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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Professor Profile: Jost Hermand, former Hitler Youth member

Jost Hermand, a professor in the German department, offers a unique perspective on German history and life in Nazi Germany: he lived through it.

Hermand came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1958 after receiving his PhD. in literature of the early 19th century at a German university. He has taught at UW-Madison for the past 55 years as well as at a university in Berlin in the fall for the last nine years.

Hermand said his interest in the Third Reich stems from his first-hand experience under the Nazi regime. He also said his parents were anti-fascist and his wife’s father “barely survived” a 12-year stay in the Buchenwald concentration camp.

The Nazi government required Hermand to be a member of the Hitler Youth organization as a child. In 1942, the government forced him to evacuate his home in Berlin to a Hitler Youth camp in Poland, where they held him and other boys his age until 1945.

While standing in front of a train station to greet foreign dignitaries to Germany, Hermand shook hands with Adolf Hitler.

“I was blonde and had blue eyes and looked extremely Nordic. Therefore, I always had to stand in the front row and Hitler shook our hands as an honor as we stood there,” he said.

The Hitler Youth often greeted foreign dignitaries with displays including trumpeted music, and Hermand said he was more concerned that day about his trumpet abilities than Hitler’s presence.

“I was 12 years old at the time,” he said. “I was only afraid that Hitler would say, ‘Step forward and do a solo.’ And I couldn’t!”

Hermand has published over 50 books, including “A Hitler Youth in Poland: The Nazi’s Program for Evacuating Children During World War II,” which documents his experience as in the Hitler Youth.

Hermand said he wants to use his experience to educate students about the dangers of fascism in order to prevent another such regime.

“I wanted to destroy the myth that fascism was of a communal spirit and fraternity, a form of friendship. It was not,” he said. “It was [the] strong dominating the weak.”

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