Ein Volk Ein Reich
Nine Lives Under The Nazis
By Louis Hagen
The History Press Copyright © 2011 Louis Hagen
All rights reserved.
I have known Fritz for as long as I can remember; he was the brother of our gardener Karl Muehlebach. Fritz used to come to Potsdam at irregular intervals to see Karl. He was the 'sailor brother,' and possessed a certain glamour for us children. Whenever he came we used to spend a good deal of time at Karl's cottage at the end of the kitchen garden, plying Fritz with questions; he was reserved but quite friendly and always ready to answer in his rather serious way. Being friends with Fritz, and talking to him 'man to man' about his experiences at sea, made us feel grown up. He had seen the world, and besides he was always so spruce and tidy. There was a shiny, scrubbed look about him which we admired as being thoroughly nautical.
Then, in 1932, I remember hearing that Fritz had joined the SA. When we asked Karl what he thought about this, he shrugged and said that as Fritz was out of work and times were hard, at least it meant that he would be making a bit extra over his unemployment relief.
It was some time before I had a chance to ask Fritz what it felt like to be a storm trooper, and when eventually he did turn up he had changed a lot. He was still serious but nothing like as reserved, which was surprising, as I had expected him to be stand-offish. He was as friendly as ever and certainly not anti-Semitic so far as my family was concerned. He was also bursting with enthusiasm and was only too anxious to tell me anything I wanted to know about his life in the SA.
Time went on and things got more and more difficult for us. Fritz continued to visit his brother and was always friendly and even sympathetic. He never actually said anything against the Party line, but he was full of vague consolations such as 'they'll never do anything to you; you're not the sort of people we are after,' and 'you've been in Germany for centuries, it's the Jews from the East that we've got to get rid of,' or 'Your father was an officer in the last war, and anyway none of you looks Jewish.'
When I saw him after I came out of a concentration camp he was genuinely sorry, because it was me. He said so rather awkwardly in a way which embarrassed us both, but he added rather feebly that 'there must have been a reason for it.' of course in 1934 to Fritz, the SA man, there was a very good reason for everything his party did. He was a good party member; so he had nothing to worry about.
When I met him again in 1946, poor Fritz had plenty to worry about. At first – apart from looking ten years older and rather as it he had shrunk in the wash – he seemed to have altered very little. His suit was shabby, but looked impeccably tidy and neat, and he still had the scrubbed look.
He was very hang-dog at first, but when I eventually got him talking, he did so quite freely, provided we were alone. Soon an urgency and passion crept into his voice. It was as if he felt that talking about the past might help him to solve his innermost problems. But although telling his story seemed to help him for the moment, he was as crushed and bewildered as ever when we said goodbye. He reminded me more than anything of a child whose illusion of his father's infallibility had been shattered. In a strange, dark world with no one to guide him, Fritz was utterly lost, with no idea what to do or think.
Fritz Muehlebach, born 1907
My father was a market gardener in Weissensee. Although my brother Karl carried on the family tradition when he left school I felt that it did not lead anywhere. When I left school I got a job as assistant to a chemist, but, owing to the bad times, that did not last long. After my father passed away I would have liked to have stayed at home with my mother. But there was no work to be had, so I finally decided to try my luck at sea. I left home at the age of twenty – that was in 1927 – and went to Rotterdam. There was a lot of unemployment there too, but I was lucky enough to get a ship right away.
For the next five years I was a sailor and enjoyed myself very much. I went all over the world, saw foreign countries and foreign people and brought back souvenirs and curios from all over the place: Chinese beads, snakes in bottles, painted coconuts, native weapons and brass idols. My mother was very proud of them and used to show them off whenever one of the family came to an evening meal.
In 1931 we were in the North Sea when there was a bit of a rough-house between several lads and some of the older seamen. As the youngsters seemed to be getting the worst of it, I sided with them. I got a broken wrist and a torn ear, but we got the better of them and when the mate caught us we got two of the older fellows locked up. I never did find out the reason for the row.
When we landed at Stettin I was told by two of the youngsters that they were in the Hitler Youth. To show their gratitude, because I'd helped them in the fight, they asked me to come to one of their gatherings at what they called their Sturmlokal [a pub in which Party members regularly met]. Here I was introduced to other Party members and men who were in the SA.
Until then I had only heard vaguely about the National Socialist doctrine. Now, I began to realise that it was a very large party and its leaders really did know what they wanted, not like all the other parties.
