Friday, January 13, 2012

Professor Lisa Ohm Reviews Book about Childhood under Nazism

Mahlendorf, Ursula. The Shame of Survival: Working Through a Nazi Childhood. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 2009. Cloth, 376 pp., $29.95. Paper, 376 pp., $21.95. « »

   "Du bist nichts, dein Volk ist alles." In her new book, Ursula Mahlendorf, eighty-one, records a lifetime spent unpacking bit by bit that Nazi slogan embedded in her psyche as a child.
   Born in 1929 in the small German quarry town of Stehlin in Silesia, now Strzelin in Poland, young Ursula became a member of the Jungmädel, the Nazi youth organization for girls aged ten-fourteen, and then the Bund Deutscher Mädel [BDM], the Hilter Youth organization for girls fourteen-eighteen. She happily hiked with Hitler youth groups and dutifully collected winter clothing for German soldiers while she was being prepared to eventually teach in newly established German schools in the conquered territories to the East. Mahlendorf, Professor emerita in the University of California-Santa Barbara's German Department, earned the Ph.D. in German Literature from Brown University in 1958 and lives in the U.S. Once she started her memoir, she wrote quickly, finishing her first draft in six months. Although the flow of writing suggests she was able to "write herself free," she says that a sense of shame still haunts her today.
   Mahlendorf's book provides a necessary perspective on the Third Reich beyond the present dominance of Holocaust and resistance narratives. She describes her personal experiences growing up in Nazi Germany, freely admitting that she most likely would have become a Nazi despite her objections to certain aspects of the Party's program (26). The war's end in May 1945 ended her nazification process a few months before her sixteenth birth-day. She records how the Nazi system exploited her youth: her longing for a better education than the class system then allowed, her youthful desire to make a difference in someone's life, and her natural love of country and willingness to serve.
    Young Mahlendorf, in the face of her father's death, the war, illness, growing deprivation, loss, and resettlement, focused on the narrow goal of getting an education, which, she realized early, could not be stolen, lost, or left behind. Reading voraciously, she permitted herself to feel emotions generated by poetry, nature, and music, but buried her emotions of fury, resentment, regret, distrust, shame, grief, and loss deep below a shell of "numbness and toughness" (233).
   During the decades after World War II, few if any were prepared to see the Germans-even youngsters like Mahlendorf-as victims of Hitler and the Nationalsozialistishe Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, known simply as the Party since all other political parties had been outlawed. Mahlendorf argues that her experiences in the Hitler Youth, like the experiences of other perpetrators and bystanders, are highly instructive and must be studied as carefully as the stories of victims and resisters have been. For young women, she writes, "leadership in the Jungmädel, the BDM, and the labor Service opened up a wide spectrum of entirely new careers with prospects of rising in the HJ hierarchy all the way to the highest level, the Reichsjugendführung, the national youth leadership" (113). Those opportunities fueled her desire to compete and succeed.
   Two earlier accounts of HJ activity, Hans Peter Richter's I was there (1962) and Melita Maschmann's Account Rendered: A Dossier on my Former Self (1963) were important to Mahlendorf's Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Nearly a decade older than Mahlendorf, Maschmann was a BDM leader and later worked in the Labor Service in Polish territories occupied by and then incorporated into Hitler's Germany. Reading Maschmann in the 1990s, Mahlendorf writes that she "shuddered" when she realized what her own leadership role might have been in "Germanizing the conquered east" (166, 131).
   By placing her personal experiences growing up in the 1930s and 1940s in the wider socio-historical, political, and cultural context of the period and its aftermath, Mahlendorf's compelling memoir provides great value for students of history and social sciences as well as literature at the high school, university, or adult-learner level. Her story is well-written, many-sided, thoughtful, and honest. Mahlendorf's absorbing and powerful memoir reminds us how easily the goodwill and patriotism of the young can be exploited by a government to immoral ends, and how long-lasting and challenging the effects are for youngsters caught up in a political movement.

Anna Lisa Ohm
College of Saint Benedict
Saint John's University