A German Veteran Remembers
Extracts from a biography* by Hansjörg Gareis
Hansjörg Gareis, born in 1926 in Germany, served in the German Navy during World War 2, studied electrical engineering in Stuttgart and volunteered, in 1948, for full-time service in Moral Re-Armament. In 1968 he started a career in industry, was a director of personnel and finally founded and managed a firm providing jobs for long-term unemployed. *Stepping Stones 2001, ISBN: 3-00-008306-5
THE Good Road in 1948 was the first public initiative that Frank Buchman and those committed to Moral Re-Armament took in post-war Germany. At the opening of Mountain House, Caux in 1946, Frank Buchman’s opening words - it is said - were “Where are the Germans? You will never rebuild Europe without the Germans”.
So it was that masses of Germans, like myself, were given a chance to enter into a dialogue with the outside world, seeing in Germans not outcasts but fellow human beings who were needed to pursue a common objective. They were people who came to us with no pointed finger. We stepped onto new ground every day. It was perfect timing, therefore, when we were introduced to an idea that might help us get on our feet again.
But there was no easy way around it. We Germans must first of all face the depth of our guilt, humbly ask God’s forgiveness, and then courageously go on from there. We were given the grace of rebirth. It was like a life-belt for a drowning nation. Countless ordinary men and women, like me, all over the country were reaching out for it, testing it, trying it out.
No person alive could have dreamt, planned or even hoped for the evolution of the following years when a new nation rose like a Phoenix from the ashes. None of us will ever forget that journey through Switzerland (for myself in 1949). It was not the institutionalised strength of an organisation but the contagious effectiveness of individuals who simply lived in accordance with the deepest beliefs.
The first thing I had to learn was that MRA’s absolute moral standards meant not only that a person must not lie, steal, fornicate, murder, nor live a totally selfish life - it meant that in every detail of day-to-day affairs a standard of perfection must be aspired to.
I remember staying in an extremely old factory worker’s two-room flat sharing the settee with Stan. He was a few years older than I, a red-headed, quiet and taciturn Australian. Stan told me about his war-time Air Force service as a bomber pilot when they hunted German submarines in the Atlantic. I shared with him how both my brother Claus and my brother-in-law had been killed from such attacks. We compared times. It could have been Stan who dropped one of the fatal bombs. During the night we prayed together and committed to God whatever we felt. Our host was deeply moved when we told him of our experience that night.
By summer 1950 it had become almost fashionable for German leaders to travel to Caux. It was still one of the few, if not the only place, outside our national borders where we could ‘meet the world’. At Caux for the first time I rebelled against my friends. I had entered the inner circle of those who made the decisions about how the assembly was run. Nobody asked me to do so. But I felt terribly important attending all the planning strategy sessions, even the early morning ones in Frank Buchman’s room. I always tried to be first in the room so that I could sit out of sight of the old gentleman lest he might ask me, “Well, general’s son, what do you think?”
It was just not right!
One day a number of dock-workers from the British Clyde shipbuilding industry were announced. At the chorus rehearsal, sheets with the music of a song were handed out which had been written during the war aiming to boost the patriotic spirit of the shipyard workers. The refrain was, “It’s the Clyde-built ships that win the war”. When I read these words I got up and declared that I was unable to sing them. It was just not right! Praising the British ships meant at the same time to condemn our Navy in which I had served and in which my brother and brother-in-law had been killed. This was applying two different sets of standards and I was not going to take sides against my own. Ursula, a girl from Hamburg (who was later to marry my friend Fromund) and I left the rehearsal in protest. The rest of the chorus did nothing to stop us.
Hours later, Ursula and I were summoned to Dr Buchman’s room. We expected harsh accusations about still being Nazis at heart and so forth. Nothing of the sort happened. Frank, as he was called by everybody, heard us out and then suggested we listen to God together. I forget what thoughts were shared. Of course, we two ruefully accepted that we had behaved foolishly, that we must ‘change’ on the spot and do everything to make the British workers feel welcome. But Frank said something else. He suggested that my parents should be specially invited to attend a September session on the theme, ‘The Role of the Armed Forces in the Age of Ideologies’. I had severe doubts that my parents would accept an invitation. So far they had declined any such attempt. Beyond that it would create an impossible open conflict situation when Allied army leaders would be compelled to meet their former German adversaries. The time was not yet ripe for such confrontation, I thought.
