Growing up in the light and shadow of WWII

Cover illustr

The Wooden Tank
by Jean-Louis Rheault
Unpublished. 50pgs. Written in 2002

excerpt

The teenage girl called me a Nazi-lover. I was only twelve and it wasn’t the first time. I hated being called that even if I was in full German uniform at the time.

She said I was just like that other guy – an older guy in high school. Paul Kennedy she said his name was. I still remember that name over 40 years later though I never met him or wanted to. He was said to have framed pictures of Nazi leaders on his bedroom walls. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe someone would have the gall to do that. Obviously, that guy was a Nazi-lover. “Me,” I always tried to explain, “I just like the uniforms!”

What is it about that Nazi stuff anyways? What makes it look so cool? The swastika, the helmets, the insignias, the slick uniforms with their perfectly shaped officer hats. Even the words have a buzz to them: Panzers, Third Reich, Blitzkrieg, It all just works. They say that mere talent opens doors to imitation whereas genius closes a subject with the definitive statement. It is just not possible to beat the Nazis in military chic. It can’t be done.

I fell in love with Nazi regalia the moment I first laid eyes on it. I must have been about six or seven. I asked my father about these pictures I found in a magazine. He dismissively replied that this was from Hitler’s time. I heard IKLER and entertained that misconception up until the time I voiced my obsession that Mr. Plante, our new neighbor, looked like IKLER.  “You mean Hitler” my mother said “And don’t you go saying that to him now.” She added worriedly. Apparently, she also noticed the resemblance.

Nazi stuff gave me a profound aesthetic experience. I never understood what that meant exactly but if anything can be called an aesthetic experience this would be it, wouldn’t it? I would stare at pictures and find myself utterly mesmerized, transported into a sensual contemplative state, awed before what seemed to be ideal expressions of somber beauty. In grade three, I remember the nuns telling us that in heaven we would spend eternity staring at the beauty of God. My friends said this sounded like, totally boring but I related to the idea. An eternity of staring at something going “WOW!” sounded good to me – given the standard clause that usually came with the idea of suffering in Hell: “and God sees that you never get used to it”.

I had always derived a distinct feeling of sweetness contemplating beautiful or intriguing things and Nazi images were simply added to my catalog so I just wanted to draw, doodle, etch, and paint all sorts of Nazi things. But there was a big problem here. It was NAZI stuff.

I also became aware of the Holocaust in the early sixties. Documentaries on our old Fleetwood TV showed grainy black and white footage of the unspeakable images: bulldozers plowing through mountains of corpses, ghastly human remains behind oven doors. Horror so extreme that I still can’t quite deal with it. This wasn’t war movies. It was as real as my father’s silent 8MM home movies of Christmas and vacations. Sometimes I couldn’t bear to continue watching and would leave the room deeply disturbed by what I had just seen. I would writhe in my bed forcefully trying to repress unbearable thoughts and images from taking form in my consciousness. This was a big dilemma for me, extremely attractive stuff with horrendous association. The Good, the True and the Beautiful don’t always coincide but this was more than finding out that the sports hero is on the take. This hit me on a cosmic meaning-of-life level. How could a whole nation that looked so spiffy be so bad? How could I feel so attracted and so repulsed by the same thing and at such extremes?

I had no problem with Japanese atrocities that were also surfacing to a lesser extent at the time. The solution here was simple. I just hated the Japs. Besides, in comic books they were always colored un-humanly bright yellow. What tore me up was that I liked the Germans and their stuff. Why did they have to be the bad guys?

As an eleven year-old, becoming a goateed pseudo-intellectual holocaust-denier wasn’t presented to me as an option so I resolved the contradiction by grabbing on to a distinction, an idea that I picked up somewhere probably from the movies because Hollywood picked up on this too. The Germans weren’t all Nazis. The Nazis were an evil minority. It was them who hijacked the country and murdered families while the German army was just a tough but noble adversary who had no idea what was going on. The gallant Messerschmitt pilots had nothing to do with the concentration camps. Condemn the creepy Gestapo and it becomes all right to like the U-boats. The compromise worked for me. It gave me moral permission to indulge in my passion for as long as I kept that boundary. So when I made myself a complete German uniform to play around in, I attentively made it strictly Werhmacht. A black, white-trimmed and red arm-banded SS outfit would have been more impressive to be sure but it was precisely here that I had to maintain a strict discipline of self-censure. I very consciously had a good little boy image to live up to both in my neighborhood and in my own conscience.

I was not the only one who liked Nazi stuff. Flip through any military hobby magazine and you see disproportionate coverage given to German WWII subjects. Even in those elementary school years, I had no shortage of friends who shared my interest. People that like military bric-a-brac just can’t help liking the look of that Nazi regalia. Nevertheless I hated and felt immensely superior to those kids who would just paint crass swastikas on things. It wasn’t the bad form that bothered me. I was angry because they were not tormented about the whole matter like I was.

