Speech at the American Legion
Hans Liepmann, circa 1946-8
During the long weary days and nights I spent in the Army, I had ample time to think about my American citizenship. I knew Germany under the Kaiser, during the Weimar Republic, in the beginning of Hitler’s regime and I saw it again at the end of it. Therefore, I had quite some occasion to compare it with America and maybe some of my experiences and observations will be interesting for you to hear. I consider it a great honor to be asked by the American Legion to talk to you and I thank the chairman very much.
You heard in the introduction a short outline of my story but I may be permitted to say a few more words about it. In 1933, when Hitler was chancellor, I received a letter from the government that from the next day on I, being a Jewish physician, was not permitted any longer to take care of patients who were members of the medical insurance companies. That was not so terribly bad in itself. But at that time, I read Hitler’s book, “Mein Kampf” and I saw what Hitler’s program was, and that he actually followed this program. However, what struck and amazed me most in the book was the complete contempt Hitler had for the German people. He had crazy, grand ideas for Germany, for the honor and power of the German state – but for the people themselves, he had only words of disdain. From far away I had heard about the government of the people, by the people, and for the people! Hitler put his plan into effect step by step. Soon, simply by decree, the trade unions were dissolved – the trade unions which had been the strong bastion of the German working people and the main support of the government of the Weimar Republic. There formerly powerful self-disciplined organizations yielded without resistance in order to avoid bloodshed, and from that moment on, it was clear to me that no force in Germany would check Hitler’s madness. I felt it was time to leave Germany and seek shelter with my family on the hospitable shores of the United States.
Before leaving, I wanted to see my former teacher, a professor in a small university town. When I met him he warned me that some fanatical students might want to apprehend me at the railroad station, so I left town hurriedly by taxi. This trip I shall never forget for the feeling of being hunted, looking around whether behind me are my persecutors. The infantry man on patrol knows the feeling – but I hope that never in our country a blameless citizen may know this feeling. This experience certainly made the leaving of Germany easy for me, and the words of the 5th Amendment to our Constitution that, “No person shall… be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law" – words cumbersome for our children to learn in school – became to me a most actual reality!
In 1934, the outstretched hand of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor greeted my family and me. Immediately, my wife and I declared our intention to become American citizens and in 1940, with a little ceremony, we received our final papers – we became American citizens and could feel ourselves full members with equal rights in this great nation. Soon came the time to partake also in the obligations in the great emergency of the war. Gladly I volunteered and soon was proud to wear the uniform of Uncle Sam’s army. Hardly any greater change could be imagined: From a driven-away fugitive to a member of the mightiest army of the world and permitted to participate in the greatest campaign in which the culprits found their deserved doom. By the way, it happened that in my unit there were 4 other refugees from Germany and every so often I heard of other refugees in the various units of the army. It was one of the great moments of my life when I stood in rank and file with my regiment to salute President Roosevelt on his visit to Camp Forrest, Tennessee in 1943.
Then came the crossing of the Atlantic, the wait in England, Omaha Beach, Normandy, France, Belgium, and finally the invasion of Germany. It is hard to describe my feeling when we passed the sign, “Now Entering Germany”, past the dragon tooth of the Siegfried Line, passing the blasted forts and ruins of Aachen and the destroyed cities of Duren and Cologne. I say it with awe and deep inside, with a great feeling of relief of not belonging to them, but just to be one of those who in olive-drab uniforms of the (American army) who rolled on in the big trucks.
