“Voices in the Wilderness” Chapter Five
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At this time, Hitler was popular at home and accepted abroad, by some people, because of the measures he took to reduce unemployment. Public spending on rearmament and on public works projects such as the building of autobahns, created many desperately needed jobs. By 1937 Germany was beginning to suffer from a labour shortage.
Hitler also felt that it was important to make workers feel that they were part of a racially based national community. The Nazis devised an elaborate program of subsidies for leisure-time activities for workers. Called “Strength through Joy,” the program made possible excursions to mountain or seaside resorts. It also offered the possibility of cruises in the Mediterranean or the Baltic Sea, leisure activities until then reserved for the upper classes. Workers were also given the opportunity to purchase an automobile, the Volkswagen, hitherto a symbol of wealth and status. In reality, few people received the cars they had paid for.
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The day after his eighteenth birthday, Karl joined the Wehrmacht. He had always been good with machinery and his application to join a Panzer division after training had been accepted.
On their last evening together before he left for the training camp, Gretchen and Karl walked on the river bank.
“Perhaps you will get promoted.” Gretchen said, with a smile,trying hard to hide her sadness at their imminent separation..
Karl laughed. “I think you’d better wait till I’ve been in the army for a little while.”
“Well, I shall get you promoted.” laughed Gretchen. “I shall write to the Fuhrer and ask him to make you Reichfuhrer with special responsibility for love-making. Then,you will appoint me as your personal secretary and I will reject all the applications from girls who want to make love to you. When you come into the office, I shall spring to my feet and salute you. ‘Heil,Karl.”
Karl grinned. “And how shall I salute you?” Gretchen leaned over and whispered something in his ear. Karl pretended to be shocked.
“Gretchen! I didn’t think you knew about things like that.”
Gretchen tried unsuccessfully to look prim. “I don’t.” Then she twinkled at him. “You will teach me when we are married.
Let me teach you now. Karl thought. Instead, he said,
“Do those Hitler salute impersonations for me.”
Gretchen smiled, knowing the reason for the sudden diversion. She got to her feet.
First, there are the fanatics.” An excellent mimic, she demonstrated. “they stand at attention….so….right arm extended, head high…so. Their eyes blaze with a bright light. They can SEE their Fuhrer.” She changed her stance. “Then there are those who give what I call a ‘anything-for-a-quiet-life’ salute”. She stood, her body slightly slouched, a limp right arm extended only until its hand is level with her shoulder. “Gretchen laughed. “One girl told me that she always murmurs ‘Heil, Mickey Mouse’. Once again, she changed her stance. “One of our teachers gives a kind of a Boy Scout salute.” Her arm was not extended, its elbow tucked into her side, its palm facing outwards at shoulder level.
Karl laughed, drew her down to sit beside him. “I’d be court-martialled if they caught me encouraging you to laugh at the Fuhrer. They take themselves very seriously. Very Germanic. Very Teutonic. No sense of humour.” Then he stopped smiling and said, seriously.
“Do promise me, liebchen, that you’ll be careful in what you say and do. I know you don’t really approve of what is going on. But keep it to yourself. Don’t be too outspoken. There are things that I don’t like. Your father talked to me a bit yesterday. He’s a sensible man.”
He paused for a moment. “ But I am going to be a soldier and will do my duty. “
He saw a shadow pass over her face.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be shut inside a tank for most of the time. Probably spend half my day trying not to bump into lamp-posts.” He pulled her down to him.
“Come on, kiss me.”
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Gretchen went to the railway station, one of a group, made up of her parents and his. She tried hard not to let him see the tears in her eyes. He had kissed her gently and, perhaps carried away a little by the solemnity of the occasion, had told her to be “a brave daughter of the Fatherland”. She merely nodded. She would have preferred a farewell that had a slightly less political flavour about it. But that was life these days, she realised. Many people, including herself, used such language automatically. It was a kind of camouflage for some people, a front behind which they could hide their doubts and fears. She felt that there was one consolation. Karl seemed much more interested in the active life of being a soldier rather thanin Nazi doctrine. It was something to which Gretchen, together with the rest of the nation, was becoming accustomed.
