John Wilkins
John Wilkins

Fellowship Title:

West Germany in the Morning

John Wilkins
May 11, 1967

Fellowship Year

Heidelberg Federal German Republic 

May 1967


John M. 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.

The finger of the 26-year-old German tapped on the photograph tentatively and his voice came slowly, entreating me to understand:

“This man was not an evil man.”

I looked down at the weekly journal he had placed on the table between us–the “NATIONAL ZEITUNG und Soldaten Zeitung.” The lead article asserted there is strong evidence that “high traitors” in the German General Staff, working with spies, mislead Hitler and Stalin into thinking the other was planning an attack in 1941 and thus caused the German invasion of Russia in order to bring the downfall of Hitler.

Large paragraphs of the two dictators–with Hitler appearing at his kindliest–flanked the lead paragraphs. The young German again pointed at Hitler’s picture…“not evil, this man.”

There was no doubt that the man talking was not evil. Moreover who was I to apply the absolute condemnation of that word to any man, even Hitler? So, despite a bristling sensation along my spine, I nodded slightly and said, “No more evil than a great many men. I think it was right to oppose him, but who can really judge him as a person?”

My companion seemed grateful for the comment. He went on:

“Hitler could not know everything that happened. The generals around him, you understand, kept knowledge from him. But even so, there were really not many Jews killed–nothing like the 6 million the papers say. Oh, no!”

That statement I had to rebut, Slowly, in the mixture of English and German we had used since sharing the lunch table an hour earlier on my first day in Germany, I quoted statistic* from court records, confessions, and remarks similar to one attributed to Himmler, that “the German people must never know.”

He seemed to accept some of my remarks and seized especially on the aspect of most Germans “not knowing” of mass executions. He brought to mind courtroom cases I had covered in which parents had the attitude that their son really hadn’t known he was doing wrong, that he was “a good boy.”

My lunch companion was a Linotype operator on a Heidelberg daily. He was clean cut, open faced, polite, and upon learning I was American he became very friendly. During his own military service he had known American troops: “Some of them were like brothers.” Our mood and tone had changed after we began discussing newspapers and he had produced his favorite, the one with Hitler’s picture.

Then tension and sadness began reaching out from this young man as if to grip me as well. Despite his seeming objectivity and his intelligence, his framework of thought about the Nazi period grew out of a strong inner need. For this need I felt overwhelming sympathy, but I tried to convince him–and perhaps did, to a degree–that his rationalizations in support of Hitler could lead him into outright fantasy. He must, I told him, come to terms with the basis of this “strong inner need.”

Because he really hadn’t been talking about Hitler. He had been talking about his father.

My companion was not an anti-Semite. He was not justifying the Nazis by claiming that accounts of mass murder were merely propaganda, then begging the question by implying

that the killings weren’t such a bad idea, eh, perhaps even a good thing, even if “overdone.” No! He desperately wanted to believe that the massacres had not taken place. Thought of them was a knife at his heart.

His eyes searched mine as he said, “My father could not have died in a bad cause.” Earlier he had said that his father was killed by a land mine on the first day of the war, in the invasion of Poland, Sept. 1, 1939.

“The very first day,” he now repeated, thumping his beer glass on the table, looking younger than his 26 years, turning his head as his eyes moistened.

I believe that over the years he had come to identify his father with Hitler, to feel that neither could have died in a bad cause–yet despite his rationalizations he was beginning to accept some of the truths about Hitler. So now he must come to terms with his father.

“I am sure your father felt he was fighting in a good cause,” I said–“for the Fatherland, for a better future, to ‘liberate’ Poland.”

He replied, “Ah, yes. All over the world, perhaps, men thought they were fighting in a good cause. Each had his reason. . .”

A silence grew. It was broken when he said, “High Noon.”
Puzzled, I replied, “High Noon, the bang-bang movie with Gary Cooper?”

“Yes, a beautiful movie. Very beautiful. Each friend of the sheriff was good and true, up to a point. Then each had a reason not to help him in the gun fight.”

What did this young German mean? That even his father had realized the invasion of Poland was wrong but had gone along with the crowd because “duty” was easier to follow than conscience? Or the reverse, that those Germans who opposed Hitler were the weak ones? Perhaps I am attempting to read to much into his remark, but it was evidence of a sensitive mind and of a preoccupation that still is with many Germans.