Still, I wrote to my mother and father and pleaded with them that here in Caux they would be able as in no other place in the world to voice all their feelings and fears, that they would find only open ears and hearts. No answer came from them. I had known it would not work. My sister Annemie had told me that our parents had been able for the first time to visit our relatives in Sweden. My father’s only sister had married a Swedish pastor and had borne him five children, my cousins. They were our best loved relatives. Naturally, my parents would prefer to spend their summer holidays with them rather than being drawn into a mass of strangers and a cataclysm of feelings.
So the news, ‘the Germans are coming and your parents are among them’, was a complete surprise. Unknown to me, Peter, another German full-time worker of my age, had been sent with a large American car to Lennep and advised not to come back without them.
It never failed to move our compatriots deeply when they saw, above the driveway at the main entrance of Mountain House, the German flag hoisted among those of many other nations. It is normal today. But at that time we knew of no other place where it would be thus demonstrated that we were accepted as equals. Inside, in the lovely entrance hall, our chorus was lined up. We had no German anthem then, so a hymn-like song had been composed, “Deutschland, land loved by God”. When I saw my parents and the other Army men and their wives come in I was so excited and caught up in emotions that my voice failed me. But all the others sang fervently. Then somebody spoke a few words of welcome and the newcomers were led to their rooms. They had been given all the best apartments on the fourth floor, each with a balcony from where one had the most breathtaking view of Lake Geneva.
For the first plenary session next morning the large assembly hall was packed to capacity. An unusual tension had gripped everybody, it was almost tangible. From my place with the chorus behind the speakers’ platform, facing the audience, I could see the frozen, suspicious faces of the Germans. They sat together in a tight group as if they wanted to protect each other. On the rostrum were a French retired general, one of the great figures during the war, a Swedish and a Swiss general, and one or two others. I guess many of us prayed that someone would find the right words to break down the invisible wall. But it was not until the last speaker that it happened. Retired Rear-Admiral Owen Philips of the Royal Navy mounted the podium. He was a jolly heavy-set man with a round face and a booming bass voice. He wore big horn-rimmed glasses, and a navy-blue blazer with a colourful crest - he could have been nothing but a retired British navy man. He spoke simply and to the point with a clear, manly voice. He addressed the Germans who were present in the audience.
We remained aloof, self-righteous and indifferent
Bill Philips went back to the years between the two great wars when Germany suffered from the plight of the Versailles Treaty and its consequences. “We British watched your predicament from our island, and we remained aloof, self-righteous and indifferent. I have always felt deeply ashamed about this attitude, and I am convinced that our lack of human greatness has contributed to create the causes for yet another war. We must stand to our part of the blame”. The Admiral said he wanted to take this first chance of meeting responsible Germans to ask them to accept his sincere apologies for his own and his country’s failures. Stepping down from the platform, he walked up to my parents and the other Germans and shook hands with them. It was a genuine gesture. We all knew he meant what he said.
Hours later, I looked for my father and mother and found that they had silently retreated to their room, unable to talk to anybody. They both embraced me, a show of affection my father had always avoided. During the following days I watched with wonder the transformation taking place in them. The reason for their coming - to get me down from the mountain - was never again mentioned: no, now they were able to understand what kept all of us so involved. Their bitterness melted away like ice under the sun, and that made free the way to clear their own conscience. It was natural for another German, General Hossbach, and my father to speak to the assembly, in the name of their comrades, about their resolve to use what strength they had to work for a Germany the world could trust and respect again. A door had been pushed open to a road that allowed those who chose to travel on it to deal with the past instead of repressing it.
