Jost Hermand Jost Hermand

Dr. Joseph Peus,
interview by Lyndsey Romero,
February 15, 2006


essay completed March 15, 2006

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany since 1945
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2006

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About Lyndsey Romero (back to top)

I am a fourth year history major and Italian studies minor here at UCSB. I spent the fall 2005 studying history, art history, and Italian in Rome, which was the most amazing part of my college experience thus far. Living and traveling abroad have helped me to decide to stay another year in Santa Barbara, so I can complete a global peace and security minor, with the hopes of being able to live abroad again. Though my main interests in history have always been American related, I have become increasingly interested in European history. I am excited to go to Germany during Spring break in a few weeks, and I hope to travel the country extensively in the near future.

My essay focuses on German youths during the Third Reich. Throughout my studies of Germany during World War II, I have found that children are often overlooked. I feel that in order to understand Nazi Germany it is important to look at how children and teenagers were affected, and how these experiences translated to the generations which followed. I was fortunate enough to interview Dr. Peus, a German man who grew up in Berlin until 1945, when his family was forced to evacuate. In an effort to get an even more complete description of German youths during the Nazi period, I chose to supplement the interview with Jost Hermandís autobiography, A Hitler Youth in Poland. The two menís stories, though containing some similarities, definitely vary. Age proved to be a key factor in the stark contrasts of their youth, though family background played an important role as well. Through the recollections of Dr. Peus and Jost Hermand, one can really gain knowledge of childhood experiences during Hitler-Germany, and see how these experiences affected their adulthood.

Dr. Peusís interview and Jost Hermandís autobiography answered many of the questions I had prior to starting the project. Through the two sources, I had hoped to gain an understanding of German children, in terms of their upbringing, politics within the family, feelings towards Jews, psychological implications, as well as current views on their experiences. Because Dr. Peus did not have the same unfortunate circumstances in the Hitler Youth program, he had been able to talk about his experiences, and has not been handicapped by them. Jost Hermand was finally able to talk about his past, unlike many German youths who grew up in the same time period, but still has a hard time looking back, and coming to terms with his traumatic childhood. The most prominent element in the two menís diverse childhoods proved to be age; because Dr. Peus and Jost were six years apart, their experiences during the Third Reich were quite different. Similarly, both men recognize that their childhoods did shape them into the persons that they are today.


Book Essay (back to top)

Dr. Joseph Peus

Dr. Joseph Peus was born in October 1936 in Berlin, Germany to an upper-middle class family. His father was a Professor of Medicine at the most prestigious medical center in Germany, and perhaps Europe at the time. This well-known Charite hospital was famous for its medical history: the Father of Pathology Rudolf Virchow, as well as the Father of Radiology (which Professor Peus taught), Wilhelm Roentgen once worked there. Clearly, Dr. Peus did not grow up in the average German household during the 1930s and 40s.

Professor Peus and his wife were tied to the Socialist Party, and were extremely anti-Hitler. Dr. Peus recalls that his father read anti-Hitler newspapers until they were banned by the Nazi Party. In an effort to reiterate his fatherís extreme disdain for Adolf Hitler, Dr. Peus told a story of his parents at a bar:

"One night, my mother and dad went out to dinner, and before dinner they went to a bar. My dad had probably a couple beers too many, which he rarely did, but he did that time. Of course, in every establishment there was a big, big picture of Hitler. So after about three or four beers, or maybe it was five, I wasnít there, he just took the pitcher of beer and just threw it against the wall, hitting this picture of Hitler. It just panicked my mother because there were several SS men in uniform in the bar, in this cocktail lounge. She got him out of there in a hurry. That is just one little thing."

Dr. Peus was not aware of this event at the time. When asked whether he knew of his parentsí political affiliations, he said that he was unaware because it was too dangerous to talk about political issues with young children. Nazi elites were his neighbors, and he played with a child whose father was a "Brown Shirt." He asserted that not until after the War did they discuss politics.

