In May 1952 my mother Anne Berns, then aged 25, persuaded my grandparents to take her on a touring holiday of Germany, centered on the ‘Romantischer Rheinland’. Many of her friends thought she had no business going for a holiday in a country which had so recently come within an ace of destroying our own, and which had committed such unspeakable crimes, above all the Holocaust: but as she said, she wanted to go there “to see if the Germans were human”.
Frank & Fanny Berns Town Centre
They hired a car & driver and toured a great swathe of West Germany (as it was then): the capital Bonn, Cologne, Heidelberg, Neuschwanstein, Oberammergau, Wiesbaden, Dinkelsbühl, Rothenburg ob der Tauber. They ended up in the Alpine resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen which their driver particularly recommended to them as an outstandingly beautiful spot.
So how were the Germans? As Churchill said in his speech to the US Congress in 1943: “The Hun is always either at your throat or at your feet”. With the exception of a one-legged veteran in the ruins of Cologne who spat at them – Cologne had been flattened utterly, except for the cathedral which had been spared, but the city was a neat & tidy ruin – everybody in the shops, resorts and hotels fawned obsequiously over my mother and grandparents and couldn’t do enough for them.
Britain had been starving for years under rationing, and even my grandparents who were in the fortunate position of being shopkeepers had their work cut out to organise enough food for themselves & their daughter. What they saw in West Germany made their eyes pop out of their heads. In Garmisch-Partenkirchen there were the biggest cream cakes they’d ever seen. Every shop was stuffed full with first-rate produce. My mother particularly remarked upon the beautiful leather handbags. As for the locals, they were plump, smug and beautifully – and expensively – dressed. The war had only been over five years, and Britain was still on its knees recovering. But in West Germany the appearance of the people and the towns was as if there had never been a war. Or if it had, they looked like victors.
The manner of the Germans – those who were not fawning in service – was uniformly self-satisfied. It did not appear that they gave a thought to what they and their families had done during the war. It seemed they did not consider themselves responsible for any wrongdoing, and the concept of repentance was utterly alien to them.
Yes, the Germans were human. But they were quite devoid of what we would call humanity.