At the time of V-E Day, I was on detached service, helping to supervise German hospitals in Central Germany and I came in close contact with some German medical officers and civilians. Never in my life have I been treated more politely-those Germans suddenly could be charming when they wanted to but how did they feel? Hard to say. My impression was that they were stunned, and then relieved that the war and the air attacks were over, that they were still alive and their houses not all destroyed, that the Americans came there and not the Russians. Naturally, none of them ever has been a Nazi! I did not notice much feeling of guilt in them. The hospitals in town and the schools transformed into hospitals were filled with the men who had survived the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, mostly French, Jugoslavs, Russians and Italians. I saw them 6 weeks after liberation, but the sight still haunts me—those emaciated figures, faces and hands distorted by starvation, looking more like horrid ghosts than humans, still too weak to move and somehow they did not react normally when I came in—apparently they were still full of terror and distrust of everybody and had secluded themselves into their inside life. The German medical officers claimed that they did not know what went on in the concentration camps. And I believe they and the German people at large did not know the degree of atrocious cruelty and the mass killings. But everybody in Germany knew of the concentration camps and they lived in constant dread of them. They knew that they were horrid—though not how unbelievably terrible. The people knew too that they could be arrested on the slightest pretext or a denunciation by a personal enemy and that many did not return from the camps. But the Germans were so terrified, so debased by Hitler, that they did not dare to find out more, and those who knew too much, they were killed by the SS. Why does all this seem so impossible in America? Because we are so used to it that some newspaper finds out and arouses the public indignation and makes these conditions impossible. We are so inclined to take the freedom of the press for granted that the suppression of the news seems absurd to us! Friends from Germany who visited us before the war were, even in this country, afraid to speak their mind openly—and that was only after two years of Hitler’s dictatorship.
During spring, we were living there in Germany in a beautiful modern villa, formerly owned, naturally, by a Nazi. Such a solid built house with excellent material and workmanship. The garden was well tended, the fruit trees in full bloom and the country as pretty as could be and the people seemed so friendly. Why had I no desire to bring my family back there for a stay? Then I had the vision of America. I saw in my mind my children in the States coming out of school, a boisterous noisy happy group, white and black together, Republicans and Democrats in peace together after a bitter election fight. The rich enormous country open to them with rivers to be regulated, immense swamp lands open to them to be turned into rich soil, deserts to be irrigated.
And I felt deeply that here are the States of the future where the human mind can develop in freedom. Humans are leading in a country with a friendly spirit of neighborliness.
What makes the Germans so different? Naturally, their country is densely populated and highly utilized. But that is the case in Belgium too. The German people did not win their democracy fighting for it! The Democratic Republic in 1918—the so-called Weimar Republic—was born out of defeat—but apparently to have a real democracy a nation has to be aroused and fight for the rights of man and be proud of the rebellion. In their literature, in Schiller’s works, the Germans glorify the fight for liberty against tyranny. But in their political life they did not love it. The educated, the so called higher educated classes in Germany, the majority of professors in universities and schools, judges, leaders in commerce and industry who should have been the spiritual leaders, never liked democracy. They fell for the demagoguery of Hitler. Whereas, through their learning, they should have been able to recognize the danger. I believe they are the real guilty ones, guilty for Hitler’s rise to power. Here in the States, the deeply learned men like Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson were in the lead in the democratic rebellion.
Shortly before I left Europe this time, I had a chance to find out the whereabouts of a close friend of mine from whom I had not heard for ten years. Through Nazi pressure it was made impossible for him to write or even to receive letters from me from a foreign country—notice this—that was already in times of peace. In addition, he is not politically active and also not Jewish—he was just a German citizen. Now I heard that he was a prisoner of war in France, I succeeded to see and to speak with him.
When I saw him last time, I was the underdog, fleeing Germany. Now he was a prisoner of war, dirty in shabby fatigues and I in the uniform of the victor. Here is his story. He became a high school professor of physics and kept his position though he did not join the Nazi Party. He is the only man I know who could not be made to join the Nazi party. As a consequence, he was drafted immediately after the war started, but never made an officer. In the fall of 1944, because he made a remark that the war for Germany was lost, he was denounced by his own comrades and imprisoned in a German jail. There, he was starved and kept unprotected during the air raids, locked in his cell until he was finally liberated by our American troops to be apprehended as a former member of the Wehrmacht. I do not have to tell you how glad I was then and there to be an American citizen.
Now—how did it feel to come home to the States? The first impression is astonishment that you see no destroyed houses as in England and after in Europe and that you can just go to the store and buy a dozen oranges. And then you feel you have to tell everybody to be deeply thankful for the abundance we have here and for having been so little affected by the actual destruction of war. Then comes the realization that your duties as a citizen are not ended when you put your uniform away and that the fight for democracy here and for a better America is not ended! I feel as if I should urge everybody to be equal to this wonderful gift of American citizenship and to fight actively for a better America, fight with the unity and self-abandonment as we did in Normandy, did through the Siegfried Line and wherever American fighting men were.