He was born in 1924. When Hitler seized power, he was 9 years old. He went to war with 16.
I spent a lot of time with him and my grandma as a kid. We used to live next door to them for two years and later we visited them almost every week. I had sleepovers at my grandparents' house together with my sister. I went skiing with him and he took me to the horse race and we once flew in a helicopter together.
In my early childhood memories, he was a smart and funny guy and an amazing storyteller. He had lots of friends. He sold buses for Daimler and took a lot of pride in that. He had gained some wealth during the Wirtschaftswunder and considered himself an influental figure of some sorts.
The stories that he told me as a kid were mostly about his own childhood. They were full of adventures. Growing up in Freiburg, he told me how they were free and wild as kids. Nobody really watched after them. They explored the city, the forests and fields on their own and went for kilometers before returning home hours later.
Whenever he talked about his time in the Hitler Jugend, his eyes beamed. The cameraderie stood out for him. The world around him felt safe because they had their Führer or the GRÖFAZ how he used to call him. It's a German abbreviation for "The greatest leader of all times". He once told me how you did not need to fear anything back then. If someone committed a serious crime, they would be executed, so nobody would dare to.
He told me about the war - I was still a young boy - and his stories were full of excitement. He was in a good mood when he talked about it. Even the grim parts were happy memories for him. He talked about riding the lazaret train after he got hit by a shrapnel. How the patients next to him had to empty a bottle of Schnaps and bite on a stick before they got surgery without anaesthesia. He proudly showed me his scar on his knee where the shrapnel had entered his body. He laughed when he talked about how they ate rats later in a French military prison. The stories were all over the place. He never talked about killing someone. He kept various medals of honor with a Hakenkreuz in his home office. Much later, I learned that he was in the SS.
Things got complicated between us when I grew into a teenager. I started asking uncomfortable questions from our history lessons. But in his eyes, I was a naive boy who was brainwashed by our school system. The history books were obviously written by the enemies after the war. He was my grandpa. I tried to understand him. I thought he would have a good explanation why he is like he is. But I only saw him more and more for who he really was. His definition of strength was power, influence, money and his network of important people. Behind his jovial facade hid a cruel man. He saw himself as a puppet player and he didn't accept when his puppets didn't play the role they were supposed to. I played my role as a child and then stopped and things no longer worked out between us.
I learned that the older members in my family had an invisible bond that protected men like him. He also wasn't visible as a Nazi to the rest of the world. He would mostly keep his stories for me or sometimes certain sentences would drop during family gatherings.
I learned how the generation of my parents tried to get away from all that but deeply struggled.
My class visited the KZ in Dachau as part of one of our field trips in school. A visit that I'm never going to forget. No facade is ever strong enough, no adventure story can gloss over the things that happened. His distored reality crumbled before my eyes with many consequences that would follow me for a long time.
I saw him for the last time in my early 20s. He died a couple years ago.
Families are complex constructs. I'm not going to talk about why I spent so much time with him as a kid. I'm also not telling this story to create any form of understanding or compassion for him. The young, wild boy in the 1920s has all my empathy. The man, that my grandpa turned into, does not deserve any of that.
I'm writing this down in a time when 25-30% of the German population is voting for Nazis again.
I'm writing this down because my grandpa turned me into an anti-fascist with all my heart for the rest of my life. I'm not wearing black on an antifa demo to beat up some Nazis. I mean the deep conviction that fascism must never – and I mean never – return to power. I've witnessed his distorted reality. He was a fantastic example for how well humans can manipulate their own memories and the stories they tell – to protect themselves – to hide some brutal truths forever. You cannot argue with someone who's living in a different universe. It took a long time for me to understand that.
I wondered for many years, how all of this could have happened. How people like my grandpa turned into monsters and people around him watched or turned into monsters with him.
The last years made this very clear.
There are those who believe that we just have to present them with facts and then they would understand that they are on the wrong track. But they have their own reality and they look down on us for being weak and naive. They truly believe that we are the ones on the wrong track.
There are those who are silent because they have their own monsters around them. In their families, neighborhoods, schools or in their companies. It is hard to face the monsters. You don't want to lose the people you love. Yes, monsters are being loved too. You might be afraid to lose important business relationships and get into financial trouble. There are countless reasons to stay silent.
Then there are those who admire the monsters. They emit strength with every pore. My grandpa was exactly like that. People admired him because he was beaming with confidence and a seemingly positive power. I think my grandpa was also turned into one of the monsters by the same effect. He truly admired Hitler as a young boy. He was convinced by strength and power and that never stopped.
Then there are the opportunists. Those who think that they can keep the monsters in check. They think they can abuse them as vehicles to stay in power or get in power. They are the worst of all those groups.
Our collective mistake is to underestimate the mechanisms behind all that. Even with our history. We can only keep the Nazis in check as long as they don't find step stones to get back to power. Once the pendulum swings too far in their direction it's going to be over and it's currently not looking good. My grandpa kept his views mostly hidden because he had to, to keep his facade, but not because he wanted to. He would have loved to see the AfD rise and make his opinions valid once more.
People are starting to be truly afraid of speaking up again. Even I think that this post could get me in trouble if the AfD wins. We cannot let that happen.
I'm sure that a lot of people in Germany have similar stories of relatives to tell. I'm most definitely not the only one who grew up with a Nazi in their family.
We are still a generation of people who understand the danger from our experience or the experience of our parents and grandparents. This is an advantage that we are about to lose though.
My grandpa taught me that Nazis are fantastic storytellers. The new Nazis are on Tiktok and elsewhere on social media, telling great stories. Stories of safety, of simplicity, of order and justice. Stories of lives without crises. Adventure stories.
The only way to look at all of this is from the distant future. What happens if we let the Nazis take over again. How would our world look like in 20 or 30 years from now. I shudder from the thought. There is no option that fascism would ever lead to anything else than destruction.
For the sake of our democracy, our freedom, the lives of our kids and generations to come: Let's stand up with all the power we have.