John Wilkins
John Wilkins

Fellowship Title:

The Time Machines

John Wilkins
August 25, 1967

Fellowship Year

Remagen Federal German Republic 

August 18, 1967


Mr. Wilkins is the 1967 Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from The Tacoma News Tribune. Permission to publish this article may be sought from The Managing Editor, The Tacoma News Tribune, Tacoma, Washington.

1. The Tape

There were four of us on the von Hodenberg terrace, shaded by linden and oak trees. The austere, manorial house is still the largest home in the Lower Saxony village of Barum bei Uelzen and still the heart of a substantial farm — but 20 miles to the east is the border with East Germany. Over there in Mecklenburg, the von Hodenbergs once had additional farmlands. No longer, of course.

**Von Hodenberg Home Near Uelzen.

The four of us were staring at a tape recorder and listening as the spools inexorably rotated. The date was July 31, 1967. The tape had been made and sent to me six months earlier, but it told a story that began in 1935. The tape was stitching a part of Germany’s past to the present — and it dealt in part with the place where we were sitting. As we listened, it seemed to me that the air was electric. My playing the tape was a calculated risk.

The man who had recorded his own voice on the tape is an American psychologist working in the United States. In 1935, at the age of 18, he had been among 10 students from Tabor Academy, a Massachusetts prep school, who went to Germany and “exchanged” parents and boarding schools with 10 German students.

**Memories of The Nazi Period.

On tape, the American reminisced about his period in Germany: his stays with the von Hodenbergs on vacations; his life at the Ilfeld “National Political School.” which had received that designation a year earlier after being taken over by the new government; his feelings about national socialism.

The American had never met Curd-Siegfried Freiherr von Hodenberg, the 19-year-old youth with whom he “exchanged.” But I had.

I had attended Tabor in 1935. Curd-Siegfried and the nine other Germans had been friends of mine, in varying degree, though I was several years younger than most of them.

Before going to Germany this May, I wrote to the Americans who had gone to Germany in 1935; I asked for reminiscences and for any clues they might have about the fates of the Germans with whom they had exchanged. I learned of the deaths in action of six of the Germans, and in Darmstadt I had a reunion with one who survived (JMW-2). As for Curd- Siegfried, the American who responded with the tape did not know whether he had survived the war.

Then, while I was in North Germany in July, there came a letter from a source in Germany:

“I am sorry to have to tell you that also Curd-Siegfried Freiherr von Hodenberg has not survived the war. Like three of his brothers he was killed in action. There is one brother left: Arthur Freiherr von Hodenberg, at Barum bei Uelzen. With him, his aged mother, Gertrud Freifrau von Hodenberg, is living…”

…I telephoned the Barum number. A man’s voice answered: “Von Hodenberg.”
He opened the door of his house and smiled.

Yes, a brother of Curd-Siegfried. The same reddish-brown hair and gray eyes; a polite, direct manner which in earlier years might have included a bit of the shyness that had been Curd-Siegfried’s. Curd-Siegfried would be 50 now. Arthur, at 60, is somewhat stout and is a couple of inches under Curd-Siegfried’s six-foot-three.

On a table was a portrait photograph of Curd-Siegfried. It must have been taken a year or so after I knew him. It was a fine portrait, in profile, of a sensitive but strong face, a handsome young man* He was not yet in uniform. On the wall were pictures of a brother in Luftwaffe uniform, who died in a crash in Russia; of a brother who starved to death in a Russian prisoner of war camp; of a brother who died in Russia commanding an infantry company.

Curd-Siegfried, too, had been commanding an infantry company when he fell, in the Crimea.

Arthur had become an American prisoner in the last days of the war.

Arthur speaks no English. In stumbling German I said that I remembered Curd-Siegfried as the most reserved of the 10 German students -but also as aware and alive, with a quiet sense of humor. (At 19 he had been older than the others and seemed the most mature. He had been a bit apart, less exuberant, more “Thoughtful.”)

“So,” said Arthur with a nod, as we remembered Curd-Siegfried, who would be 50 now. Then we went to the terrace.

