From rural idyll to a Nazi hell: A forensic history of a Bavarian village vividly illustrates how ordinary Germans were ruthlessly bullied into accepting the new, brutal Nazi order
- A Village In The Third Reich introduces us to a young resident of Oberstdorf, Theodor Weissenberger
- Aged 19 in 1940, he was ‘collected’, taken to a psychiatric hospital, put inside a ‘charitable ambulance’ and gassed
- Julia Boyd and Angelika Patel tell the story of what happened to many ordinary Germans during the Nazi rule
A VILLAGE IN THE THIRD REICH
by Julia Boyd & Angelika Patel (Elliott & Thompson £25, 456pp)
Micro-history is invaluable if you want to understand how a whole country can be swept up in a tidal wave of evil and madness, as happened with Germany and the Third Reich.
You’ll learn more about the psychological workings of Nazism by reading this superbly researched chronicle of one small village in the Bavarian Alps called Oberstdorf than you will by reading a shelf of wider-canvas volumes on the rise of Nazism in general.
For example, I knew about Hitler’s T4 euthanasia programme, socalled because decisions on whether mentally or physically ill citizens should die were made at the Berlin headquarters, Tiergarten 4.
A Village In The Third Reich introduces us to a young resident of Oberstdorf, Theodor Weissenberger. Aged 19 in 1940, he was ‘collected’, taken to a psychiatric hospital, put inside a ‘charitable ambulance’ and gassed
But this book introduces us to a young resident of Oberstdorf, Theodor Weissenberger, a sweet, sensitive, curly-haired blind boy (probably blinded by a nurse who gave him the wrong eye-drops just after birth), adored by his mother and sisters.
Aged 19 in 1940, he was ‘collected’, taken to a psychiatric hospital, put inside a ‘charitable ambulance’ and gassed. The doctors chose meningitis from a list of convincing diseases to put on his death certificate and send to his family. Theodor was one of 70,272 people with socalled disabilities to be murdered at six killing centres across Germany.
How could this happen in a civilised country? As it turns out, there are quite a few doctors in this book. Some are benign; others are a revolting inversion of what a doctor should be. One kind village doctor diagnosed a young villager, 16-yearold Franz Noichl, with flu in February 1945, prescribing ‘bed-rest’, thus exempting him from joining the Volkssturm, Hitler’s army of teenaged cannon fodder about to be mown down in a crazed, lastditch attempt to win the war, as Franz’s best friend was.
Another doctor in the village refused to exempt a young Jewish villager, Eva Noack-Mosse, from being sent to the hell of Theresienstadt.
One villager with the august name of Lieutenant Heinz Schubert — a descendant of the composer — supervised the shooting of 800 gypsies in the Crimea in 1941. The racism propaganda with which the whole country was indoctrinated led to bestiality on the Eastern Front.
Later, at the Nuremberg Trials, Schubert would defend himself by saying: ‘We did not set out to kill, but to defend Western civilisation.’ What perverted version of ‘civilisation’ did he think he was living in, and how did he get there?
Picture-postcard Oberstdorf was such a peaceful, agricultural and devoutly Catholic village that when, after World War I, the locals started a small militia to guard against possible looting caused by the worsening economic situation, their main concern was to make sure its meetings didn’t clash with Mass or milking.
The village was a favoured tourist destination for mountain walkers and many of its regular visitors were Jews.
In 1920, just after the Nazi party was born amid the unrest and misery of a country defeated in the Great War, its newspaper the Volkischer Beobachter published a piece railing against Jews holidaying in Oberstdorf. ‘This filth feasts and carouses while the rest of the country is in desperate need . . . don’t these ridiculous Hebrews with crooked legs understand how unspeakably disgusting their behaviour is?’ The local Oberstdorf newspaper responded robustly the next day with the words: ‘No one can deny Jews the right to holiday where they want.’
Yet we see how, one by one through the 1920s and 1930s, villagers went over to the dark side. In 1923, in the days of hyperinflation caused by the mass-printing of cash, the wedding of two locals cost an absurd 380billion marks.
That married couple would be typical of those ripe for conversion to Nazism, after the Wall Street Crash meant their pay was cut in half. They sensed that Hitler would bring a new dawn and help their country to believe in itself again.
‘We need a dictator like Mussolini,’ wrote a female Oberstdorf journalist, ‘blessed with his ruthlessness, energy and recklessness’.
Crippled by the demands of the Versailles Treaty, the locals were all ears when a Nazi politician, Theo Benesch, spoke in the village tavern, promising ‘beauty, freedom and dignity’ if the audience put their trust in the Fuhrer.
A VILLAGE IN THE THIRD REICH by Julia Boyd & Angelika Patel (Elliott & Thompson £25, 456pp)
A farmer who’d been sceptical hung a swastika from a tree in front of his farmhouse.
Within three months of Hitler being voted to power in 1933, the Enabling Act allowed all state and local authorities, associations and societies to be dissolved and reformed in the Nazi image. That was how Nazism reached its tentacles into every tiny area of German society.
The chairman of the Oberstdorf Fishing Society resigned the moment a motion was passed banning Jewish members, and there was a lot of muttered loathing of local Nazis who were suddenly strutting about in positions of power.
But, as the Third Reich took hold, small gestures of defiance would be acts of great rashness.
Eavesdroppers were everywhere. The school bully, Margot, the daughter of a prominent Nazi, was on the lookout. Woe betide you if you so much as grumbled about the regime.
One mother turned as white as a sheet in the village square when her little son started singing a jingle he’d heard on French radio; you could be sent to prison for listening to a foreign radio station.
A new ditty came into being: ‘Lord, make me silent, so I don’t get sent to Dachau.’ In other words, keep your head down and try not to be noticed. And lots did, for fear of the knock on the door in the night.
It was a propaganda masterstroke to get children on board. The authors paint a vivid picture of summer youth camps and Nazi songs round the campfire.
‘My father was utterly disgusted that his children had to join the Hitler Youth,’ recalled Franz Noichl, ‘but any protest would have been useless and dangerous.’
Franz had to give up being an altar boy: you had to make it clear that in the battle between God and Hitler, you chose Hitler.
Meanwhile, at school, the science syllabus included racial theory. One girl, a committed Nazi, took her own life on discovering that her mother was half-Jewish. So it was a toxic mixture of indoctrination and sheer terror that kept the show on the road. Then, as Germany started losing the war, the regime became more and more hysterical. You could be jailed for merely voicing pessimism about the Russian campaign.
The heroes of this fascinating book are the ones in positions of power, torn between what they were expected to do and what they knew was right.
The fundamentally decent mayor, Werner Fink, continued to offer residents’ permits to Jews, and did not enforce putting the obligatory generic Jewish identifiers ‘Sara’ and ‘Israel’ on their identity cards — at great personal risk to himself.
When the village was liberated by the French in 1945, the reckoning began. Civilian tribunals were set up, grading public officials’ involvement in Nazism. It was amazing how many of them denied all involvement, or somehow vanished into thin air.
The evil Schubert was sentenced to ten years, released after six, and lived happily ever after. Which leaves one feeling quite sick.
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