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Frau Marion Beyme's Memories of Marburg and Berlin during the Third Reich (Retrospective account dating from the early 1990s)

Historians have long been preoccupied with the social basis of the Nazi regime, especially as it pertained to the implementation of the National Socialists’ most radical social and racial policies. The recollections of a contemporary witness who lived through the Third Reich as a young woman help shed light on this subject. In this account, the witness shares her personal experiences with various forms of conformity, disobedience, and resistance, all of which existed in constant interaction with government coercion and seduction.

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The Ambivalence of Avoidance

The town of Marburg, about an hour's train ride north of Frankfurt, is celebrated for its lovely setting, its centuries-old university and library and other cultural jewels, and for being the workplace of the famous chroniclers of German fairy tales, the Brothers Grimm. As fearful children and frowning parents around the world know, most of the tales are filled not only with obstacles but with cruelty and violence, and typically end only after a plucky male hero saves and gets the female and/or the kingdom.

For some Germans in the 1920s, another fairy tale about another Reich was just beginning. And one local Marburg girl who must have looked perfect for a role as a Teutonic fairy tale princess was Marion Beck*. She was tall, blonde, and, given her striking looks in her seventies and eighties, exceptionally pretty. And she, too, numbered among the German youth pulled to the seemingly heroic Nazi movement.

For her and her classmates, the lure came early, about 1928. She was about seventeen. "We went to an office here called the 'donation ring.' It was a precursor to the Party. You could donate something, money or whatever. It was already very National Socialistic. We were full of enthusiasm and marched right over. I did it just once, went there and donated three marks or something so they could do something good with it."

Had her gesture met with enthusiasm or apathy at home, her course might have been different. But, upon hearing of the donation, "my mother, who was very political and very alert, enlightened me. She talked about what kinds of dangers were coming, how horrible she found the whole thing. She'd already surmised there could be a war. My mother was very keen of ear and eye." And as for Marion's inchoate enthusiasm for National Socialism, "that was the end of it." The larger tale, however, had just begun.

Among the families it would affect was the small united matriarchy headed by Frau Klara Beck, a First World War widow with two children, Marion and Joachim. Frau Beyme mentioned, many years after we first met, that her father had been a lawyer who was assigned during the war to rule on desertion cases. She said he began empathizing so much with the scared young soldiers who had run from battle that he was unable to sentence them to jail and refused to continue in his job. As punishment, he was sent to the front as a soldier himself. There, he was killed in battle.

The family he left behind knew well the potential price of opposing the government.

Thanks in part to both her parents, Frau Marion Beyme has the clear conscience not to have been a Nazi. But at the outset of our interviews, she said she was not the "active anti-Nazi" described to me by the American man who put us in touch. Meeting my first and rather eager question directly, she said an active anti-Nazi would imply someone who had hidden a Jew or done something along those lines. And, she said, she had not.

Barely disguising my disappointment, I asked on. Eventually Frau Beyme proved to be, although less brave than advertised, more intriguing. It is easy to judge heroes or criminals or even fellow travelers by their responses to the Third Reich, but it is not easy to judge a person who represents what might be called a universal dilemma of degree—a person who opposed the Third Reich more with heart and brain than with life and limb, a person who chose not to go along rather than to go against, a person who was, in sum, a passive anti-Nazi.

* At the request of author Allison Owings, the original German names that appear in her 1993 book have been changed for the present Internet publication.

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