The Voices of War

95. Heidi Langbein-Allen - From Propaganda To Desperation: Understanding Nazi Indoctrination Of German Youth In Hitler’s Army

VOW 95 | Nazi Indoctrination

 

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My guest today is Heidi Langbein-Allen, who recently published the memoirs of her father, Willi Langbein, who, at the age of 13, was forced to fight for the Nazis.

The book is called ‘Save the Last Bullet: Memoir of a Boy Soldier in Hitler’s Army.‘ It vividly explores the use of propaganda and misinformation to give moral weight to an otherwise losing and abhorrent cause. It is also a story of lost innocence and despair in the face of circumstances beyond the control of fully grown adults, let alone children and teenagers. But it is also a story of determination, resilience, and hope, nurtured in the ruins of post-war Germany.

 

Some of the topics we covered are:

  • Nazi propaganda’s deliberate targeting of children and youth
  • Indoctrination techniques used in organisations like the Jung Volk and Hitler Jugend
  • Structural changes made to history and national narrative to align with Nazi ideology
  • Willi Langbein’s motivation to share his story and experiences
  • The brutal enforcement of collective punishment and forced submission to authority by the SS
  • The significance behind Willi’s first battle and the concept of ‘saving the last bullet’
  • Willi’s experiences during the physical end of the war and his treatment as a person under confinement
  • How German soldiers and citizens perceived German atrocities during the war
  • Germany’s handling of collective guilt in the aftermath of World War II
  • Transforming despair into hope in the face of post-war challenges
  • Heidi’s upbringing with an emotionally unavailable father and its impact on her life
  • The positive reception of the book and its ability to resonate with young readers
  • The reasons behind positive reviews from the Jewish community regarding the book
  • Heidi’s ongoing projects and plans for the future

Listen to the podcast here

 

Heidi Langbein-Allen – From Propaganda To Desperation: Understanding Nazi Indoctrination Of German Youth In Hitler’s Army

In this episode, my guest is Heidi Langbein-Allen, who is a first-time author and published a memoir of her father, Wilhelm Langbein, who at the age of thirteen was forced to fight for the Nazis. The book is called Save The Last Bullet: Memoir Of A Boy Soldier In Hitler’s Army. I finished the book and found it to be very raw and graphic as it vividly depicts the use of propaganda and misinformation to give moral weight to another life lost for an apparent cause.

It is also a story of lost innocence and despair in the face of circumstances beyond the control of fully grown adults, let alone children and teenagers. With all that said as we will find out, it is also a story of determination, resilience, and hope nurtured in the ruins of post-war Germany. Heidi joins me to discuss the lessons we can draw from her father’s experiences or the Second World War and how that will impact her father’s life, as well as her own.

Heidi, thank you very much for joining me.

Thank you so much for having me on your show. I’m excited to be part of it.

Before we dig into the book, which I finished, what a read. Firstly, I can’t believe you’re a first-time author because the book is written so well and vividly. My heartbeat was going up and down as I was reading it because it was alive. Firstly, congratulations on that. That’s a great effort.

Thank you very much. I have the bug. I’m already working on the second one, which is an anthology of war stories of young people at the end of World War II.

That sounds interesting as well. Before we close, it’s something I’d like to address. I alluded to this book in the intro and you are not originally an author. How and why did you come to write this book?

I never fathomed that I would ever write a book and then set out to write a book. I did however bug my father for many years to record his memoirs because I thought that they were relevant. They were historical accounts that were important, even then I could sense it when I was relatively young and continued to ask him but he didn’t want to talk about it because he had PTSD and these are very painful memories.

VOW 95 | Nazi Indoctrination
Save the Last Bullet: Memoir of a boy soldier in Hitler’s Army

In particular for World War II veterans, on the losing side of the war for Germany, because of that collective guilt and the mandate that he received as long as the war ended, he was told never to speak it again. He carried that with him for many years. Finally, he relented when he was in the 70s. After he retired, he started to reminisce about his life and realised that it was important enough to put this story down on record. I still didn’t think about writing anything other than having that account for my family.

I listened to the tapes and was fascinated. He put together sixteen audio cassette tapes. I managed to get them onto CDs and then listened to them. My sister listened and we were fascinated. I put the tapes away for 9 years and then realised in 2016 that my father was getting older. He was getting very concerned about the geopolitical events unfolding, the increase of neo-Nazism and extreme far-right movements around the world.

