For many young Germans, the “Aryanization” of the Warthegau provided an opportunity to serve their country. Melita Maschmann, who was then in her early 20s and held a leadership position in the BDM (the German initials of the League of German Girls), was among the first to work in the east.
My colleagues and I felt it was an honor to be allowed to help in “conquering” this area for our own nation and for German culture. We had all the arrogant enthusiasm of the “cultural missionary.” . . .
How could young people, in particular, fail to enjoy such a life? It is true that if one visited the eastern parts of the Warthegau it was impossible to imagine oneself to be standing on lost German soil which had simply to be reclaimed for the Reich. This country was Polish through and through. Hitler had not reclaimed it but conquered it in battle. We knew that might had triumphed over right there. In those days we should probably have agreed that “the right of the strongest” had triumphed in the struggle for Lebensraum. . . .
Our existence at that time was for us like a great adventure. . . . All through our childhood the lament over Germany’s defeat in the First World War and her misery in the postwar years had never ceased. I believe that growing up in a country where people’s minds are dominated by such a mood has a fateful effect. Young people do not want to be ashamed of their fatherland. They depend more than older people on being able to honor, admire and to love it.
The fact that we were allowed to perform a kind of “colonization work” in “advanced posts” there healed the wounds which our sense of honor had suffered in our childhood and early youth. Germany required us not merely to do a job of work but to give our entire selves. This feeling rose on many occasions to a sensation of intoxication. . . .
It goes without saying that in this situation we were inclined to romanticize our existence in the “front line,” and developed much of the colonial’s presumptuous arrogance towards the “stay at homes.” . . .
I was the first Reich German B.D.M. leader to be sent to the Warthegau, and for a long time I was the only one. It is true that I had no leadership task—I had simply come to Posen to run the press department for the Regional leadership of the Hitler Youth—but I quickly made close contact with the local . . . B.D.M. leaders and was drawn into their work.1
Although Maschmann was at times troubled by the behavior of her fellow “cultural missionaries,” she found ways to rationalize or make excuses for their actions. A former teacher drafted into the Germany army in August 1939 found it harder to do so. Wilhelm Hosenfeld, like Maschmann, was a committed member of the Nazi Party. In October 1939, he was appointed the commanding officer of a camp for Polish prisoners. From the start, he was troubled by what he saw and heard there. By December, he was raising questions in his diary about the expulsions from the Warthegau:
Why are these people being torn away from their dwellings when it is not known where else they can be accommodated? For a whole day long they are standing in the cold, sitting on their bundles, their meager belongings, they are given nothing to eat. There’s system in it, the intention is to make these people sick, poor, helpless, they are to perish.2
In a letter to his wife, Hosenfeld wrote that he was “sometimes ashamed” to be a German soldier. But although he secretly aided some of the prisoners in his labor camp, he did not protest to his superiors about their treatment. The same was true of Herbert Mochalski, a pastor in the Confessing Church who served as a German soldier during the invasion of Poland. He told an interviewer many years later, “I saw horrible things. . . . It is nonsense when a German soldier says . . . that he never saw anything, that the soldiers didn’t know anything. It’s all simply not true!” He went on:
We sat on our trucks and saw it. . . . All right, we could, we should, have protested then, but how? We couldn’t have changed anything. I mean, all that is no excuse. Indeed, we all failed in this respect, that things went that far at all, isn’t that so? And that is the awful thing that weighs on all of us, up to today.3
- 1 : Melita Maschmann, Account Rendered: A Dossier on My Former Self (London: Abelard-Schuman, 1965), 73.
- 2 : Quoted in Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich at War (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), 30.
- 3 : Quoted in Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Against Hitler (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 164.