**Arthur in Berry Patch.

There was a surprise for me on the terrace: a 55-yearold cousin-of the von Hodenbergs, Otto von Marcard, who lives in a village near them. Otto attended summer school at Tabor in 1930 and was graduated from Ilfeld when it was still a “Klosterschule.”

Otto, a hospitable and widely read gentleman, speaks good English. For awhile he translated between Arthur and his wife and myself, but soon he and I were deep in our own discussion, about Tabor, about national socialism, about the von Hodenbergs, about West and East Germany today, about what he termed, “we Germans and our unassimilated past.”

Had it not been for Otto’s kindliness, breadth of viewpoint and the depths he was willing to probe in order to explain — not “justify” — the behavior of Germans under Hitler, I would not have offered to play the tape I had brought in my briefcase “just in case.”

An additional reason was that he spoke English and that Arthur and his wife did not. The tape expressed many good memories of and high respect for Arthur’s mother, along with the narrator’s analysis of his own sympathy in 1935 with some aspects of national socialism. Nevertheless, for Arthur to hear his mother described, no matter how kindly, as a Nazi sympathizer, would have served no purpose. After losing her husband as a result of WWI wounds and most of her wealth in the inflation of the 1920s, she had lost four sons and most of her property in Hitler’s war.

But I felt that Otto — a nephew rather than a son of the freifrau, with the perspective of having attended both Ilfeld and Tabor — would be interested in the memories and commentary of an American Tabor “boy” who had attended Ilfeld for a year and spent vacations in the von Hodenberg home. . . And, indeed, Otto was interested

Arthur, his wife, Otto and I listened to the tape’s description of the scenes before our eyes: the fine old house, the low, half-timbered farm buildings, the quiet village. To the young American 32 years earlier, these had been “straight out of the past”; and so it was with me; I was under the spell of North Germany — of the cool winds, the deep greens of trees and fields, the thatched roofs sweeping down almost into the grass, the “evening music” in the church where Bach had studied in L11neburg, the tug of something in the blood.

Of course the changes in Germany since 1935 had been huge and the ordeal of this family typical, yet there are parallels between the family’s situation then and now. Something has come full cycle, though the difference in mood is striking.

In 1935 the American youth had discussed the “new Germany” with his hosts, even as I discussed contemporary Germany (again, a “new Germany”) with my host’s of the same family, in the same setting. (In 1930, at Tabor, Otto von Marcard had been grilled about the “terrible” Kaiser, and people wanted to discuss “All Quiet on The Western Front.”)

The tape told us that the young American had been bold enough to question Freifrau von Hodenburg and others about this man Hitler. What about the recent, bloody purge of the S.A. (Brownshirts) and the killing of former associates like Roehm? What about Hitler’s demagoguery?

She acknowledged many of his points, but said that Hitler’s techniques were “necessary” – – that national socialism was restoring German self-respect, had put people back to work, and was supported by the vast majority of Germans. Looking about, he had to acknowledge truth in some of her observations. Adults were working hard and eating, Youth was working hard and playing hard and enjoying itself. The von Hodenbergs, who had lost so much in the inflation, were not decaying in despair and nostalgia; they were very much alive — those who had not died in WWI — and though they were treated with deference by the village people, the relationship appeared to be grounded on mutual respect.

The American’s boarding-school experience at Ilfeld reinforced his growing sympathy with national socialism. (Until the previous year, Ilfeld had been a “Klosterschule,” a Lutheran- oriented school with classical curriculum whose students were selected not only from “good families” but from high-performing all-around types of all social classes. Hitler took power in 1933, and in the ensuing year schools of this type, as well as cadet schools (discussed in JMW-2), were taken over by the government’s department of cultural affairs and grouped under something called National Politische Erziehungsanstalt (National Political Educational Establishment), known as N.P.E.A. or, familiarly, as “Napola” schools. The 10 Germans who went to Tabor in 1935 were from four Napola schools.)

Fellow students at llfeld were friendly toward the American. A military tone had been added to the school — calisthenics in early-morning cold; glider training; much running over the countryside; horseback and motorcycle riding; now and then a turn-out alarm at night. Of Nazi indoctrination in class there was, in 1935, nothing. Anti-Semitism was extra- curricular (and is discussed briefly in JMW-2).

