Kurt Hein was an infantryman in the army of Germany’s Third Reich.
In 1941, at the age of 17, he was the youngest and the last of the five Hein brothers to go to war at the call of Adolph Hitler.
By 1945, all five Hein brothers had been reported killed in action — three on the Russian front and two in Western Europe. Announcements of the deaths came in cables from the army to the mayor of the men’s home city, Mülheim an der Ruhr.
One by one, beginning in 1939, representatives from the mayor’s office repeated the journey to the Hein home, announcing the death of another son to the bereaved parents. The notification of Kurt Hein’s death came to the mayor’s office in the summer of 1944, but was never delivered.
“The mayor did not have the heart to tell my parents their last son was gone, so he placed the cable in his vault and refused to deliver it,” Hein told me in 1970.
At the time of his reported death, Hein was a prisoner of French forces and then later was transferred to the Americans. He was released after Germany surrendered. A second brother also returned to Mülheim an der Ruhr to the shock of the family in 1951, after escaping from a Russian labor camp.
When I met Hein, he was a 46-year-old missionary with the United Methodist Church in West Africa. He and his wife, Hilde, had been in Sierra Leone for 10 years by the time my wife, Ann, and I arrived as technical workers for the church. We lived only about 100 yards apart on the compound of the Bible Training Institute in the town of Bo.
Kurt and I became fast friends, and over the next two years spent many hours together swapping stories, laughing and playing music — me on an old banjo and Kurt on a variety of harmonicas.
The Heins were loving, devoted missionaries who had dedicated their remaining lives to helping others. He taught his Sierra Leonean students carpentry at the school, along with lessons about Christian love and moral virtue. He and Hilde also took Ann and me under their wings and taught us how to adjust in our first experience living in another culture.
Eventually, as friendship and trust built, Kurt talked about the pre-war and war years in Germany — pushed into that somewhat uncomfortable discussion by my curiosity about how this highly moral, peaceful man could have served the Nazi cause.
Kurt never dodged the issue — as many Germans from that era did — with claims he was forced into service or did so to protect his family from Nazi reprisals. He said Hitler was magnetic in both speech and image. He spoke of listening to the speeches on the radio and feeling pride that someone was “standing up for Germany.”
While he said he had no knowledge of the genocide against the Jews, Gypsies and gay people, he said he bought into the idea — at the time — that Germany had been brought to its knees unfairly by the international community and by those in the country who were not loyal Germans. He went to war at 17 believing Adolph Hitler had the answers for saving his country from those bent on destroying it.
“Eventually we learned about how we had been lied to and used, but by then, there was no going back,” I remember Kurt saying at the end of one discussion. He said he was now sickened by the thought of the evil he took part in.
Still, I was to learn, as I listened to the emotion in his voice, that while he felt remorse for the evil his country had unleashed on the world, he retained a sense of pride in having done his “duty” to support that same country. To me this seemed like an echo of the “my country right or wrong” bumper stickers that adorned so many cars in the United States during the Vietnam War.
In moments of national pride, Kurt would reflect glowingly on the superiority of military training in Germany during the war. In one discussion, he talked about how unskilled American soldiers were when the United States entered the war.
He told me about his first contact with green American troops in early 1942. His company had established positions on the ridges around a little valley in France. About noon, he said, a platoon of American soldiers walked into the valley, sat down on the grass and calmly began to eat lunch, “like they were all just on a picnic.”
He said the German soldiers looked at each other in amazement and disbelief.
“What did you do?” I asked him.
“We just opened fire and killed them all without losing a single man,” he replied matter-of-factly and with no sign of emotion.
Such is war, I guess. And such is the self-serving, easy-to-justify leanings of the human heart.
Such is the ability of even the most moral and best-intentioned of us to sort our lives and our values into separate, contradictory compartments — to justify actions and tribal insanities without damaging our self-images or troubling our consciences.
Bud Herron is a retired editor and newspaper publisher who lives in Columbus. He served as publisher of The Republic from 1998 to 2007.