Hilde Bonhage at 31 years of age, in a portrait dating from 1938.
Hilde Bonhage at 31 years of age, in a portrait dating from 1938. by courtesy

My Nazi grandmother

I learned late that my grandmother, whom I never met, was a staunch Nazi. After reading hundreds of letters, I realised with horror how much guilt she had incurred.

Barbara Bonhage

Barbara Bonhage

Barbara Bonhage is a historian. She worked on the Bergier Commission and is now a university lecturer in Lucerne.

In autumn 1927, Hilde, as my grandmother was named, began studying medicine in Bonn. She was learning Latin every day, had rented a room of her own, and for the first time she felt like an adult. She was 20 years old, and liked to imagine how she would someday work as a doctor. She was full of zeal and dreamed of eventually making her own mark in the economically challenging times of the Weimar Republic. She had just passed her Abitur (final school-leaving and university entrance exams) at the Goethe-Gymnasium in Dortmund with good grades. Even as a teenager Hilde had been interested in politics, and she was highly critical of the conditions that had been imposed on Germany after World War I. As a young woman, however, she also wanted to find a man to marry, preferably a fellow student. In a letter home she wrote about that desire, and about dashing through the city on her bike in all weathers. I regret never having met my German grandmother. She died in December 1945 in St Blasien in the Black Forest, near the Swiss border. Months after the war had ended, instead of the Bible it was Hitler’s Mein Kampf that lay beside her deathbed.
The student Hilde with her future husband, Andreas; Bonn, 1927.
The student Hilde with her future husband, Andreas; Bonn, 1927. by courtesy
Almost 20 years later, in 1962, my parents immigrated from Germany to Switzerland, only partially escaping from the shadow of the family’s guilty past. Little was said about Hilde. Nevertheless, she left me with a vague sense of shame about being German. Even as a kindergartner in the 1970s I got the feeling that, from the Swiss perspective, all Germans were Nazis. I wasn’t able to shake off this feeling of shame until I researched Hilde’s story and wrote it all down.
Letters like this one from February 1945 reflect Hilde’s admiration for the National Socialist ideology.
Letters like this one from February 1945 reflect Hilde’s admiration for the National Socialist ideology. by courtesy
Hilde abandoned her studies after a short time, filled with disillusion. If she were a mother, she would never get a job as a doctor anyway. And she definitely wanted children. Andreas, a law student, was at least a suitable match. He was two years older than her, a member of the Alemania organisation and had similar political views. They had danced together many times. Hilde had introduced him to her parents, and the wedding took place in July 1931. At first Andreas was still working towards his exams; Hilde was terribly bored in the first few years of their marriage. The longed-for child took its time turning up, and financially things looked grim. It was unclear whether Andreas would soon be earning something. On 28 October 1931 Hilde wrote to her sister expressing the hope that soon ‘all the hardship and all the misery in our dear Germany will lessen and become easier’. Hilde was a supporter of the NSDAP, and in the run-up to the Reich presidential election in 1932 she was firmly convinced ‘that the decision will finally be taken, enabling us to start again with fresh vigour’. But she still had some time to wait until Adolf Hitler was ‘finally’, in her eyes, declared Chancellor of the Reich on 30 January 1933.
The wedding of Hilde and Andreas in Dortmund, 12 July 1930.
The wedding of Hilde and Andreas in Dortmund, 12 July 1930. by courtesy
In the years that followed, Hilde threw herself wholeheartedly into supporting the party and ‘their leader’. She joined the Nationalsozialistische Frauenschaft (NSF), the National Socialist Women’s League, which was the NSDAP’s elite women’s organisation. As a woman of ‘German-Aryan descent’ she was admitted, and signed the oath confirming that she was ‘free’ ‘of Jewish or Negro blood’. Hilde was promoted to the role of Blockwartin (block leader), becoming responsible for home visits to around 50 families. She distributed training material on baby care, education and housekeeping, collected contributions for the organisation’s winter relief campaigns (Winterhilfswerk) and made sure the correct flags were displayed on people’s houses. She was also the contact person for denunciations.
Declaration of admittance to the NS-Frauenschaft, 1933.
Declaration of admittance to the NS-Frauenschaft, 1933. by courtesy
Hilde later joined the NSDAP under number 4,682,737 and in 1938 completed leadership training at one of the national regional schools. In 1941 she made a huge career jump: following the occupation of Poland in September 1939, the former Prussian province of Posen was immediately declared Reich territory. Hilde became regional leader of the women’s arm of the organisation (Kreisfrauenschaftsleiterin) in Posen, the capital of the Warthegau, one of the Nazis’ model provinces. As such, she assumed a key role in the regime’s displacement and resettlement policy. She was head of the Ansiedlungsbetreuerinnen (settlement wardens), who ‘cleaned the former homes of Jews and Polish Slavs’ so that German families who met the racial criteria could move into them. One of Hilde’s tasks was to actively model the ‘proper’ Nazi life, with her brood now numbering six children. She was proud to be a leader, party member and mother. No one would find that easy to replicate.
Hilde and Andreas Bonhage in the garden in Posen with their six children, October 1943.
Hilde and Andreas Bonhage in the garden in Posen with their six children, October 1943. by courtesy

Illness and hardship

But in parallel with the reversal for Germany that was becoming apparent on the battlefields, the page also turned for Hilde. She developed pulmonary tuberculosis, and was not expected to recover. She spent many months undergoing rest cures in the Harz Mountains and the Black Forest. The children remained in the care of relatives and nannies. In February 1945 the whole family fled from Posen to the Black Forest. As a child, I often went there on family outings. My father would talk about how he had roamed those woods as a nine-year-old. And we visited the grave of his mother, my grandmother. Hilde persecuted, poured disdain on, expelled, displaced and probably denounced scores of people, including her own compatriots. Her whole life, she didn’t recognise how much injustice she was doing. Is it permissible to have feelings of compassion for her, this avowed Nazi? As a modern woman, mother and wife, she had suffered at times. That is obvious from her letters. Politically and ideologically, she made a dreadful mistake; that is abundantly clear in retrospect. She had so much energy. Perhaps she was kind and loving as well. Her letters demonstrate clarity of thought and a sophisticated use of language. I, her granddaughter, feel a kinship with Hilde in a lot of ways. And I can’t be sure that I would have done any better if I were her. That bothers me.

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