The tape’s final comments cut two ways:

  1. When he returned to The States he was very sympathetic to national socialism, so how can he now criticize a German of his own age for having been attracted?
  2. Ten miles from Ilfeld is Nordhausen, near which the concentration camp of that name was constructed. The American had learned that after the war, the residents of Nordhausen were compelled to go through the camp. He said, “If Freifrau von Hodenberg had gone through it, I wonder if she would have said, ‘It was necessary.’”

From time to time during the playing of the tape, Otto flicked it off and translated for Arthur and his wife — though I had warned Otto about the Nordhausen bit and he did not play that section in their presence.

Arthur had been 28 during the American’s visit and had been away from his mother’s home, so he did not recall the American. But he appeared pleased that the American had enjoyed his stay, and he invited me to return when his mother can see me. Of the tape’s political aspect, Arthur had no comment other than that Germans are “still not ready for democracy,” having been conditioned by dukes, princes, kaisers and a dictator.

That comment is frequently heard in Germany. It can clear the conversational air or fog it. At times I have been unsure whether it was made in sorrow, or in behalf of a personal anti-democratic commitment.

In Otto’s case, I postponed seeking elucidation of the remark. He is not a political-type man. He is a farmer: he loves his raspberries and potatoes and grandchildren; he is more concerned with Common Market agricultural agreements and the demand for sugar beets, oats, pork and beef than political abstractions. Even though ancestors in scarlet jackets look out from the dining room walls, he comes on as a farmer rather than a “landholder.” I am still searching for a “stiff, militaristic Prussian with a ‘von’ in his name.” I think Arthur would be greatly at home with a Vermont farmer of small acreage and an Iowa farmer of large acreage.

But the American farmer is not likely to have studied Greek and Latin for eight years, does not have volumes of Lessing and Goethe beside those of Shakespeare and Mark Twain and Winston Churchill. His recent reading may, or may not, include Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley,” Gore Vidal’s “Julian,” and the Oxford Modern English Bible. I refer to Otto, the cousin. The 55year-old gentleman asked me to his home in a nearby village: he wanted to show me his farm and the village; wanted to hear the tape again; wanted his son (mid-twenties) to hear it; wanted to talk; wanted to tell me things; wanted to ask me things.

**Arthur von Hodenberg, left, and His Cousin, Otto von Marcard.

Some of what he wanted to express was made easier by the tape recording, though he did not seize upon it as a shoehorn to ease himself and other Germans out of their guilt in letting Hitler lead the nation to misery. Rather, he wanted to help me understand the Germany of that period, letting the guilt fall where it might, and he wanted my views about current problems in my country, which he had come to love through his short stay there in 1930 and through its writers.

(His farmer-son, like Arthur’s, was much more interested in plumbing my limited knowledge of American farming than in hearing my memories of a dead relative he couldn’t remember or in hearing a tape about Nazi Germany.)

Otto wanted to make these points:

  1. That the elite “Napola schools – despite the highly suggestive “national political” designation — preserved their pre-Nazi traditions and ideals to a remarkable degree and had far less of an explicitly Nazi coloration than ordinary German schools, let alone the “Adolph Hitler schools.”
  2. That prior to the late thirties many Germans were attracted to national socialism by an idealism that eventually carried some of them into opposition and allowed others of them to function partially as human beings even within the party.
  3. That for those who had not been strongly opposed, intellectually and emotionally, to the party from the very start, the line between loyalty to Germany and loyalty to Hitler became excruciatingly difficult to draw — and that when the difference finally became clear to anyone with a brain, only heroes could toe that line.

“One of the Ilfeld graduates was Otto Kiep, former German consul general in New York,” Otto von Marcard told me. “Later, in 1943, he had a diplomatic job in Berlin. He and about 20 others attended a secret anti-Nazi meeting in Berlin at which an attempt on Hitler’s life was recounted. One of those present was a Gestapo agent -and a few months later Kiep and most of the others were executed, most horribly.”

(In “The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich,” William L. Shirer documents that “Frau Stolf Tea Party” story and credits Kiep with discovering that Himmler was on to the group. Kiep warned the others, but too late. And presumably Kiep had harbored un-Nazi feelings even before the war. According to the Shirer book, Kiep’s loss of the New York consul general post had resulted from his attending a reception for Einstein.)