Will the Germans come to another High Noon in this century? Certainly a new day has dawned for the Federal Republic. The Adenauer era, we are reminded again and again by the serious press of the United States and the Federal Republic, is over. The coalition cabinet has thrown off the tandem harness that kept the two nations frozen in cold war stance. The United States focuses on Asia, withdraws troops from Germany, and, promoting a non-proliferation treaty, “builds a bridge over the heads of the Germans” to Russia. The West Germans, buttressed by De Gaulle, build their own bridges to Eastern Europe, seeking even to include East Germany.

Eventually the Federal Republic had to begin acting with this degree of independence– even if only as prelude to further integration with the rest of Western Europe. The West Germans have lived under a magnifying glass since World War II:. “damned if they did; damned if they didn’t.” Americans “de-Nazified” them in jig time and encouraged them to rearm and stand firm with us in the cold war, then worried about militarism and neo- Nazism. When they showed social discipline in rebuilding their economic life, some of us called them docile and undemocratic–“just waiting to be led”–but when even a small number of rightwing votes was tabulated in state elections this year, the cry went up, “It’s happening again!”

The first steps charted by the coalition are in the direction of not only detente with the East but of a heightened drive toward strong ties with France and with Western Europe generally. But the basic professed function of the coalition is to do away with itself after revising the nation’s electoral system to provide a winning party enough Bundestag strength with which to govern effectively. Soon the coalition parties will have to stop being quite so polite to each other and begin arguing about specifics –in the open.

That means that the various voices of the people will be heard as they have not since 1933. Not that the Adenauer years were “undemocratic.” Rather, German voices were muted as the nation concentrated on survival; then on rebuilding; then on taking its place as a strong, independent nation. All these steps were necessities–obvious ones which brought about a strong consensus among West Germans,

But now nothing is obvious and there is no Fuhrer, no Adenauer father figure. It was time for a change when Erhard stepped down, but whither the change?

Choices will have to be made by these people, who reputedly are much more at home in clouds of abstraction than in the smoke-filled rooms of democratic pragmatism. They have held themselves in for a long time. Expression of nostalgia for Nazism has been such a taboo that when a small amount of rightist sentiment found expression early this year in Hessian and Bavarian votes for the National Democratic Party, cries of alarm went up from Germans as well as Americans. More recently the life of this strife-ridden party seemed almost to flicker out when it made only feeble showings in Schleswig-Holstein and Rhineland-Palatinate, states where the party was thought to be strongest.

My point is neither that the Germans will swing to the right nor that they won’t. My point is that a great deal of pent-up feeling will soon be expelled and that we should hope to see it expressed in democratic politics as problems become sterner.

For instance, the long wave of economic growth has passed an inevitable crest; neither party in the coalition will want to stand still as the culprit if the downward slide is a long one. There is the problem of financing the expensive social security system for 9 million old-age pensioners; the problem of maintaining full employment; the problem of spurring investment when already there is surplus capacity.

What should the path and time-schedule be for reunification of Germany, if, indeed, this will ever take place? And those lands further to the East, beyond the Oder-Neisse line, lands that were part of Germany in 1938 and are now administered by Poland or the Soviet Union–will they be just a dying dream to the refugees and expellees from those areas now living in West Germany? According to the federal government, they and their children number over 10 million. In short, what will “detente” mean to the coalition parties once they agree to disagree?

Few nations have faced such complexities as West Germany does in her first year of true independence. Each major problem is related to the over-all problems of Western Europe

itself–how far and how fast to integrate. Though having been in Europe only two weeks, one of them in Germany, I don’t hesitate to say that there is very strong sentiment for strong integration. People of all classes express this; some are skeptical about the speed of its taking place and of De Gaulle’s willingness to join the gang, but even they say it is the only way for Western Europe to be secure and prosperous.

At the risk of blue-sky theorizing after my first contact with Europe, with the resultant

danger of prejudging the material I intend to probe in Germany in the coming year, I feel

obliged to present the following prospect, colored brightly by wishful thinking:

  1. A Western Europe in which regional tradition remains strong but in which confederated nations give up increasing amounts of sovereignty. 
  2. An Eastern Europe which follows the same pattern at a slower pace, with the laggard East German government finally being forced to go along rather than be isolated. 
  3. A detente in which the political division of Germany becomes less onerous and significant because of increased trade, cultural contact and general travel–with the wall eventually being peacefully destroyed.