She felt her father’s arm around her shoulder. As usual, he understood how she was feeling. It was the first time in her life that she and Karl had been apart. She was desolate. She knew she had to hold on to the undeniable love that they had for one another. Whatever his dedication to the Nazi cause might become, there was a part of him that would be forever hers.
The hall was crowded, the norm when Hitler was the speaker. The rows of chairs were filled mainly, but not entirely by men. The presence of armed Brownshirts was very noticeable. Solidly, they lined the walls of the hall, stood at the entrance; several were on the platform, standing at the back. They made no attempt to hide their weapons. They all wore armbands with the black swastika on a white circle against a red background. The same symbol was draped around the hall. Hoffman could not imagine that there would be the slightest opportunity for anyone to express any form of dissent, verbal or otherwise. This was the traditional atmosphere in any meeting hall where Hitler was scheduled to speak.
About a quarter of an hour went by, in which Hoffman sat and absorbed the electric atmosphere which filled the hall. Since the scene with his mother, he had been living in Berlin with the family of a friend from the Hitler Youth. He had been surprised when he had heard that his father had been sent to the concentration camp at Dachau. He merely thought he would be questioned, beaten and then released. But he did not feel any regret. As a band struck up a lively military march, he put the whole subject out of his mind. He watched eagerly as he got his first glimpse of the Fuhrer. Hitler strode down the aisle, looking neither to right or left. As he passed by, Hoffman could not help feeling a little disappointed. Hitler did not present a very imposing figure, certainly not the image of a great saviour. This was obviously the creation of the Nazi propaganda machine. He was a little below average height with wide hips and narrow shoulders. He was wearing his customary dress for speech-making, a rather non-descript blue suit. The days had not arrived when he would appear dressed in military uniform.
Hitler mounted the platform and went immediately to the rostrum, which stood equipped with microphones at the front of the platform. The backdrop in front of which Hitler stood was a massive swastika He began to speak. Hoffman soon forgot the message. It was the normal collection of anti-Jewish, anti-Communist rhetoric. Hoffman had heard the same message many times before. It was already engrained deep in his soul. But the impressions which would remain with him for the rest of his life were of the speaker. The qualities of Hitler's voice were far from pleasant. It has a rasping quality which often broke into a shrill falsetto when he became aroused. Hoffman realized that it was not his diction which made him a great orator. Even though it had improved from his early days as orator, it was still not particularly good. As with the vast majority of people, Hoffman would, in the future, have no other contact with Hitler except through his voice.
When Hitler began to speak, his delivery was somewhat slow. Then, as he warmed to his theme, his actions became more animated, gesticulating, clenching his fists. He used rhetorical questions, to which the crowd would roar their answers. The atmosphere was what, in a different setting, would be called “spiritual”. Hoffman had a distinct impression that his feeling of personal emptiness and inner chaos that he had carefully hidden from the world was now ending. In its place was a new sense belonging, a sense that something new was about to begin in his life. Hoffman felt that the Fuhrer was speaking directly to him. He felt that the Fuhrer understood his, Hoffman’s problems, his need for acceptance, his inability to make contact in any ways but the most violent. For a young man who knew nothing of love, Hoffman felt devotion for this unprepossessing man. It was to stay with him until the final moments of his life. He knew, from that moment, that his life would be dedicated to the Fuhrer.
Inspired, Hoffman came away from the meeting in a dream. All that he needed was a way in which to give expression to his new determination to dedicate his life to the service of the Fuhrer and the Fatherland. The decision that he was about to make would determine the future direction of his life, justifying conduct that would never be tolerated in any civilized society. The following morning, he applied to join the Waffen SS.