HENRY METELMANN: Through Hell for Hitler

Until a week ago I would never have thought of devoting this column to Henry Metelmann To almost all readers of Letter from the UK his name will mean nothing. In Britain, where he lived for most of his long life, he was known only to those who may have read the few autobiographical books he wrote or happened to have watched the 2003 BBC Timewatch documentary devoted to him. For most of his working life he was a signalman for what was once, before privatization of the railway network, known as British Rail. After his retirement he worked as a grounds-man at the prestigious private school, Charterhouse. A very ordinary life. He died in July of this year, aged 88.

Had his life before he reached the age of 24 been similar to the lives of most of his fellow workers in Britain it would have aroused little interest beyond his immediate associates. But it wasn’t. Henry Metelman was a German, born in Hamburg in 1922. His childhood, adolescence and early manhood were spent in Nazi Germany where he was subjected to  the conditioning common to thousands of young people like him. Aged eleven when Hitler came to power, he entered the Hitler Youth. Like millions of others, he came to adore the Fuhrer. In 1941, at the age of 18, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht. As part of the 22nd Panzer division he became a tank driver, and in 1942 was transferred to the Eastern Front. It was this experience that was to change his life forever. In his own words, the Nazi nonsense was knocked out of him when his arrogant nose was rubbed in the mud at Stalingrad. Unlike so many of his compatriots whose war came to an end on the flaming banks of the Volga in February 1943, Metelmann was fortunate enough to escape the Soviet encirclement of the 6th Army. He managed to make his way back across thousands of miles of war-torn Russia until he reached Germany. Finally, after a period of convalescence, he was sent west in the last hopeless attempt to check the Anglo-American forces advancing on the Reich. He finally surrendered to the Americans in western Germany in early 1945. He was sent as a prisoner of war to the U.S. where he spent a year before being handed over to the British. Finally released from captivity in 1948, he returned briefly to Hamburg where he discovered that his mother had been killed in the British bombardment of 1943. He returned to Britain where he spent the rest of his life. In 1952 he married Monika, a Swiss au pair he had met earlier while working in captivity on a Hampshire farm.

The bare outline of his life gives little indication of what it was that set Metelmann apart from many other German prisoners of war who chose, initially at least, not to return to their homeland. Unlike most of them his experiences had turned him into a passionate anti-Nazi. Despite the lack of any formal education, he dedicated himself to informing young people in British schools and colleges about the horrors of Nazism. He chronicled his childhood and wartime experiences in two books, Through Hell for Hitler (1990) and A Hitler Youth (1997). He was a captivating speaker whose modesty and transparent sincerity won the admiration and respect of all who heard him.

I first met Henry Metelmann in 1989 at a student conference on Nazism and the Holocaust at the Imperial War Museum in London. I remember that he was asked by a student whether he had personally participated in any atrocities. I fully expected him to say that he hadn’t, but he ruefully admitted that in Russia he had been ordered, in the depths of winter, to evict a peasant family, including old people and children, from their shack. The shack was then incinerated and the peasants left to freeze to death. He admitted that, to his eternal shame,  he had been a dedicated Nazi, believing that he was participating in a noble civilizing mission to rid the world of “Untermenschen”. He also recounted an episode prior to Stalingrad where his unit was visited by a group of SS “educators”. According to Metelmann, they asked the soldiers why they thought they were in Russia. The soldiers replied that they were there to subdue the “Untermemschen” and to prevent the triumph of “Judeo-Bolshevism”. The SS “educators”, he claimed, dismissed this explanation as “Goebbels propaganda”. The real reason, they explained, was to conquer the Caucasian oil fields, drive on southwards towards the Middle East and finally link up with Rommel who was then advancing on Egypt. Once this objective was achieved, the oil reserves of Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia would be in German hands and world domination would be in sight.

