Voices in the Wilderness. Chapter Two - 1934
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Although Hitler had won power through the ballot box, he had also organised violence and intimidation on the streets. Those responsible belonged to a para-military organization, known as the S.A. or Brownshirts. Under the leadership of Ernst Röhm, its membership grew to perhaps 2,000,000—20 times the size of the regular army—by the time that Hitler came to power in 1933.
Roehm’s objective was that the Brownshirts should take over control of the State from the Army. Hitler feared that Rohm might try to take his place as leader of the Nazi Party. He also fearing that the regular army might try to force him from office, So Hitler curried favour with the army by attacking the Brownshirts leadership. On June 30th, in what became known as the "Night of the Long Knives," Hitler arrested Ernst Röhm and scores of other Brownshirts leaders, on the charge that they were planning to overthrow him. They were shot by the SS, which now increased its power. In gratitude, the army introduced the personal oath of loyalty to Hitler that every member, from the lowest private to Field Marshal would take in the future.
On August 2nd, President Hindenburg died. Hitler combined the offices of Reich Chancellor and President, declaring himself Fuehrer and Reich Chancellor.
Karl Richter was very content in his organized fifteen-years old life. He was a popular and well-established member of his Hitler Youth group. He was training hard for the boxing tournament that was coming off shortly and was looking forward to winning at his weight, as he had done last year. Karl knew that he was no academic, preferring mechanical subjects. But he had recently been commended at college for his overall efforts.
Important though these things were, they were nothing in comparison to how he felt about Gretchen. Up to six months ago, she had been his childhood companion, someone for whom he had always felt a deep and protective tenderness. Then, gradually, his feelings for her had deepened in a way that he could not explain. When he had tried to, she had kissed him and told: “Don’t try to understand it, just enjoy it. That what I’m doing.”
As they walked along the towpath by the river, Karl gently squeezed her hand, just happy that they were together.
Gretchen feeling the pressure on her hand, understood the message and smiled at him. She had been delighted when he had called in at her home earlier on in the evening, told her he was excused attendance at the Hitler Youth meeting and was free to go out. They had been walking in a quiet, companionable silence. Karl was not a boy who said a lot. He did not need to. She knew him better than she knew herself. She knew he loved her and that was all that mattered.
Her pleasurable thoughts were brought to an end when she heard him give a sharp intake of breath. “Hoffman,” he grunted.
She looked up. Hans Hoffman, tall and broad-shouldered, was approaching them.
“Leave him alone, Karl,” she pleaded.
“I will, if he leaves us alone,” promised Karl. But it did not look as if he was going to be able to keep his promise. The towpath was wide enough for them to pass each other, without hindrance. But Hoffman deliberated stopped and stood in front of them. Karl released Gretchen’s hand.
The two youngsters, equal in height and breadth, confronted each other.
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Hans Hoffman had scowled when he saw Karl and Gretchen walking along the towpath towards him, hand in hand. He knew very little about the world of feelings. What he did know, he rejected. He had no friends, nor did he want any. He confided in no-one. He preferred to be feared. When he faced another boy in a fight, he did so with confidence in his own strength and abilities. He achieved his successes in the classroom and on the playing fields. Everything he did, he did with a devastating single-mindedness. However, there was one emotion in which he did indulge. That emotion was hatred. That hatred was directed at Karl Richter.
They should have been friends. They were both typical textbook Aryans – blond, well-built and with blue eyes, neither of them with anything to prove. But, beyond the externals, the resemblances ended. Hoffman would rather have died before he admitted it, but Karl Richter personified many things that, in the secret part of him, Hoffman wanted, yet denied himself. Karl was popular and outward going. He had a relaxed attitude towards his physical build and sporting prowess which made him popular with the other boys. Unlike Hoffman, he did not need to exile himself into his own self-contained world, where he could rule supreme. Karl was well liked by the girls. They all knew that Gretchen Neumann was his girl. She also was popular and the other girls teased her about her beau. She accepted the teasing with good humour; no-one challenged her for Karl’s affection, most girls being content with the friendship of them both.