Jost Hermand was six years older than Dr. Peus, so his relationship with his parents was quite different. His father was a poorly paid textile employee, who at the time did not want to join the Nazi Party because he had a family to care for. The Nazis promised financial assistance, so he gave in to the partyís request (Hermand, 1-2). On the other hand, Jostís mother grew up with a higher social status. She was completely against Hitler, and found the Nazis too vulgar for words. She threatened to divorce her husband if he joined the party; their marriage was highly strained because of the differing political beliefs (Hermand, 3). Jost asserted throughout the book that his mother instilled these anti-Hitler views in him. He was young, but was still old enough to understand the evils of Nazi ideology. Jost would have to keep quiet, especially because it was mandatory for him to join the Hitler Youth, but his motherís political ideas stayed with him throughout his life.

Dr. Peus recalled that his father was asked to join the Nazi Party three times. Obviously, he declined, but his third refusal in early 1944 cost him his job as a professor. Fortunately, Professor Peus had a large private practice, and was able to continue working successfully. After the war, he would receive his job back.

Because racial cleansing and attitudes towards Jews has been widely covered in my studies, I was interested to hear about their familiesí attitudes towards Jewish people. Dr. Peus had a remarkable story about his fatherís efforts to help a Jewish friend.

"I wonít go into details, but Iíll tell you that my father hid one of his close friends from medical school who was Jewish for several years in what we thought was a country home, but it was just a cabin by todayís standards, in the Black Forest. There is a long, interesting story to go along with that which I wonít bore you with. But, it just so happened that this Jewish professor was also a professor of medicine also at the hospital. Of course, he lost his job in 1938, and had a large private practice. My father told him way back in 1936 that he wanted him to leave the country because he said "theyíre going to kill you." This particular gentleman was an Iron Cross bearer, Germanyís highest decoration for battle, from World War I. He said to my dad, listen, "Iím an Iron Cross bearer, Iím German, there is no way I am going to leave, and theyíre not going to do anything to me." My father said, "You donít understand, theyíre going to kill you." Anyway, he didnít listen, but my father did help him get his family out, and also helped him get his money out to Switzerland (most of his money). And then of course, in 1940, it was too late to get out, and so my father his him, or had him moved into our cabin in the forest. It was kind of by itself on the edge from the forest, about a 25 minute walk from the nearest village. My father had done a huge favor for the mayor of this village in 1934. It was a huge favor that had to do with an abortion, which of course was illegal in Germany because Hitler needed soldiersÖthis mayor had impregnated a young woman, and he had a family. The Mayor called my father in Berlin, in Berlin everything was possible, and my father arranged for an abortion for this young woman. But at the time, in late 1934, this Mayor said to my father, "Youíve saved my family, youíve saved incredible embarrassment for me, how can I ever thank you? What can I do for you?" My father told him to forget about it, so now comes 1940. By this time, the mayor who was still mayor, was the head of the Nazis in this village, and they called him the gauleiter, so my father went to see him and told him about his friend who was Schmitt. He told him that he is hiding him, and that he, the mayor, would certainly help him, and bring food to him on a regular basis "wouldnít you, yes he would." It was clear without having to say it that it was kind of a subtle blackmail. My dad would have given him away, or at least that is what he thought. So here is the head-Nazi in this village bringing food to a Jewish professor. Obviously this did not wash with Nazi ideology, and it is punishable maybe by death, and certainly by imprisonment, and losing everything the guy had. He brought him food every week, and you have to remember that food was scare in Germany. I remember as a boy that every several months, this Schmitt would come to visit us in Berlin. He was always eating it seemed to me, and I remember this day wondering why he was always eating and was so thin. As a child I couldnít know his real name because I would have mentioned it to my friends on the street, and it would have been a disaster. That was my contact with him. He would come from the Black Forest to Berlin on a bicycle, which was quite a long way, but he would never stay for more than two or three days..the reason I am telling you this story is because in late 1944, this mayorÖone son and two of his buddies noticed in the fresh snow some footprints going out to the forest at dawn. They followed the footstepsÖall the way to the cabin, and discovered Professor Schmitt. His buddies reported it. My father immediately went to Stockholm, Sweden."

Though Jost or his family did not have a direct contact with Jewish people, he too remembered that his mother had never disliked Jews. She advocated that her son not let fascist hatred have any sort of influence on him (Hermand, 67).