One of the lads called Erwin Eckhart took me back to his flat. As we had been signed off and it looked as though I would have to stay ashore a bit, I rented a room from Erwin and used to share his kitchen. He told me a whole heap of things about politics that I never knew before. We hadn't talked about politics at home. I suppose my mother and father were only simple, old-fashioned people and they couldn't grasp the new, modem ideas about politics. Erwin knew it all and used to jaw away by the hour. And then he started taking me to the Party meetings and lectures. It's wonderful how it broadens your mind to think about important things like politics. I was bowled over by some of the lectures – I was beginning to get my eyes opened to a few things: the way all the other parties were just muddling through because they hadn't got one ideal and one leader and the way our German industry was being smothered by Jewish moneylenders. And the way the other countries were trying to pin the war guilt on the German people. We had to throw the Versailles lie back in their teeth, and throw over all the unjust burdens which the Treaty had laid on us. Socialism was the answer – finish the class struggle, and no one must earn more than a thousand marks a month. Put Germany in the hands of the Germans and throw out the Jews and foreigners.
At these meetings there was often a good deal of heckling by communists and other political groups. It annoyed me that people holding different political views should disturb these lectures. I, for one, wanted to know what the Nazis stood for, so that I could form an opinion. The shouting and heckling often made it impossible for the speaker to complete his speech. The SA men always tried to keep order, and I always used to give them a hand with the disturbing elements so that the lectures could continue undisturbed. Quite often it led to serious fights.
In the Sturmlokal near the place where I lived I met a lot of students and unemployed SA men. I went there a lot and the talk was mostly on political problems. I enjoyed these discussions which were interesting and always to the point. But the others were much better talkers than I was for I had not had any political training. But I liked the general atmosphere of comradeship and in the end, I decided to send in my application forms for the SA. It was time for me to belong to an organisation and take an active part in shaping the future of my country. I felt that this party was on the right road and that I would learn a great deal about politics in its ranks. I wanted to know what was going on; I wanted to be able to answer questions and have the strength and confidence which all the other SA men seemed to have.
As soon as my wrist was better I went to sea again. Whenever we put into a German port I found my way to the nearest Sturmlokal and spent what free time I had there. Wherever I went I found the same comradeship and sense of purpose. I was more and more proud and happy that I was part of this movement.
Back in Stettin I was very disappointed to learn that I had not been accepted by the SA. In my absence, in April 1932, the SA had been prohibited and they were having to be very careful about new members. And they didn't know anything about my past and thought I might have been a spy for the communists or for the police. I was very sorry, of course, but it did mean that the party was very alive to the dangers. Every member had to show his worth and reliability before being accepted. This really made me admire them more than ever.
I couldn't get a ship after this and was again out of work. Times were bad and I was very depressed. When I realised that there were six million workless in the same position as myself the responsibility of getting a job seemed completely hopeless. Depression and panic were in the air; some of the biggest banks had closed and no one could see any end to it. Of course Moscow started making mischief in this atmosphere of unrest and discontent, and almost six million people went over to the communists. The Reds were busy with strikes and the picketing of offices and factories and intimidating the workers. They were at the back of all the street brawls and shootings. The government was always changing and couldn't do anything, and the police didn't seem to care. They were all making it easy for the communists to terrorise the whole German population.
In July 1932, three of the local SA men were murdered by the Reds. This strengthened my resolve to try again to join the SA and avenge them. I was careful to get references from home, and Erwin vouched for me. This time it worked.
It was wonderful to know at last that I was taking an active part in the welfare of my fatherland. We SA men were the soldiers of the movement. It was our job to maintain order at all Party meetings. The speakers and leaders were protected by the SS, which was a special corps of picked SA men limited to ten per cent of our strength. Members of the SA and SS were strictly forbidden to make speeches or take part in public discussions. All that was entrusted to the political leaders and those members of the Party who had received special political training. We were not trained to talk and argue, but it was up to us to make the best possible impression through our discipline and military bearing.
