Books: When evil lurked in kind hearts

A Village in the Third Reich: How Ordinary Lives Were Transformed by the Rise of Fascism

Elliott & Thompson priced £25


Review by Neil Mackay

WE start with Wilhelm Steiner, an idealistic young socialist, returning from the First World War to his hometown Oberstdorf. The village suffered hard during the conflict. Widows sell the underwear of their dead menfolk to make enough money to eat. Oberstdorf places its hopes for the future in tourism – it’s one of the most beautiful villages in the Bavarian Alps. Already, however, there are hints of the horror to come. The far right Freikorps militia, from which Adolf Hitler drew so much early support, springs up in nearby cities like Munich, as Germany teeters on the brink of civil war. Extremists from both the left and right are intent on destroying the democracy of the Weimar Republic in its cradle.

A Village in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd and Angelika Patel is a masterpiece of historical non-fiction. It brims with life, is unflinching in its approach to cruelty, and presents humanity as we truly are: complex, messy, and always shaded in grey rather than angelic white or wicked black. A committed Nazi can at times be the kindest person in the village. A brave anti-Nazi can be petty, spiteful – even villainous. This book presents humanity in all our awful glory; as a species which can contain within one soul both devil and angel.

Even those who have spent a lifetime studying the Second World War will learn much within these pages – not just how ordinary people navigated life under totalitarianism, but truths about the human spirit. The book is honest enough not to overstretch in its search for a redemptive ending, yet despite the darkness of its subject matter, readers close this book with a sense of hope when it comes to humanity. The work owes much to that towering feat of German filmmaking, Heimat (Homeland), which ran episodically from 1984-2013, telling the story of Germany through the life of one average town.

After the First World War, Oberstdorf remains rather unpolitical – in a small “C” rural conservative way. This is no hotbed of latent Nazism. Then, however, hyperinflation comes calling – piled on top of the suffering and humiliations of the Treaty of Versailles. One local wedding in 1923 cost 380 billion marks – “more than the Shah of Persia’s three weddings put together”. Riots break out across Germany and Hitler finds his seedbed. Soon a few locals join the Nazis, and more begin sympathising, including Charlotte Stirius, the pro-Mussolini editor of the town’s newspaper.

Karl Weinlein, a postman, is the first villager to become a member of the Nazi Party. Villagers listen to these local extremists but aren’t taken in; most see them as strange “idealists”, yet are repelled by their anti-Semitism. Then comes the Great Depression in 1929, and the Nazis begin mopping up the votes of the poor and desperate. By 1930, a majority of villagers vote for Hitler, and are now “accustomed to the rhetoric, jackboots and swastikas” of the Nazi party. It’s a timely warning from history that when poverty strikes, extremists can slowly inveigle their way into political life – and dictatorship never comes quickly but by inches.

With Hitler in power, Dachau concentration camp is quickly erected not far from Oberstdorf and begins to fill up with “enemies of the people”. It’s now that Oberstdorfers, like nearly all Germans, begin to realise the horrible folly of what they’d done. But with Hitler now in possession of full dictatorial powers, it’s too late. Elections are banned, every aspect of life comes under the control of the party – even the Oberstdorf Beekeeping Society is “Nazified” – and Jews are turned into a collective national scapegoat.

Terror becomes a part of everyday life. Fail to send your son to the Hitler Youth, then risk a trip to the concentration camps. Offer some kindness to Jewish friends and expect a visit from the Gestapo. Speak ill of Hitler and you’ll disappear.

Perhaps the most distressing chapter in the book is titled Theodor Weissenberger: In Memoriam. He was a blind Oberstdorf teenager murdered by the Nazis for his disability. In 1940 alone, the Nazis gassed nearly 10,000 disabled people at the Grafeneck “euthanasia centre”. Theodore was one of them. Locals could see the smoke from the crematorium, but were told their loved ones, whose gold teeth were pulled out and melted down for the Nazi state, had died of pneumonia or meningitis. The local Nazi mayor, Ludwig Fink, previously a chimney sweep, managed to save his own disabled child as he knew of the extermination programme.

Remarkably, Fink turns out to be one of the most fascinating and complex characters in the book. Despite being an avid Nazi, he protects many Jews and helps local nuns survive persecution. He also stands up for villagers dragged before Nazi courts. One of the many troubling facets to this work is its examination not simply of the notion of the “good German” but also the unsettling truth that there were also “good Nazis”, something few would wish to consider.

We’re now well on the way to war – and the truth of collective guilt: that all Oberstdorfers, like all Germans, knew full well of the crimes committed around them. We follow the lives of decent local young men drafted into the army who by war’s end were murdering Jewish children on the eastern front. On the other side of the spectrum, we experience the grief and loss of those on the home front as their sons, husbands and fathers die in droves across occupied Europe. We flee with Oberstdorf women, who had settled in Poland, as they race for home in 1945 fearing rape with the Red Army at their heels. Each totemic event of the most atrocious waste of life in human history is accompanied by the story of an ordinary Oberstdorfer. It’s this rendering of history through human experience which makes this elegant yet bleak work so essential.

The book closes with the village resisting Hitler’s demands to fight to the death against the allies, and local men rising up against the remaining Nazi fanatics. With war criminals hanged at Nuremberg, the village looks once more to the future under post-war reconstruction. We end as we began with Wilhelm Steiner, now 50 – a man who survived it all without the shame of trading his soul to Hitler.

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