Obviously non-participation in the Nazi Party came with consequences. After helping his Jewish friend, Dr. Peusís father taught in Sweden as a visiting professor. While his father was away, Dr. Peus remembers two SS men coming to his home, with black leather coats and boots. These men came unannounced, bowed, and were very polite according to Dr. Peus. They said to his mother, "We have orders to speak to Professor Peus." His mother informed the men that his father was in Stockholm, teaching. The men had orders to look through the Peus home (in the basement, attic, and closets). Before they left, they thanked his mother for allowing them to inspect her beautiful home, but they said, "We must tell you that we are very disappointed that in this beautiful home, with many walls and the beautiful paintings you have, we didít find one picture of our Fuhrer." Dr Peus asserted that his mother was always quick, and she stated," Gentleman, I donít need the Fuhrerís picture in my house, I have it in my heart." Three weeks after his fatherís arrival back to Berlin, he was sent to a camp for interrogation. Because he had a lot of General friends who were patients, Professor Peus was able to get out.

Dr. Peus and I also discussed his memories of the Allies. I was interested to hear if he had any perceptions of them as a child, and if so, what he remembered. He recalled Berlin being bombed three times a day. The Russians would only come if the weather was clear, so if his mother saw stars, the family had to sleep in the basement. The Peus family did not go to the bomb shelter because he said it was often too late by the time people were warned. The parents decided that they would take a chance if the bombing happened to be a direct hit. Dr. Peus asserted that the Americans would bomb in the afternoon, rain or shine, whereas the British would bomb at night. The Allied bombings did affect him, and he knew that they were dangerous. When he heard the whistling of the bombs, he would panic, and wait for it to hit him. He remembers his little sister whistling to the bomb, being too young to know what was going on. Dr. Peus also recalled looking out the window and seeing houses on fire. All of this anxiety caused him to get rashes from nervousness when he woke up in the mornings.

One of my main interests of German children was their participation in Hitler Youth programs. Dr. Peus was a little too young to participate in Hitler Youth. He stated that up until age thirteen, HY was like the boy scouts. Boys would sing and march, but they wouldnít shoot guns. A lot of propaganda was fed as well. At age eight, he would have to join, but boys had the option of joining at age seven. Dr. Peus wanted to join when he was seven because he would receive a shirt, belt, and bayonet-like knife, which was a big deal at the time. Professor Peus would not allow him to join at seven, and sternly told the child that he was not to ask questions. Afterwards, Dr. Peus realized that his father was hoping that the war would be over by the time he had turned eight. He does remember that his application was sent in, and he received paperwork.

Jost Hermand, who focused most of his book on his experiences in Hitler Youth camps, was greatly affected during his late childhood and teenage years. Jost was born in Germany in January 1930; therefore, he was the prime candidate to participate in the HY camps. He would spend most of the time between October 1940 and January 1945 away from his family, and under control of the Nazi youth programs. It is difficult to sum-up five years of experience in a simple paragraph, but it is important to understand how different Dr. Peus and Jost Hermandís experiences were, largely due to Hitler Youth.

The authorís main goals of the book were to show the crimes committed by the Nazis against children and young people. He remembers being ten years of age, being dragged away from his mother, and evacuated to his first camp (Hermand, 7). Throughout the story, Hermand reiterates the excessive Nazi dogma, which advocated comradeship. Young Hermand felt anything but comradeship; instead he was a victim of rigorous training, a hierarchy created by fellow boys and even sexual sadism (Hermand, 11). Jost asserted that he had no mental or cultural stimulation, or even social identity (Hermand, 14). Hermandís experiences in HY camps really took a toll on his early years. The traumatic events caused him to have psychological damage, and Jost has had to confront these issues up to the present day. It is important to see how a few years of age completely changed the experiences that the two kids faced during the Third Reich. The Hitler Youth was very powerful, and Dr. Peus was fortunate not to have had that experience.

Dr. Peus left Berlin with his father on May 3, 1945 by car. He remembers sleeping most of the way, and that it took all day and night because the car ran on wood. The two reached upper Bavaria on May 4, and met his mother and sisters, who were already there. The farming village was in the American zone, but Dr. Peus said that the Americans did not come until the 5th. He remembers the Americans coming in and pointing their guns, setting up a command post, and everyone in the town putting up white sheets to show that they had surrendered.

