Jurgen Herbst's account of growing up in Nazi Germany from 1928 to 1948 is a boy's experience of anti-Semitism and militarism from the inside. It is also a tale of moral awakening. Jurgen Herbst was a middle-class boy in a Lutheran family that saw value in Prussian military ideals and a mythic German past. He recalls his confusion as some of his classmates were no longer welcome at his school, and his consternation as he tried to reconcile what he learned from his favorite teachers and what was subsequently taught by their Nazi party replacements. His description of walking to school the morning after Kristallnacht is clear and chilling. At age ten Herbst joined the Jungvolk and slowly became aware of the real nature of the National Socialist regime. The story of that evolution - a unique, insider's view of the Nazi youth movement - is inspired by young Jurgen's deep friendships with his fellow students and their dedication to a military code of personal honor and loyalty. His devotion to those young men allowed him to endure scorn and deprivation and to risk personal well-being, even life, in the face of a brutal evil that demanded unquestioning allegiance.
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.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.