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Hermann Hesse, Letter to a Young German (1946)

In 1946, writer Hermann Hesse, who had been living in Switzerland since 1919, and who had been critical of National Socialism after 1933, lamented the lack of insight and the self-righteousness of his German countrymen. He faulted Germans for complaining about their material situation while remaining silent about their support for Hitler and for making themselves into members of the resistance after the fact. He also criticized his compatriots for looking down on those in exile like Thomas Mann, who had actively fought against the Third Reich.

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[This letter, written in the spring of 1946, was meant for Luise Rinser. It appeared in numerous newspapers as an “Open Letter.”]

It’s strange about letters from your country. For months a letter from Germany was a strange and always joyful event for me. It brought news that a friend I had been worried about, of whom I had long heard nothing, was still alive. And it gave me a glimpse, haphazard and unreliable as it might be, of the country which speaks my language, to which I have entrusted my life work, and which up to a few years ago gave me my bread and the moral justification for my work. Such letters always came as a surprise, were confined to matters of importance and contained no idle chatter; often they were written in great haste [ . . . ].

Then the letters became more frequent and longer [ . . . ]. Many of these gave me no pleasure at all and I had little desire to answer them. [ . . . ]

A prisoner in France, no youngster but already a married man with children, a well-educated industrialist with a university degree, asked me what in my opinion a decent, well-intentioned man should have done in the Hitler period. A man in his position, he argued, could not have prevented anything that happened or opposed Hitler in any way; that would have been madness, it would have cost him his livelihood, his freedom, and in the end his life. I could only reply that the devastation of Russia and Poland, the siege of Stalingrad, and the lunacy of holding it to the bitter end must also have involved certain dangers but that German soldiers had flung themselves into these pursuits with abandon. And why had the German people failed to see through Hitler before 1933? Oughtn’t so early an event as the Munich Putsch have shown them what he was? Why, instead of upholding and nurturing the German Republic, the one gratifying consequence of the First World War, had they been almost unanimous in sabotaging it, voting for Hindenburg and later for Hitler, under whom, to be sure, it became very dangerous to behave like a decent human being? [ . . . ]

For instance, there are all the old acquaintances who had written to me for years but stopped when they found out that I was under close surveillance and that corresponding with me could have very unpleasant consequences. Now they inform me that they are still in the land of the living, that they have always thought of me with affection and envied my good fortune at living in the paradise of Switzerland, and that, as I must be well aware, they had never sympathized with those damned Nazis. But many of these old acquaintances were party members for years. Now they tell me how they had one foot in the concentration camp all those years, and I am obliged to reply that the only anti-Nazis I can take seriously are those who had both feet in a camp, not one in a camp and the other in the party. [ . . . ]

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