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Since 9/11, plenty of people have drawn parallels between the United States under the Bush administration and Hitler’s Germany. Irmgard A. Hunt is among them, but there’s one reason you may want to believe her more than, say, your friendly neighborhood Crass fan: She once sat on the Führer’s knee.
Not that Hunt cherishes the memory, thank you very much. The Tenleytown resident grew up in the picture-postcard Bavarian village of Berchtesgaden, near the Berghof, the German dictator’s fabled alpine getaway. She was only 3-and-a-half on the warm October day in 1937 when her parents encouraged her to approach Hitler, who frequently descended from what Hunt calls his “big rustic villa” to mingle briefly with the crowds that gathered at his summer headquarters.
“The strange man with the sharp, hypnotic eyes and dark mustache held me stiffly, not at all like my father would have, and I wanted to cry and run away,” the 71-year-old mother of two and grandmother of four writes in her new memoir, On Hitler’s Mountain: Overcoming the Legacy of a Nazi Childhood. “But my parents were waving at me to sit still and smile. Adolf Hitler, the great man they so admired, had singled me out, and in their eyes I was a star.”
Sixty-odd years later, Hunt thinks she’s finally come to terms with what that “great man” did in Germany’s name—and with the fact that her parents, both enthusiastic supporters of the Nazis, helped him do it. “We can never erase the blemish on German history—the Holocaust and the murders,” she says. “But I don’t feel personally responsible to the degree that I used to. The book helped me to work through the shame of being German—helped me to understand that I have a legitimate history myself to talk about.”
Since completing On Hitler’s Mountain, Hunt has discovered that others are talking about that history, too. After the book came out in Germany this past February, she received a letter from a woman who’d gone to school with her younger sister, who still lives in Berchtesgaden. “This woman’s father was the commandant at Auschwitz, and she said she was still trying to come to terms with that horrible guilt,” Hunt recalls. “She actually referred to her ‘guilty past,’ although she was 8 years old at the time. That’s so sad. But that’s the path I traveled.”
Indeed, Hunt’s parents not only cast two of the 17.3 million pro-Nazi votes that spelled the end of Weimar democracy in 1933, but also became Gottlaubig, or members of the “religion” synthesized by party officials. In On Hitler’s Mountain, accounts of idyllic mountain hikes are interwoven with stories of swastikas, SS guards, and the disappearances of local communists—not to mention strange Nazi-sanctioned Christmas rituals.
“Hitler had a very powerful propaganda machine,” Hunt says. “We were brainwashed every day. It was overpowering and it was intrusive, but it was also subtle.”
Hunt may have finally escaped the influence of that machine, but she’s worried a similar one is in place behind the current American administration. “Karl Rove,” she says bluntly, “has all the skills of Dr. Goebbels and then some. It’s just amazing how people have stopped questioning the reasons for the war, how people still believe there were weapons of mass destruction. It’s absolutely stunning how you can brainwash people by fine-tuning the ideology.”
When Hunt began work on On Hitler’s Mountain five years ago, she wasn’t thinking about publication. “It started as a sort of a family document—a way of coming clear with myself about what really happened and went on,” she says. “I wanted to go back one more time and really look at my own family and our role in the Nazi era. What my own role was.”
She’d been thinking about that role for years—indeed, almost since the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leadership, which kept her “glued to the large black radio” in her family home during the summer of 1946 and made terribly clear the enormity of the crimes her parents’ politics had supported.
The incident that freed her to write, however, occurred back in 1985. By then, Hunt had been living in the United States for nearly 30 years, nursing the guilt she felt over leaving her family back in Germany. When her mother died at age 77, “widowed, bitter, and crippled by arthritis,” Hunt realized that “the eyewitnesses were disappearing, and that I had moved into the forefront of those who actually lived through those times.” She also doubts she could have written the book while her mother was alive. “She came to terms with what she did during those years,” Hunt says. “Still, I think it would have been really painful for her.”
Hunt’s parents supported Hitler for the same reasons many did—because they were convinced that only he could bring stability and prosperity back to a country reeling from threats of revolution, high unemployment, and runaway inflation. They were not, she says, “rah-rah Nazis or rah-rah anti-Semites” compared with others. Her father, who painted flowers and the like on decorative china for a living, even quit the Nazi party in 1932 in what Hunt calls “a personal disengagement from politics,” although he continued to support Hitler.
Not all of Hunt’s relatives liked the Führer. Her Aunt Emilie was an ardent anti-Nazi. So was her maternal grandfather, who was there the day she had her encounter with Hitler. In her book, she describes how, “[a]s the crowd applauded, I saw my grandfather turn away and strike the air angrily with his cane.” Emilie, for her part, refused to participate in Nazi-sponsored women’s groups until she was required to do so to keep her job.
