Even as a very young boy in the early 1940s, I was aware of terrible wars taking place in the world in which two of my uncles were fighting. Though both wars were far from Chattanooga, my family sat at night in our living room with "blackout" shades over our windows, listening to our large tube radio for updated news of American soldiers in precarious battles. In the war with Germany, I was told we were up against a ruthless and despicable dictator named Hitler.
Years later I would serve in the U.S. Navy, following several more wars in which our country was engaged. But on Veterans Day each year, it is still World War II to which I am drawn, not only because of the blacked out windows which captured my youthful imagination, but also because of the memory of a despicable leader who so riveted the admiration and loyalty of his countrymen that they glossed over and even participated in his evil, malign and murderous actions, much to the horror of the rest of the world.
I was taught there were normal, usually upright German citizens who were turning their heads, allowing their next-door neighbors — individuals called Jews — to be forced out of their homes, marched off to an unknown fate, while their homes and belongings were bestowed to former friends who seemed all too willing to accept their "good fortune" and move in.
This man Hitler had been acclaimed by the German people, even though much of his extreme language and malicious intent for Jews and others whom he deemed enemies to his regime were already known by some of the German people. But Hitler's beginning years were a calm preface to much greater damage to humanity than had ever been perceived. By the time he committed suicide, Hitler had orchestrated the most destructive war and rapacious murders human history had ever witnessed.
To this day, I remain filled with questions. Why had the German people allowed, accepted — even participated — in this tragedy? Why did almost a million Germans gather each year in Nuremberg after Hitler became "chancellor" and "fuhrer" to raise the Nazi salute to this leader whom they actually knew so little about in the beginning, but who began steadily to reveal his true self?
Even as we honor each year our American soldiers and other Allied forces who eventually stood in the breach to stop the slaughter from all foreign wars, it is those questions which force me to return every Veterans Day to Hitler and World War II.
Various scholars have sought to answer the same questions. I understand much of the historical context, but no reason completely satisfies my need for a full understanding of why the German people were so blinded that they pandered, fawned and bound themselves to a deadly and uncompromising leash held tightly by Hitler.
In asking these questions, I am echoing German author Volker Ullrich ("Hitler, Downfall 1939-1945") in which he cites an article from the American Stars and Stripes newspaper in which Editor Klaus Mann also had asked: "How had it been possible that a 'neurotic clown' like Hitler obtained control over the lives of millions of people? What enabled him to do this? What was the secret of Hitler's terrible career?"
Ullrich then points out that "Frederich Kellner spoke for a small group of Hitler opponents, who had seen disaster coming when he reminded his fellow Germans: 'Every party comrade is responsible for the deeds and actions of the party. It is not right to ascribe the entire blame to Hitler and his leadership staff ... History will record for all eternity that the German people were incapable of shaking off the nationalist socialist (Nazi) yoke on their own.'"
I am left with the same questions each year: Why did the German people of the 1930s and 1940s allow this tragedy? Was it not possible for intelligent people to see catastrophe coming in the person of a charismatic, lying, self-absorbed and dangerous charlatan?
Chattanooga native Franklin McCallie is a retired educator and co-founder of Chattanooga Connected.