It was the spring of 1943 when Otto Ernst Duscheleit, a Hitler Youth leader, received the call: Join the Waffen-SS or be sent to a penal battalion.
“I was 17 and I knew little about what was happening,” Duscheleit recalls.
He would spend two years on the front.
Duscheleit helped set Russian villages ablaze during the retreat of German forces, and though he says he did not commit atrocities against Jews, he watched as Jews were loaded onto trains for deportation to death camps.
“They were wearing the yellow star,” Duscheleit says. “I saw them, but I didn’t think about what was happening.”
About 40 years later, Duscheleit had a dream in which someone called him an “SS pig.” The former Nazi began to reflect on his past. Overcome by shame, he started meeting with students and children of survivors to tell them his story.
“When I tell my story to older people, some also start to tell what they remember,” he says of fellow ex-Nazis. “I give them courage to speak about their past.
Duscheleit, who lives in Berlin, is among a growing number of former Nazis relating their stories. Their stories are a reminder of the fast-disappearing opportunity to record the history of the Holocaust before the last surviving Nazis die.
Still, most ex-Nazis do not want to share their stories, and those who are willing often offer unreliable accounts. Unlike Duscheleit, few are confronting their pasts critically.
“Many who had such experiences won’t talk about it, or they will try to turn themselves into victims, or they will lie,” said German filmmaker Malte Ludin, who is recording the ex-Nazis’ stories and building an archive of perpetrators’ testimony.
While tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors have recorded personal testimonies of their experiences, no comparable collection exists from Nazi perpetrators or sympathizers.
In recent years, however, several people who uncovered the Nazi pasts of their parents or grandparents have published their stories.
Psychotherapist Ute Althaus started probing her father’s Nazi past in earnest only after he died. Her father, Ernst Meyer, had been sentenced to 10 years in prison after the war, but she said his war crimes were never discussed in the family.
After Meyer’s death in 1993, Althaus read his prison letters. Her research was recorded in her book “I Was No Nazi Officer.”
“After the war, committed Nazis like my father presented themselves as non-Nazis and as victims of Hitler,” Althaus said.
As to the testimonies of the perpetrators themselves, it’s not so much what they say but how they say it that’s interesting, says Stephan Marks, a social scientist at the University of Freiburg in Germany.
“As oral history it is not very fruitful,” Marks said. “But if you look at the hidden content, it turns out to be very interesting. There is a kind of addictive relationship that followers of Hitler have with the Third Reich.”
Interview subjects often insult their interviewers, suggesting that they could never understand how it was back then, says Marks, the author of “Why Did They Follow Hitler? The Psychology of Nazism.”
It’s difficult to know how truthful perpetrators are, says Israeli sociologist Dan Bar-On, the author of “Legacy of Silence.”
“Many are apologetic, but they don’t tell you much about what really happened and about how they felt,” Bar-On said.
The more a perpetrator has to say, the less important the testimony, says Efraim Zuroff, the Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
“It is incredibly rare that perpetrators own up to their crimes,” Zuroff told JTA. “If they can talk about their crimes, they have nothing interesting to tell us.”
Even in trial testimony, “most thought they were innocent and had done the right thing,” Zuroff said. “That can teach us about the nature of people who have been brainwashed about Nazi ideology.”
“They were not persons who came from outer space or Mars,” said Micha Brumlik of the Institute for General Pedagogy in Frankfurt am Main. “It is important to prove to the younger generations that moral evil is very close to us.”
Marks says it’s important to explore how well-educated and intelligent people became so excited by the Nazi movement.
“The emotional underground that made this possible is something we have hardly started to touch,” he said.
After Duscheleit began speaking publicly about his years in the Waffen-SS, he said he was confronted by several right-wing youths after a speech.
“One young man came to me and said, ‘How can you speak that way as a former SS man and Hitler Youth leader?'”
“I answered, ‘I have learned something since then.’ And the young man turned around and left.”