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I was an exchange student in the late '80s, spending a year with a German family in a village not far from Nürnberg (home of the Nazi trials). The generation I went to school with at the time had pretty much distanced itself from the dark history of the '30s and '40s. Most were fiercely pro freedom and tolerance, not quite horrified but definitely embarrassed by their country's history.

Then there were the old folks. They had been adults already during the war. They had, like most good Germans, bought into the NSDAP's vision. They had sworn oaths to Adolf Hitler. (The man was, in Nazi doctrine, practically worshipped. In school we studied WWII and one of the things I recall most was the oath the Hitler Youth had to swear. It was kind of like the Boy Scout oath, but evil. It began with a line like, "I believe that Adolf Hitler was chosen by God to be our leader." Shudder.)

Our family spent Easter vacation in Hamburg with Aunt Miko. She was seventy-something at the time, meaning she was in her twenties and thirties when Adolf Hitler was much more than a historical lesson plan. He'd been gone for the majority of her life, but still his sweeping vision, the marching columns and burning books, the sense he and his party created that what they were doing was inevitable and right, remained with her.

She was ruined. A good Christian woman, she was forever touched by unspeakable temporal evil. She had consciously countenanced the national wickedness in the name of patriotism, like most good Germans at the time. In 1938, Adolf was doing no wrong. There were jobs, there was glory, the future was bright. The German war machine could not lose, nor should it. Adolf was fulfilling a glorious destiny, and good Aryan folk would ultimately be free of the burden and threat of lesser races.

Decades later, I caught her several times still referring to the deutsches Reich (German empire). The preferred nomenclature at the time was Bundesrepublik (as West Germany was officially called), and she slowly corrected herself upon each "empire" reference.

Then once, she saw a black man out her window. Probably a US serviceman (with the cold war going at full bore, West Germany was still heavily occupied at the time). Shaking her head slightly and tsking, she uttered a phrase that, however true, still makes my blood run cold: "Unter Adolf wär's anders gewesen," that is, "Under Adolf, it would have been different."

Yes, Miko, it would have been different. The lesson of history was lost on her; what Adolf had promised was, for all her experience, still a bright, shining dream. Her mind had been closed at an early age, focused on a dead plan that can't work without murder and strife. The German utopia she dreamed of simply could not be in a world with other people in it.

And she missed the time when it seemed possible.

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