Born in 1902, Ludwig Hamann, my husband’s grandfather, lived in Germany in a tumultuous time. He experienced the First World War and the interwar period when life in Germany was difficult for many. He joined a company that sold chicory coffee in 1922 and worked as a salesman for many years. Around that time, he also joined the YMCA and practiced his Christian faith with the other men that he met there. In a letter to his daughter, he writes that the day he convinced Lina Weinecke—a woman he met at work—to attend an exhibit with him was the best day of his life. Lina and Ludwig married in 1927 and their eldest daughter Trudi was born in 1930.
In 1932, Ludwig joined the Sturmabteilung (the Storm Detachment), which was the paramilitary section of the Nazi Party. The SA numbered 400,000 men by that point, but would grow to over 3 million members by 1933; many of these members were working class and unemployed. Ludwig was drawn to the Nazi party, according to his daughter, because Hitler had built the Autobahnen (the highways), which had helped many people, and he had created jobs for many who had been out of work–Hitler gave people hope for the future. Undoubtedly, Ludwig was also drawn to the nationalistic message of the Nazis: the cry that Germans and Nazis were better than others, the assertion that this superiority meant that other groups, such as the Communists, should be chased, beaten, and driven out of Germany.
Ludwig’s mother and his wife disagreed with his membership in the SA and were scared for his safety.
The predominantly working-class SA would come into conflict with the middle-class SS. In 1934, the SA was violently overthrown by Hitler and his men who believed that these working class, mostly socialist masses, would stand in their way of consolidating power. Some of the SA became SS members. My husband’s aunt does not mention in her family history what happened to Ludwig’s political beliefs at this point. Instead, she tells us that her parents were devastated by the death of Trudi in 1933. Two more girls were born to the family in 1934 and 1935. Ludwig was singing with his Christian men’s choir when his second daughter was born. He came home to find his wife in labour. His mother heard the commotion from her neighbouring apartment, and when she joined to help in the delivery, she discovered that the umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby’s head. Thankfully, the baby was born healthy. Lutz, my husband’s father, was born in 1937. A third girl joined the family in 1941.
Ludwig Hamann joined the German army in 1939 when the war broke out. He was mostly absent from the family home for six years. He was stationed in Belgium, in Germany, and he ended the war as a prisoner in Greece. At home, my husband’s grandmother foraged in the forests to find enough food to feed her children. They sold the baby’s clothes for food; they had no choice.
Ludwig returned from the war a broken man. His relationship with his family was difficult and painful. As a former Nazi, he had subject to the denazification rules. His desire to move up in the world ended in bitterness. Any improvements in his life thanks to Nazism were fleeting at best, and the cost for this fleeting improvement was an unfathomable number of deaths and a systematic program to eliminate a group of people to whom the Germans felt superior.
Was Ludwig Hamann a bad man? Was he an evil man? At what point did his hopes for a better life for himself turn into something destructive? To what extent was he, a common man, responsible for the actions of those he supported?
At what point were the vocal reservations of his wife and his mother silenced? How were they silenced? Did their protests reside in those silent, unspoken spaces that exist between us and those we love? Did they choose to rationalize Ludwig’s political beliefs? Or did these women look aside and dismiss the rumours about what was happening to their Jewish neighbours? Or were they insistent, loud and merely ignored because they came from women who had no say in the machinations of powerful men?
What responsibility do we have to this history, a history of humanity gone wrong? This isn’t a history of a group of people who are different from us. This isn’t the history of an evil people. This is a history of common people: common people who believed that they were doing the right things for their families and who wanted a better future. This is a history of common people who, through false information and dangerous ideas, became convinced that their better future and their worth as a culture and race were threatened by people who were different that them. This is a history of all of us, of all humans, and of all of the evils that lurk in our hearts.
Lest we forget.