- Murder Motives in Burger's Why Were You in the Hitler Youth?
"I kill; therefore, I exist" is in essence Ernest Becker's discussion on the dynamics of personal and social evil. Becker perceives this dynamic as originating with our fear of being animals who will die, a fear we compensate for with ideas and images of perfection and human perfectibility. In his socio-psychological study of several SS killers, Henry V. Dicks speaks of a "murderous enclave in the personality" that "remains for most of us a safely encapsulated area" unless a people become licensed to kill (Dicks 238-43). Licensed murder motives—felt, acted on, witnessed and heard about—shape Horst Burger's young adult historical novel Warum warst du in der Hitler-Jugend? Vier Fragen an meinen Vater (Why Were You in the Hitler Youth: Four Questions for my Father).
The intended readers of this story are young men who experience generational conflict due to the unbewältigte Vergangenheit, "the unmastered past," of their fathers, though the novel obviously is not limited to such readers. The frame narrative's voice is that of the sixteen year old and unnamed son of Walter Jendrich who asks his father four crucial questions, the answers to which constitute and delimit the narrative. Each question is asked in the context of a conversation between father and son, but when Walter begins to recollect the past, the narrative point of view turns almost imperceptibly into "third person center of consciousness" (Booth) thereby universalizing Walter's experiences. It also distances the traumatic events of his youth, for Walter is never able to deal with the origin of his pain that impelled him to engage and lose himself in the nightmare of history.
The story is episodic because of its selection of crucial events during and immediately after the Hitler era. Son Jendrich first asks "What about the Jews?" Without saying so, Walter admits that he was no mere bystander. As a five-year-old he pushed Gerhard Wandres, a Jewish playmate, into a ditch where he drowned. He became aware of the boy's Jewishness only after a Nazi defined the event as insignificant and thereby licensed Walter's murder motive. At school Nazi propaganda generates confrontation among students and between students and teachers, especially after crisis events such as the Kristallnacht pogrom of 9-10 November, 1938. It is at school that Walter witnesses the brutal treatment [End Page 63] of Jews who have been rounded up in the school basement. He is forced to learn to be silent about such scenes.
Walter admits in answering "How was it in the Hitler Youth?" that he was eager to don his uniform, eager to belong to and shout with the others. He felt a part of it all! As the war years decline towards the defeat of Germany, he falls in love with Marianne, but his shy, tentative, and tender infatuation is denied development for Marianne is killed in an air raid. After witnessing a brutal and cowardly murder by the townspeople of a doomed British pilot, Walter and a friend volunteer for service in the belief that the only true heroes will be at the front.
This is his answer to the question "Why did you volunteer to go to the front?" He finds there, however, nothing but confusion, pompousness, brutality, and despair. Finally, Walter is alone and bent on survival. After rest and food offered by a kindly farm woman, he sets out for home and "it seemed to him as if there would be a new life for him in a changed world" (Burger 120). But his answer to the fourth question "How were the last days of the war and how was it immediately afterwards?" reveals that Nazism did not simply fade away. He meets first a survivor of Dachau, Karl Lademann, who was imprisoned for his Marxist beliefs and who teaches Walter that historical events have causes and contexts, but Lademann finds himself unable to cope with the continuity of the Nazi past in post-war Germany. Again he is persecuted because of his beliefs and affiliations, again the forces of law and order support...