To fully understand what happened to American soldiers who were part of the repatriation horror at the end of World War II — and why it happened — it is necessary to examine events in Germany, as well as the United States, that led up to the war.
On January 30, 1933, German President von Hindenberg appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor of Germany. Hitler’s appointment at the age of forty-three was a monumental triumph for a man who, just a few years before, had been a penniless vagrant selling his artwork on the streets of Vienna.
In his biography Adolf Hitler (1976), John Toland sets forth Hitler’s background. Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889, to Alois Hitler and Klara Pölzl. Alois had been born the illegitimate child of Maria Anna Schicklgruber. Alois’ father (Adolf’s paternal grandfather) was unknown, but there were three possibilities: Johann Nepomuk Hiedler (the man who legitimized Alois, had his name changed, and raised him); his brother Johann Georg Hiedler; or (as Adolf himself probably suspected) a Jew named Frankenberger or Frankenreither.
Alois’ marriage to Klara, Adolf’s mother, was his third. During his first marriage, he had sired an illegitimate daughter. His wife later attained a legal separation when she caught him having an affair with their kitchen maid, Fanni — the result: Alois’ son, Alois, Jr. When the estranged wife died, Alois married Fanni. When Fanni died in 1884, Alois had already impregnated Klara, whose grandfather was the brother of Johann Nepomuk Hiedler, the man who had legitimized Alois. In 1885, Alois and Klara were married.
The Hitler home was not a pleasant place. Not only was Alois a philanderer, he was also an alcoholic — a very abusive alcoholic. Obedience was the foremost virtue in the Hitler household. Alois was a German civil servant — a customs inspector — who demanded the absolute allegiance of his children. “Do as you are told and do not ask questions” was the guiding principle of the Hitler household.
Disobedience or disrespectful conduct brought immediate retribution onto the Hitler children. Toland points out that “Alois, Jr., complained bitterly that his father frequently beat him unmercifully with a hippopotamus whip.” When Alois, Jr., was caught skipping school, his father “held him ‘against a tree by the back of his neck’ until he lost consciousness.”
Life in the Hitler home was so bad that Alois, Jr., ran away from home at the age of fourteen, never to return. Adolf then became the primary focus of his father’s abuse. Adolf was continually whipped. He was also made to witness the beatings, as well, of his docile mother Klara. His sister Paula later recalled:
[It was Adolf] who challenged my father to extreme harshness and who got his sound thrashing every day. He was a scrubby little rogue, and all attempts of his father to thrash him for his rudeness and to cause him to love the profession of an official of the state were in vain. How often on the other hand did my mother caress him and try to obtain with her kindness, where the father could not succeed with harshness!
Years later, Adolf told one of his secretaries:
I then resolved never again to cry when my father whipped me. A few days later I had the opportunity of putting my will to the test. My mother, frightened, took refuge in front of the door. As for me, I counted silently the blows of the stick which lashed my rear end.
The abuse was not only physical, but emotional, as well. After Alois, Jr., ran away, his chores were given to Adolf, who was constantly harangued by his father for failing to meet expectations. One day Adolf decided to run away from home. He had been locked in his room and was trying to escape through the window. To fit in the window, he had to take off his clothes. He heard his father coming up the stairs and covered his nakedness with a tablecloth. His father did not hit him this time but instead, in Klara’s presence, teased him unmercifully with the appellation “toga boy.” Adolf later confessed that it took him a long time to recover from the ridicule.
It is important to note one vitally important fact about Adolf Hitler’s upbringing: The authoritarian family structure under which Adolf Hitler was raised in Austria was not an exception, but rather the rule. Millions of German children were raised under the same creed: Obey; do as you are told; do not talk back; and do not challenge the family system. Moreover, this was the family structure under which their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had been raised. The authoritarian patterns stretched back for centuries and had been passed on from generation to generation.
Adolf Hitler’s father died on January 3, 1903. His obituary notice in the LinzTagespost said:
At all times an energetic champion of law and order and universally well informed, he was able to pronounce authoritatively on any matter that came to his notice.
At the age of fourteen, Adolf became the man of the household. The authoritarian family environment was gone. Whenever someone asked him what he was going to be, Hitler responded, “A great artist.” In 1905, he graduated from a Realschule at the age of sixteen.
The following year, Hitler’s mother permitted him to visit Vienna, Europe’s cultural center. Hitler was captivated by the city. He moved to Vienna in 1907, with the hope of entering the Academy of Fine Arts.
