A Discussion with Irmgard Hunt, author of On Hitler's Mountain
Patriotism generally has positive connotations of love and loyalty
to ones country. What does patriotism mean to you now?
Patriotism is one of the most misused terms in our political vocabulary and thanks to my childhood experience I am always suspicious of its use. Hitler and the swastika flag aroused fervent "Vaterlandsliebe" (love of the fatherland) in Germans, including myself at times during my childhood. These symbols are used to motivate citizens to sacrifice their lives or even kill others in the name of patriotism. Feeling pride in ones culture and roots is obviously acceptable, but, unfortunately, leaders of all ilks easily exploit these feelings in order to obtain blind support for highly questionable objectives. Citizens in a democracy have a duty to object if, in the name of patriotism, their government tries to dismantle laws that assure freedom.
In addition to documenting the German peoples way of life during WWII, what can people today take away from your memoir?
Most pertinent to todays situation, in reflecting on my Nazi childhood on Hitlers mountain, I learned thateven in the United Statesfreedom and democracy must not be taken for granted. Threats that brought about the Third Reich are alive and well today here in the US. Among them are misguided patriotism; intolerance; racism; rigidly held ideologies; our engagement in an unjust, unprovoked, and aggressive war; and the bending of laws for political purpose. As I unearthed my family's experiences, it became clear that the greatest danger to democracy comes when people, out of uncertainty and ill-defined fear, blindly follow a leader who convinces them that he is destined to make them safe. Believing that their hero needs appropriate tools to guarantee their welfare, they remain silent as democratic principles are violated and dismantled and principles of freedom are annulled.
After you came to the US, how did you describe your childhood and growing up in Berchtesgaden?
I was silent about my background because it inevitably caused people discomfort or prompted them to vent their resentment on me. I felt put in a position of defending the indefensible; yet, I still loved my native home.
Now, sixty years after the war, most people dont even recognize the name Berchtesgaden or have, at best, a tourist perspective of the Eagles nest, Obersalzberg, and the town. But more importantly, I think the war in Vietnam was a watershed the way people viewed this topic. Before Vietnam there was a conviction of Americas righteousness and the total evil of Germany. Then Americans saw that even democratically elected leaders could lead a country into a war with which not everyone agreed. This humbling experience caused people to reflect on the courage it takes to stand up against ones government and how long even in an open society it can take to change foreign policies.
The words: "I felt thoroughly sick of these conflicts forced upon me by adults" leapt off the page. How do you think adults use children to enhance their own sense of power? Should adults take more care to expose children to conflicting ideas and points of view to help them form sound, personal opinions?
Politicians, including Hitler, thrive on being portrayed with smiling, happy children providing evidence that the future of the country is in caring, fatherly hands. I think that the worst misuse of children is to turn them into spies, informers, and even soldiers. In free societies, teachers and especially parents have the obligation to prevent politicians from establishing policies that endanger their childrens future freedoms and well-being. Most of all, they have the responsibility to expose children to diverging views, to expect tolerance, and to encourage them to question things and to stand up for their views. Parents should never cede this responsibility to ideologues who may use propaganda machines as good as those of Goebbels.
Do you see similarities between present day societies that indoctrinate children with hatred and intolerance and those in your childhood in the Third Reich?
Most political regimes look to the nations youth to assure their own future and the next generation of devoted followers. Putting children in uniforms and making them feel part of a larger cause are well-tested tricks of authoritarian regimes. One-sided pressure and the teaching of superiority and intolerance¯often paired with intimidation¯are almost impossible for a child to fight off. Poverty and hopelessness provide particularly fertile ground for hatred to take root as we have seen in Germany in the twenties. But even in democratic countries improving childrens lives should be a priority on a nations agenda.
How did you regain confidence in leadership and the political process as you moved into adulthood? What do you now consider the ideal government? What do you consider the responsibilities and characteristics of an ideal citizen?
