I recently found a stack of notes I had taken as a child of conversations between my grandfather and me. Karl-Heinz Thienenkamp was born in 1928 as the first child in a simple, working-class German family in Dortmund. He died in 2014 as one of the most compassionate and generous people I have ever known. He has always been a personal hero, outlasting any fictional character I looked up to as a child. And although I had always known how important these notes were, it was only now that I realized how much insight into politics and power the stories within them offer. Karl-Heinz was part of a now slowly dying generation of eyewitnesses to fascism whose perspective we cannot afford to ignore.
Poverty and Hope for Communism
My grandpa grew up in post-WWI Germany. The German population expected a longer-lasting period of peace. It was also, however, a time in which Germany’s economy suffered from hyperinflation and the people from poverty and unemployment. “I once discovered a pack of Reichsmark bills in the cupboard in our bedroom. Millions, Billions of Reichsmark,” he told me in 2013. “I have a vivid memory of that very moment, I can still see the bills right before my eyes. They had absolutely no value. None of the money had any value whatsoever.” In that time, a bread bun was roughly 3 million Reichsmark in every bakery – and the price would likely increase to 4 million in just a few days.
His dad was a workman for the steel construction company Aug. Klönne. The company employed virtually everyone above the age of 14 Karl-Heinz knew. Kids worked to help feed their families, and my grandfather was no exception. As a child, he repaired shoes and distributed them in the neighborhood. These poor living conditions led to a pretty clear political bearing in his environment. “I was 5 years old when Hitler came to power”, he remembered. “I can hardly recall what happened when I was 2 or 3 years old. But since we came from a working-class family, my father, my uncle, all of them were left-wing.”
As he described it, there was an overall tendency among poor families to lean toward communism. My grandma Helga’s family is a prime example. During the later years of Hitler’s reign, her cousin was found in exile in Holland and taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp for his association with communism. Another communist who survived the horrors of the Nazi camps would meet my grandfather in a tram after the war. “He told me this: `Young man, existence determines a person’s consciousness.’ If you grew up as a working-class child in extreme poverty, you’re going to have a completely different political understanding.”
According to Karl-Heinz, German workers used the Russian Revolution and end of tsarism as an example to resist their capitalistic oppression. “One has to emphasize with German communists: from their perspective, capitalism couldn’t be the right thing, `we will always stay poor, we have no perspective.’ They thought that there had to be a way out.” And yet, as he noted, capitalism is dominant to this very day. And there seems to be a reason for that. “The Germans made a mistake: poor Germans, the working class, never came to an agreement. Communists and social democrats, they had different parties – with the same goal, but their party programs didn’t match.”
The importance of working class unity seems to be a recurring theme in my notes. Grandpa later told me about the Russian prisoners of war that worked at Aug. Klönne. Many starved to death because they were barely given any food. A Nazi supporter at the factory used to kick them in the guts repeatedly. Karl-Heinz’s father, my great-grandfather, and a lot of the other workers treated the Russians with respect. They secretly shared their food with them, and in return, one of the Russians constructed a ring made of stainless steel with my Grandpa’s initials on it as a gift to the family. This Nirosta-ring is still in my family’s possession. It stands for a labor solidarity that is not restricted by national borders or wars.
The Rise of Hitler
“But all these [thoughts on class, communism and capitalism] were considerations made before Adolf, before the war, and before the GDR [German Democratic Republic, also known as East Germany].” Karl-Heinz was very little when Hitler came to power, and he couldn’t remember when exactly the Night of the Broken Glass took place. Still, a lot of the discriminatory and fascist policies, he already noticed at an early age. “I used to know who was a Jew and who wasn’t. This I remember: in 1937 or 1938, I was walking through the Weißenburger Straße. In front of all sorts of different houses, there was furniture on the pavement, the apartments of Jews had been emptied. There were synagogues burning, but I didn’t go there.”
A year before WWII, 10-year-old Karl-Heinz, along with the other children his age, was forced to join the Jungvolk, the younger division of Hitler’s Youth. “If you didn’t join in, you were an opponent of the Hitler system, of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP).” Although my great-grandfather wasn’t a member of the Communist Party, he was certainly anti-Hitler. “This man is no good for us”, he used to say. “But [most of] the simple people,” Karl-Heinz said, “used to say `Adolf Hitler is our leader, he gives us back the work and he gives us back the bread.´”
The majority of people weren’t political. They were easy to please, and Hitler pleased them by creating new jobs through large-scale projects and war preparation. Family acquaintances, the Schulzes, adored Hitler. They had a painting of him on their wall. One day, when Karl-Heinz was about 9 or 10 years old, he went to the Dortmund train station where Hitler and Mussolini were passing by in a train. “Everyone was waving with [Third Reich and Swastika] flags, celebrating. It didn’t really impress me[.…]At 10 years, you don’t 100% have your own perspective. Your family was against Adolf, so you were against him, as well.”
But my great-grandfather couldn’t risk his family, especially his son, being publicly identified as opponents of the regime. Hence my grandpa joined the Jungvolk. There were entire books of songs, chants to Hitler, he had to learn by heart. They marched through the Dortmund city center. “You had to be obedient and march, it was pre-military, military even.”
