The Challenge: 2014–15 were special years for contemporary European history: 100 years since the start of the First World War, 75 since the start of the Second, 25 since German Reunification. These anniversaries fell in a period when scholars in the humanities and social sciences were both challenged by revolutionary modes of communication and excited by opportunities for interaction across new horizons. The ineluctable loss of the War generation challenged us to develop new forms for social interaction that might continue to support critical reflection on everyday life in the Third Reich in the future: questioning collective memories of the past and their connection to the present.
This Project: The foundation for this project is an extensive collection of love letters from two “ordinary” Germans written during the Third Reich. This website showcases this extraordinary correspondence but supported by various other media: radio, theater, workshops, and more. The public is invited to respond to the letters with their own questions, thoughts, and memories. The goal is a critical engagement with everyday life in the Nazi era that is international, interdisciplinary, intermedial, “decellerated”, and “crowdsourced”. How did these two ordinary Germans respond to the Nazi regime? How did they contribute to the transformation of historical conditions?
The Authors: Hilde Laube und Roland Nordhoff (both pseudonyms) lived in small villages in Saxony. They were pious Christians, and “Aryans” in the sense of Nazi racial law. Roland was thirteen years older than Hilde and a different generation entirely: he was born before the First World War, while she was born during the Weimar Republic. He was also a teacher, while she was a laborer. During the war, he served in the German Navy: first in Schleswig-Holstein, and then in Bulgaria, Greece, and Roumania, while she stayed at home in Saxony.
The Letters: Their correspondence is well preserved and remains in private ownership in Germany. Stored in 24 large binders, the 4,000+ letters range from 1 to 12 pages long, estimated at some 900.000 words in total. Their correspondence began in May 1938 and, with some brief interruptions, lasted until February 1946 — that is, through the Third Reich, Total War, and the first months of the Occupation. Roland wrote his letters in a mixture of Sütterlin and the old German cursive; Hilde wrote in a more modern hand but still with some elements of the older styles. During their courtship, they exchanged one or two letters per week, but during the war, they sometimes even wrote more than one letter per day.
The Content: First and foremost, this regular correspondence concerned their courtship; but their need for self-presentation within their relationship encouraged them to describe their activities, attitudes, and interests. As can be seen from the letter blog, they often commented on such topics as music, art, film, literature, theater, faith, church, choir, relatives, friends, family, village life, gender roles, work, careers, excursions, vacations, Nazi politics, war, conquests, expulsions, and none the least on the correspondence itself. While historians interested about their relationship to antisemitism, terror, and genocide, these themes are discussed only marginally in the everyday life of the letters.
Trug & Schein: The name of the project derives from one of Roland’s early letters, from 16.05.1938, when he described the era in which he lived in the following terms:
“We live in hard times. Trug und Schein, swindles and shams cloak the truth. Everyone wears some kind of mask. Raw lust and cupidity show up everywhere. And it is a stroke of luck, a blessing, if one can remain straight and unbowed, if one does not succumb to temptation and can salvage one’s faith and yearning for what is good, true, and noble. “(Vgl. 07.05.1942)
Their correspondence bears witness to everyday life in the Saxon corner of the “Altreich” – those parts of Central Europe that were German prior to 1938 – as well as in parts of Nazi-occupied Europe. May this poignant case study spark new conversations about the modern German past and its place in the present.