On 1 May 1951 my father and mother received a longish telegram which was signed by the Chairmen of both the Senate and House Foreign Affairs Committees of the United States of America, along with other Senators. It read:
As members of the Foreign Relations and Foreign Affairs Committee of the United States Senate and House of Representatives, we wish to add our support to the invitation extended to you to attend the World Assembly for Moral Re-Armament of the nations at Mackinac Island, Michigan, June 1 to 12, and to the welcome already issued by our Michigan colleagues in Congress.
Your presence in the United States, together with other distinguished leaders from Europe and Asia, can do much to focus the attention of the American people at this time on the positive steps that can be taken everywhere to answer the ideological threat of world Communism. We need such a demonstration of united strength in the field of inspired moral leadership, without which our common military, political and economic efforts to save the free world will certainly be less effective.
We are impressed with the practical evidence of what such active moral leadership has accomplished to establish democracy as a working force in danger areas that affect the future of your country and ours. We recognize the opportunity this assembly offers to proclaim to the world an inspired experience of democracy based on moral standards and the guidance of God which is the greatest bulwark of freedom.
We look forward to welcoming you on the occasion of your visit.
Since my parents’ return from Caux a year earlier, their lives had been filled with a new purpose. They had opened their home to the host of friends they had found and, whenever possible, the three of us together went to attend meetings all over the country. We shared with each other a harmony we had not known before. For me, it was a miracle to watch their joy in having found what my father called ‘the right road’.
Rapprochement with their hated neighbour
It was, for instance, but one of countless small mosaic stones that were beginning to form the picture of a new Europe, when my father was asked, with other Germans, to attend a large assembly in Lille, the industrial centre in northern France. Driving there in a car through countryside where he had fought in two world wars, he recognised the area so well that, when the driver lost his way, the general was able to guide him with unerring certainty. Although on this occasion the Germans came by invitation, among the French people the memories of millions of war casualties, of atrocities and humiliations afflicted on them, were much alive still.
Only a few months before French Foreign Minister Robert Schumann had caused a sensation with his suggestion of merging the European coal and steel industries, including those of West Germany, while at the same time the overwhelming majority of the French people refused any kind of rapprochement with their hated neighbour country.
When my father was introduced as a wartime Tank Corps Commander, the audience was stunned. He reported about the change of heart he had experienced which enabled him to accept his personal responsibility for the wrongs done by his country. He begged the French to forgive him if they could, and to believe him in his trust. The warm-hearted response to what he said was, in his own words, one of the most overwhelming experiences he had ever had.
Thus strengthened, my parents had written to Frank Buchman saying they were prepared, as their part towards a national atonement, to be of service to the movement wherever they might be needed. Buchman’s reply went far beyond their expectations. He wrote from California, “If you can make arrangements, we would welcome you and your son at the Assembly at Mackinac Island in June and I would like you to stay on in this country after the Assembly is concluded if that should be possible.” As if to confirm that this was not just a friendly encouragement the telegram from Washington, quoted above, had arrived.
They faced an extremely difficult decision. They were both over sixty; they had no savings; and pensions were under discussion in Parliament with no outcome in sight. To go travelling, even for a few months would mean giving up the security of my father’s job and to close down their home because they could not afford to pay the rent while away. And what would their relatives think, and my mother had ‘nothing to wear’ and no money to buy anything suitable! I admired the courage they had in deciding to go, when we had a family caucus to consider this.
One enormous incomprehensible myth
Few of us had ever been on a long-distance flight before and in those days we had to refuel at Shannon, Ireland, and Gander, Newfoundland, before reaching New York. During the last lap one of the engines broke down and despite the pilot’s comforting words, we were scared stiff. On arrival the immigration procedures seem to take for ever, each person being interrogated separately for half an hour. So although we had landed early in the morning, it was lunch-time before we were taken to Manhattan in a fleet of super buses. Everything seemed big, enormous, fast and frightening. For us Europeans we got the general impression that to be of any interest in the States, something had to be the longest or the smallest, the first or the last, the biggest or the tiniest of its kind in the world.
