cover image Requiem for a German Past: A Boyhood Among the Nazis

Requiem for a German Past: A Boyhood Among the Nazis

Jurgen Herbst. University of Wisconsin Press, $26.95 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-299-16410-2

In this muted memoir, Herbst, emeritus professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, attempts to come to terms with his Nazi-affiliated boyhood in his native Germany. ""I wrote this book primarily for my children... who have a right to know where their father came from,"" he states in the preface, warning, ""I neither attempt to analyze and explain, nor do I answer directly the questions that I know many readers will have."" At age 15, he was an enthusiastic platoon leader of Jungvolk, a Nazi youth organization; in 1944, at 16, he served as instructor in a Hitler Youth training school; during the war's final year, he saw combat as a German soldier. Tinged with adolescent Sturm und Drang, this self-portrait incorporates translated portions of a novelistic autobiographical manuscript Herbst wrote in German in 1953, as well as diary entries and excerpts from letters. While he only alludes in passing to questions of conscience or individual responsibility, Herbst writes movingly of how his respect for the traditions of the Prussian army and the Lutheran church first fueled his patriotism, then ""came into conflict with the demands of a brutal and evil ideology."" The narrative closes with a wrenching scene of Herbst taking his leave from his dying mother in Switzerland in 1948 before embarking on academic studies in the U.S. The volume's lingering effect is to illustrate and personalize the tragedy of how easily German idealism was harnessed by Nazism. (Sept.)