“Whenever things got dicey, then we gathered together, held a service and prayed for protection. But to see the enemy we were fighting against as human beings too – the military chaplains never encouraged us to think like that.”
Place: Holenberg, Germany
Interview by: Lena Dorfschmidt
Our family has a very individual character. Loyalty to the fatherland and the Prussian order was a high priority for us all. Both of my grandfathers were generals during Kaiser Wilhelm II’s time – that is, in the First World War, and our father was a medical officer in the navy.
At that time, soldiers – even officers too – were by law not allowed to belong to any political party. By the way, that was true during the Third Reich as well! As young officers, we were schooled in national socialist thought, but party political affiliations were not tolerated (with the exception of the Waffen-SS)
One man is a Communist, another a National Socialist, the next a centreist or something else like that. All party affiliations had to be set aside for as long as he was a soldier. It’s a strange thing that is actually hard to imagine. But it was never about National Socialism. You don’t read that in the history books, either.
[…] My younger brother […] was enthusiastic about the Hitler Youth, about the Fatherland too. […] He said to me, “[You] should become a party member.” [That was before] I became a soldier. He applied for me, and then received the reply: “a soldier cannot join the party.” Party membership had to be put aside, to make sure no party rivalry arose amongst the soldiers. [As the saying goes:] Everyone has his own opinion.
So in that respect I had a bit of a one-sided upbringing. […] I wasn’t quite 10 years old in 1933 [when Hitler came to power]. I was born in 1924, so of course I joined the Jungvolk – the German Youth. But what did we do there? We played outdoor games and such like. We had to swim, and jump and do all sorts of physical training. And of course young people enjoy that.
We lived in Soltau on the Lüneburg Heath. At first, nothing Party-related happened there at all. There is just one example I want to tell you: the pogrom night, when all the Jewish businesses were set on fire, and when lots of them were taken away, things like that…we had a teacher, our class teacher, we knew he was in the SS. But what did that mean? It was some kind of special […] group. My father was in the ‘Stahlhelm’ (Steel Helmets) – an old soldiers’ organisation for former soldiers after the First World War. As a ten- or eleven-year-old, you didn’t think about it. Our teacher came one day and said “We have a meeting later. I have just brought some work for you to do, writing and such like.” And then he marched off again. […] After two and a half hours he came back and said “Well, it’s over now. We created a bit of a rumpus in front of the old Jewish business.”
In Soltau there was one Jew, and he had already gone away. They [had] gathered outside a half-timbered house that stood in the middle of a row of half-timbered houses. They couldn’t set fire to [it]. So they just made some speeches; nobody heard any of it.
Then school was finished and we went home. It was only later in the evening that we then read in the newspaper about the Kristallnacht – the night of broken glass. But even then it was about the countryside, where nothing much had happened.
So yes, perhaps you should know, back then we were, I wouldn’t say stupid, but provincial. It was fun for us to be in a youth organisation where we could play outdoor games with the youth organisation from the next town. They were then the enemy, we had to wage war on each other, or things like that. We had competitions, sports festivals together, etcetera. It was quite normal, actually.
But when I look back on it, our parents also kept things extremely close to their chests. Because, for example, we had guests visiting from Berlin. They were old war comrades of my father’s and grandfather’s. They wanted to relax for a while on the Heath. What our parents never told us was that they were old Jewish friends – they kept that from us. [Not] that we would go blurting out something stupid about it, or anything like that. The parents then went back to Berlin, even though my parents knew the atmosphere in Berlin was not good. Then the three children stayed with us for a while, and then they got in touch with friends in Switzerland and emigrated from there to England. They never went back to Berlin. And the ones who had gone back to Berlin ended up in a concentration camp and died there. But we only learned that afterwards.
And the children who [went] to England, they visited us after the war, because we were the family who had helped them. […] For example, one of the daughters – she lived the longest – she was a year older than my sister [and] came to my golden wedding anniversary. She was cheerful when we saw her; she was back home, in Germany… in a sense. But then she went to visit my brothers and sisters for two days after our golden anniversary, and then went back to England. Then, as she was getting off the aeroplane, she fell down dead. It was those times. She couldn’t cope with it inwardly: that contrast.