The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan, was the location of the Assembly. The hotel and the island presented breathtaking sights to us as we arrived. After twenty years of strict isolation for many of the German delegates the frank discussions with people from so many different countries and so many different parts of the United States were sometimes shockingly revealing. Underneath the general impression of bonhomie and neighbourliness we often felt we were regarded as creatures from another star. Germany was equated with Nazism, and Nazism stood for many people as one enormous incomprehensible myth, as a phenomenon whereby in a mysterious way the evils of mankind had been concentrated in one particular people.
For my parents the question of guilt, of national and personal culpability, became central. It was heatedly discussed among the German delegation. Obviously, the assumption of a particularly evil German character was ridiculous, and the suggestion of collective guilt of all members of one iniquitous race preposterous. But the Alabama journalist had told our little group, “It must be crucifying for you Germans to live with these unspeakable crimes on your conscience.” How should we, how should each one of us individually deal with this? The world was not interested whether any one of us had personally committed atrocities or not. The world held us all responsible, as debtors for capital that had been squandered. The world would not tolerate us trying to silently repress our most recent past, not any attempt on the part of any one of us to declare himself free from blame.
The three of us were asked one day to address the Assembly. For my father and mother it was like a trial, but they were both ready to publicly reveal some of the issues deepest in the hearts. They expressed their gratitude to Frank Buchman for his efforts to make us welcome again in the family of nations, and to men like Admiral Philips whose action had opened for them and many others the chance to actively participate in an atonement. It cost my father dearly to talk about his shame about his country’s and his people’s deeds. At the end, they were both pale-faced and shaking. My father felt terribly humiliated when no one thanked him for what he had said; only one young American clapping him on the back and saying, “Well done, general, carry on the good work!” My parents wanted to return home.
Later in the evening we were walking along the shore line of the island. It was a lovely summer evening with only a light breeze coming in from the lake, causing the same rustling sound in the trees that we had loved so in East Prussia. That seemed to have been in another life. But the sounds and sights of nature again had their soothing effect. We calmed down.
“Of course we do not know what your words caused in those who listened,” I said. “Remember how deeply you were stirred in Caux, and that it took you quite a while to be able to respond.”
“There is something in that.” “What is more,” I went on, “If I say sorry to someone for something I have done, and if I say it just for the reason to coax him to admit his own faults, then that is not the right motive, it seems to me. Like making a gift to someone and expecting something in return is not really a gift. It is a deal.”
We have an obligation to carry on
For a while we walked in silence. Then my mother said softly, “The Good Lord put us on this track through these people. They have done so much for us and for our country. We have an obligation to carry on. We must learn from our mistakes and try to pass on what we have learned.”
My parents had become friends with a Protestant bishop who was a member of the Swedish delegation. With him they had a long conversation. I never knew what they talked about. But obviously, they had made their peace with God. They accepted their part of the blame as far as they could see it, mainly the lack of enough courage and care, and their unconditional need to be forgiven.
Peter Howard told them that with the reality of their experience they could play an important part in the USA, not only in gradually removing traditional anti-German sentiments with origins reaching back long before the Hitler era. Moreover, he said, the moral defeatism that enabled Hitler to come to power in the first place was just as rampant at present in the western democracies as it had been in Germany and Europe in the thirties. Our common task was to fight materialism in all its forms, the militant materialism of Communism just as much as the subtle but no less dangerous selfishness of the Capitalist world.
For me, these issues did not carry so much weight, at least not at that time. What my parents went through on Mackinac Island was very much their own personal affair. Today it is easy to be derisive about our idealism, to call it naïve and unworldly. At the time, everything seemed so clear and simple, so near at hand. It was intoxicating to be able to add something constructive to the living flow of events, partake in the organic build-up of a philosophy which, if proved to be right and valid, would give meaning to everything one thought and did.
Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, was convinced that the character of man is unchangeable. He wrote, “The nature of man will remain the same all through his life. The outer frame, the circumstances of life, the sum of his knowledge and his opinions, all that might change. But underneath it, like a crab in his shell, will remain the identical, actual individual, unchangeable and unmistakable, always the same”. We were out to prove Schopenhauer wrong.