Hoffman sneered at and made fun of this popularity. He told himself, in a cold and detached sort of way, that possession of a girl’s body might be an enjoyable experience. He thought that, given the right person, he might prefer sexual activity with someone of his own sex. But he was just not interested enough to experiment with anyone. His unpopularity ensured that he had no opportunity.
Being devoid of emotions, Hoffman rarely gave way to anger. If someone crossed him, he remembered the incident then, perhaps weeks or months later, got his revenge. But when, on rare occasions, anger seized him, it was in the form of a red rage. It settled on him, a mixture between a fog that surrounded him and a heavy weight that wore him down. Once, he had injured a boy in a schoolyard fight. He would have been suspended from school, had it not been that his victim was a Jew. The whole incident was ignored. The boy’s parents quietly withdrew him from the school.
As he walked by the river, that particular summer evening, he was trying to deal with one of his rages. Things were not going well. He was quarrelling with his parents, particularly with his father, who had recently expressed views about the new government that his son told him were not worthy of a loyal German. He had failed an exam at school. He had done badly in some physical tests in the Hitler Youth and been publicly reprimanded.
Looking up, Hoffman saw Karl and Gretchen, hand in hand, strolling towards him. Everything about the pair irritated him. Their obvious love for each other irritated him, for it was something which he regarded as a weakness. Yet it seemed to him that Richter’s ability to maintain and develop such a warm relationship was just one more way in which he seemed to get that slight edge which so irritated Hoffman.
The footpath along the side of the river was wide enough for them to walk past each other without speaking. Normally, this is what would have happened. Tonight, however, Hoffman's rage took over, clouding his common sense.
As Karl and Gretchen drew level with him, Hoffman deliberately stood in their way. Anticipating trouble, Karl released Gretchen’s hand and motioned her to move away from him. She did so, a hand raised to her mouth.
Noting that Karl was not dressed in Hitler Youth uniform, Hoffman sneered. “Not at the meeting this evening, Richter? Getting too good for us now, are you? Or is it that you are more interested in getting inside this slut’s knickers than in serving your Fuehrer?”
Hoffman was known for the speed of his reactions, something which usually stood him in good stead in confrontations of this kind. But tonight, the rage was blunting his reactions. Karl’s clenched fist caught him on the side of the jaw and sent him staggering. Then a couple of punches to the midriff doubled Hoffman up in pain. As Hoffman staggered, a push from Karl sent him falling into the river. Hoffman found himself floundering up to his waist in a part which was particularly green and slimy. He had to wade through a bed of reeds as he tried to clamber back on land.
Karl stood alert on the river bank, fists clenched, legs astride, like an avenging Nemesis. He impassively watched his opponent climb out of the river. Hoffman was soaking wet, mud coating his blond hair, his uniform drenched in the smelly green slime. His forage cap had already sunk down to the bed of the river. The rage and the fight had gone out of Hoffman. As he walked away with what shred of dignity he could muster, he turned and shouted, “I won’t forget this.”
Karl stood and watched the retreating figure until he disappeared in the distance. Once he was satisfied that Hoffman would not cause any more trouble that night, Karl took a trembling Gretchen by the arm. As they continued on their way, she could sense the anger within him. "The swine, how dare he say things like that about you?" Karl fumed. "One day, I'll......" He tailed off, too angry to continue.
Gretchen stopped and put her arms around him. "Come on, Karl, quieten down. He did me no harm. We both know the truth. You respect me and I'm grateful for that." She kissed him, gently. He held her tight in his arms.
"Now, come on, my knight in shining armour,” Gretchen laughed, “it's getting late. You know how Papa worries about me. I keep telling him that I’m perfectly safe with you."
Karl smiled, his good humour restored. “You father is a wonderful man.”
Gretchen squeezed his hand, “I know. I’m a lucky girl having two wonderful men in my life.”
Contentedly, they made their way home.
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One evening, several months after the incident on the towpath, Gretchen made a short entry in her diary :
“Tonight I went to a boxing tournament. The only reason I went was that Karl was boxing in one of the events. Hoffman was there ....."
The marquee where the tournament between Karl's patrol and one from another Hitler Youth patrol from Bonn was being held had been erected at the edge of town. An intense rivalry between the two patrols had sprung up over the last few years and feeling among the youngsters who had arrived for the tournament was running high. When Gretchen arrived at the marquee she discovered that, as so frequently happened on such occasions, there were as a certain amount of scuffles going on between members of the two patrols.. No-one seemed in the slightest concerned.
