Frankfurt, Germany. I conducted the interview in German with the help of a German-speaking friend. The recording of the interview is a nearly one hour dialogue, so answers were slightly edited and condensed for the sake of clarity. "Journal" refers to the online publication where this interview first appeared.
In Politics, Aristotle says, “Human beings are by nature political animals” (1253a1-18). This is certainly true, though sometimes it takes triggers to politicize people. These triggers are commonly the effects of defunct ideologies, bad policies, corrupt politicians, or ideological persuasion, events or ideas that serve as agitators and motivate people to action. Thus, my assumption going into this interview was that a hugely calamitous event like a World War would serve as a significant trigger for politicization, and that the political and economic chaos in interwar Germany would define, in large part, how an adolescent came to understand the world.
As it turns out, Herr Mayer’s political trigger came after the fact. While not inclined to speak and act politically in 1939 because of the constraints and mood of the time, he now exhibits definitive political opinions and makes no qualms about stating them. As an adolescent and young adult, Herr Mayer was getting by, doing what he had to, and trying to place himself in the best possible position in an impossible time. Perhaps this required closing down to the political chaos around him. His worldview is broader now with the help of hindsight, and no longer constrained by the absurd attitudes of interwar Germany.
In conversation Herr Mayer repeatedly emphasized two things: the mistake of the impolitic interwar “peace,” and his own regret at failing to light some fire and passion under those in powerful positions who maintained an apolitical stance during a barbarous war. He makes no excuses for himself, and is righteously angered by a difficult past. Still, he is heartened by a promising European future. Mayer is a business owner and entrepreneur from the Frankfurt am Main area. He was born in 1922, was 17 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, and is currently 88 years old. He still lives in the Frankfurt area.
Journal: Herr Mayer, you were born just after the conclusion of the First World War and grew up in the prelude to the second. During this time, Hitler was gaining power and political momentum, and Nazism (Nationalsozialismus/ National Socialism) came in vogue. Do you remember what effect, if any, all of this had on you as a child and then as an adolescent?
Mayer: The situation was very bad in Germany. I should tell you that my father lost his business and all of his money during this time. He was a good businessman and an Adventist, and even he decided to join the National Socialists, hoping they would put an end to the chaos.
Journal: How would you describe the perception of the party then? Weren’t you and your family afraid they were too extreme?
Mayer: It’s true, the National Socialists were extreme, it was an extreme party, but so were many of the others. Everyone was extreme at that time. But when the National Socialists came to power, the fighting between the socialists and the communists stopped. There had been deadly street fighting between these two groups, at least near Frankfurt and Mannheim, and when the Nazis came to power, it was a change for the better in our lives.
Journal: Did you have to become a member of the Nazi Youth or a similar group?
Mayer: Well, first I had to become a member of the Deutsches Jungvolk (German Youth), which is something like the Boy Scouts in the USA. When I turned 14 I was automatically transferred into the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth). It was compulsory membership.
Journal: What kinds of activities did you participate in as a member of the Hitler Youth?
Mayer: We did normal things: sports of all kinds, hiking, normal teenage boy activities. I was part of the group that studied flying because I wanted to be a pilot or work with airplanes. You could also join the Maritime group if you liked boats, and so on.
Journal: How political was the Hitler Youth? What did they teach you about the party ideology?
Mayer: To me it wasn't political at all. Among myself and my friends, nothing political. Sometimes young party members would come to one of our meetings and promote some kind of Nazi propaganda, but we all laughed at them behind their backs. We thought it was ridiculous, and we really didn’t care. (Note: the purpose of the Hitler Youth was clear. Whether or not it had an affect on young individuals depends on, I suppose, the individual.)
Journal: I see. In the United States, every child recites the Pledge of Allegiance in school, and at minimum, knows from an early age that America stands for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” albeit in vague terms. Do you remember what kinds of political values you were taught?
Mayer: There was just nothing political in the schools, nothing political in the Hitler Youth that had any effect on me. You have to understand that in the time before Hitler came into power, there was an extremely negative atmosphere in Germany. High unemployment, inflation, political chaos. No one cared about politics, no one wanted to be political or talk about politics.
Journal: How about religion? Did it play a bigger role than politics?
Mayer: No, definitely no. There were groups of Catholics, Protestants, Adventists, Jews, and so on, but the churches were empty. People paid the obligatory Kirchensteuer (church tax) and called it good.
Journal: So at the time, no one had an issue with Jews?
Mayer: We knew there was some “Jew-bashing” happening, but it was being done by radicals, people at the fringes. You have some crazy people in the United States who target black people and other minorities, but you know they’re not acceptable. Everyone I knew, and everyone who could be considered balanced, had no issue with Jews. Why would we?
Journal: Fair enough. And while you were growing up in this seemingly apolitical atmosphere, what were your goals, hopes, and dreams for the future?
Mayer: (pause) I didn't really think like that. I just wanted to get a job. It was a bad situation during that time. I was also the second son, so a lot of attention was paid to my older brother.
