then to Munich – too many planes , trains and automobiles – Pat and I went to Friday night services at the new synagogue in Munich, escorted by our fascinating guide Chaim Frank.
Think about that. The predecessor Munich synagogue was destroyed by Hitler in 1938. All the Jews of Munich were later assembled and taken to death camps. And yet here, in 2012, almost 100 Jews prayed and celebrated the Bat Torah of a new generation of Jewish women. This in Munich, from whence Hitler originated his madness.
“We are a remarkable people,” I said to Chaim. “We simply will not go away.”