I WAS AT SCHOOL IN NAZI GERMANY
By DAVID S. UNWIN
" HEIL Hitler!" The form master faced the class, clicked his heels and raised a stiff right arm. " Heil Hitler," echoed my new form-mates as we all rose to our feet. For a second bodies tautened and all arms except my own remained outstretched ; then, the salute over, the class dropped back once more on to the long benches and the first period of the term began. I was soon to get accustomed to this ritual as it was repeated before and after every one of the six morning periods throughout each week of term. On that first morning, however, it was somewhat disquieting, and I could not help thinking a little wistfully of the cheery " Good morning boys " that would have greeted me on a similar occasion over in England.
The day before a tiny railway had brought me from Fulda. As the train penetrated deep into the hills, I leant out of the window and caught a first glimpse of Bieberstein Castle, a school perched on the summit of a steeply sloping wooded hill, dominating the valley. This was not actually my first visit to Germany ; during the two years before Hitler came into power I had spent pleasant summer holi- days with my father, walking in Thuringia and through the Schwarzwald. Those were indeed magic days! I can remember tall glasses of milk at to pf. a time ; Bachforellen, fresh from the stream and eaten at tables out of doors under the tt ees ; the cheery " Griiss Gott" exchanged with every passer-by. How different seemed the drab wintry streets of Fulda, where armleted " Winterhilfe " collectors were rattling their boxes and the shops displayed anti- Jewish labels on their doors and windows.
My welcome at the school itself, however, was cheerful by comparison, and I was at once shown my room and introduced to the boy with whom I was to share it. He was already in possession, as the wall above his desk testified. it presented a formidable array of crossed daggers, pennants, flags, party signs and badges, all surrounding the inevitable portrait of Der Fiihrer. In spite of this somewhat bellicose self-expression, I found my companion to be a most simple- hearted lad, not overburdened with brains, yet with none of the fanaticism and hardness associated nowadays with the German youth. He hailed from Breslau, and it was obvious that his real attachment was to his home, his family and the surroundings where he had lived. His was decidedly a peace-loving nature, though he preferred to delude himself into thinking otherwise. He took himself far too seriously, as they all seemed to do. I shall always remember him dressing up in his 7ungvolk uniform, cleaning his topboots and polishing his buttons and badges. This ritual was gone through twice a week at least and occupied the hour follow- ing lunch.
I used to lie on my bed and watch his self-esteem swell as he donned each further part of his uniform, the uniform that showed him to be an official, a vital representative of the nation's youth about to undertake official duties. When all was complete, provided no notice was taken of the mild spectacled face under the peak of the black cap, a veritable swashbuckling black-booted tough stood in the room. A final glance in the mirror, a click of his heels and a gruff "Wiedersehen" in my direction, and he would be gone. " To a parade," I vaguely imagined that first afternoon, but hearing his voice in the courtyard below I went out on to the balcony. A rattle of wheels, hooves on the cobble- stones, and a tiny donkey, no bigger than a Shetland pony, clattered off down the road towards the railway-station in the valley. Standing on the swaying cart, resplendent in his uniform, I recognised my friend. I learnt later that it was his " official " duty to bring up mails and packages left for the school at the little station.
My first impression of Bieberstein was of its height. The sturdy buttressed walls of the Castle formed a square, with an enclosed courtyard in the centre, and the higher windows commanded really wonderful views over the surrounding country, forests and hilltops stretching in every direction. In summer the situation would have been perfect, but during the early part of 1937 the weather was extremely severe, and the castle seemed to catch every bit of wind that was blow- ing. In spite of an efficient steam heating system I still remember the long stone corridors and stairways with a shiver. However, our bed-sitting-rooms, which encircled the top floor, were quite snug and comfortable ; indeed, in some of the old-stagers' apartments a standard approaching luxury was maintained. The rooms were, without excep- tion, shared by two boys only, but at coffee-time in the afternoon and during the evenings it was usual for large parties to gather together, and there would follow lengthy discussions or perhaps some community singing accompanied by the inevitable strains of the accordion.
As I could already speak German after a fashion, I had little difficulty in entering into these discussions, and most of the boys were genuinely anxious to hear my point of view on matters in general. They were even ready and willing to discuss the merits of dictatorship with me, but my efforts to convince them against their own belief had not the slightest effect. When I went further and en- deavoured to expound the ideas I then held on absolute pacifism, and ridiculed the idea " My country, right or wrong," I was regarded with friendly pity. When broaching " der Fiihrer " as a topic of conversation I encountered a brick wall. Other party celebrities could be criticised and casually mentioned in the course of discussion, but not Adolf Hitler. As one lad said to me, in all seriousness, "Hitler, you see, is perfect."
A tourist visiting Germany in 1937 would have had little cause to grumble at the food in hotels and restaurants. Bieberstein, however, was no hotel, and in spite of being a fairly expensive school, favoured by the remnants of the aristocracy (the Kaiser's grandson, Prince Christian, was a member of my class), the daily menu left much to be desired. Erster Friihstfick consisted of porridge, watery milk and a little sugar. The day's ration of butter was doled out at second breakfast, at about ten o'clock in the morning. It consisted of a pat about the size of a half-crown, but thicker, and the flavour was none too good. Most of the boys halved this ration and kept the reserve portion in their rooms, between two bits of bread, to be consumed later. Twice or three times a week we were given white rolls, for the rest the choice lay between grey and schwarzbrot, and I got heartily sick of both. Tea was served, already sweetened, in jugs and drunk as it was, without milk. The only fresh fruit I ever saw on the school tables were occasional platefuls of wizened apples, obviously the product of some local orchard. Yet in Fulda I was able to buy lemons, oranges and grapefruit in an effort to supplement the school diet.
The school assembled in the hall every evening for what was called " chapel," but instead of a religious service we were usually read to by the headmaster. I can also remember sitting there on the afternoon of January 31st, listening to the speeches of important party leaders, and finally to the raucous outburst of Hitler himself. In all, we sat on the wooden benches throughout four solid hours, and, since I could follow little of what was being said, I was extremely glad when it was over. The German passion for speechifying and parading often showed itself even in the school routine. Once, in particular, the limits of absurdity were reached, though no one seemed to find it in the least humorous except myself. The head-boy at that time had passed his Arbitur and was leaving. At supper his successor announced that the school would parade in the courtyard after the meal, as he had an announcement to make. So out into the quadrangle we went, to parade ankle-deep in snow, standing to attention in the bitter night air. Up on the steps the new head-boy, a hefty fellow, bellowed: "I greet you in my new office. From henceforth I am head- boy. You may dismiss. Heil Hitler! "