The kids are watching
How a stubborn adherence to values inspired another generation.
Eighty-eight years ago this weekend, Germany voted to ratify Adolph Hitler’s rise to power.
Hitler claimed a 90 percent victory. Supposedly, 95 percent of all German voters participated.
The first part of today’s newsletter is about a German baker who did not participate.
His name was Hermann Schnuerle. He lived in a little town called Calw in the Black Forest. His wasn’t a silent, personal protest. Everybody knew.
His wife and family begged him to go through the motions, but he refused any suggestion that he supported Hitler.
Before the day was out, August 19, 1934, he’d been accosted by a group of men who “tied his hands and hung around his neck a placard declaring him to be a traitor,” according to one account.
They marched him through town, spat on him. He wound up in some kind of punishment camp “where they cut rocks,” according to the same account. They kept him for a year, but the ordeal supposedly “steeled rather than broke” him.
Hermann survived the war. At one point, he reportedly housed and fed some Jews who were in hiding. Other than that, he might well have been forgotten to history.
Except for his grandson, who was born three years after Hermann’s release.
The rest of this story is about him.
The grandson’s name was Dieter: son of Hermann’s daughter, Maria, and her husband Reinhold, who was later drafted into the army and died on the Eastern front.
Dieter was only 5. He didn’t remember his father. But he knew his grandfather.
Life was brutal during the waning days of the war, and immediately afterward. Dieter grew up tough, a scrounger. He’d steal scraps of food. He learned to boil down old wallpaper and eat it (it was partially made with wheat). He scavenged brass and other metal to sell.
Perhaps ironically, since his country had been bombed to smithereens, Dieter loved airplanes. When he was 18, in 1956, he hitchhiked to Hamburg, made his way on a ship to New York, slept on the streets, and finally found his way to a U.S. Air Force recruiter’s office.
Refugees who enlist in the Air Force don’t become pilots. So Dieter served four years as a mechanic. Then, he cobbled together some college credits and joined the U.S. Navy, which sent him to flight school.
He became a fighter pilot and was assigned to the aircraft carrier, USS Ranger.
Just in time for the Vietnam War.
On February 1, 1966, Dieter was shot down and captured in Laos. He was tortured, escaped, recaptured, tortured some more. Eventually he wound up in a small, brutal camp along with six other U.S. and Thai prisoners.
In June of that year, he escaped for good. After 23 days of running through the jungle, nearing starvation, and almost getting shot to death by the Americans who found him and eventually rescued him, he made it home.
Dieter’s story (his last name was Dengler) is best known now because Christian Bale played him in a 2006 movie about his capture and escape, Rescue Dawn. But one thing that didn’t make it into that movie was what Dieter later said was the greatest source of inspiration that kept his spirits up during his captivity and escape.
It was the memory of his grandfather, Hermann, and the courage Dieter had heard he’d displayed in refusing to support Hitler, when everyone around him insisted on it.
They say kids are always watching—even, it appears, the ones who haven’t been born yet. I feel like Hermann Schnuerle knew that back in 1934.
Reminder, while we’re operating on “low power mode,” (aka Bill’s Vacation), we’ll be highlighting some “Best of Understandably” newsletters (this one first ran in August 2020), and skipping the “7 other things” we normally run. But I invite you to share links to things you think your fellow readers would appreciate or enjoy in the comments.
(Photo note: The photo included above isn’t Hermann Schnuerle; it’s another German, believed to have been named August Landmesser, refusing to participate in Nazi rituals. You can read about him here. It’s thematically similar anyway, and frankly I was looking for a royalty-free photo I could use that didn’t inadvertently glorify the Third Reich.)