One day, my parents and I stood at the New York Embankment facing the Statue of Liberty and regarded the memorial with the thousands of names of Americans who had lost their lives in the war. “People in this country do not realise how privileged and fortunate they are,” said my father. “For them it is a birthright to honour their heroes. We Germans are not allowed to mourn our dead.”
I thought that was a rather profound remark. I did not realise it until much later, and I guess the outside world never comprehended the significance of the fact, that most Germans, eager to prove that they never had been and certainly were no longer Nazis, forcefully refused to deal, even less to come to terms, with our recent past. Vergangenheitsbewaltigung is not only one of those tape-worm words so loved in our language. It also signifies a trauma pursuing us to this very day. In every Western country I visited one would find memorials, often decorated with national colours, fresh wreaths and flowers. In Germany most efforts to this end have been successfully prevented. The likelihood that among them those to be remembered had also been SS and other criminals contaminated the mass of innocents so much that we denied each other first the right and then the capacity to mourn. Such things leave indelible marks on a people.
Finally the time came for my parents to leave for home, while I stayed on in America. It had not been an altogether easy time for them in the States. However they had made a great contribution to the rebuilding of relations between Germany and the United States and in turn to the eventual creation of the new German Army. At the time of their departure, one newspaper called our family “Ambassadors of a new Germany”, which certainly described what they always hoped to be. Meanwhile I stayed on as a member of the cast of the musical show Jotham Valley, where I played the part of a cowboy. Often the showings of this play resulted in our being invited to visit people’s homes or to parties by people who wanted to know more of what we were doing.
What on earth could I say?
One evening six of us young men from the cast were invited by a Rabbi to meet members of his Jewish community in California. I was not told beforehand and would have probably refused to go, if I had known. We found ourselves in a large room next to the local Synagogue with about forty or fifty men. So many things went through my mind. Had these people suffered from the Nazis? Had they perhaps survived a concentration camp? How would they receive me? What could I say to these Jews? I felt stigmatised and terror crept up in my body and I felt a nameless kind of anxiety. As my friends were speaking I was wondering what on earth I could say.
“Perfect love casts out all fear,” I jotted down in my notebook and, “If you want to, you can open your heart and simply love them, each one of them. Have no fear and be honest. Tell them what you are going through and what you have decided to do with your life.”
When the Rabbi introduced me I was calm. He said that I had been a member of the Hitler Youth and later served in the German Navy. He told them my father had commanded a Tank Corps in the war and that my parents had been taking part in the campaign of Moral Re-Armament in America. You could feel a stone wall build up in the room. But I was not afraid any more.
Only a few clapped when I sat down again and the applause died down quickly. Nobody wanted to ask any questions. There was no discussion. The Rabbi closed the meeting and thanked us for coming. He told them that what I had said had made them thoughtful. We did not seem to have reached the hearts of our audience. It was sad.
As we left the hall a man stood in my way. He was about fifty, an unobtrusive kind of person, whom one would not have noticed in a crowd. When I stopped, he hesitated for a moment and then, as if he had made up his mind, stretched out his hand and gripped mine. We stood there, hands locked for quite a while. Then he said, in German, “In 1939 I swore a holy oath never again to defile my mouth with your language. I have been wrong. Don’t answer me,” he went on, “I have listened carefully to what you said. Would you give me the pleasure of coming to my home and meeting my family and having a meal with us?” He told me he would first ask his wife and call me to make a date.
He kept his word and a few days later picked me up in his car. His wife and son stood at the entrance of their house to receive me. She was an outgoing, happy lady with the gift of making one feel at home right away. Their son had had his Bar Mitzvah celebration recently and proudly showed me some of the gifts which relatives and friends had brought. His father told me their son had been just a small baby when they had been forced to flee from their German home. They were grateful that the boy knew nothing about the terrible circumstances into which he was born and that he was able to grow up in freedom. Before the meal, my host prayed in Hebrew. I felt that God was present and blessed this moment. Later I had the chance to meet many more Jews. For myself, the evening with that Jewish family is a priceless treasure that nobody can take away from me. It was a gift to realise that God can direct the hearts of men, to know that reconciliation is possible even between the hardest of adversaries.