One of Irmgard Hunt's friends says of the Third Reich, "The Germans were all crazy then." Many people agree, on all sides. But it is not true. In fact, the Germans were all too normal.
Hunt was born in Berchtesgaden, just below Obersalzberg, where Hitler built his Eagle's Nest estate. Otherwise, her family and friends were unexceptional. Her memoir shows again why the Germans were ripe for Hitler - the Versailles Treaty, the Weimar Republic, above all poverty. Her cabinet-maker grandfather could sell only coffins; her mother was forced to steal scraps from her boss's table.
After that she longed only for dignity, prosperity and the chance to stay at home with her children. Hitler offered all these, in exalted terms; plus order, and a scapegoat, the Jews. Neither of Irmgard's parents was very interested in the last bit. But they enthusiastically accepted not just order and prosperity, but German superiority, and the German need for Lebensraum.
That was the first step, and after it was taken it was hard to withdraw - especially once the government controlled every aspect of life, from the greeting people exchanged to the names they could give children. Someone's Jewish wife disappears, then someone's handicapped child; a friend returns from Buchenwald, another brings tales of special trains from the Russian front. No one says anything, for fear of stepping out of line, of losing their hard-won gains, of admitting they were wrong, of ending up in Buchenwald.
Irmgard's father is killed in France, but her mother is a Nazi to the end. She never feels pity for anyone but Germans; she thinks of the good Hitler can do for Germany, never of the cost. The problem is ordinary selfishness in extraordinary times, and knowing when the times are extraordinary.
It was not impossible, as Hunt shows. Several people around her resist: her neighbours the Molsens and Reitlechners; her mother's friend Tante Emilie; most bravely, her grandfather. Nothing happens to them - though her grandfather only narrowly escapes being betrayed to an informer by Irmgard herself. But resisters are always outnumbered. Hunt has an image of this which will stay with me. Aged four, she is photographed on Hitler's knee before a cheering crowd; her grandfather turns away and beats the air with his cane in impotent rage.
Carole Angier's 'Primo Levi: the double bond' is published by PenguinReuse content