From 1928 to 1939 Ziemer had been the headmaster of a Berlin-based school for the children of American diplomats and businessmen stationed in Germany. This vantage point gave him a unique look at the changes that befell the German school system after Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1932-1933, and the type of children that emerged from the "Nazi education" methods initiated by Bernhard Rust, Minister of Education who, according to journalist John Gunther, had shortly before "lost his teacher's job -- because he was incompetent!" [Inside Europe, 1938 edition, pg 60]
Gregor Ziemer had an eyeful of the awful transformation taking place in Gemany's youth outside the small oasis of his American Colony School.
At the age of four German boys were to take their first oath to die for their Fuhrer, repeating it with greater solemnity in two more rituals at ages 10 and 14. Songs, textbooks, math lessons, even art projects, all involved preparing young minds for dark thoughts of conquest, war, and especially... hate:
In Hamburg, a teacher displayed to his class a pamphlet, The Jews in the U.S.A., with pictures of New York City's Mayor LaGuardia beside a gorilla, "Jewish Judge Marcus Pecora" (presumably meaning New York Justice Ferdinand Pecora—who is a gentile), the "Jewess" Madam Secretary Frances Perkins. At lesson's end, the teacher asked: "And what do you think of a country like that?" The class roared the Nazi Party battle cry: Judah verrecke! ("Death to the Jews!").
Gregor Ziemer dutifully chronicled his observations in a book released to great success in November 1941:
Education For Death: The Making Of A Nazi.
In addition to carefully documented accounts of horrors witnessed in the classroom, Ziemer also introduced his American audience to the Nazi's forced sterilization and euthanasia programs then underway. Visiting one "woman's hospital" in Berlin, Zimer reported seeing women operated upon, willingly or otherwise, by doctors performing as if working on some ghastly assembly line: patient after patient wheeled in, and promptly wheeled out, courtesy of that once-esteemed "German efficiency", now gone mad.
The message spread: a whole generation of German youth were being turned into soulless monsters. Which begged the question: how to undo such zealotry, absorbed at such an early age, and reinforced so pervasively? Ziemer's book could only offer advice outlined in principle, rather than detail:
"If we are to combat the spirit of German youth with our own spirit of Democracy, it will have to be ... a spirit as fiery in its concentration as Naziism is in German schools. . . . Hitler is making fanatics. We should at least make believers. . . .
When war with Germany soon came upon them, American audiences not yet familiar with the contents of Ziemer's book would be greeted with not just one, but two movie adaptations.
The first treatment of Ziemer's book was, interestingly, made into animated form, by no less than the Walt Disney studio, in early 1943. Fresh from the artistic heights reached in Fantasia (1940) and Bambi (1942), the film showcases a realistic style seldom explored in their other, more humorous cartoons. Their adapation is not without humor: the studio's funniest animator, Ward Kimball, handles some comedy relief material illustrating der fuhrer in a symbolic fairy tale (revealing, I suspect, how the war inevitably coarsened popular culture at the time), while two of the company's best "actors with a pencil", Ollie Johnston and Bill Tytla, handle the touching classroom sequence between young Hans (animated by Johnson, suggesting the same innocence he brought to his work on the young rabbit Thumper in Bambi) and the overbearing schoolteacher (an exuberant performance by Tytla, surpassing the energy he brought to puppeteer Stromboli's similar tirades in the 1939 Disney film Pinocchio). The cartoon ends on a visual virtual kick-to-the-stomach... one imagines how powerful an impact the climax must have made upon the minds of audiences at the time, many with fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles and friends in faraway battlefields facing off against the very enemy the film portrays so grimly...
The "Hitler's Children" mentioned in the Disney film's title is an allusion to RKO's 1943 live action adaptation of the book, enlivened by its producer Ed Golden with what he thought would be a more marketable title. His financial gamble ("who wants to see a film with 'Hitler' in the title?", ran the conventional wisdom of the day) paid off handsomely: filmed on a shoestring budget of $175,000, the film went on to gross millions. By October 1943 the film's success made news, and Time Magazine estimated its return as between $2 and $3 million dollars, making it a bigger box office hit than any previous RKO release, including King Kong. In his autobiography the film's director Edward Dimitrik later estimated that by the end of the war the total gross for Hitler's Children was closer to $7 million! (At .30 cents a ticket, in those days, even the lower estimates make for a lot of customers...)
We examine this other cinematic adaptation of Gregor Ziemer's Education For Death in what may seem an indirect way, as the subject of this week's Radio Memories, our occasional Sunday foray into the bygone art form of Radio Drama.
Before the arrival of television, radio offered its listeners a wide variety of dramatic programming, plays performed not for the eye, as with tv, but for the ear, or more specifically: a theater for the mind.
One of the highest-rated, and longest-lasting dramatic radio programs was The Lux Radio Theater, spanning two decades from 1934 up to 1955. Their gimmick was adapting popular movies into radio plays, either "old" classics or fresh releases then making the rounds of regional theatrical markets. (Films were rolled out area by area in those economically-strapped days, rather than every screen all at once, as has been the modern practice for some time.)
Tonight's Radio Memories offering features the Lux Radio Theater adaptation of RKO's live action version of Hitler's Children, broadcast from a Hollywood at war, on May 24, 1943.
The battlefields change, but the battles go on, as whole generations today are still taught to hate, challenging us in our time to find the same resolve demanded by Gregor Ziemer in 1941:
"Young Germany is awake and ready to die. Let young America and its parents, its instructors, and advisers be awake and ready to live."