The total collapse and defeat of Germany provided a tabula rasa* on which to build almost anything in terms of a new political regime. In East Germany, youth was immediately indoctrinated and captured by a Stalinist regime. We in the west were immediately educated towards a U.S. guided democracy, both filling a complete void. As our new political system in the west evolved my parents were at first allowed to vote only in local elections. The first national elections in a united West Germany were held in 1949, four years after the war ended. I was still too young to vote but was excited by the process and knew what each party and their leaders stood for. I had no doubt that a western style democracy with a legal framework that guaranteed the rights of all citizens was the only desirable form of government for West Germany. Being a good citizen, to me, meant staying informedpresumably by a free, independent mediaand becoming part of the political process beyond voting.
(*BookBrowse note: tabula rasa literally translated = clean slate)
What, if anything, could an average German who disagreed with the Nazis or became disenchanted with them have done about Hitler once he was in power?
Very little. With Hitlers control of executive, police, and judicial functions it would literally cost your life to even mention your disaffection. At a minimum, negativism, like that of my grandfather, was a crime that could cost you your job, contracts, pensions, or send you off to the concentration camps.
Could a Hitler happen here in the US? If so, under what circumstances?
I have thought about that a lot, and yes, an American Hitler is possible. But it would arrive largely unnoticed and insidiously, with the pretense of a free democracy intact. The first prerequisite is having the executive, legislative, and judicial functions in the hands of one very strong party with media either largely controlled by that party or under sympathetic ownership. The trigger that would tip the scale might be a monstrous disaster such as a long-term depression or another more fear-inspiring terrorist attack. There might be a group or groups that would be demonized and become an excuse for extreme measures. In Germany it was the Jews. Here it might be terrorists or extreme Muslims. If there were a great enough fear or strife here in the US, a group that monopolized power, and a scapegoat to apply blame to, these ingredients could surely create reason for suspending or ignoring the Constitution and breed an American Hitler.
How did the writing of On Hitler's Mountain change your perception of your mother?
My mother died at 75, again widowed, bitter, and crippled by arthritis. Writing about her young years gave me a new sense of her vitality, her willingness to start over, her courage, and her true devotion to those she loved. My mothers extreme grief when I left for America had left me feeling guilty for years. While writing the book I began to understand that her losses and her loneliness were at the root of her mourning over my departure.
What do you consider to be the most important sacrifice Mutti made for your family?
Every mothers life is a series of devotional acts. There is no one particularly dramatic event that I can point to, and it is, in fact, the small ways that my mother sacrificed her sleep, time, and energy that come to mind. For example, when she sat up through the night to finish the hem on a birthday dress or when she traded her best china to send me to a farm in the fertile low-lands for a week to fatten me up when I had tuberculosis.
You write about your personal anguish and eventual healing from the impact of being born and raised during the Third Reich. How did you decide to confront the perilous events of your past through writing?
I began writing about my fathers death just a few years after the war when I attended the Gymnasium (high school). In class, one day, I read my essay out loud and was stunned to realize that it had moved my classmates to tears. I rewrote that story many times. The decision to put the memories of those mean years into a book was prompted by my grown-up childrens questions, and my conviction that the lessons of my Nazi childhood must not be lost, especially in this time of fear and of peril for the American Democracy.
How does writing about the events of your childhood sixty years later change them? How easy or difficult was it for you to remember the sorrow and fear you felt as a child, and the voice and mindset of the girl you once were?
I am sure that hindsight colored my memoir, especially after living in the U.S. for so many years and reading many historical accounts of the time. Telling some of the stories was difficult. Old wounds were re-opened and anger at the adults whom I loved and who allowed Hitler his power surged again and, of course, sadness at all the carnage. Remaining honest to who I was and what I knew as a child required constant, conscious effort to reexamine my memories. I gained confidence by talking with many people in my hometown and Selb, researching town and family records, studying photographs and, of course, relying on my mothers diary and other documents.
If you, had kept a diary of these terrifying and tumultuous times as Anne Frank did, what comparisons do you think would be made?
I dont think a comparison is possible, fair, or fruitful. Anne and I were by sheer fate born into completely different circumstances that became our destinies. Thanks to the Nazis we both lived through early suffering and have a right to claim those particular experiences. Through my country she and her family lost their lives and I feel deep sorrow about that. There is no competition.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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