In the meantime, his mother Klara was dying of cancer. A Jewish doctor named Edward Bloch treated her with a very painful process in which the open wounds on her body were treated with a substance called iodoform. On December 21, 1907, Klara died.
Hitler returned to Vienna, where he lived a fairly carefree life of painting and attending cultural events. But he was not accepted by the Academy of Fine Arts, and life got progressively worse for him. His funds that he had inherited were depleted, and he began roaming the streets of Vienna as a vagrant, ending up in a poorhouse where he painted picture postcards for sale. It was during this time that Hitler became an avid reader of anti-Semite literature. Hitler himself wrote in Mein Kampf that he became vehemently anti-Semitic in Vienna upon discovering that the Jew was the “cold-hearted, shameless, and calculating director” of prostitution.
In 1913, Hitler moved to Munich, where he continued pursuing his artistic interests. His life as a struggling artist came to a sudden end in 1914. The Austrian heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by a Serb terrorist. Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28. Russia mobilized against Austria. German Kaiser Wilhelm II mobilized German forces against Russia. France and England entered the war soon thereafter.
The Austrian and German people were swept away by war fever. People roamed the streets and demanded action. German nationalists were singing: “Heil der Kaiser! Heil das Heer! We must gather all men of German tongues into one Reich and one people. An everlasting master race will then direct the progress of mankind!” As Toland points out, they could have been speaking for Adolf Hitler.
Hitler himself wrote in Mein Kampf:
I am not ashamed to say that, overcome with rapturous enthusiasm, I fell to my knees and thanked Heaven from an overflowing heart for granting me the good fortune of being allowed to live at this time.
Hitler, an Austrian, joined the German army and attained the rank of corporal. He served as a regimental messenger, saw combat, was seriously wounded, and ultimately was awarded the Iron Cross “for personal bravery and general merit.”
As the war progressed, the European armies fought themselves to a standstill. As the troops on both sides became more and more exhausted, the probability of a negotiated settlement increased. But then the U.S. entered the war, which significantly altered the balance of power. The fresh American troops began pushing the Germans back. It became clear that Germany was going to lose the war.
As defeat loomed for the Germans, German life began to disintegrate. Marxism had already prevailed in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917. But the Marxists were not willing to settle for that triumph. They intended to spread their control to Germany and the rest of the world. Capitalizing on the chaos of war and the impending defeat of Germany, the Marxists began fomenting revolution in cities all across Germany. It was during this time that Hitler’s deep-seated and malevolent anti-Semitism became a driving force in his life. For Hitler, like many other Germans, associated Jews with Marxism. From Hitler’s perspective, the Jews and Reds were traitors to the Fatherland who, by instigating riots and insurrections on the homefront, were helping the enemy to defeat Germany.
Woodrow Wilson demanded the abdication of the Kaiser before America would agree to an armistice. Wilson’s demand accelerated the disintegration of German society. Government after government across the country fell to socialist revolutionaries, many of whom were Jewish. Finally, on November 9, 1918, the Kaiser abdicated and relinquished power to the moderate socialists, led by a former saddlemaker, Frederick Ebert. As Toland points out:
It was the end of the German Empire, begun in France on January 18, 1871, when Wilhelm I, King of Prussia and grandfather of Wilhelm II, was proclaimed the first Emperor of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors at the Versailles Palace. It was also the end of an era. Forty-eight years earlier Bismarck had achieved his dream of unifying Germany and in so doing had created a new image of Germany and Germans. Overnight the foundation on which rested the security of the Junker landowners in East Prussia and the great industrialists crumbled; and overnight the political philosophy on which the majority of Germans had based their conservative and patriotic way of life had apparently disintegrated with the lowering of the imperial flag.
But, as Toland observes, perhaps the greatest shock for the German people was to find Ebert — a socialist and a “man of the people” — sitting as the new German chancellor, in place of a member of the Hohenzollern regime.
When Germany agreed to terms of the Allied armistice, Wilson required the German representatives to assume the responsibility for the war. Little did he know that he was handing Adolf Hitler the tool by which Hitler would later be able to claim that the socialists — the “November criminals” — had sold out Germany to the Allies.
Thus, in 1918, Adolf Hitler became one of the Western world’s first anticommunists. Hitler, who himself would become leader of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi Party), would use his political philosophy of anticommunism to help propel him to the highest reaches of political power in Germany.