Memories of the SS in Hitler Youth Memoirs
During the summer months I have been working on two thesis chapters on World War Two and how the Hitler Youth generation remember that period. Since I’m looking at an age group born between 1925 and 1933, there are a number of differences in what people experienced. One interesting difference I have noticed is how the memory of the SS is remembered by men.
The summer before the beginning of the Second World War was a very hot, almost all cohort members write. Depending on the age and sex of the cohort member, they would either experience their fathers, brothers, or cousins leaving to fight. For those born in 1933, they might not see their father again until 1945–in the worst case scenario, they died at the front.
Many boys aspired to become soldiers, as the culture of the early twentieth century surrounded boys with images of militarism. When the war came to an end, the German army (Wehrmacht) was able to manoeuvre itself to appear as heroes. They claimed to be common soldiers, who had been betrayed by the Nazi elite. This myth of the ‘innocent Wehrmacht’ permeated both West and East German memory for the majority of the postwar period. The theme of Wehrmacht innocence is reflected in West German culture, politics, and media from the 1950s onwards, which perpetuated the concept of Hitler’s elite, along with the SS, being the only ones at fault. Not until the 1980s and 1990s was the role of the Wehrmacht in atrocities on the eastern front brought to light.
The memoirs I am looking at, which discuss the Wehrmacht and the SS, came out in the 1990s and 2000s. Many writers distinguish between the different branches of the Wehrmacht, and certain branches are seen as more innocent than others. For example, being in the Luftwaffe is seen as more defensible than being in the ordinary Wehrmacht. The SS, as well, is differentiated: the Waffen-SS is considered as the better option than other SS units. These differences are made regardless of evidence of atrocities being committed by a large number of Wehrmacht and SS units.
Albin Greger, born in 1927 in the Sudetenland, distinguishes between the different SS groups and what they did in his memoir, Memory of a German Soldier (2015). He was recruited to the Waffen-SS in 1945, when he was seventeen years old. However, before this, his neighbour was drafted into the SS Totenkopfverbände. Greger recalls: “He was in the black uniform of the SS Totenkopfverbände, in shining black riding boots and with all kinds of silver on his collar. I was very impressed. He was still the same fellow, though, smiling placidly and saying little.” (Kindle location 677) Greger “found out after the war” that the SS Totenkopfverbände was “in charge of the concentration camps where such terrible things happened” and he could not imagine his “mild mannered and slow witted childhood friend in the role of a brutal prison guard. But a uniform and a little power have changed so many men before.” (Kindle location 681)
Being a part of the Waffen-SS was considered something to be proud of, even though towards the end of the war youths were forcibly recruited into the SS. Those males who attended Nazi elite schools were even more likely to join the SS willingly. Klaus Kleinau (born 1928) was one of these cohort members, who proudly fought in the Waffen-SS until he and his unit were captured by the Americans.
With this in mind, we turn to Günter Grass (1927-2015), one of Germany’s best known authors. Grass was a supporter of the social democrats and often a moralising figure in German public life. In his memoir, Peeling the Onion (2006), he reveals his willingness to join the Waffen-SS in 1944, serving as a Flakhelfer (anti-aircraft bomber). It caused a lot of indignation among the German public, as he had kept this information to himself. Placing Grass’s memoir into the larger body of writings, his memory is no different and not out of place. Yet, he is one of the only ones whose self-representation relies on feeling guilty for having been in the SS.
The memory of the SS and its role in Hitler Youth memoirs varies based on how involved the narrator was in the war. The SS might be in the periphery, but for many men, being drafted into the SS was a reality of war. Not everyone wanted to be a part of the SS; some were coerced into joining, whilst others looked forward to it. Therefore, talking about the memory now in light of its controversial connotations is difficult for cohort members and many attempt to emphasise the reasons why they joined. Many write about not knowing at all about the atrocities and murders, but it is questionable how far these are truthful and how much is actually being made up as part of the narrator’s self-representation.