by Hans Peter Richter
THE LITERARY WORK
An autobiographical novel set in a city in Germany between 1925 and 1942; published in 1961.
Two German friends, one Jewish, one Christian, growing up together during the Nazi Third Reich are torn apart by the humiliations, restrictions, and finally the death of the Jewish boy.
Born April 28, 1925, in Cologne, Germany, Hans Peter Richter’s had a childhood that coincided with the rise to power of the Nazi Party throughout Germany. As he grew up, Richter saw firsthand the mounting brutality and degradations heaped upon Jews as well as German citizens who were sympathetic to the Jews’ plight. The Nazis’ anti-Jewish campaign, organized by Adolf Hitler, would be responsible for the systematic murder of close to 6 million European Jews before the end of World War II. Richter served in the German Army during the war. Afterward he worked as a psychologist and broadcaster in addition to being a prolific writer of fiction, nonfiction, and radio and television scripts. The original German edition of Friedrich was published in 1961 as Damals war es Friedrich, with the English translation appearing in 1970.
The Nazi scapegoat
In the 1920s and early 1930s, Germany was suffering through an enormously difficult period of social and economic turmoil. The First World War had ended just a few years earlier, and the German people were expected to pay large reparations, as demanded by the Treaty of Versailles, to countries that had been ravaged by the actions of imperial Germany during that war. However, the postwar German republic was suffering from high unemployment, and many of its citizens resented having to spend what little of their country’s money was left after the war on reparations to other countries. Different political parties, including the Communists, the Social Democrats, and the National Socialist (Nazi) Party, struggled to gain power by claiming they had the answer to Germany’s woes. The Nazi Party and its leader, Adolf Hitler, rose to power between 1925 and 1933, using “hysterical, emotional and passionate” but vague speeches promising economic revival and a renewal of national pride (Browne, p. 14). Hitler also played on already existing feelings of dislike for prosperous Jewish Germans and inflamed these feelings into pure hatred for the Jews, claiming that they were the source of the economic problems. When a woman in the novel screams at eight-year-old Friedrich, “You ruin our businesses with your department stores,” she is repeating opinions expressed by Hitler and other anti-Semites over and over in speeches and in other contexts (Richter, Friedrich, p. 39). Hitler, aiming to manipulate Germans and to focus their resentment, claimed that these larger emporiums (some owned by Jewish businessmen) were taking away business from smaller stores, many owned by Gentiles. As one German man who was a teenager at the time says, “to arouse the energies of the whole nation takes nothing less than a common ‘enemy,’ real or imaginary” (Tempel, p. 15). The Jews served as an imaginary one.
During the 1920s, Hitler and his cronies also directed dissatisfied, angry young men called Brown Shirts (named for the color of the uniforms they wore) to carry their fury into urban streets, where they could whip up public dissent against the current administration, the Weimar Republic. These men were employed by the party to physically attack anyone who disagreed with its ideas of racial superiority and ultra-nationalism, and to murder opposition party members. The Nazis slowly developed the allegiance of many, but not all, German citizens, who both admired the Nazis for their display of strength and force, and feared their violence.
HITLER AND PROPAGANDA
In his 1923 autobiography, Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote that it was easy to make the people believe what you tell them: “The receptive powers of the masses are restricted, and their understanding is feeble” (Hitler in Browne, p. 17).
Hitler’s motive for entering politics was described by the party propaganda machine as wanting to build a Germany where “children should have it better than their fathers and mothers” (Browne, p. 37). For many Germans, hearing the Nazis talk about the return of the great German state made them feel proud at a time when they felt punished by the rest of the world. With its colorful parades and enthusiastic rallies, the Nazi Party impressed many frightened and depressed Germans as a good political vehicle to get Germany back on its feet. The Nazis also played upon the public’s fear that the Communist Party would come to power in Germany if the Nazis were denied authority.