That compelled me to pull out those tapes and set out to translate them to my family because I wanted my kids and my husband who doesn’t speak German to read it and understand that history. A friend of mine who’s a writer said, “This is a book.” He struck a chord. He was right. I realised the importance of it. It energised me because I thought perhaps that was a small contribution I could make toward preserving of democracy.

What I loved about the book in particular was it was written in first person. It was written as though your father was writing it which to me was so incredible because even in the early stages, the questions of a child kept popping up. The attitudes of a child were present. Also, the competitiveness of a child. The trust of a child was deeply embedded in the words that you’re writing which for me was the powerful side of the book. When you first listened to the tapes because you listened to them in first person, how was it for you firstly as somebody who was well aware of what happened in that war but also as the daughter of the person dictating the story?

It was very emotional.

You didn’t know much of this, I’d imagine. He didn’t talk about it much.

It had given enough snippets that I knew that that story was incredibly important. He participated at that age at the very end of the war which was appalling. It was something that I felt needed to be shared with present and future generations to perhaps encourage some type of thought or reflection about the horrors of something like that happening again.

How nations can sleepwalk into it is the message that resonated with me because as we’ll come to talk about it, he wasn’t aware well until the very end or even after the war what was ultimately done to his name and the name of the German people, which is a huge part of that story. You also have a little bit of a link to the military because I believe your husband is a former US Navy. How did he react when he found out the story that your father was an active service child in World War II on the other side? He would have spoken with different tones, I guess.

My husband is an American and he was an American soldier when I met him. He was already in the Navy. He’s now retired. He was stationed in Europe. I was on holiday in Italy minding my business. We were very young. It was a bit intimidating because of my dad and his history especially since he was a “Nazi soldier” even though he was thirteen. He felt compassion in a way. He went to the Persian Gulf War. He’s a veteran of foreign wars. He understood and was fascinated by it. The only thing that he criticised was, “Did it have to be an American soldier?” My dad then passed away.

We’ve danced around the topic of the book but it’s probably important for the audience to get an understanding of what the book is about and what it tries to address.

The book in its narrowest sense is the story of my father as told by himself in those tapes. I ghostwrote it for him. It’s about his story of being a young boy conscripted into a war that he had no choice in joining and/or any type of control over or any knowledge of. It shows the insidiousness of the Nazi regime as they started from elementary school on to manipulate the minds of the children, indoctrinate them into becoming faultless followers, eliminate any notion of free will, and make them into our questioningly accepting authority. The aim or goal of the Nazi regime is the indoctrination of young children into a regime. That is a playbook that is repeated everywhere in the world in autocratic regimes. We see it unfolding in places like Russia with children already provided with paramilitary training and Nazi propaganda.

VOW 95 | Nazi Indoctrination
Nazi Indoctrination: Save the Last Bullet shows the insidiousness of a Nazi regime in manipulating and indoctrinating children into becoming faultless followers.

 

How was that in his case? Most of us know of World War II and the propaganda writ large of the Nazi regime but I don’t think it’s very often discussed how that permeated down into elementary school. What did that look like for your father? What was the information diet that he was exposed to growing up?

They started changing the textbooks in school. The narrative changed from things like exalting family and church to exalting blood and fatherland. Words started getting changed. It’s all in semantics. We started weaving those in and then the glorification of the Nazi regime in children’s stories where they had mom sewing the SS uniform of dad while dad was extolling the virtues of the Führer. Hitler as the Führer was portrayed as the savior of humanity and the German people. Everybody owed him ultimate allegiance because, for the children, he was portrayed as the creator, protector of everything, and holder of the ultimate truth.

This goes on. We know that from psychology. People or human beings form beliefs that are very deep-seated in early childhood. These beliefs then become so ingrained in the psyche that they are almost impossible to change. That was the goal or objective. They started with grade school books. Female children had their organisations but they enrolled male children, age ten, in an organisation called the Jungvolk, which was the precursor to the Hitler Youth that people were familiar with.

Human beings form beliefs that are deeply seeded in early childhood. These become so ingrained in their psyche that they are almost impossible to change. Click To Tweet

Like with the Boy Scouts, you’ve got the younger cohorts. It was a similar concept. It was loosely inspired by those youth organisations that existed before the Nazi regime. The Nazi regime then took them over. In those 4 years, from 10 to 14, they were in the Jungvolk and then boys, aged 14 to 18, went into the Hitler Youth. In the war years, they were conscripted immediately into one of the armed forces branches.

