Childhood is one of the most tragic casualties of war. Any story of a childhood spent in a war-torn country is going to tug on the heartstrings regardless of which side of which war it was, right? Irmgard A. Hunt puts that assumption to the test in her memoir On Hitler’s Mountain: Overcoming the Legacy of a Nazi Childhood recounting growing up not just in Hitler’s Germany, but miles away from his headquarters. Knowing what she and we do now about just what Hitler and his Nazi regime were up to, Hunt looks back on her life living in the Third Reich.
The question of how the people of Germany could have let Hitler and the Nazi regime commit the atrocities they did has been asked and studied from many perspectives including the psychological and historical. It has been presented in technical terms that make it sound so easy to prevent from happening again. Rarely is it laid bare in the honest way that Hunt does in On Hitler’s Mountain.
Beginning with the story of her maternal grandparents who met and married as World War I unfolded, Hunt presents the struggling Germany of the 1920’s as reparation payments sent inflation soaring and national morale plummeting. That was the Germany of her mother’s childhood, of her father’s childhood. Hunt paints a portrait of a people financially and emotionally drained whose low self-esteem was preyed upon by a skillful manipulator.
An interesting perspective, Hunt manages to keep herself a step removed, though it isn’t intentional. Unfortunately, having been born the year after Hitler’s elected rise to power, there is much of the history that Hunt was almost too young to appreciate and it’s hard to get past how much hindsight and reflection color the narrative. It felt less like the story of young Irmgard and more the tale of her mother, struggling to provide for her children and make sense of the disparity between what the government had promised her life would be and the everyday life she led.
It’s amazing how much convenience and general indifference of the majority empowered the fanatics until disagreement, let alone resistance, became traitorous. The conflict between the generations and the impact that conversation has on a child are one of the many dynamics presented by Hunt for the reader to consider and explore.
It was actually a bit of a relief to read Hunt’s memoir. She could easily have tried to shift responsibility elsewhere but instead shows just how much guilt was felt by the German people (albeit, briefly at the end but it is there). There will always be those who feel that nothing can be done to explain, that there will never be enough, and who will think that this book is glorifying something terrible. But On Hitler’s Mountain is about a real person who really lived through that atmosphere and she feels that the world has finally reached a place where she can tell her story without feeling shamed into silence.
Overall, Hunt’s memoir is remarkably relatable and it is a first step towards acknowledging a perspective of history that has, if not been glossed over, has at least been approached in such a technical manner that it has become detached in many ways from the historical narrative at large.