On January 30, 1933, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Six weeks later, the Reichstag (the German parliament building) was set on fire. The Nazis blamed the Communists, but it may be that the Nazis set the fire themselves to fuel more fear of the Communists. On March 5,1933, Hitler was given the powers of a dictator. He outlawed all other political parties, suspended civil liberties and dissolved the parliament.
Joining the Nazi Party
Although many Germans became enthusiastic members of the Nazi Party, others joined, as the narrator’s father does, out of economic desperation in the early years of the regime. In Friedrich, the narrator’s father tries to explain to his Jewish friend, Herr Schneider, why he’s joined the party: “You must understand Herr Schneider, I was out of work for a long time. Since Hitler’s in power, I have work again….[I]t’s of advantage to my family and myself.” He tries to excuse the anti-Semitism and violence of the party: “Doesn’t every political leader and party have its dark side?” (Friedrich, p. 70). In real life, some Germans, like Gudrun Tempel, felt the same desperation but later regretted their decision to join:
My parents… never would have invited Hitler to their table [but] the war and its aftermath had left them drained of energy, confused, and with no political reality to turn to…. It was no later than 1934-35 that my parents realized that Hitler was a madman.
(Tempel, pp. 13, 17)
At the same time, the Nazi Party won over many wholehearted adherents by playing to a sense of the superiority of the “Aryan” Germans and the inferiority of Jews. Nazis refused to shop in Jewish stores, kept their children away from Jewish children, called complete strangers in the streets vile names because they were Jews, and sometimes attacked them. Although there were rumors, many refused to believe that Jews and others were being murdered in the concentration camps. The party claimed that these were “Jewish lies.”
Indoctrination of non-Jewish children
Even children whose parents did not support the Nazi Party could be strongly influenced by Nazi-directed education in school or by youth organizations, called Jüngvolker, that were created to foment Nazi sympathies in children. In the novel, the Jungvolk platoon leader tells the young boys stories of “murdered Christian children, of Jewish crimes” (Friedrich, p. 37). As the students are forced to endure long, difficult marches as part of their gym class, they chant, “Crooked Jews are marching along, they’re marching through the Red Sea, the waves close over them and the world is at peace!” (Friedrich, p. 88).
From an early age children read vicious descriptions of Jews in their textbooks. One textbook called Jews “parasites in the living space of our people… because they are racially worthless” (Blackburn, p. 140). Before Jewish students were banned from German public schools in 1938, Jewish children were beaten by their classmates and humiliated by their teachers. One witness recalls seeing a teacher force a physically disabled Jewish student to pick up something another student had dropped while yelling, “If I order [the Jewish student] to pick up the paper, the Jew will pick it up!” (Angress, p. 12).
Because of the Jüngvolker and educational system, children as young as eight were in essence being indoctrinated to fight for their country in a war being secretly planned by Hitler. Teachers would read from Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, in which students were told “You are nothing! Your nation is everything!” (Hitler in Tempel, p. 34).
Students who spoke their minds against the party were often interrogated and told that their parents would be killed if they continued to voice disagreement. But one German woman who grew up under the Third Reich says it was not so much the terror of punishment from adult authority that she was afraid of, but, rather, the lack of support from her classmates. “It was not the psychopathic headmaster of my school who taught me fear, it was the silence of my friends when I stood up and spoke aloud what I knew they all were thinking” (Tempel, p. 21).
Sequence of anti-Jewish laws and violence
Over the next ten years the Nazis gradually revoked all rights of citizenship and protection belonging to German Jews through a series of laws and edicts. Many of these were also forced upon Jewish citizens in other countries as the Nazis began to seize foreign territories in 1939:
April 7, 1933-September 15, 1935. All Jewish civil servants are fired. Jews lose German citizenship. Marriage and sex between Jews and Germans are forbidden.
March 7, 1936-August 17, 1938. Jews can no longer vote. Many Jewish students are removed from German schools. All Jews must use an identifiably Jewish first name.