By the time my father turned nine, the Jungvolk affiliation was no longer voluntary if it ever had been. In 1939, it became mandatory. My father was automatically enrolled. They learned games that were portrayed as fun outdoor games but in reality, what they were doing was teaching them how to shoot and hand grenades to perfect their aim, march, and sing military songs all in good fun but with a very obscure purpose.

I think of myself at that age. All I wanted to do was be a soldier from the age of ten onwards and have the opportunity to practice how to shoot and throw grenades. It all feels surreal, which is insidious because it’s so incremental. A lot of these organisations like the Scouts have many good qualities that we want children to enjoy nature, learn about teamwork, gain independence, and self-confidence, which are some of these traits that these organisations try to inculcate in children. I found that we don’t have books in history on how incrementally that changes.

I can reflect on my experience in post-war Bosnia, how the three warring sides started publishing their history books, and the history of that particular war. It starts planting the seed amongst the new generation ultimately of the next war. In their narratives, everybody is the good guy and it is the other guys that are the bad ones, the ones who cause all your suffering. That’s what Hitler capitalised on during those years. How was it for your father’s parents? You talked about this a little bit in the book. They observed some of these changes but as an individual, you silenced the entire system when it’s a structural systematic change of the narrative. How do they feel about it?

Everybody is the good guy in their own narratives. Click To Tweet

It’s a difficult question and answer because, in essence, this question that we often ask ourselves is, “How could this have happened? How could you put rational people like adults into this?” Folks sleepwalk into it and that’s exactly what’s happening. People ask me this question less now than they did before. I believe it’s because we can see it unfolding, even in this country.

Not necessarily in this country, although we are seeing extreme movements here in polarisation. This can easily ensure a gradual erosion of civil liberties and civil rights that is almost unnoticeable. It is all packaged up in a way where it’s couched for the benefit of the people. It’s for their safety, well-being, or whatever the reason might be. The narrative is there are some common themes. There’s an enemy image. Pick your minority.

You throw on top of that a good dose of telling people what they want to hear. Appeal to their fears and worries. Tell them you’re going to fix it. That’s the recipe. It’s incredibly simplified. Those are the basic elements and that’s exactly what happened. “You had a depressed country. It’s coming out of losing one world war with impossible reparation in terms.” There’s a huge unemployment. It’s devastating depression. Over half of the male population of working age was unemployed and people were destitute.

A good dose of telling people what they want to hear, appealing to their fears and worries, and telling them you will fix it is the recipe for building your personal narrative. Click To Tweet

Here comes a man who tells them that he’s going to fix all of that and that none of it is anybody’s fault but the bad people. “It’s their fault. I’m going to fix it for you and everything will be fine.” People want so desperately to believe things like that, which is a major contributor to them overlooking all of the other small flaws that they might observe but they don’t do anything about it. There’s a passive attitude that most civilians have or they think, “It’s going to blow over or go away. It’ll pass. It’s okay.” When you finally figure it out, it’s too late. The person strapped in can’t get out even if they wanted to.

It’s scary, especially if they promised to drain the swamp as an example. This is a textbook but if I think back to Bosnia, there was the narrative. There was always the other guy whose fault it was. “You had nothing. Everything was taken from you.” It’s always an external enemy that you can blame, which justifies and moralises any actions that are carried on from there, especially when the entire information domain is geared towards that one purpose as it progressively dehumanises.

VOW 95 | Nazi Indoctrination
Nazi Indoctrination: There is always an external enemy that you can blame to justify and moralize any actions you carry out.

 

As you start slipping down that slippery slope, it becomes much harder to climb out because you’ve already come this far. It takes admitting that you’ve got too far already and that is something very hard to do to admit to yourself that you have become complicit. Therefore, most people double down to justify everything that they go from there. It’s against human psychology.

It is a very slippery slope. That happened in Germany and with the conflict that you experienced as a child. It becomes a rule of fear and intimidation. You then can’t speak up because if you do, you will probably not survive or your family will get hurt.

We also know from decades of social science research that obedience and authority matters. As much as we’d like to think, “I would not have participated. I would have stood up,” chances are 60% or 70% of those reading according to research would have either participated or stood by and done nothing. I put myself into this. I’m part of this bell curve as well like anybody else walking on this planet.