But these are all things that, fundamentally speaking, we only came to understand after the war.
There is perhaps one more thing to tell: I didn’t have any major experiences in the war, because I was trained as a soldier. That was physical training, things like that – it was very strenuous. Then I was trained as a non-commissioned officer – also very strenuous. Then I went for officer training. Again, that was strenuous. Then I went from officer training […] to pilot training. Strenuous again.
Until finally I finished my training as a fighter pilot. But then there were no more planes available, because the war was coming to an end. Everything [that was left] was being grouped together.
In the end […] I was to lead a company in the defence of Nuremberg. I was entrusted with a bunch of eighty people to command in the war. But it took a week and a half before I had mustered them all together and made myself known to them. And then we were surrounded in Nuremberg and broke out at night, […] and we split up and then I was taken prisoner.
I heard shooting, I saw houses burning and air attacks and experienced all sorts of things like that. But war experience as a soldier? Face to face with someone else? No.
[…] Shooting – I learned how to do that. We had shooting practice, from the aeroplane shooting at tanks, but I only ever had to do training. I was a soldier for four years – nothing but training, training, training.
It was my dream job, because my grandfathers had been generals, father was a colonel… Naturally I wanted to be an officer too, and naturally I wanted to be a pilot – I had found it exciting ever since I was a child. And I achieved it, and then… nothing.
I started at age seventeen, so I came out at the end of the war aged twenty-one, twenty-two. And all the technical training as a soldier and a pilot, it was condensed into that short timescale; whereas before, others would have been twenty-five, twenty-six and then become Lieutenant or some such. During the war everything got condensed, to make it go more quickly.
It was like this for us: we were all concentrated around the Nuremberg area. Then new units were put together from all those who had returned, whose units had maybe been destroyed. And us too, from the fighter pilot training school, we were simply put in with them. And then it was “Anyone who is an officer can command this outfit.”
So they assigned me a company of people who had been put together. We did wage war a little: we managed to have a sense for what the Americans were up to, and could always say where they are now, and what they are doing now. Whether they were going to advance or not. We were outposts, so to speak.
But at the end of the war, how could Germany still afford to spend so long training you? After all, weren’t children and old people being conscripted by the end?…
Well, yes, I became a soldier at age 17, but then we were trained to take on positions of command, to know how to deal with people. I learned the whole psychology of dealing with people from first principles. We discussed together how to deal with people, then sometimes we had to demonstrate [to see] whether we had understood. [We] played battle-stations and manoeuvres, so to speak. So in a sense that basic training was vital if there was to be an elite again – to be officers for the Fatherland.
Of course I […] heard, and sometimes saw, how people came back shattered, and how they were accused […] They told us what had happened.
[…] At home we were good Christians, I would like to say, in the sense of the time back then. That is, we went to church. We went to confirmation classes, then we went to our outdoor games with the German Youth. But the idea that faith had anything at all to do with our lives, we never grasped that. We learned the songs by heart, we learned the creed by heart, and we completed our classes. We were followers, we could do that.
So then I began to doubt my faith. The army chaplains, we had them too. Whenever things got dicey, then we gathered together, held a service and prayed for protection. But to see the enemy we were fighting against as human beings too – the military chaplains never encouraged us to think like that.
So then after the war, I… I was nothing, I had lost everything. My uniform was torn to shreds and there was no way of starting again for me. No-one stood to attention in front of me any more.