And party ties didn’t prevent Hitler’s war from bringing hardship to Hunt’s family. Food was scarce. Her family spent innumerable hours in bomb shelters while, above ground, machines produced a stinging chemical fog designed to hide the vacation retreats of Hitler, Hermann Göring, and other high-ranking Nazis from Allied bombers. Her father, a Wehrmacht conscript, was killed in France in July 1941.
After the war ended, Hunt tried to put her life back together as best she could, working in the local apothecary and studying English. She spent a year in England, working as an au pair and honing her language skills, and also traveled to Italy, where she met a young American doctor in Rome. In 1958, the couple moved to the United States. They got married and eventually settled in New York. There, Hunt spent the next 30 years working as an executive for various environmentalist nonprofits. She came to Washington in 1989 to take a job with the Nature Conservancy.
She started writing upon her retirement. Although Hunt had done her share of proposal-drafting, she knew that her new work would require a very different set of authorial muscles. So she signed up for courses at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. Those led to a handful of book chapters, an agent, and the inevitable rejection letters. But by August 2002, Hunt’s proposal was accepted by the prestigious publishing house William Morrow—a development the author calls “incredible.”
Richard Breitman, a professor at American university and perhaps the United States’ foremost scholar of the Third Reich, isn’t so surprised. Books like Hunt’s, he suggests, provide a peephole into a dark history that continues to defy explanation. “Memoirs of the Nazi era, or of those connected with it in some fashion,” he says, “offer a way in, on a small scale, for those who find the…period unfathomable.”
In any case, Hunt says she’s caught the writing bug—though she isn’t quite sure what she wants to do next. (“Maybe I’ll write a novel,” she says wistfully.) But she is sure of one thing: The time for books like hers has come. Fiction writers and academics alike have been increasingly writing about the experiences of “ordinary” Germans during the Nazi era, from novelists WG Sebald and Rachel Seiffert to Florida State University history professor Robert Gellately, whose Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany appeared in 2001.
“Until recently, I think Germans felt very reluctant to talk about what the war did to children and women in Germany,” Hunt says. “You felt that if you said anything it would be taken as whining—as ‘We too have suffered.’ And I didn’t want that. But people are becoming more willing to hear our story.”
Hunt, however, hopes that her book won’t be seen as merely a recounting of the past. Rather, she’d like On Hitler’s Mountain to be read as a cautionary tale with special relevance for her adopted country, which she has seen change in disturbing ways in recent years.
Though Hunt thinks that the U.S. system of checks and balances make an American Hitler “impossible,” she worries about a gradual erosion of our civil liberties. “Hitler did away with civil rights virtually overnight,” she says. “Hitler said, ‘I can’t take on this job unless I have complete power to rescind certain laws and am given emergency powers.’ And it’s a bit like the emergency powers after 9/11 and the Homeland Security Act. After the act was proposed, I thought, Hmm, we should look very carefully at the fine print. The American people had better watch out what they’re signing onto.”
Having grown up in a country whose people “accepted their government’s moral
standards,” Hunt firmly believes that it’s the responsibility of every citizen to not cede the right to decide right from wrong. And Hitler’s deft use of the symbols of German patriotism has left Hunt extremely wary of flag-waving in all its forms. “Since the war,” she says, “images of patriotism—unquestioned patriotism—have remained very toxic to me. And I was very surprised when I found this incredible belief in the American flag and what it stood for.”
During a European book tour in April and May of this year, Hunt saw reassuring signs that the Germans, at least, are no longer so easily led. After a reading in Nuremberg, Hunt recalls, a man approached her and said, “‘I have always said my family was not involved in the Nazi movement. That we didn’t see anything—we didn’t know anything about the Jews. But there were thousands of Jews in our town and suddenly the apartments next to us, the houses, were empty. How could my parents not see this? But I never dared question them while they were alive.’”
Her generation, Hunt says, simply wasn’t encouraged to ask questions, even in school. So she was even more surprised by the reaction she received after reading in her old hometown, which not long before had been rocked by a controversy over whether to construct a luxury hotel on a site once occupied by Göring’s villa. “I thought, I will do my reading and there will be silence,” Hunt says. “But it was amazing. Hands went up. Even my German publicist was amazed.”
Hunt almost didn’t do the Berchtesgaden reading because her sister, who still lives there, was afraid neighbors and acquaintances would stop speaking to her. That didn’t happen. In fact, one of the people who came up to thank Hunt afterward was the son of a man identified in the book as an enthusiastic Nazi who once threatened to denounce her mother to the Gestapo.
“The guilty generation is finally dead,” says Hunt, “and the children are no longer honor-bound or believe that they can no longer talk. And now my generation is free.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Pilar Vergara.