Journal: Then back to the war. When you were 17, Germany invaded Poland. Do you remember what you thought about that?
Mayer: Well, naturally it was broadcast on the German radio as a defense of Germany, of the homeland. You also should know that until 1937, whenever Hitler came on the radio and made a speech, he was absolutely pro peace. It was something he emphasized over and over.
Journal: When did his message change?
Mayer: In 1938 Austria was brought back to the Reich. After this, Hitler’s whole message changed. It was no longer pro peace, it wasn’t about peace at all. This was definitely something I noticed.
Journal: In the United States, we have a strong Presidential system, and as such, we know almost everything about the person sitting in the Oval office. What did you know about Hitler?
Mayer: Not much. We didn’t know much about any of our politician’s personal lives. I couldn’t tell you the name of his dog, for example. I knew Hitler was a strong leader, and that’s about all.
Journal: What did you think about democratic government at the time?
Mayer: The Weimar Republic was nothing democratic. It was chaos, and like I said before, National Socialism was better at the time. We had hyperinflation from 1928-29, and Hitler stopped the reparation payments from the First World War.
Journal: What did you think of the Treaty of Versailles? Was it fair?
Mayer: Listen, without the bad peace that Versailles created, World War II would not have been the catastrophic event that it was. Do you understand? (pause) There was a perception that a renewed economic crisis was looming when Hitler came to power, and he vowed to end the reparations. This made an incredible difference to our economic situation.
Journal: Did you have conversations among friends and colleagues about the political and economic controversies at this time?
Mayer: No we did not. Not at all. No one was interested, we just didn’t talk about it. Even when Kristallnacht (night of broken glass) happened, we didn’t talk about it. Everyone thought it was done by “crazy people.” We didn’t see it as something systematic. And more than that, people were getting killed or deported for showing any kind of dissent against the Nazi regime. It’s not like we were scared, we just didn’t do it. There wasn't even a question. I had a solider colleague who mentioned later in the war that he wished one of the attempts on Hitler's life had been successful. Someone reported him, and it cost him his life.
Journal: So you served for a time in the army?
Mayer: Yes, I did. Actually, at the time, people were being forced to work in the labor service in Germany, and for most of us, joining the army was a way to avoid that. I wanted to join the Luftwaffe (German Airforce), but so did everyone, and I ended up staying with the army.
Journal: At any point during the war did you know what was happening in the concentration and death camps across Europe?
Mayer: No, I absolutely did not. I didn’t hear about them until I was interned in the POW camps in Le Mans (France), and at first we all thought it was propaganda from the Allied powers. Eventually we saw evidence, and after that it was just too horrendous to speak about. It made me, us, speechless.
Journal: So you really heard nothing about Hitler and the Nazi party’s beliefs in anti-Semitism, Aryan superiority, or their biological take on some of Nietzsche's work?
Mayer: Like I said, no one talked about anything political or ideological. It was not what one did, and though the BBC had an hourly broadcast in German for Germans, nothing was ever mentioned about the Jews, the death camps, or Hitler’s plans.
Journal: Do you think outsiders knew?
Mayer: Absolutely. How could they not? How could powerful politicians not know what was happening. We in Germany were getting partial information, but how could the BBC not know? How could the Catholic Church not know? They did know. There were even some courageous people within the church who tried to save Jews. If someone from outside would have said something, made the situation clear, it would have immensely changed the political environment. Maybe we could have stopped these atrocities. You can see how angry it makes me.
Mayer: Politik ist ein schmutziges Geschäft (politics is a dirty game)
Journal: Herr Mayer, I would like to move on to a few questions concerning the post-war atmosphere. Did you think the trials at Nuremberg were just?
Mayer: Absolutely. No question, absolutely.
Journal: What about the bombing of Dresden by the Allied forces and the atomic bombs dropped by the U.S. in Japan? Should they have been held accountable as well for those actions?
Mayer: It was a war. It’s not a thing where people stick to rules, even though some rules exist. People who pretend there’s some kind of humanity in war are crazy. They’re crazy. If you go to war you have to accept these things, and realize what you’re doing together. Anyway, I think the crimes against the Jews took away any right to be indignant about other crimes. Many people in Germany wouldn’t mind being held responsible for the war in its entirety, because of those atrocities.
Journal: What do you think of international institutions like the United Nations which try to create international norms of peace?
Mayer: Machtlos. They are powerless. I think the UN is like the League of Nations, and anyway, with the European Union, there’s no need for war here anymore. I never thought I’d see something like the European Union. It is something amazing. The euro is a symbol for how unified countries are today in comparison to the past.
Journal: What do you think of Obama?
Mayer: Poor guy. I guess he tries his best. He had to step in and take over for Bush, this cannot be easy.
Journal: Last question. Having lived through political and economic chaos and what is considered one of the most tragic conflicts in human history, how can we keep the peace?
Journal: What about militant Islam?
Mayer: That’s not really about tolerance, that’s a cultivated problem. In the end, I say again, it’s about tolerance.