Otto told of another Ilfeld case:

The headmaster during and just prior to the war had joined the party in its early days — “out of idealism” — when he was a teacher of Greek. One morning at assembly during the war he read to the school body a pronouncement from Berlin that was antireligious in any but a fanatical Nazi sense. He followed it with his own statement: “Whoever says this is my enemy!” By this time some of the teachers were S.S. members…but the headmaster stayed in office.

The war demanded more and more bodies; the upper grades at Ilfeld were dropped. Eventually there were youngsters only. The Russians were coming. In school uniforms, led by their headmaster, the students went into combat.

The headmaster and some of the boys were captured at the very end of the war.

“The Russians said the boys would have to go to Russia for five years,” Otto recounted, “but that the headmaster could go home. But the headmaster told the Russians that where the boys went, he would go. The Russians obliged; the headmaster spent five years in Russia, helping the boys as best he could.”

This man retired recently as principal of a high school in Hannover. Perhaps I shall get a chance to ask him about the “idealism” that drew him to the early Nazi movement. Otto did not delineate it; his message was that early Nazis were not confined to thugs and fanatics.

This idealism, if such it was, is an elusive thing to understand. On the ideological level, it might be termed the desire to cope with and synthesize the two great 19th Century forces that still churned — socialism and nationalism. On the immediate practical level of that time, an effort to do something about the hardship and despair in Germany. On a very different level — emotional, mystical, “racial” — a reaching for misty, exalted values in reaction to the realities and chimeras of the industrial age, the rootlessness, the commercial attitude: “Capitalism, communism, decadence, the Jews.” This “reaching” at first tapped German romanticism and created an image of German wholesomeness and honor and nobility; then the “reaching” went further, to the farthest depths of irrationality and depravity, and created such a reality that the original image became the biggest myth of all.

Otto discussed life under Hitler in these terms:

  1. Lack of information. Was the General Staff going to overthrow Hitler? Was Hitler going mad, as it appeared? Was the British radio correct (there was a death penalty for being caught listening to it) when it talked of atrocities in occupied lands, or was this more of World War I-type propaganda?
  1. Fear. “It’s almost impossible to describe life under a dictatorship.”
  1. Bewildering pace of events. As part of this kaleidoscope, it is perhaps appropriate to quote again from Shirer’s book:

“…But in the beginning — in the thirties — the population of the Nazi concentration camps in Germany probably never numbered more than 20 to 30 thousand at any one time, and many of the horrors later invented and perpetrated by Himmler’s men were as yet unknown. The extermination camps, the slave labor camps, the camps where the inmates were used as guinea pigs for Nazi ‘medical research,’ had to wait for the war.” (With much of the extermination being done in Poland, he points out. Basic sources indicate the bulk of it was there, and late in the war.)

  1. Divided loyalty. Otto emphasized his belief that the main thing keeping a great many Germans from rebelling was the example of the highly respected Army. In turn, he feels, the Army leaders were partly stymied by their oath of loyalty (though of course some of them did die trying to overthrow Hitler); partly stymied by the belief that if they resigned or were killed in rebellion, their replacements would be fanatical Nazis — a tortured kind of loyalty which said, in effect, “I’ll serve this odious regime because if I don’t, things will become even more odious.”

The known and unknown Germans who died fighting Hitler, who opposed him without hesitation from the beginning or who made the big choice later, are testimony on the other side of the “argument” — if such it is -as are those persons who hate the memory of their own acquiescence.

What do you-think of German youth today?

I ask that of many German men and women who were in their teens or twenties during the Thirties.

The answer often comes in two parts: EAST and WEST.

West German youth is said to be interested only in cars, money and rock ‘n roll — not about, well . . . they aren’t concerned about meaningful things . . . about Germany.

That is fascinating. The older person feels that Germany’s hands are tied; that the West German coalition government or its successor has no chance of building sturdy bridges to the East Zone (DDR) until Ulbricht dies and there will be the faintest hope of a more liberal regime there; that Neo-Nazism is ridiculous, and so on. Yet this person expects young people to be concerned “about Germany.”