November 9-10, 1938. A German diplomat dies in Paris after an assassination attempt by a Jew. “Spontaneous demonstrations” are ordered against Jews throughout Germany. Synagogues are burned, and Jewish businesses and homes are destroyed. Jews are beaten and some murdered; 30,000 Jewish men are sent to concentration camps. (Later these two days would be called Kristallnacht, translated as “Crystal Night,” referring to the shards of broken glass left in the streets in the wake of the violence.)
November 12-December 3, 1938. Jews may no longer attend plays, movies, or concerts, and may no longer head businesses. Jews must sell businesses they own, hand over their savings and jewelry, and make an accounting of their assets. (The Nazis would then arrest these Jews and confiscate the assets.)
September 1-3, 1939. Germany invades and declares war on Poland. World War II begins.
Besides inflicting such restraints on Jews, Hitler’s Nazis also terrorized any non-Jewish German who attempted to help a Jew. For certain crimes, such as hiding a Jew, non-Jews could be sentenced to death; as one writer observed, “compassion became a crime” (Leuner, p. 14). According to law, whole families could be held responsible for the actions of one person. This meant that a person’s loved ones might suffer if that person came to the aid of a Jew, a threat that served as an effective deterrent.
As the Nazis slowly deprived Jews of their livelihoods and prohibited them from buying any nutritious food, some Germans were sympathetic. A Jew recalls a compassionate moment: “One Sunday in the crowded Metropolitan Railway a man stepped close to me and asked, ‘Is the Zoo the next station?’ He added in a whisper… I have just put a few eggs in your pocket” (Leuner, p. 70).
Only weeks after Hitler became chancellor in January 1933, the first concentration camp was established in Dachau, Germany. At first people who criticized the Nazi Party or were deemed racially or socially undesireable—including communists, homosexuals, thieves, and gypsies—were imprisoned in Dachau for “reeducation.” The inmates were forced to do hard labor with meager amounts of food to sustain them. Restrictions against Jews and against people who dared to help them became increasingly severe; many Jews were sent to camps for crimes such as riding a bicycle. Jews began to be rounded up in large numbers for deportation, with millions being sent to the already-full camps. Ultimately the concentration camps, about a hundred altogether, were spread out across Nazi-conquered parts of Europe. Set up like army barracks, they had rooms designed for fifty people in which hundreds were housed. Prisoners would be rousted awake at 5 a.m. for roll call, which could last hours. They would then work long hard days, usually at making war weapons or maintaining the camp. Food rations were too little for the average person to live on, and many died of starvation. Deadly diseases such as spotted fever and typhus spread rapidly throughout these crowded camps, killing off thousands more. Punishments for breaking camp rules were severe, including killings and beatings that left people maimed. If a prisoner managed to escape past the electrified wire that surrounded the camp, ten prisoners might be starved to death as a deterrent against other escapes.
In 1941 the Nazis began to deport large numbers of Jews, gypsies, and others from concentration camps to death camps in Poland such as Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor for extermination. If the prisoners did not suffocate during the long journeys—crammed together standing up in cattle cars—they would be separated upon arrival. Families were torn apart, and the healthier members would be sent to work in factories while the weaker members had to go to “the showers “—rooms in which deadly poisonous gas was delivered through showerheads. Up to six thousand people were murdered each day, either by gassing or by mass shootings over pits that the victims had been forced to dig themselves. Some had to serve as guinea pigs in medical experiments conducted without anesthesia. Those who managed to survive grew so haggard and bony they became known as “the walking dead.” In some cases, when camps became too full, the Germans simply stopped feeding anyone at all. Altogether approximately 7 to 8 million people—a large percentage of them Jews—died in the Third Reich’s concentration and death camps.
February 29, 1940. The Nazis first begin to deport Jews to concentration camps from cities all over Nazi-conquered Europe.
July 31, 1940. Beginning of the “Final Solution”: Jews are sent in cattle train cars to camps where they are separated; some will be enslaved in camp factories, and the rest are murdered.