Then I said, now I need a certificate, an education. In Soltau there was a Volkswagen factory. The main Volkswagen works was in ruins, bombed-out, and they had set up individual factories in the country. The gearbox construction was in Soltau, and they were just beginning to get the stuff together, to see whether the machines would still work. Some of the electric motors had been taken out by farmers who needed electric motors […]. So actually, our work was more looking for these things. But then I said to the boss, “This is not what I’m aiming for; I want to have a proper apprenticeship.” And he said, “Well, we can’t do that here, we don’t have a proper training department here. You should go to Wolfsburg.” And then he telephoned Wolfsburg, and they were just re-establishing a training department […]. So I went to Wolfsburg, and that’s how I became an apprentice. So I then learnt how to be an engine fitter. […]
Then I met my future wife in the protestant free church. She had lost both her parents in the last days of the war. [They] were shot right in front of her, by looting Poles. [My wife] became guardian to her two siblings. They had no-one. No-one from their family lived in the area. They were refugees, some of them had gone to Schleswig-Holstein or somewhere, but they weren’t yet in contact with each other. And then I said, “What about it, we suit each other. Why don’t we get married?” And my parents and grandmother thought it was a good idea too.
[After the war] there were 39 people living in my parent’s house, where we had been two parents and four children before. It was a stream of refugees. But they were almost all relatives, who used Doctor Seichter there in Soltau as a first stop.
In the war, my father was responsible for the submarine crews in southern France. He was the fleet medical officer, a colonel, […] so, a senior medical officer. When the troops in the south of France were disbanded, they came back to Germany. So he was discharged, to set up his practice back at home again. So he was home. The house was full. Because of that, I couldn’t even sleep in my own bed at home. Instead, I lay on one of those beds in my father’s surgery, the sort with a big hole in the middle to put the patient’s legs up, for women giving birth and such like. I could sleep on that. […] [Later on] even that wasn’t possible, because he had his practice. And a cousin of mine slept on the veranda on such a crooked sofa – he was going to school. I was working in the small Volkswagen factory in Soltau. They kept working through the night. I said “Can I not work the night shift?” So I worked the night shift, and slept in the bed during the day. Now we were taking it in turns to use it, and it was only a sofa.
So, that was a really difficult time.
You said soldiers were not allowed to belong to any political party, but were there not National Socialist sentiments there all the same?
Maybe I was lucky in that respect. I was in the Luftwaffe – the air force – the ‘necktie soldiers’ as we were called. The Luftwaffe had its own character. Normal soldiers, they had a lining inside the jacket of their uniform, so that the jacket would not get dirty. But they only had a kind of vest, nothing like an overshirt. We always wore a tie. So we were known as the necktie soldiers. Hermann Göring was head of the Luftwaffe, commander-in-chief, but at the same time he was a Master Hunter of the Reich.
Those of us who wanted to be fighter pilots, we had the opportunity – when we were on leave, we could go to any hunt and [say]: I would like to come along and lie in wait for wild boar, or I would like to observe the deer. A fighter pilot should be a good hunter too.
So I experienced that time as a soldier from a very positive perspective, while everything was falling apart around us. And we saw it from the air, during our flight training. We flew over Berlin, when it was burning, or over Hamburg […] and we saw what we had to defend ourselves against – that enemy planes must not be allowed to get in. That is, we had to fight them; that was our mission.
But then we didn’t carry out our mission, because we no longer had any planes. So during that whole period my head was floating somewhere in the clouds. Blinkered. Although…We had a flying instructor who taught us aerobatics at 2000, 3000 metre altitudes. Aerobatics was a required skill for a fighter pilot. In any situation, he must be able to attack the [enemy] plane, or dodge when the enemy is on the attack – things like that. This meant we had to be in control of the plane in all circumstances. We had to [complete] the International Aerobatics Program, which opened the door to an aerobatic pilot’s licence. We had to fly it, every single one of us. We were tested. Whether we could perform rolls, or a stall turn – flying the plane straight up in the air and then nosediving, because the plane could not go any further. And then resume flying. Or we had to perform a double loop. Or we had to fly upside-down and fly a half loop downwards, a dive or something similar. So we had to master control of the plane in every situation. And I grew up with this form of training.
