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  • Writer's pictureKarl Koerber

Christmas on the Wrong Side of History

Updated: May 7, 2023

As we approach the end of 2020, my thoughts are drawn back eighty years to 1940. The 2020 pandemic has been stressful for most of us, and tragic for many. 1940, the first full year of the Second World War, was even more stressful and tragic, especially for the Europeans directly impacted, including the Jews and other minorities who, by then, were being murdered or herded into ghettos in Germany and Poland. While today we can see the proverbial (and overused) "light at the end of the tunnel" with the advent of Covid-19 vaccines, the world in 1940 saw no such light and, in fact, was in for a long haul. The following is a reflection on a dramatic pivot-point in my father's life: his enlistment with the German army.


In the winter of 1940, eighty years ago, my nineteen-year-old father was a fresh-faced recruit in the German army, the Wehrmacht, undergoing his basic training. The Second World War had been underway for just over a year. He kept some photographs of himself and his comrades—goofing around in the barracks, posing in their winter greatcoats, and on maneuvers in a snowy forest. The pictures show young men, in many ways still boys, about to confront a great unknown, but they reveal little of the emotions that surely bubbled up in the quiet moments—at night, perhaps, before exhaustion carried them off to sleep. It was as though a mighty hand had plucked them from whatever life path they’d chosen and dropped them into a surreal world where anticipation, homesickness, excitement and dread replaced the hopeful dreams of career, marriage and family that had engaged their thoughts just a few months earlier.

My father, far right, with some fellow recruits during the winter of 1940-41


In hindsight, we understand that the Nazi movement was immoral. The brutal persecution of ethnic minorities, homosexuals and political rivals, the ruthless repression of dissent—these run contrary to our values of human rights and civil society. Many Germans of the day, however, chose to overlook the dark side of their leader Hitler and his government, though, to be fair, the Nazis tried to hide their dirty work from the public as best they could. Most Germans were focused on what they saw as the positives delivered by Hitler: rebuilding the economy and restoring the national pride that had been so deeply wounded by the loss of the First World War and the punitive terms of Versailles.


For my father and many young men like him, just as for the young men in Britain, Canada or other Allied nations, the call to duty could not go unheeded. The social and peer pressure was extreme, and few had the courage to refuse, even in countries where enlistment was voluntary. For many, of course, the war also activated a fervent patriotism, augmented by government propaganda, that inspired them to join in what they saw as a righteous cause. In Germany’s case the population, in large part, viewed the spark that ignited the war—Hitler’s invasion of Poland—not as aggression, but rather a justifiable action to reclaim one of the pieces

of Germany that had been parceled off

and given to her enemies.



My father Hans Koerber at age nineteen


My father and the others like him could not foresee the deflated status that awaited them at the end of their military service. They entered the war as heroes, ready to sacrifice their youth, even their lives, for their homeland. When they returned years later, however, they found that they’d become pariahs. There was little acknowledgement of their sacrifice or the pain they’d endured on behalf of their country—no parades, no honours, no expressions of gratitude from the people who had sent them off amid, in the words of the songwriter Eric Bogle, “...cheers, flag-waving and tears…”


The experience of the German soldiers of the Second World War is reflected, in many ways, in that of Vietnam War veterans in the USA, who also came out on the wrong side of history. While public enthusiasm and support for that war was certainly divided, there was a similar appeal to the patriotism of the young men of the country. Uncle Sam needed them to fight for what was portrayed as a noble cause—defending the “free world” from the evils of communism. When, after years of military frustration and mounting casualties, the vanquished Americans pulled out, the soldiers who’d endured the hell of Vietnam received little thanks for their sacrifice. Instead, they were disparaged or dismissed from all sides. From the left, they were chastised for participating in an unjust imperialist adventure. On the right, they were associated with failure and the diminishment of American prestige.


Horseplay in the barracks. My father is third from the left.


Such is human nature, I suppose. We don’t like losing and, by extension, we don’t like losers. Moreover, we don’t like to admit that we were wrong. The soldiers who fought on the losing side in these wars came back, not as heroes, but as reminders of the bitter pill their nation had been forced to swallow. They, along with the sacrifice they had made, were best forgotten, the sooner the better.