Hitler’s Volk ohne Raum (“People without Space”) ideology, whereby geographic expansion was necessary because the German people didn’t have enough space to live properly, was one of the ways Karl-Heinz and kids his age were indoctrinated and Germany prepared for war. Their school books would compare the amounts of Germans and Russians living on one square kilometer. Hitler would legitimize eastward expansion and the entire World War with this ideology, claiming the victim role for himself. “`Returning the fire´ [referring to Hitler’s claim that Poland first attacked Germany and Germany was merely defending itself] was a lie. Germany raided Poland.”
“It didn’t feel like a punishment to me, having to participate in the Jungvolk,” he explained. “You had to greet everybody with a cord, I didn’t like that, you felt like the small one[.…]I only knew, later on, when I was older and able to think independently, and the war with Poland began: war was like a shenanigan, marching into another country and winning felt so self-evident[.…]It had soon become routine, we thought it would always go on like this[.…]But when we attacked Russia, all I saw was how huge Russia was, and I thought `that was the big mistake.´”
Germany during WWII
“The people in Germany suffered gruesome things during the war.” My grandfather in no way meant to relate German experiences to the immense suffering of victims of the Holocaust victims and Hitler regime. Still, the German working class families surrounding him, many of which were anti-Hitler, too suffered from the destruction WWII inflicted. Karl-Heinz was 11 or 12 years old when Aug. Klönne started constructing the Klönne bunker the Thienenkamp family would escape to with each new bomb strike. The sight awaiting them after leaving the bunker was complete destruction: “Dortmund was a desert of debris.” Rubble on the streets, burning or collapsed buildings: that the family’s house survived the war to the end was a cast of fortune.
His school had to be evacuated and his class would be sent to various locations all over the country for months. At one point Karl-Heinz, his classmates, teachers, and Hitler’s Youth leaders lived in a hotel for 6 weeks. A few days after they left, the hotel burned to the ground. His class spent the weeks and months after in Offenburg. There he and a friend worked for their host parents’ restaurant. “Overall, we barely heard anything about the war in Offenburg. It was an idyllic silence.” This would soon change.
On December 1st, 1944, my grandpa was drafted as Luftwaffe auxiliary personnel. Tragically, had he been born just a few days later, he would never have had to become a soldier for the Third Reich. “At the age of 15, we were treated just like any 20-year-old soldier.” He swapped his clothes for uniforms and steel helmets. Karl-Heinz would live in barns with up to 12 people each and sleep in three-story bunk beds. It wasn’t unusual that the soldiers would have to put on their gas masks in fear of gas strikes – or that they were forced by the Oberfeldwebel (drill sergeant) to sing with their gas masks still on. They were divided into two groups, Messstaffel and Geschützstaffel, those who measured and those who gunned within the Third Reich air force. Karl-Heinz had to detect the site of enemy planes and pass them on to the gunners. He later insisted that him and his friends were intentionally giving them false data in an attempt to save enemy planes.
On April 1st 1945, when the war was on its last legs, one last order was given. Karl-Heinz was sent to the front lines. “My father was advising against that, he told me not to go. He told me to bike to where my mother had been to save my own life.” And so he did. Hundreds of kilometers to Oberdresseldorf, the place where his mother had lived for about 4 years and where one of his younger brothers had been born. It was a day after the war had officially been declared lost that he met still fighting American and English planes. Bombs were falling left and right as he biked as fast as he could. It was a miracle he made it to a nearby bunker. As he sat in that bunker, waiting for the bombing to end, he saw a man being dragged back inside through the safety door by other soldiers. The man had lost several limbs and was covered in blood, but he kept shouting, “Please! Let me go back! Let me go back outside! I want to fight for my country! I want to die for my country!”
Lessons to learn
I could go on about the horrors my grandfather faced and the reasons why I idolized him. But apart from that – what can we take away from all this? What is the political lesson to be learned from my grandpa’s story?
I am not trying to equate the political conditions of pre-WWII Germany with those in the western world today. Nonetheless, there are a few warning signs to take away from Karl-Heinz’s words. We have to realize the danger in a line of thinking that idolizes a nation-state and mythologizes one ethnic group at the cost of another. It should be noted how similar Hitler’s “People without Space” and the Alt-Right’s “White Genocide” narratives are, claiming the victim role for oneself.
Personality cults often silence criticism, so we should abstain from idealizing politicians. Politicians spreading misinformation and outright lies to prove xenophobic narratives need to be called out. We must be cautious not to let minority groups become scapegoats for the world’s problems. Ideological criticism of Islam, or any organized religion, is legitimate in certain contexts, but the stigmatization of Muslims is not. Policies that enforce this discrimination and are at the planning stage today, such as recent calls for Muslim registration, are definite warning signs. This “us versus them” mentality is a toxic form of nationalism that lead us unto a dangerous path. We often underestimate the horrors of war until witnesses described them to us first hand.
Resisting fascism is difficult. Karl-Heinz and his family knew that. But if anything, my grandfather’s story teaches us that doing so is a noble act. It may begin with little things, such as sharing your food with prisoners of war, or refusing commands, or giving false facts to the FLAC gunners.
Most importantly, we should keep in mind Karl-Heinz’s call for a united working class. Many promises have been made to the working class by far-right politicians (although their policies only further bigotry and more unhinged capitalism), while self-proclaimed left-leaning parties have failed to mobilize them. We cannot afford a divided working class. We need solidarity and a society that empathizes with the economically disadvantaged. Just like we need to keep in mind the point of view of eyewitnesses to fascism such as my grandfather. Because existence determines a person’s consciousness.