It was a narrowly focused training at that time, this need for defence. [We] had a flying instructor, [we] 25 people who were being taught to fly. […] There were always people, one whose father had been killed in the war, or had been wounded. Or someone’s grandmother had been bombed – things like that. People had problems and could no longer be contacted for their training. Then our flying instructor said, “Come with me, up to 3000 metres!” And then, “Now look at the people down there. You can’t see them at all. At the most you can see a bus, when it comes along. The other vehicles: a tiny movement, but you can’t see them. The people sitting inside, you can’t see them at all when they get out. They are all people with the same problems as you: for example, their mother has died, or their father has been wounded. And you think the world is ending, because this has happened to you, or because you cannot cope with these things. Just look at the world; look how big it is. You don’t even notice these little people. But God created the world. And in the end, it is almost invulnerable. Of course, here something is burning, there something is broken. But look how much is still whole.”
That is a completely different philosophy, and I live by this philosophy. Regardless of what happens, whether someone dies, whether I have an accident in the car, or anything like that. I can only say “Forgive me for anything I have done wrong, or show me what I have done wrong, so that I don’t do something wrong again next time. But I can’t despair over it, because I have God, and I can talk to Him.
Suddenly a wall appears…
I always went over. My brother is a completely different person again. He studied theology and medicine. Actually, he wanted to be a missionary. And when he had got far enough, he went for a medical examination, to see if he was fit for the tropics. He was told no, you can’t be a missionary. There is something wrong with your heart, and you are not physically fit enough for it. You will have to see how you get on here as a medical practitioner. And then he finished his studies in 1952. Exactly the same as me. At that time there was a shortage of doctors in the GDR[i] – which wasn’t yet the GDR, it was called the eastern occupied zone – because they had all cleared off. They had moved to the West. [My brother] heard from […]another doctor, “I urgently need an assistant in my orthopaedic work here, but I can’t get one.” So he said “I really wanted to be a missionary, but I can’t. I’ll go over there instead.”
So he went over there, with the assurance that he could come back at any time. But in ’61 the wall [was built], and he couldn’t [any more]. He was stuck. And then he stayed over there.
But he […] because he was a theologian and a medical practitioner, and because the church had no pastor, he served as a part-time pastor too, although as a doctor employed in the clinic – he was a senior orthopaedic consultant – he was an employee of the state. Now his children – none of them were in the FDJ, the Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth) as it was called – they weren’t allowed to study for their Abitur[ii]. They wanted to do their Abitur, but “No, you can’t…” because their father was a Christian.
But [there was] one exception. And it was this: if you had done an apprenticeship in the workers’ and farmers’ state, you could study. So all his children did their Abitur during their apprenticeships. They were released for two days a week to study. So they did an apprenticeship and an Abitur at the same time.
One of them became a car body painter, but did his Abitur. The other one became an engineer, and one of his sons-in-law also did both an apprenticeship and his studies. So they all achieved what they wanted, and they are all very active within the church: in the choir, in the youth work…things like that. It was completely different from the situation for us here. […]
I supported my brother with a lot of things – as a doctor over there, he was poorly supplied. He had no car. So I gave him a car. He had no tubes for particular operations. So I bought tubes here and took them over to him.
Was it possible to take things like that across the border?
No, I always hid them somewhere in my car. But I did a lot of things like that. Once I received a five-year ban from travelling to the GDR, because they found too much written material – Christian literature – for my brothers and sisters. We receive a monthly magazine, so I took these monthly magazines with me for the Christian brothers and sisters over there.
I was always the go-between […] and then one day they caught me. They took me and my car apart. Took everything out of every nook and cranny. Then afterwards, I stood up for myself. I said “Now you can put it all back together for me, so that I can drive it safely.”
So then when I couldn’t enter the GDR any longer, my brother could travel to Poland, and we could travel to Poland too. I was allowed to travel along the transit corridor through the GDR to Poland. But I was not allowed to go into the country [the GDR] itself. We met as a family in the Czech Republic. My brother’s family took a camping holiday in the Czech Republic, and we travelled to the Czech Republic as well for a camping holiday, and passed on the things that he needed at the time.
What does it feel like to travel through a country, knowing you are not allowed to leave this road?
They were the regulations, we had to obey them as far as possible, to avoid getting into trouble. But on the other hand, if I can help someone, I can always go a little way off-piste.
