The Broken House by Horst Krüger review – growing up under Hitler

Horst Krüger (1919-1999), a German journalist and writer, originally wrote this evocative memoir in 1966 after attending the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, where 22 former SS camp guards and lower officials were brought to justice for their part in the deaths of more than a million people.

Looking round the courtroom, Krüger saw only ordinary men who had built a solid and respectable existence for themselves after the war, their appalling crimes forgotten until uncovered by a courageous state prosecutor, Fritz Bauer. Here for example was Wilhelm Boger, “an upright, reliable bookkeeper”, “a man you could depend on, who readjusted to life, who was able to sleep at night and who certainly had colleagues and friends and a family”. And yet, the court was told, apart from participating in countless selections, gassings, mass shootings and executions, he was personally responsible for “holding a sixty-year-old cleric in the prisoners’ kitchen under water until he was dead; shooting a Polish couple with three children with a pistol from a distance of about three metres; kicking to death the Polish general Dlugiszewski, who had been starved until he was practically a skeleton”, and many other similar acts of sadism and brutality.

Confronted with the spectacle of these men, roughly the same age as himself, Krüger “felt the compulsion to question my own past”. Neither he nor his parents had fallen under Hitler’s spell; there was no guilt to expiate and he had spent the war as an ordinary soldier. And yet, they were guilty, if only indirectly, as members of the “apolitical German lower middle class”, which with its “social insecurity, its instability and its hunger for irrational solutions provided the fertile seedbed for National Socialism’s seizure of power within Germany”. But for a string of lucky chances, he too might have ended up as a guard in Auschwitz. What, he asks himself, would he have done then?

It is precisely the ordinariness of Krüger’s life that makes this not just a book about Nazism and Germany but also a book for our own times. Its subjects are not the SS fanatics in the Frankfurt courtroom and the hundreds of thousands of Nazis who ran the Third Reich and carried out its most terrible deeds, but the millions of apolitical Germans who let this all happen. In an age when democracy is under threat everywhere, and unscrupulous politicians exploit its weaknesses for their own malign and corrupt ends, it’s salutary to learn how one family, one individual among many others in Germany, could stand by while evil triumphed.

, The Broken House by Horst Krüger review – growing up under Hitler, The Nzuchi Times Guardian
‘Hitler still exits within us.’ Horst Krüger in 1973. Photograph: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy

Krüger’s father, a minor civil servant and a Protestant, and his mother, a pious Catholic housewife, lived with their son and daughter in the recently built housing estate of Eichkamp in Berlin, its suburban semis and modest terraced houses designed specifically for the lower ranks of the middle classes. They were not Nazis, he says, but all the same, they “put all their energy, their hard work, their faith and their fate into blindly supporting them”. Hitler offered them the promise of a new, brighter future, and by the mid-1930s “they had slipped so slowly from their petit-bourgeois dreams into this age of greatness, they now felt very much at ease, they were delighted by what this man had made of them. They never understood that it was they, all of them, collectively, who made this man.”

Krüger’s limpid, almost poetic prose, well translated by Shaun Whiteside, conjures up vivid, concrete images of the dullness of life in Eichkamp, his adolescent dreams of escape leading him to become friends with “Wanja”, wild, unkempt, mysterious and exciting, a boy who “seemed to have come from another world”. When Wanja joined his school class, which was stuffed with “elegant and well dressed upper class scions of the Prussian bourgeoisie”, he soon led him into a life of danger, delivering leaflets for the socialist underground, though Krüger never became committed to the ideas they purveyed. Inevitably the boys were arrested by the Gestapo. Krüger was imprisoned on remand for a few months, “trapped between the millstones of history”, before a judge decided his respectable petit-bourgeois background made it clear that “with good treatment, [he] may perhaps be saved for the völkisch state”, and he was released.

, The Broken House by Horst Krüger review – growing up under Hitler, The Nzuchi Times Guardian

Moving skilfully back and forth in time, Krüger tells how he met up again with Wanja some years after the war in East Germany, where his friend had become a Communist apparatchik, wearing a drab suit, his hair neatly trimmed, mindlessly spouting what Orwell called in Nineteen Eighty-Four “duckspeak”. “You can have wonderful arguments with real Marxists,” Krüger says, but his friend’s “limited and narrow-minded socialism” made his conversation feel “clumsy and unreflective as if he was reading out official slogans”.

Wanja could no longer tell truth from lies, a condition that has been increasingly affecting our own times. Under the Third Reich, ordinary people could still tell the difference. “To me,” Krüger comments, “the German language had become identical with lies. You can only speak truthfully in private.” His parents told him: “What the papers say isn’t true, but you mustn’t say so. Outside you must always pretend that you believe everything.” He recounts his liberating sense of wonder when, in a prisoner-of-war camp at the end of the war, after he had deserted the army and surrendered to the Americans, he “was holding a newspaper in my hands, which was in German and didn’t lie”. Its front-page banner headline carried the announcement “Hitler dead”. Yet “that Hitler”, Krüger thinks, “he’s going to be staying with us – for our whole lives … he still exits within us. He still rules us from the darkness, from the underground.”

When The Broken House was first published, the great critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki called it “a book about Germany without lies”. In an afterword written a decade later, Krüger ascribed this honesty to the book’s “ruthless, indeed self-torturing, act of identification with the world of the defendants” at the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. He found himself guilty of sharing in the “general abnormal attitudes that formed the preconditions for Hitler’s dictatorship in Germany”. And yet there is also a subtle element of self-exculpation in what he writes. For at the centre of the book is the thesis that “apolitical” people can all too easily fall victim to demagogues and their lies. And in the case of the Krügers, this isn’t really true.

They may have thought they were unpolitical, but even in the 1920s they preferred the old Imperial German flag, in the colours of black, white and red representing authoritarianism, militarism, monarchism, to the official colours of the Weimar Republic: black, red and gold, representing democracy and revolution. They voted for the German National People’s party, ultra-conservative, anti-democratic and antisemitic, and dismissed the socialists – mainstay of Weimar democracy – as “the red rabble”. No doubt they joined the vast majority of the party’s millions of voters in switching to the Nazis in the early 1930s. None of this was, in reality, “unpolitical”. The Krügers were not the naive, innocent dupes portrayed in the book.

The path to dictatorship is often smoothed by mainstream political parties that become impatient with the complexities and constraints of formal constitutional democracy. Hitler, after all, came to power in 1933 in a coalition cabinet, in which the German National People’s party held a majority of the seats. It was the substantial overlap between the two parties’ ideas that enabled their supporters to make the transition from the one party to the other. Perhaps this is the final lesson to be learned from a book full of warnings for our own time.

  • The Broken House: Growing Up Uunder Hitler, by Horst Krüger, translated by Shaun Whiteside, is published by Bodley Head (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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