When Hitler was my neighbour

By Edgar Feuchtwanger, September 6, 2012

As a child, I lived across the road from Adolf Hitler. I was born in Munich in 1924, my family a well-known Jewish clan. My uncle, Lion Feuchtwanger, was the author of Jew Süss, a bestseller published in 1925. In 1930, he published Erfolg, a view of Munich when the Nazis first made their appearance.

The novel was a thinly veiled and satirical portrait, poking fun at the Hitler figure, a mechanic with the gift of the gab who founds a political party called "The Truly Germans". Erfolg made Lion a prominent enemy of the Nazis. Publication coincided with Hitler's electoral breakthrough, which made the Nazi party Germany's second largest and cemented Hitler's political position.

That same year, Hitler moved from his modest flat in central Munich to a more expensive one opposite where my parents and I lived. It was a dangerous proximity.

That was 80 years ago. My problem since has been to keep apart what I saw as a child from what is now known. Because when Hitler was my neighbour, the worst still lay ahead. Even those fully aware of the evil nature of the Nazis could not guess how catastrophic the future would be.

Here was Hitler, the centre of it all, but through my childish eyes, most of what I saw was part of everyday life and could make him seem almost normal, human. I knew, of course, that he was a threat to the Jews. But this was not always immediately obvious to an eight-year-old. I remember walking past Hitler's house at the very moment that he left it. He was wearing a white belted mackintosh and a trilby hat. He looked at me. A few passers-by shouted Heil Hitler and gave the Nazi salute. He raised his hat and got into the car.

We heard the SS officers’ jackboots clattering

To get to school, I had to pass the villa of Hitler's photographer Heinrich Hoffmann, Eva Braun's employer. Occasionally, I would see Hoffmann leaving his underground garage in his gleaming Mercedes. My friend lived in the villa next to Hoffmann. Sometimes we could see, through the lattice fence, Hitler sitting in a deckchair in the next door garden.

By the mid 1930s, things had become more threatening. Hitler was the Great Dictator, moving in a motorcade filled by SS blackshirt bodyguards. But, when you had seen it all - the chauffeurs, the SS officers' jackboots clattering on the pavement, Hitler giving a cursory salute and taking his seat, the motorcade roaring off - after a time, it became routine. And we'd all seen it on the newsreels. So we lived, almost normally, at the still centre of an almighty hurricane that eventually engulfed the world.

It's hard to conceive now that Hitler, to us the embodiment of the diabolical, was an actual person living in a flat. How could the man I saw in such ordinary circumstances, surrounded by a banal gang of hangers-on, turn the world upside down, deliberately murder six million Jews and unleash a war that killed millions more?

The reasons can hardly be summarised. But when societies are plunged into crisis and citizens become paranoid, it is time for vigilance. Nasty things creep out of the woodwork. The veneer of civilisation turns out to be thin. Scapegoats are sought; too often they have been the Jews.

When xenophobia rises to the surface we must never be complacent. We may be cynical about our duties as citizens of a democracy, but it should be remembered that of the millions of Germans who voted for Hitler before 1933, when they had the democratic right to vote otherwise, many were unknowingly committing suicide: a decade later many were killed fighting Hitler's war.

Dr Edgar Feuchtwanger will speak at a seminar on German and Austrian Jewish Refugees at the LJCC on September 12 and 13. www.ljcc.org.uk

Last updated: 3:10pm, September 6 2012