My University

“I participated in the book burnings at the university last night!” my brother Peter exclaimed.

“Where books are burned, people will eventually be burned,” I retorted.

We were students at Berlin University. He had joined the Nazi German Student Federation as many students had. The Depression dimmed prospects for employment. Hitler seemed intent on reducing unemployment and dealing with the Depression.

But the black swastika encircled in white on a red background in the Nazi flag moved in the wrong direction—counterclockwise. Enthusiastic crowds cheered Hitler when he announced German rearmament in March 1935. Most Germans approved of rearmament; they regarded the Versailles Treaty as dictated and unfair. They believed Hitler was demanding equality for Germany and that he wanted peace. “What else could I wish for other than calm and peace? Germany needs peace, and wants peace,” said he.

In September 1935 he enacted the Nuremberg Laws. I was dating Martha Schlesinger, a university student who was Jewish. The Blood Law forbade marriage and sexual relations between Jews and Germans, and the Citizenship Law stated that only someone of German or related blood is a citizen. Martha’s father had served in the German army during World War I and her family was loyal to Germany. I did not see why they should not be German citizens nor able to marry German citizens. Peter, on the other hand, contended: “These laws strengthen the nation.”

As crocuses budded in the spring, German troops marched into the Rhineland with no resistance from French forces. Germans were euphoric. Admiration for Hitler abounded. Yet freedom of speech was stifled and propaganda replaced freedom of the press.

German rearmament continued. The Sudetenland Crisis in September 1938 threatened war. Hitler was ready to go to war with Britain and France to incorporate the Sudetenland—a German speaking part of Czechoslovakia—into the Reich. I strongly disagreed with this militaristic policy. At the Munich Conference Britain and France avoided war by ceding the Sudetenland to Germany.

On the night of November 9-10 synagogues went up in flames in Germany. Many Jewish shops were destroyed. Shards of glass littered the pavements in front of shops. Many Jews were arrested. Both my brother Peter and I were appalled. The next day he said: “Goebbels must have organized it. I believe that Hitler did not know.” Like many young Germans he continued to believe in Hitler.

The following March Hitler, breaking his promise that the Sudetenland was the last of his territorial demands in Europe, took the rest of Czechoslovakia. Britain and France gave a guarantee to Poland.  On August 31 German radio reported that Polish troops carried out attacks along the border. Peter believed it. But it was a lie and a ruse to go to war. The next day World War II began with Hitler’s invasion of Poland.

Walther Sigg, the head of my department at the university, was middle-aged with a high forehead and little capacity for empathy. Three weeks after Hitler invaded Poland, he presented a paper on the need for Lebensraum—living space— for the German people. He supported deporting thousands of Poles to make room for Germans. Like some other history professors he had joined the Nazi Party to advance his career. Deans of faculties and heads of departments were now political appointees. Many students also supported Hitler: some of them through a misguided idealism for Germany’s rebirth.

When France, the old enemy, fell in June 1940, many at the university were jubilant. Huge crowds in Berlin cheered Hitler on his triumph. I was not jubilant. World war was no reason for jubilation.

In our department some faculty were teaching about Germans’ illustrious past and that further German borders were appropriate. Others taught German volk (people) history to coincide with the Nazi view that the German people were superior. Thus students perceived that they approved of Nazi ideology.

The following June Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Victory, however, did not come as expected before winter. I was working in the armaments industry. Peter had been conscripted into the German army and sent to the eastern front. From there he wrote me that the troops lacked supplies and winter clothing.

Hitler published a request to the German people in December for warm winter clothing for the troops. Many Berliners were shocked: the government had not provided for basic necessities.

As the war on the eastern front dragged on, propaganda suggested that victory at Stalingrad was in sight. Then silence followed. A letter from Peter in the 6th Army at Stalingrad told me why. The Army had been encircled and the soldiers entrapped.

He wrote me a last time in January 1943: “We are in a hopeless position at Stalingrad. I send this letter while the airfield is yet ours. In past years I believed in Hitler. But he has lied to us and left us in the lurch. Please don’t forget me too soon.”

I won’t.

Even as British and American bombing of German cities increased and Allied troops began to close in on Germany—Russians from the east, Americans and British after D-Day from the west—no criticism of Hitler occurred at the university. For that one could be denounced to the Gestapo, the secret police.

Only after the Allies defeated and occupied Germany in 1945 did some things change at the university. The Allied Military Government provisionally removed faculty from their positions based on their membership and participation in Nazi organizations. Through denazification, however, only a minority of faculty never returned to their jobs. At a denazification hearing Walther Sigg denied that he was ever a Nazi or ever accepted Nazi ideology. He claimed that he joined the Nazi Party to be in position to protect academic values. He did not divulge that he supported war for Lebensraum, deporting Poles, and repopulation by Germans.

His denials led to his reappointment as a professor at the university.


William Schoenl is retired from Michigan State University where he taught European history for 45 years. Wilderness House Literary Review published his CNF piece “Steps” (volume 16.3, Fall 2021). Besides twentieth-century and contemporary history, he is presently interested in co-founding programs for dire human needs in Uganda, Ghana, and Kenya.