Until we are in a situation like that, the majority of us don’t know what to do. I agree that at least 2/3s or more of people would simply keep their heads down and try to provide. The threat is not to oneself only but typically, it’s extended to one’s family to make the threat more real.

We see that in Russia. If you dare to speak up against the state at all, it’s fifteen years in jail but we all know what that means certainly, in the Russian context especially that they’re recruiting from the jails. It’s either you’re going to die in jail or on a battlefield because you’ve been thrown into a trench with hardly any training, which is rather reflective of your father’s experience. I’m interested that your father got inspired as he was watching geopolitical events turn around in 2015 or 2016. Was there something in particular that he saw, observed, and triggered him? Was it in Germany because it was in Germany at that time?

It was in Spain. My mother is a Spaniard. They resided in Valencia, Spain. He did visit Germany. As a spoiler alert on the story, as he luckily survived the war and his subsequent depression and regained hope, he determined to dedicate his life to ensuring that he would do whatever he could to not have that repeated under his watch. He worked his whole life toward that goal. He became a lawyer. He worked for the German Department of Defense in his entire career. He was in the foreign service. He ended his career as the head of the NATO Legal Division in Munich, Germany.

VOW 95 | Nazi Indoctrination
Nazi Indoctrination: Willi Langbein luckily survived the war and his subsequent depression.

 

He’s the author of the Tornado Contract. The tornado is the NATO fighter aircraft that is being decommissioned. He earned the Medal of European Merit for the Advancement Of Democracy in Europe. He dedicated his life to the advancement and defense of democracy. He saw events unfolding and accelerating. These started arguably even before 2010 already but they started accelerating in 2016. They became very obvious. That’s when he sounded the alarm. He said, “I’m extremely worried about what is going on in the world. Everything I’ve worked for, I’ve dedicated my entire life to it. It is not in jeopardy. It’s in danger.”

What motivation does he have? There’s a furnace burning inside of him to address some of that guilt that he had but also because with his own eyes, he saw the absolute horrors of war both on an interpersonal level and a macro society level. Maybe we can delve into some components of firstly how the war started for him and then what was his war and combat experience like.

Even though he didn’t know, the war started for him when the Nazis came and took him away from his parents at age thirteen, under the guise of protection against Allied bombing. They had that program intended not to protect children. It was to separate them from the influence of their parents and the church into further indoctrinating them and providing them with military and old paramilitary training. They succeeded.

Once he was taken away, he lost contact with his parents. He did have that one episode in Christmas 1943 when he escaped and saw his parents but that was the last time he saw them until after the war. That’s when it started, whether he knew it or not. Soon thereafter, as the events were deteriorating, they got moved from the city that they had been placed in which was on the border with Switzerland, the City of Konstanz. He then moved into a remote village in the Alps close to Austria where upon then he was specifically selected because he was tall, big, and strong but he was a fourteen-year-old boy. He was given two months of military training and then called to go to the front at the very end.

What do you mean he was selected?

The SS showed up in the classrooms at this mountain village. We’re talking toward the end of ’44. I don’t have the exact times in my head. The SS showed up in this compound. The children were under the supervision of a Nazi handler the entire time. From the point in the summer of ‘43 when they were taken away, they were always under the supervision of a Nazi handler.

They had taken the whole class of kids together with the teachers to continue some type of education but there was a Nazi handler there at all times to make sure that the teachers didn’t go out of line and said what they needed to say. The SS showed up at the end of ‘44 and selected boys who looked strong enough. They didn’t care. They knew their kids were fourteen years old. Specifically, they picked only three, the tallest and biggest. My father was 1 of the 3. They selected them to get conscripted into one of the armed forces and put in combat. That happened in March 1945.

This is to be part of the elite SS.

They give them a choice which is interesting. The entire military apparatus was in such disarray that they desperately needed folks at the front. They gave them a choice whether they wanted to join the SS, the elite force, with promises of food and seeing their parents. Everybody was starving. There was no food. My father remembers being always hungry. Everybody was undernourished. The other option was to go to Wehrmacht, which is the regular Army because they desperately needed people. That’s how we ended up at the end of March in a battle that was famous but he never knew it until much later.

I want to get to that battle in a second but can you double-click on why he ended up going for the Wehrmacht rather than the elite SS?