Most of these older people stress that youth finds the Nazi period completely incomprehensible.

But the older people feel that in East Germany a very different picture is emerging.

They are disturbed — bemused — as they hear that in a somewhat similar way to that of the Nazis, the Communist regime is exploiting the energy, enthusiasm and idealism of youth. They hear that — in marked contrast to West Germany — the Prussian traditions of military “smartness” and pride of regiment are being preserved in a graft with Communist ideology.

All this brings forth a very, very complicated response in an older West German. It is good to know that some German youths, at least, “believe in something” — but bad to have them believing in Communism. I would guess that many a West German, even while feeling shame about the Nazi period, misses what was in the air during the early stages — the group feeling, the “Volk” feeling, clean-limbed youth singing on the march.

A change of thought is taking place about East Germany. There is a pensiveness replacing some of the Cold War rancor. West Germany has “made it” as a nation and society, but the amputation produces a throb. In this connection, some of my leftover notes from an interview with the political editor of a large German daily (JMW-4) seem appropriate:

–“What we are looking for is a relationship with the DDR that in fact recognizes its government as sovereign though doesn’t explicitly afford “recognition… This drawing together would have to involve acceptance of some of the characteristics of their government, a realization that some people there have created institutions and positions that cannot be thrown away — and some of these reforms may be good.

–“After all, they have had to live there, to make accommodations — somewhat similar to the situation under the Nazis, when there was no longer hope of overthrowing them because the policies of the Western powers helped keep them in power.

–“For a time we hoped to deal directly with Moscow, which was one reason we have gone along so far with DeGaulle, but this has born no fruit at all. Our hope lies in a better attitude in the DDR after the present top management departs . . . In this we need the support of Eastern Europe. One problem involved in dealing with Moscow on this is the Polish attitude: they fear a Russian-German agreement at their expense.” (Shades of the Polish partitions!)

The editor said the conclusion of skilled opinion-evaluators is that more than 15 per cent of East Germans would vote for the Communist regime in a free election, and that more than double that percentage accept the regime in the sense of adjusting their lives to its continued existence, though without enthusiasm.

“But,” said Otto von Marcard, “in another generation they could capture the loyalty of youth.”

Otto and I were in his library. On the wall were large paintings of his father, in Prussian blue field officer’s uniform, with binoculars, and his brother, in the black of the Brunswick Hussars; both had fallen in World War I.

We talked again of Curd-Siegfried and the molding of his generation.

The young man had been Otto’s favorite among the von Hodenberg brothers. Otto had tutored him in Greek.

“He was a fine, bright fellow,” Otto said. “I was with him on his last leave. You remember, the Germans were driving toward Moscow in 1941 and almost made it, but winter struck, and there was no proper clothing. The Germans retreated and the Russians followed.

“Curd-Siegfried had been in the advance and retreat. The night before he returned to his command, we talked for hours and hours. He told me about the retreat: horrible, horrible.

“Then, in 1942, the Germans were advancing again. Curd-Siegfried died in the Crimea, on the attack. It is better to die advancing than retreating, I think.”

The Time Machine

2. The Film

Christian Carstensen, the young math and physics teacher from the Potsdam Napola school who took the German students to Tabor in 1935, was an unlikely choice by the department of cultural affairs. He had not joined the Nazi party. Had it not been for peculiar circumstances, it is probable that a teacher with a more “positive” attitude would have been chosen.

The circumstances were that Potsdam had exchanged students with Tabor before Hitler took power, and that W. H. Lilliard, Tabor’s headmaster, had visited Germany in 1934 and virtually insisted that Carstensen be the man.

Carstensen and his wife greeted me cordially this August at their home in Flensburg, near the Danish border. At 60 he seems little changed except for some added pounds. At Tabor he was white-haired, with flashing teeth, laughing blue eyes and a vigorous North Sea manner. That describes him now. His hobbies are gardening and gliding.

He had fine news for me: the two students of whom I’d had no word were still alive. This means that instead of there being only one survivor from the 10, there are three. (Among all Napola youths, about four out of five fell.)

Talking with Carstensen brought the Tabor days back with dazzling clearness . . . and then. . . the final wizardry; he ran a reel of motion picture film he had taken at Tabor, with the Germans appearing again and again.