September 1, 1941. In Germany, every Jew must wear a Star of David (six-pointed star) on each item of clothing (this was already required for Jews in parts of Nazi-conquered Europe); Jews may not leave their homes without police permission.
October 14, 1941. Jews begin to be deported in large numbers to concentration camps from German cities.
January 10-September 18, 1942. Jews cannot use public transportation; they must hand in “spare” clothing, electrical equipment, bicycles,
and typewriters; they can no longer buy meat, eggs, or milk.
Summer-Winter, 1942. Jews are systematically deported from concentration camps and ghettos in Belgium, Croatia, France, the Netherlands, Poland, Germany, Greece, and Norway to death camps for extermination.
Options—leave, hide, or stay?
In Friedrich, Father asks Herr Schneider why he doesn’t take his family and leave Germany before things get worse for the Jews. Between January 1933 and the autumn of 1941, many Jews did escape the Third Reich by leaving the country to live with relatives and friends elsewhere. Some parents sent their children ahead with the intention of joining them later. One woman recalled, “My parents took me, their 16-year-old daughter, to the train station in Numberg; [1 remember] the waiting for the train, the saying goodbye, the pervasive thought that I would never see them again” (Angress, p. 37).
Many children did not see their parents again. On July 31, 1941, the approximately 130,000 Jews in Germany who had not been sent to concentration camps heard confusing reports that they were being banned from emigrating until the end of the war, but also that the Nazi Party was making plans for them to travel “east.” These eastern locations were actually the death camps being established in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Many Jews were forced to go into hiding, as Friedrich does in the novel. These Jews would have to find some friends who were willing to risk severe punishment to hide them in an attic, a basement, or sometimes temporarily even in between walls, where a Jew might have to live for years.
It may seem impossible that any Jew would choose to stay in Nazi Germany, but, as Herr Schneider says in the novel during an earlier part of the Nazi regime, “Our freedom may be curtailed and we may be treated unfairly, but at least we don’t have to fear that the people will murder us pitilessly” (Friedrich, p. 73). In 1936, when Herr Schneider says this, few people suspected what would later happen to Jews in concentration camps.
The narrator and his Jewish friend, Friedrich Schneider, grow up together in the same apartment building in a small city in Germany. The narrator’s father is out of work, but the Schneiders are doing well. The boys attend the same school together and have fun at an amusement park with their parents, where they have their picture taken together on a wooden horse. But odd things begin to happen around them. A Jewish doctor finds the word “Jew” painted on his office building. The apartment house landlord, Herr Resch, calls five-year-old Friedrich “a dirty Jew” (Friedrich, p. 12). Then he takes the Schneiders to court to have them evicted because they are Jewish, though he does not win his case. Soon after, Friedrich’s teacher announces that by law Friedrich can no longer come to the school because he is Jewish.
The narrator joins a Jungvolk, a boys’ club for Nazi youth. Neither boy knows exactly what it is—the narrator invites Friedrich along, and Friedrich faces his first direct humiliation when the Jungvolk leader forces him to say, “Jews are our affliction!” and stares at him menacingly until he flees (Friedrich, p. 37).
Friedrich’s father comes home one day to announce he’s been forced to “retire” from his civil service job at the age of thirty-two. He has actually been legally fired because he’s Jewish. Meanwhile, the narrator’s father joins the Nazi Party to get work, because the party provides steady employment to members. He urges his son not to play with Friedrich so much because it might upset the party. Friedrich and the narrator begin to meet discreetly in quiet parts of the city.
One day, the narrator and Friedrich go to a public swimming pool. The attendant looks at Friedrich’s identification card and notices that he has a Hebrew name on it, as required by law for Jews. The attendant throws his clothes at him, screaming “Think of it! Jewish things among the clothes of respectable human beings!” (Friedrich, p. 77). The narrator and Friedrich see each other less and less, even though they still live in the same building.
