Students reflect on their own experiences with “conformity” before reading firsthand accounts of German citizens who faced the decision of whether to pledge an oath to the Nazi party.
Kurt Klein, who emigrated from Walldorf, Germany, to the United States in 1937, recalls how Nazi policies and propaganda affected his life at school.
You mentioned earlier that you had some experiences with your non-Jewish friends, that as Hitler rose to power, the relationships changed. Would you comment on that?
Well, there was of course a gradual alienation with my non-Jewish friends and classmates. And whereas in the beginning, they were almost apologetic about it, and saying things such as, "Well, Hitler doesn't mean people like you really, or your parents, but you will admit there are certain Jews who really deserve to get Hitler's wrath," and so on—in the beginning, they would still be half apologetic about it. This soon turned into a real taunting of Jewish boys and girls.
They might say, "You know, there are now some concentration camps. And if you don't behave and if you don't watch it, you'll wind up in one of those." and gradually they even stopped talking to us altogether.
But I had seen the gradual change of that. I also saw how they were exposed to Nazi propaganda. For instance, it became mandatory for all schools and all classes to attend such films as the Leni Riefenstahl film, Triumph of the Will. And I myself had to attend it also. And I could see how they were swallowing that up and how it affected them and how they were imbued with this idea of German glory. And anything they would tell them about the Jews, of course, they also swallowed whole.
And so I remember coming out of this film and, having seen the reaction of my classmates, walking along and thinking, how did I get into this position? I didn't do anything. Why is all this venom directed at me and my family and all the people I know? So I could see the role that propaganda can play and how it can influence people.
What was it like for you having to sit in a class and watch a film like this?
Well, it was a totally shattering experience for me to find that all these people were turning away from me, and what was even worse, that some teachers were espousing that same ideology. For instance, I remember a gym teacher of ours giving a lecture once in class to the effect of-- this is as close to what he said as I can remember: There are certain elements among us here who are merely guests in this country. They will be treated OK as long as they behave themselves. But unfortunately they have not always behaved themselves, and therefore we cannot guarantee what will happen to them. I mean, this completely undid me, and not because perhaps even of the content, but because I could see that the Nazis were reaching everybody, not only my classmates.