Life was still tough. Ninety per cent of our Sturm [roughly equivalent to a company of soldiers] were unemployed, but now we had something to fight and live for and this made it so much easier for us all to bear the hardships. We were all in the same boat together. I got 8.40 marks a week unemployment benefit. Five marks went on rent and the remaining 3.40 had to pay for all my living expenses. Thirty pfennigs were spent on tobacco, ten pfennigs I paid towards the Party insurance fund in case I was disabled whilst fighting for the Party. When I drew my benefit I just spent one mark on eleven small sausages from a stand outside the labour exchange. They cost ten pfennigs, but you could get eleven for the price of ten. The free sausage I ate immediately. The rest I kept for my breakfasts and suppers for the rest of the week. Another 1.20 marks I kept for buying bread and other things. For my main meal of the day I was able to go to the SA home where for only ten pfennigs we got a really good midday meal. The well-to-do party members made regular contributions to the SA home. We often had real butter, and also venison and wild pork from their shooting estates, and in the season we often got jobs as beaters and loaders. Whenever a big pot came to the Sturmlokal we got a free meal and free beer all round. Being members of the Party they weren't a bit stuck-up and stand-offish, but talked to us man to man and made us see that we all had the same ideas and the same hopes for Germany. My membership fee was paid by what we used to call a 'Godfather,' who owned a shoe shop. Once I was really on the rocks and he lent me some money. When I wanted to pay it back in weekly instalments he wouldn't have it, and let me off the whole amount. Many of us had party godfathers – people we could always go to when we were in trouble, and who would invite us to Christmas and other festivals.
I was very badly off for clothes, because you never needed much on board ship and I had never bothered about them. Now, of course, I had no money and I couldn't even afford a uniform. I felt rather ashamed of this. Most of the men in our Sturm wore at least part of a uniform, and all I could do was to wear a swastika armlet. In November my only pair of boots gave out and a heel came off in the snow. When I limped to the Sturmlokal my Sturmbannführer took me straight to the SA offices and saw to it himself that I was given a complete uniform free of charge. I was very happy to get the uniform in time for the big November  elections, because now I was able to undertake more important public duties, such as standing in front of the polling booth with a sandwich-board. The results were very disappointing because we got even fewer votes than last time. But the leaders weren't at all downcast. They explained to us that this was really a victory for us. What it meant was that the lukewarm elements had now shown themselves in their true colours and left the Party. Now we knew where we stood. And those of us who were left would be true to their oath and their Führer.
The elections were the excuse for renewed outbreaks of violence on the part of our opponents. We had fights every day and several hospital cases each week. I got my nose broken with a knuckle-duster during a scrap with the Kampf Ring Junger Deutsch Nationaler, the military youth organisation of the German National Party.
Each party had its own fighting force; the communists had the Rot Front Kämpfer Bund, the social democrats had the Reichsbanner, and so on. And they all did everything they possibly could to provoke us. There was not one large-scale meeting that was not disturbed in some way or other, and not a single propaganda march that took place without a disturbance. But now and again we got our own back.
1 remember a large communist rally where 150 of our people entered in ordinary clothes and took up the end seats on each side of the centre gangway right down the hall. When all the speeches were well underway one of our men slipped a stick of cordite into the stove. There was a fine explosion, the windows were shattered and the whole hall was filled with thick sooty smoke. At the moment of the explosion we all stood up, put on our armlets and SA caps and stood to attention giving the Hitler salute. The Reds were taken completely by surprise. They started shouting and dashing round the hall like a lot of scalded cats. Then, as the smoke cleared away and they saw the solid wedge of disciplined SA men standing shoulder to shoulder down the whole length of the hall, they squealed with terror and made a rush to the doors. Then we all seized chairs, smashed them as we had been taught, and, armed with the legs, waded into them. We always had to work fast and scientifically as the police were against us and were always liable to turn up. They were always pro-Red and beat us up whenever they could catch us. I remember once we broke up a Deutsch National meeting at the Stettin Kaiser Garten. The police got word of it and surrounded us. We had to come out through a long narrow corridor; the police had lined up all along the passage, andas we tried to get through they thrashed us with rubber truncheons, and some of them weren't above using their feet. I was ill for a week after that meeting.
What made it worse was that we had strict orders not to resist the police, and we weren't allowed to carry guns. Anyone caught with a gun was expelled from the SA. All we were allowed to do was to defend ourselves against insults with our fists. There was a lot of grumbling about the unfairness of this, but our leaders explained to us that we mustn't give the government the chance to get us banned. They were really terrified of us and would take the first opportunity. We just had to put up with it as best we could while our enemies tried their very best to incite us. Many of our comrades were murdered by the Reds, and we couldn't lift a hand to avenge them. But we were able to stick it out because we knew our time would come.
We were not allowed to wear our uniform or badges when we went to the labour exchange, where we had to get our cards stamped each day. Waiting in the queue, arguments would break out and they often led to fighting. By the end of 1932 things had got to such a pitch that a man couldn't go to the labour exchange without being beaten up if it was known that he was in the SA or a Party member. To avoid trouble and protect ourselves the whole Sturm used to go together in a group. That usually kept the troublemakers quiet. (Continues...)
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