This clearly had a big impact on Metelmann. He rapidly came to the conclusion that Nazism was the most aggressive form of capitalist imperialism. He seems likewise to have undergone a rapid change of heart and mind about Nazi racism. In his talks to students he would tell them about a Russian girl called Anna, with whom, as a 19 year old, he fell in love. His almost universally favourable impression of the Russian people – so different from the racist fanaticism of so many Germans of that generation – led him to reject everything he had been led to believe. In his book Through Hell for Hitler he describes witnessing a passing line of cattle-trucks transporting Jews to the extermination centres, further strengthening his detestation of the regime he had served. I became aware of the great difficulty he still experienced in dealing with the Holocaust when some years ago I suggested to him that he might participate in a discussion with Holocaust survivors. He responded that he would very much like to do so, but that he doubted whether the other participants would feel able to accept him as a participant.

I am sure that his great repentance for his past was influenced by the memory of his father. He was the only child of working class parents. His father was an unskilled labourer, his mother a religious woman from a rural background. His father was a socialist, though Metelmann does not make clear whether his loyalty lay with the communists or the social democrats. He died on the outbreak of war in 1939 when Henry was 16. He was dismayed by his son’s enthusiasm for the Hitler Youth. He regarded the Nazis as the “brown plague” and apparently warned Henry that if and when he became disillusioned, the pain would be terrible. Henry loved his father dearly but being “so young and with the Nazi drums drumming in my brain” he pushed aside the promise to heed his warnings. It seems surprising that someone as thoughtful as Metelmann, with the literary and communication skills that brought him plaudits as a writer and educator, should have spent his life as an unskilled worker. One explanation might be that after the war he pledged himself to penance for the rest of his life for what he saw as the betrayal of his father’s ideals. This may also account for the somewhat idealized admiration he conceived for the Soviet Union and for the Russian people. In the epilogue to A Hitler Youth, referring to his experiences with the Wehrmacht in Russia, he wrote:

“Especially during the winter’s retreat, we often stayed with the peasants in their primitive but mostly warm cottages. I had many conversations, arguments and quarrels mainly with the women – their menfolk were at war – whom I learned to respect and even trust as fine human beings. When some of them asked me why I had come to their country to conquer, burn, kill and destroy, I half-heartedly gave a stock Nazi answer in terms of a quest for glory and national honour. Their rejection of this banality revealed the emptiness of my words, ands I stood naked and totally devoid of any meaningful explanation to give them, and when they suggested that I had come in the service of my masters, the mighty arms manufacturers, bankers and land-owning Junkers to secure for them the enormous mineral wealth and land of Russia, I painfully realized that at root they saw things through the same eyes as my father.”

I last met Henry Metelmann several years ago. We rarely discussed British politics, but I knew that his heart was on the left. He told me that after his release from captivity in 1948 he returned to Hamburg where he discovered that his mother and all members of his closest family had perished. He found that most people he talked to expressed no guilt for the Nazi regime and blamed their plight solely on the allies. He found the atmosphere intolerable and came straight back to Britain.

After our meeting something rather strange occurred. Our discussions about the war in the Soviet Union had reminded me of a poem by Brecht – “To the German Soldiers in the East” – written while he was in exile in 1942. Probably the greatest poem to come out of World War II, it is an anguished cry from the heart against the heartless military machine that had been moulded from the bodies and minds of millions of young men corrupted by a monstrous inhuman regime. It is also a scathing damnation of the abominations perpetrated by those very same men, who, in Brecht’s words, have donned the garb of robbers and arsonist murderers. He recognizes the German soldiers as brothers but condemns them as murderers. (The tremendous power of Brecht’s poem cannot be adequately rendered in translation.) My discussion with Henry Metelmann recalled this poem to me and I looked it up to re-read it. As I did so I received a telephone call from Henry. He had called to recite for me a passage from the very same poem. We had never discussed it and, as far as I recall we had never referred to Brecht.

A few weeks ago Henry’s name came up in conversation and I said that I would try to arrange to see him and introduce my friends to him. I was still intending to call him when, on the 23rd September his obituary appeared in The Guardian. He died on the 24th July. One thing he never mentioned to me. He was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and remained a member until it was wound up in 1991.