About 17 years ago, 18 maybe, I walked into an almost empty pub where an old man and a fat skinhead were arguing, one summer’s afternoon. The words Hitler Youth were used, which even if it was Hertfordshire, isn’t the norm. That’s when it really kicked off. The old man was incandescent with rage.
Yes, he said, he’d been in the Hitler Youth. He was proud of it. What he was outraged about was being called a Nazi.
Like most people, I believed what I’d been told, pretty much without thinking. There were Nazis and there were Germans but they probably all knew about everything and We were Good and They were Bad and they were all in it together and if they didn’t like Hitler they’d have done something about it… All the usual sloppy, stupid, simplistic thinking that I have no excuse for, as I have none for the childish bullshit I’ve been told.
We are Good. They are Bad. Forever and ever, Amen. It never matters who they are, not least because Their leader is invariably mad. Hussein. Bonaparte. The Kaiser. The Junta. Obviously goes without saying, Hitler. Mad, all of them. The fact that Churchill was drinking more than a bottle of brandy every day has and had no bearing on anything, ever. Because We Are Good.
I listened to the old man explain that you didn’t get a choice about joining the Hitler Youth. You were conscripted on your thirteenth birthday. You got a uniform, a knife, you went to camp and slept in tents, you did singing and marching and bonfires and at thirteen, very little boy got to shoot real pistols and throw real grenades. I remember being thirteen. I can remember how complete I would have felt, as a boy, doing those things.
And I listened to the old man explain how on the last day of his war, in April 1945, with the Americans due to arrive within the hour, the SS arrived instead. They took all of the children up into a field and rummaged around in the dirt until they found what they were looking for, a hatch to a bunker full of brand new guns. They kitted the kids out with steel helmets and grenades and bullets and machine guns and told them to defend the Fatherland and oh look, is that time, love to help but must dash, maybe next time. Do your best boys. And drove off toward the future, leaving the boys to deal with the past.
They met their schoolmaster coming up the lane as they were taking their weapons back to the village. In the old man’s words, he beat the shit out of them, made them throw all the guns in the ditch and sent them home. He saved all of their lives. The Americans arrived on time, within the hour, riding jeeps with machine guns mounted on top. He said they looked as if they were wetting themselves. They would have shot everybody.
I never knew the old man’s name. He might be dead by now. If he isn’t perhaps one day he will see the thing I’ve been working on, the story of that day. It has other people’s stories in it as well, other real lives. A story of a man who made one silly joke and was going to be shot for it when the partisans attacked and he found himself walking 700 kilometres home to Bremen. A story about the Swing Kids, the Heinies, the Eidelweiss Pirates, Hans Falada, Sophie Scholl, all the other people our inane propaganda wants to airbrush out of our reality, because they don’t fit our children’s story: we are good. They are bad.
Life doesn’t work like that. When we lose the truth we cheat ourselves. So this is for Janni Schenck. I don’t know the old man’s name. I never did. But whenever I think about this story, that’s the name that comes to me, through 70 years of lies.
Goodnight Janni. I’ve told your story now.