There were 2 kinds of Nazi fans. One was the blissfully ignorant like Bram for instance, a wide-eyed impressionable Jewish kid who started to come every day to my house just to play with my collection of German stuff and had no idea who the Nazis were. Here, my mission was clear: I had to enlighten him – with a dose of the most horrible pictures and stories I could find. “Here’s what you are dealing with, my friend and you’re Jewish!” I never saw him again. And then there were the bad kids, the type who liked Nazi stuff precisely because it was bad. For them, the Nazis were cool because they were bad-ass evil. What was beyond my grasp was that they were okay with that. I was a parent-pleasing conservative in those days and rebellious bad boys scared me. I didn’t quite know how to deal with those guys except with a kind of denial. They could not know what I knew. Of course, having billions of toy soldiers and all sorts of war junk including a wearable German uniform and later a tank drew these kinds of kids to my place in droves but I stuck to my Manichean ethical divide. The German Army was not the Nazis and I was not another swastika-scribbling geek. Despite a superficial appearance that confuses the ignorant, I told myself, the German army and I were really on the side of Good.

After all, this was the era of the Cold War and its manufactured-consent type message that told us that the Germans were okay now because they were our friends against the Russians. I did grow up soaking in Hollywood war movies where German soldiers all seemed to be tragic conscience-torn figures in the Kurt Jurgens genre, brave and stoic warriors caught in evil circumstances not of their making. But at eleven, I didn’t have a clue about politics and except for the cleaning lady, I didn’t even know a German person. Yet through some strange obsession, I became a rabid self-appointed advocate of German innocence as if I somehow had a personal stake in the issue, as if I sat side by side with the whole nation on the bench at Nuremberg.

Me with my friends at The Battle of the Bulge movie: “See! See! It’s the Gestapo that are shooting the American prisoners. Man, the German army would never do that, never, no way!”
Voice in back: “Shut up kid we’re trying to watch the film!”

What led me to take one this weight of German national guilt on my little shoulders? Historian Martin Amis said that although history is rife with all sorts of horrible things there’s just something about the Nazi period that makes him feel species guilt. It’s an intriguing thought. All I know is that my awareness of the horrific magnitude of Nazi evil set off a strange shadowy turmoil that continued to brew unresolved inside me and that I sought relief or avoidance or maybe just reassurances of a belief in Goodness through any evidence that attenuated German guilt.

During my childhood, as I voraciously learned more and more about the horror and the glamour of WWII so did my fascination grow and also the vague feeling of rationalized guilt. I once heard it said that terror frightens away but horror attracts. I was greatly attracted. I didn’t like sports – I was the scrawny kid who was always last to be picked for any team in any sport, a nerd in short but without glasses which makes a difference. I did like girls or some girls anyways. Every year or so, I would develop a secret and overwhelming crush on someone who appeared to me as ubiquitous, as enchanting and about as accessible as the Moon. I never even spoke to these girls. For nerds, both sports and girls were usually great arenas of humiliation so I just wanted to play with war all the time. Toy soldiers, models, dioramas, building forts, movies, comics, war games. If it related to World War II, I was into it.

(….)

My fascination for the War continued on.. All throughout high school and college, I never missed an open topic opportunity to do essays, oral presentations, and all sorts of other projects on WWII themes. In religion classes and later in philosophy courses, I irritated teachers by incessantly bringing up the Holocaust. To me, all moral discussions were moot until someone could explain to me how come what happened, happened. No one did and I often ended up being accused of having both perverse Nazi sympathies and a whiny bleeding heart for the Jews.

It was my obsession with the question that led me over the years to develop interest in history, and world affairs and also to explore a wide variety of quackeries from Lyndon Larouche conspiracy theories to Aleister Crowley occultism. Many times I believed I had it figured out, that I had an angle- social, political, astral, that allowed my mind to draw an understandable perimeter around the madness that seized the world barely a decade before was born. But always the floor caved in as a new book, movie or a frightful anecdote would reveal yet another level to the senseless horror and cruelty and make it even more incomprehensible. In University, I had a good friend with a brilliant mind and a family history of schizophrenia gradually go mad on me. In the later stages of his paranoia, he suddenly and astonishingly became a vicious anti-Semite and advocated the Nazi cause. I saw the Madness, writ small, played out right before my eyes and then he killed himself.

Later, when my own son was around twelve, I told tales of these adventures to him and his friends. They surprisingly and sadly complained that I had been lucky to live in a better time and were convinced that any attempt to do the same now would cause someone to call the Police. They were probably right and besides the streets were empty now. Moreover, I had the feeling that my fellow parents would see encouraging the kids to games of War as the moral equivalent of giving them cigarettes.

Today, when I’m on the phone or something, I still catch myself doodling German helmets, U-Boats and Tiger tanks. I am no closer to understanding or coming to terms with the Holocaust and other horrors as when I was first exposed to it over 50 years ago. All I got was more details and the impression that no one is innocent including me. WWII caused the death of about 50 million people with unguessable numbers suffering levels of psychic and physical pain beyond my comprehension. For me however, the event provided an endless trail filled with the delights of discovery, the awe of epic tales, the terror of my own smallness and even lots of fun. And of course, an unrelenting feeling of guilt about it all even if I, the unborn, the future was the reason our dads said the War was fought.

 

 

 

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