One night the narrator finds himself participating in a mob of people who are smashing the house of a Jewish family. When he gets home, he discovers that the Schneiders have also been attacked and that Friedrich’s mother is mortally wounded.
Some time later Jews are forbidden to work, so Herr Schneider and Friedrich illegally repair lamps in their kitchen to make a living. They also take in a rabbi who is being sought by the Nazis to be sent to a concentration camp. One night when Friedrich is out, Herr Schneider and the rabbi are arrested and led away by the Gestapo (Nazi secret police) to be sent to a concentration camp. They had been turned in by the landlord. Friedrich hides away for some time, but then risks great danger to return to the apartment house to get the picture of his parents on the wooden horse because he’s forgotten what his mother and father look like. As the narrator’s family feeds him, an air raid takes place, forcing the family into a nearby shelter forbidden to Jews. Terrified, Friedrich comes to the shelter begging to be let in. “I am afraid. Afraid. Afraid,” he cries, begging to enter (Friedrich, p. 136). Even a Nazi sergeant pleads with the landlord, Herr Resch, who is the air raid warden: “If it were but a dog, you’d let him stay until the raid is over” (Friedrich, p. 136). But Resch will not budge and Friedrich goes away, only to faint outside the shelter in fear. The narrator’s mother cries against his father’s shoulder. “Do pull yourself together!” begged his father. “You’ll endanger us all otherwise” (Friedrich, p. 136). When the raid is over, Friedrich is found unconscious outside the shelter. Herr Resch, his tormentor, delivers a fatal kick to his head while he lies helpless.
Kristallnacht—November 9-10, 1938
“Today you’ll see something, Boy,… That you can tell your grandchildren about” one German man gleefully says to the narrator as he encourages him to smash up a Jewish home (Friedrich, p. 89). Civilian mobs of Nazi Party members attack Jewish synagogues, homes, and businesses, beating and sometimes killing Jews, smashing property and looting freely. It may be hard to imagine the novel’s narrator actually taking part in Kristallnacht—he is, after all, the best friend of a Jew. The pressure to conform, however, was enormous, and after years of being taught that Jews were the enemy in school, committing violence came easily.
All took part…. At first I just played with the hammer…. At one point I must have nicked something—glass crashed at my blow…. With my hammer I cut myself a path… smashing aside whatever barred my way. I felt so strong!… I found half a mirror—I looked in it. Then I ran home.
(Friedrich, p. 93)
He arrives home in time to find that what he had done to Jewish strangers, others have done to his best friend’s family. Friedrich’s mother has been attacked: “Frau Schneider lay on the floor, her lips blue, her breathing labored” (Friedrich, p. 94).
Banned from seeking medical help, she must rely on the aid of a Jewish doctor who is not allowed to own any medical supplies. He has only one needle left, which he sterilizes in the narrator’s kitchen. Frau Schneider dies lying on rags they have collected (their furniture has been stolen or destroyed), surrounded by her grieving son and husband.
Although the author says he doesn’t like to write about himself directly and prefers to let his books speak for him, Richter does admit that the events in Friedrich come more or less from real life: “All my books… are statements about myself, usually slightly disguised” (Richter in Evory, p. 551). Richter was born the same year that both Friedrich and the narrator of the book are born, 1925, in Cologne, a city much like the one in the novel. The author experienced the rise of the Third Reich, the pressure to conform, and the increasingly restrictive laws at the same age as do the characters in the novel. Whom the Schneiders are modeled after is unknown. Richter’s experiences in the public school system and Jungvolk were eventually followed by his entry into the Germany army in 1942 as a seventeen-year-old soldier.