Since 1935, when as a 15-year-old I had looked up to them as “big guys,” my memory of them had grown increasingly selective, colored by realities and emotions of the war years. Most of them stood in my memory as “good Germans,” but all were poised there for metamorphosis into Nazi supermen.

…Then, to see them in the movie, young enough to be my children. Their personalities leaped from the screen; I remembered them whole and clear. And I can’t think of anything they resembled more than myself and my chums at the age of 18.

Carstensen told me that for sure, these students had been indoctrinated only in a general way and that specifically Nazi pressures on the mind were surprisingly light even while they finished their schooling in Germany. But during the year before they went to Tabor, and when they returned to Germany, there was constant emphasis on patriotism, discipline, conformity, and dynamic use of youth’s energy and competitiveness. Napola youths needed little ideological prompting; they rushed to the armed services in the late Thirties out of sheer exuberance.

“And I think they are reaching youth in a similar way in the East Zone,” said Carstensen, almost with the same words as Otto von Marcard.

If to these youths being a Nazi meant merely being a good German, could Communism take on a similar meaning to young East Germans?

When Carstensen returned to Germany from Tabor, there was no teaching job awaiting him. His gliding club and teachers’ association were now in the big Nazi family, but the stubborn Friesian did not join personally until 1937.

“They kept asking you to join,” he told me, “until it got to the point that you had to have a very definite reason for not joining. Ultimately there were no reasons except those that would put you in a concentration camp. So I joined.”

(The Tabor headmaster wrote to British occupation forces after the war, urging prompt de- Nazification of Carstensen because he was a very un-Nazi type. This does not mean other things. Carstensen told me that his pride suffered greatly during the war because diabetes kept him from the armed forces. “I am a German,” he said.

Part of what he did do during the war is expressed on the inside walls of his house.

Hanging there are numerous very fine paintings — rich in color and movement, distinctive in mood. They are all originals of the German expressionist Emil Nolde, 1867-1956.

Nolde had no children but was distantly related to Carstensen. They lived near each other close to the Danish border. As a child, Carstensen was fascinated in watching Nolde — 40 years older — at work, and he became almost a son.

After WWI, Nolde’s work was hung in art museums throughout Germany. Nolde joined the Nazi party long before it achieved power — “out of idealism,” according to Carstensen. (I have a hunch that this “idealism” is involved with his preoccupation with Friesian landscape, moody seas, crimson sunsets, sturdy peasants, and hatred of telephone wires and other “improvements” that intruded upon his landscapes — dare I say, “agrarian Nazi”? Carstensen points out, too, that Nolde had seen his part of Schleswig pass back and forth between Denmark and Germany — from Bismarck to Wilson — and that he “thought like a German” though he married a Dane and had many Danish friends.)

**Christian Carstensen.

But shortly after taking power, Hitler ordered some of Nolde’s paintings to be placed in Nazi exhibits of “degenerate art” and the rest to be destroyed. Nolde was ordered to stop painting — but he went to his farm at Seebűll, a few miles from Denmark, and in a small room painted miniatures, which he concealed around the farm. These became known as “unpainted pictures” because they were illegal; some are now on traveling exhibit in The States.

Nolde’s Berlin apartment contained about 200 large paintings that had escaped the Nazis. During the war Carstensen was again allowed to teach at the nearby Potsdam school. As the bombings got worse, Carstensen made furtive trips out of the apartment with rolls of “paper.” lie and his wife smuggled 144 Nolde paintings to Seebűll, where he and Nolde buried them. Discovery probably would have meant death.

In 1956 Nolde left Carstensen a selection of his paintings. The bulk, however, were left to a foundation he set up with Carstensen as a director, and the remainder were bequeathed to Denmark.

So at Seebűll I was shown the brilliant paintings that the foundation displays in what used to be Nolde’s farm; and a few miles away, in Denmark, the other pictures are hanging in a very similar setting in the village of Tondern.

Weekends, Danes and Germans crowd them both.

**Nolde Museum Director Dr. Martin Urban, with Mr. and Mrs. Carstensen.

Received In New York August 25, 1967.