The Peus family stayed in the village for a year and a half. He recalls the town being very primitive. The house consisted of seven bedrooms and one bathroom upstairs (which was the only house in the town with indoor plumbing); he remembers having two rooms, but his family had to share the bathroom with the other seven families who had also evacuated when the Russians were moving in. Dr. Peus said that he was skin and bones at the time. Food was scarce, and there were no stores. He said people had to fend for themselves. His mother would trade ball gowns for eggs. Dr. Peus remembers picking blueberries and wild mushrooms. He would even sneak into the pasture to drink milk straight from the cow. Because the American GIís wanted eggs, they would take Dr. Peus and the other boys and trade eggs for chocolate. This was exciting for the young boys because under the Nazis chocolate had only been given to pilots since it was a stimulant.

The family moved to Frankfurt, Germany after a year and a half. Professor Peus became a chief of a big hospital. Since Dr. Peus had not gone to school since the evacuation, he states that he had become quite rowdy. His parents sent him to a strict boarding school in Bonn, where he remembers getting whipped all the time.

In 1950, the family moved to Omaha, Nebraska. Professor Peus moved his family to America because he was convinced that the United States would not allow the Russians to stay in Europe, and a war would break out between the two countries on German soil. He was not willing to put his family through another war.

Dr. Peus discussed his initial period in the U.S. He knew Latin, Greek, and French, but he had not gotten to English yet. The only English words he knew were "mother, father, yes, and no." He remembers the American view that every German was a Nazi, and the daily fist fights in his teenage years.

Though Dr. Peus had a trying childhood, he asserted that his experience helped him handle life better. He feels that it made him stronger, and has no regrets. His German roots are still a huge part of his life. His wife learned German so that they could speak it to their children. Dr. Peus said that on his death bed, he did not want his boys speaking English to him. Like his father, he became a doctor, and is an orthopedic surgeon in Santa Barbara. He has four children, two of whom reside in Montecito, close to him and his wife.

Jost Hermand also believes that his brutal experiences helped him learn survival. Without attending the HY, he would have remained a sweet, but weak individual (Hermand, 93). Still, it is obvious that his youth has haunted him over the years, and he has had to overcome ideological, moral and psychological factors. Being a few years older forced him to have a different experience. Also, because he was not of the same social standing as the Peus family, he was not granted the same opportunities. It is very commendable that Hermand chose to break the silence, and really come to terms with h is past. Though one never wishes to have a disturbed childhood, HY did indeed make him stronger. He is now a research professor, and has written or edited twelve books.

Conclusion

Dr. Peus concluded our interview by raising some questions. He asked how it was possible that an educated population, a country of music, poetry, and one which was socially liberal (the Jews were the most integrated of any country), could allow it to happen. How did Hitler come to power? He recognizes that Hitler was a great orator, and Dr. Peus did not believe that he was neurotic in the beginning. Dr. Peus talked about how the Treaty of Versailles led to depression (and inflation) for Germans; when Hitler came around, everyone had jobs (even though they were unaware that they were building up his war machine). He does see how it was possible for Hitler to take over, and asserted again that he did not believe he was a madman until the end. Dr. Peus exhibited his love for history, and understanding for past events. His childhood was remarkable, and through the interview, I came to realize that he embraces those early years of his life, and really kept them with him. They molded him into the individual he is today.


Bibliography and Links (back to top)

  • Hermand, Jost. A Hitler Youth in Poland: The Nazisí Program For Evacuating Children During World War II. Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1997.
    • Review of Hermandís book:
      "A Hitler Youth in Poland: The Nazi Childrenís Evacuation Program During World War II. (Brief Article)." Publisherís Weekly 244.n45 (Nov 3, 1997): 73(2). Expanded Academic ASAP. Thomson Gale. UC Santa Barbara (CDL). 27 January 2006.
    • http://nupress.northwestern.edu/title_print.cfm?isbn=0-8101-1292-2.

Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.


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