It’s because SS was very creepy and that didn’t get lost on anybody. He witnessed the SS execute one of his classmates right in front of him because that boy had dared steal some butter and ham from them.

Let me talk about collective punishment. Maybe describe that scene because that’s another powerful scene of the indoctrination, the four submissions to authority, and unquestioning loyalty to the cause. He sacrificed for the cause.

It was a brutal regime of fear and intimidation. The Nazis were extremely swift in their punishment. They made an example out of these boys having stolen some food to show the resolve of the Nazi regime and how misconduct was not going to be tolerated. The worst punishment was going to be meted out to people who would dare disobey in any way.

The Nazi Regime was brutal. It was a regime of fear and intimidation. Click To Tweet

It was a firing squad to keep the rest of the boys forced to watch. The teacher managed to convince the SS to at least let the youngest go away. It was thirteen and above. Everybody was forced to watch the execution by firing squad.

The aim of the SS was to instill in these boys obedience and fear of authority. They were desperately hungry. The boy went and swiped some ham and butter. The kids had been stealing food wherever they could because they were starving and didn’t realise the consequences. The poor boy was caught. The SS made the other boys watch him being executed by firing squad.

This is unfathomable. I’m sure it happens elsewhere with child soldiers across Africa. Younger ages are forced to partake in the murder or to blood them in a way but also to share that guilt of the murder. It’s incredible how ruthless that is. What kind of scars must leave a young child’s mind? From there, your father then went to the front. Unbeknownst to him, he was to be in a rather famous battle. What happened?

They got picked up on March 18th. The reason I know that is because as relates to my father’s memories, his town, Witten, in the Ruhr valley, close to Dortmund and Cologne, was bombed on the morning of the 19th of March and raced to the ground. They were listening to the radio or some sort of communication with the outside world in the village but since he had been picked up the afternoon before, he never knew what had happened in his town until the end of the war. He was taken with his other two comrades to the Eastern Front. They made a way to the Eastern Front which was in Austria to stay off the advance of the Russian Army. There was no thought that they would make it out alive. They weren’t told this but there was no intent.

He feels that as well at the time.

He figured it out pretty quickly once he was in the valley. Even with the weapons he was getting and the type of battle he was in, he realised the chances were overwhelmingly against them. They made it to the Eastern Front and he participated in the Battle of Vienna, which was the last battle before the liberation of Vienna by the Russian forces. It was the either second or third Ukrainian Army that beat the Germans back in that battle of Vienna, which was the last battle before they entered Vienna.

That was his first battle. What was that like? What happened?

It was been terrifying. They were made to dig the foxhole at about a man’s height to fit in. They were outfitted with single-fire weapons, which is the same thing as bazookas. They only fired once and they were given four. They had a machine gun and a pistol. They were instructed to keep the last bullet for themselves because the Nazi handlers told them that under no circumstances should they be captured by the Russians because the Russians will torture them before they’ll kill them. It is worse than that.

That’s also where the title of the book comes from but also is the picture of a boy holding a weapon, which is a vivid image because it is distinctly a child that’s on the cover who saves the last bullet stands out. In your father’s case, he ended up saving his last bullet as he was told but due to his great fortune and the misfortune of someone else, that bullet ultimately wasn’t reserved for him.

I don’t think he intended it that way. I don’t know how much thinking goes on in terms of it’s survival mode I imagine when you’re in a battle like that. He was a good marksman, lucky for him. While he saw many of his comrades being killed by the tanks and the oncoming foot soldiers that would be on it, he was able to destroy four tanks but saw immediately that the wall of tanks continued to come. He was going to get run over like some of his comrades had been and then try to get out of the foxhole, shoot on the ammunition he had left in his machine gun, and leave with the pistol.

That was the only had left. He ended up with one bullet. At this point, he fell into hand-of-hand combat where he used it against his aggressor who did manage to very seriously wound him. The other soldier, as my father recalls, was a Russian kid, not much older than he was himself. He had to make that split-second decision. The kid was going to kill him and almost managed to. He split his leg open from the knee down. It looked like he hit an artery and my father had to shoot him.

With his wounds, he barely survived.

He was very lucky that a couple of comrades fled the battle, grabbed him, and were able to turn in his leg giving him enough strength to make it out of the field and into the back area where the trucks and the rest of the division were left.

 

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