For my father, the bitterness was exacerbated by the fact that his hometown had ended up in the American Zone of Occupation. Even though, by all accounts, life was better for the Germans in the American and British zones than those administered by the French and Russians, Dad had little time for Americans. He’d been fortunate in the war. Serving in the Afrika Korps under Rommel in the Sahara was challenging, but he could just as well have been sent to freeze on the Russian front. When he was captured in 1942, he wound up in the American POW system, where the prisoners were treated well. By contrast, those imprisoned by the Russians suffered terribly. Still, he couldn’t abide the Americans, whose self-righteousness and condescension, as he saw it, made his blood boil.


Not long after his return to Germany in 1947, he got a job as a mechanic with the US army motor pool in Heidelberg, where he kept engaging his bosses and coworkers in arguments, reminding them of America’s history of slavery and the oppression of blacks under the Jim Crow laws of the South. He was a good mechanic, but the Americans didn’t like his attitude, and so fired him. He liked to boast that it was the only time he’d been fired in his life and, because it was the American army that had sacked him, it became a source of pride.


A couple of my father's comrades training in a German forest.


While he was right about the racism embedded in American society and politics, his rosy image of Third Reich Germany was an illusion conjured up by the Nazi propaganda to which he’d been subjected from age twelve until his military call-up at nineteen. He believed it. He believed that the victims of Nazi persecution were criminals being punished for their offenses. He believed that the Holocaust was an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the victors of the war to discredit Hitler and his vision of a utopian Germanic society. And, from the time of his return to Germany after the war until his death over fifty years later, nothing could convince him otherwise. I suspect that my father’s dejection at the outcome of the war, along with his resentment of the “Amis” as they called the Yanks, might have contributed to his decision to emigrate to Canada. So, in a way, I am a beneficiary of his stubborn and prideful nature, although I obviously have no idea how my life growing up in Germany might have turned out.


In any case, 1940 would be Dad’s last Christmas at home before he shipped out to Libya the following spring. It would be another eight years before he could once more enjoy Christmas with his family, this time newly married to my mother, with me already materializing in her womb.

When I look at those old photos of my father and his comrades, poised on the cusp of an adventure that would forever shape their lives, it triggers a potpourri of emotions. I feel proud of my father and mother, and blessed to have had them as parents. They were able to put the trauma of the war behind them and build a good life for themselves and their children; they retained their humanity and became caring and conscientious members of their community. That, considering all they’d gone through during the war, was in itself remarkable. But, I also feel some regret that my family's story is blemished by its association with the Nazis, even though they participated in none of their crimes.

My overwhelming feeling, though, is one of sadness. I wonder how much richer my parents' lives would have been if they’d been allowed to grow and blossom in a culture of peace and security. If they’d been permitted to explore their potential, rather than being subjected to Nazi indoctrination and then thrown into survival mode when they were still teenagers, how different might their lives have been?

It’s pointless, of course, to wonder about an alternative past. We can only move forward. Still, if we can imagine a world where we have healed the woundedness that feeds our pathological hungers—the avarice, the vengefulness, the lust for power and domination that ultimately perpetuate the cycles of violence and oppression that reverberate down through the millennia, then perhaps, someday, we can coax it into reality.


Call me a dreamer (but I’m not the only one—I hope)


Read more about my family’s journey through the Nazi Era in my book Through the Whirlpool, available on Amazon or at local bookstores.

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saminwinlaw
Dec 17, 2020

Thanks Karl, once again your thoughtful writing provokes thoughts! I have just been watching the excellent 3-part series called 'Empires of Silver' on Knowledge Network about the history and relations between China and the rest of the world.

Of course, as a child, I learned a little about the Opium Wars in school but, as with many things, it was glossed over to a large extent. It was "sure, Britain (and by extension, Canada), 'behaved badly', but we are sorry now and can't we all just move on."

The parallels between the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and the Treaty of Nanking after the first Opium War in 1842 are striking and the effects (very bad) certainly continue to reverberate…


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herbandsusie
herbandsusie
Dec 17, 2020

Wonderful writing, Karl. You are so compassionate in telling your parents' story and I love the way you help the reader understand our common humanity. Thank you.

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Rose Millett
Rose Millett
Dec 17, 2020

Karl, thank you for a bit more of our story, some of the details, news to me. You are so right when you say that our parents gave us a wonderful life, despite the challenges some of us threw at them! I, too, feel sadness at their pre-Canada history, but also happiness remembering all the special times...like Christmas Eve, Mom and Dad style. I propose a toast, to Mom and Dad, thank you...Prost!

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