Resurgence of Nazism
Sixteen years had gone by between the end of the war and 1961, when Friedrich was published. Germany had been split in two after the war, and its longtime capital, Berlin, was partitioned off. Many Germans wanted the communist East and capitalist West portions to be reunified, but the West German administration now headquartered in Bonn had been unable to make this happen. Former active Nazi members were gaining power in West Germany’s right-wing National Democratic Party (NDP) and they aggressively spoke out for reunification, thereby gaining prestige. Ironically this party also claimed the current administration (under Chancellor Konrad Adenauer) was dangerously weak, and reminded people that it was a weakened Weimar Republic that had allowed Hitler to take over in the 1930s. Despite the word democratic in their party title, about 17 percent of the NDP members urged a new German society built on an “elitist structure which incorporates undemocratic management that insures that conflicts are eliminated,” reminiscent of the aims of the Third Reich (Lewis, p. 51). As during the 1920s, fears abounded over an expected economic downturn, and just like in the 1920s, the NDP turned to a new scapegoat; this time not the few Jews living in West Germany, but the Gastarbeiter, or foreign “guest” workers. These were primarily peoples from southern Europe, many from Turkey, who had been invited to West Germany to work in menial or difficult jobs during periods of low German unemployment.
Postwar German schools
After the war, the policy of teaching absolutely nothing about the Third Reich to schoolchildren was instituted. This lasted through the mid-1960s, creating a generation that was unaware of its past and therefore unable to learn from it. In the early 1960s it is estimated that forty thousand young Germans belonged to right-wing extremist groups, led by former Nazis with specified neo-Nazi aims. Although these numbers were containable, “these radicals provided the opportunity for the growth of more militant neo-Nazi organizations, many of which became more openly active [later] in the 1980s” (Lewis, p. 62).
The book’s reception
Friedrich garnered national and international awards in young people’s fiction in 1961 and also in 1970, when it was published in English. Some American educators feared the novel’s harrowing events were too stark for children under the age of fourteen. However, one German reviewer insisted that while the novel “leaves the reader with neither happiness nor hope,” it brings home the reality that the brutal laws under which Jews lived in the Third Reich “are not merely historical facts, but were… fateful sentences meted out to living human beings whose sole crime was being ‘different’” (Samudio, p. 1146). Perhaps the most relevant reactions come from German students who read Friedrich in 1962, sixteen years after World War II’s end. Many said that they did not realize the extent of the brutality suffered by Jews under the Third Reich. “How could Germans inflict this pain onto millions?” asked one sixth-grader (Schaller, p. 842). One ninth-grader argued that Germans faced so much Nazi propaganda that they could not be held responsible for their actions against Jews. Another student disagreed, holding the public responsible for the horrors. Still another excused the past generation, but not his own, which he felt had more insight, thanks to the novel: “Is the [narrator] to blame for his actions? Would we do the same thing? If we know our history, perhaps not” (Schaller, p. 846). The German title of the book, which translates roughly as Back Then It Was Friedrich, is meant to point to the danger of present and future groups being used as scapegoats. One sixth-grader linked the warning to current prejudices against foreign guest workers. After reading Friedrich the student pledged, “I will remember to help all people” who are facing discrimination (Schaller, p. 842).
Blackburn, Gilmer W. Education in the Third Reich: Race and History in Nazi Textbooks. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985.
Browne, Harry. Hitler and the Rise of Nazism. London: Methuen Educational, 1969.
Evory, Ann, ed. Contemporary Authors New Revision Series. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981.
Leuner, H. D. When Compassion Was a Crime: Germany’s Silent Heroes. London: Oswald Wolff, 1966.
Lewis, Rand C. A Nazi Legacy: Right-Wing Extremism in Postwar Germany. New York: Praeger, 1991.
Richter, Hans Peter. Friedrich. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970.
Samudio, Josephine, ed. Book Review Digest. Vol. 67. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1972.
Schaller, Horst. Studien zur Jugendliteratur und Literarischen Bildung. Translated by Sven Hackman. Ratingen: Henn, 1962.
Tempel, Gudrun. Speaking Frankly about the Germans. London: Seeker & Warburg, 1963.