The 26-year-old German I described is struggling to find himself and his voice. Perhaps in making him a symbol I have strained. So many Germans look and act like Americans. Indeed in a search for great meanings yesterday I frequently stepped on the feet of American tourists. Perhaps it was silly to resume the search this morning in the streets of Heidelberg–a delightful blend of tasteful modern with the Middle Ages–on the lookout for unexpressed potentialities in the natives. Wouldn’t a similar stroll in an American city, with a similar intense attitude, be bound to turn up something “significant”? Perhaps I was as valid a symbol as the 26-year-old German. I was the righteous American, keeping my eye on those Germans.

For indeed, other Western Europeans don’t seem to be holding their breath about the Germans.

“They are good people,” a Greek of the non-Communist left told me in a German train station while trying to decide whether it was safe in view of the coup to return to Athens. He had worked in a German electrical plant for a year and had lost a brother fighting the Germans in 1941.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” an American businessman based in Paris told me, “but there is no doubt about it. After everything the Germans did in the war, they are nevertheless the most popular people in Europe.”

He said he was afraid the Flemish-Walloon language controversy would “tear Belgium apart.” He described Belgians and Dutch as having animosities and business conflicts (how much of the former is really the latter, I’m not qualified to say) but said they both reported they could do business with the Germans (perhaps because there is a basis for “business” rather than competition).

A Frenchman who heads an American subsidiary in France said American and British businessmen are regarded as pushy, and went on, “The Italians are impossible as businessmen. You can teach a Frenchman to be a businessman. But the Germans are businessmen.”

(Of course let it not be forgotten that early in World War II the Germans were not entirely unwelcome in some European industrial quarters.)

To a striking degree, Belgians went out of their way to be friendly and helpful to this American–but without realizing it, a group of them perhaps offered a reason for a rise in German popularity.

That is, Hitler is no longer automatically the universal symbol of brutality. His place has been usurped in the minds of some by the President of The United States.

“We are a group of friends of the American people,” said a gentleman in a small Belgian city as he came to my restaurant table. During lunch he and his five companions of the World War I generation had been exchanging fractured French and fractured English with me and advising me about wine.

“But we are no friends of the kil-laire Johnson!” he said with his voice going high. “We have had our Hitler, you know!”

For five minutes he lectured me about Vietnam, saying the war was a betrayal of Hoover’s relief program, the idealism of Roosevelt, and the liberation of Belgium. He said something good about Kennedy, too. The men at his table kept nodding assent. I could doubt neither their outrage nor their good will. They were not proletarians and not intellectuals. They were well-dressed provincial shopkeeper types, with a fairly expensive meal under their belts.

I also feel it would be difficult to haunt European youth with the spectre of Hitler as German rather than Hitler as monster. By the bus load, teenagers spill onto the sidewalks of Heidelberg, Brussels, Paris, tra-la, flashing by in mini-skirts or jeans, chattering away in French, Italian, Swedish, English, German–changing languages, laughing. (What will it be like in July?) These youngsters are on the move and they speak their own language.

I am tempted to read great meaning into the sound of the French language falling trippingly on my ear in Heidelberg, when I see it (to mix a metaphor gloriously) against the background both of France rapidly replacing the United States as the Number 1 partner of Germany and of American troops (this is a headquarters town) getting ready to depart in considerable number.

Of course Heidelberg is a special sort of place. It wasn’t bombed in the war. It is a university town, many of whose book stores display covers that indicate serious interest in dissecting the Nazis and the nature of the current radical right. And Heidelberg is in the “Romanized” part of Germany on the fringe of Adenauer country–and der Alte built a bridge to France even as he engineered the Federal Republic with the help of The United States.

In a sense De Gaulle is probably the most important man in Germany today. France and the Federal Republic, and perhaps eventually Britain, should balance one another in an integrated Europe–unless De Gaulle’s envisioned “fatherlands to the Urals” will not accommodate the degree of integration desired by the coalition government and by (as I believe after a one-week very random poll) most West Germans.

Older Germans may sneer at the French–usually with good nature and a certain affection- -but the young of both countries are closer to making love than making war and the diplomatic objectives of both nations seem to be getting more and more into alignment.

Western Europe, then, is on the verge of becoming a great power. If the lingering rigidities and hatreds and ideologies of the older generations don’t wreck Europe and the world, these teenagers I mentioned may play the decisive roll for the balance of the century. Certainly they will speak for the unification of Europe, at least Western Europe.

My 26-year-old acquaintance–who never saw his father–will be overshadowed in time by those who scarcely will be able to understand his obsessions. But before those teenagers take over, the Germans now in their late 20s and 30s and 40s and 50S will be really heard from politically for the first time, and there aren’t many clues to what they are going to say.

Received in New York May 11, 1967.