Gretchen hurried into the marquee, relieved that if Karl had to fight, he would be, al least, be able to fight under a set of organised rules in the ring. The marquee was loud and noisy, tobacco smoke already tainting the air, despite the official Nazi anti-smoking campaign. Military music was issuing forth from the loudspeaker system. Around the ring, rows of wooden chairs had been put into place and were rapidly being occupied by spectators, mainly members of the Hitler Youth and a number of adults. In one corner, a number of boys, obviously taking part in the bouts, were standing in sports kit, stripped to the waist. Some of them already had their hands bandaged, prior to putting on boxing gloves. Karl was one of them. He saw her and raised a bandaged hand in greeting. Gretchen did not like boxing, particularly as she knew that the Nazis had introduced it into the Hitler Youth programme in order to develop the boys’ aggressive instincts. The only reason that she was here was out of loyalty to Karl. When his bout was finished, she intended to return home immediately.
She decided not to sit down, but to stand against the canvas wall of the tent, close to the entrance. This would enable her to slip out more easily, whenever she wished. Furthermore, the air was less smoke-tainted. As she stood, waiting for the evening's bouts to begin, she heard a voice behind her.
"Well, Gretchen Neumann, what a pleasant surprise."
She turned to find herself looking into the cold, expressionless eyes of Hans Hoffman.
"Pleasant for you, perhaps, but not for me, I assure you." She made to turn away, but he held her by the arm, his fingers digging painfully into her soft upper arm.
"Here to see Karl, are you" Hoffman drawled, "He’ll probably meet his match tonight. They say that the boy he's fighting is very good. I've seen him. What a wonderful example of Aryan manhood." There was lasciviousness in Hoffman's voice, a sneer across his face. He quickly flicked over his thin lips in a way which made Gretchen shudder. She had not been completely sheltered from the less pleasant realities of life. The inference behind Hoffman's words was obvious.
"You're sick," She started to turn away from him.
His hand continued to detain her. He looked her over. "I can't understand what you see in Richter," continued Hoffman, condescendingly. "He's so inexperienced. Rather naive in some ways. You've got spirit, I admire that. What you need is a real man, someone who can handle you. Someone like me, for instance."
Gretchen laughed at him. "You? A real man? You are pathetic. Would you like me to tell Karl that you've been pestering me? Perhaps he'll throw you in the river again."
He released her elbow. "Getting above yourself, aren't you, my girl,” he snarled. “One day your precious Karl won't be around to take care of you, and then......" Without warning, he put his hand on her breast, fingers squeezing hard. She gasped in pain. She swung her right arm and slapped him hard across the face. He released her, stepped back and put his hand to his face. He flushed to the roots of his blond hair. "You shouldn't have done that,” he hissed at her. “You're going to live to regret it." Then he stalked away.
Gretchen stood, trembling. To her relief, she realised that Karl's bout was the first on the programme. He had entered the ring and was standing in his corner, gloves on, listening to his trainer's final instructions. She watched listlessly, watching out lest Hoffman returned to continue his unwelcome attentions. But she could see that he was seated in a ringside seat, his attention on the boxers. No doubt hoping that Karl will be defeated. Gretchen knew little about boxing and cared even less. But even she could see that Hoffman's hopes were not going to be realised. Karl's opponent may be handsome, but, when it came to boxing, he was nowhere as skilled as Karl.. She was not surprised when Karl was declared the winner on points at the end of their scheduled three rounds. Her duty to Karl completed, Gretchen slipped out of the tent and hurried home.
On the way, she decided not to tell Karl about her encounter with Hoffman.
Hoffman was disappointed at the result. However, his mind was on other things. He was seething at the insult he had suffered of having had his face slapped.
How dare she hit me. She'll regret it.
Anyone who crosses me eventually regrets it.
He will. My father.
One day, I’ll get even with him.
Saying I needed to see a psychiatrist.
Funny how things died after that.
The cat ate the canary.
Then the cat was found with its throat cut.
One day, I’ll really get my revenge. He'll never oppose me again.
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