I knew that things like Christian literature were not allowed into the GDR. But whenever someone said to me, “I need this or that book for my studies or something… [then I] disguised the book somehow and took it over. […] I became a smuggler. But I always tried to do it for a good reason.
I always had a VW bus, and I could always hide something in the gaps between the fittings.
When they spotted it, they took the whole vehicle apart. But they had to put it back together again.
Yes, those were very difficult times. […] We could only get into the GDR with a visa. That meant it had to be approved over there. But there was one exception: the districts right next to the border, who had relatives over there, had certain privileges. And because I was living in Hanover, I transferred my official place of residence to a district near the border. Then I could apply for a visa more often, so I went over every three months. So the contact between my family and my brother’s was great. Of course you have to do whatever you can in such circumstances.
The difference over there was that nobody could express themselves freely. No-one could complain about anything, because that ran the risk of punishment, prison or being sent to one of the camps. Everyone had to be completely restrained with their own opinion. That was something we never needed here, we could always express our opinions. Even when someone belonged to a different party, he could admit to it and justify it. That was the main difference.
It meant that people [in the GDR] were brought up in untruths. They weren’t even allowed to go to Sunday school classes. There weren’t any. OK, they were allowed to meet in a room in the church, but the moment they sang too loudly, the neighbours complained, and it was stopped. That freedom just wasn’t there.
My brother showed me what it was like. In his church – it had no heating – they wanted to install electric heating. So I got the heaters here and used our methods to get them over there; then they could heat their church. So there were ways – if you were a bit crafty you could help over there.
What did it feel like while Germany was divided?
My grandfather, who was a general, died the day after Germany was defeated. And my other grandfather, also a general, had already died. And the fact that Germany was divided, that was just a thing that people said. It can’t last for ever, it will come back together. That was our constant prayer. We have to live with it for the time being. It is as it is, we can’t do anything about it. But we were confident. Confidence is the last thing to die.
What was it like, when Germany was reunified?
It was a day of celebration. But the way that the process was then worked out, the West definitely made mistakes there. The oligarchs rushed over there, buying up one business after another, equipping them with technology from here. But that meant they were taken over by big Western companies, or American companies. And they couldn’t work to that standard over there. In food production, or the production of cars or other machines, or cameras or suchlike. They could only expand with Western know-how. But they couldn’t achieve that growth themselves. So they had to find another solution. Because then they were saying, “You have ruined our entire industry.” And what they are rebuilding now – it can’t grow so quickly.
But all the businesses that they had were in such economic decline that they couldn’t be rebuilt again. Tearing them down would have been the best thing to do. Because everyone immediately wanted the same rates of pay – the hourly rates – what did they earn over there? I don’t know – substantially less than here anyhow. But for the work that they do there – which doesn’t have any commercial value – then they can’t earn the same. I’m no economist, I managed a business, but that was an impossible task. The Western businessmen thought – over there they have industry, they know how to make things. But it was a mistake – they couldn’t do anything.
In the light of our history, it is very difficult for my generation to have any national pride…
We have to appreciate the bigger picture. We are a middle European people out of whom have come many good things, and a great many intellectuals. And intellectuals can only thrive when they are entrusted with appropriate responsibilities and granted a certain degree of freedom. That means we have to ensure that a certain elite continues.
[During National Socialism] there was no pride, just destruction. It may have been built on pride, but what was achieved was destruction. Of course, during the war, or to be able to wage war, technical progress had been driven to a very high level in many different places. Atom bombs would have been possible here, because their development had progressed that far. Or better aeroplanes. But at the end of the war of course everything was destroyed, all the centres of development.
But now that we have come together again as Europe… we must be careful that the Greeks don’t just think as Greeks, the French don’t just think as French people, the English don’t just think ‘My country, right or wrong’. That is to say, everything for my own country, for good or ill. That way of thinking must of course never be allowed to rise up again.
That used to be taboo, we used to never talk about it. Now I have the freedom.
[i] German Democratic Republic, often known as East Germany.
[ii] The Abitur is a secondary school qualification, similar to the International Baccalaureate.