History is full of improbable people, and I have always been fascinated by highly improbable people. Werner Goldberg was one of those improbably person. During World War 2, Werner Goldberg was one of the best known people in Nazi Germany. Photos of Werner Goldberg in his German army uniform appeared on billboards and army recruiting posters all over Germany. He was known to the German public simply as ‘the ideal German soldier.’ Almost nobody in Germany knew his real name or that he was a Jew. In 1933, Werner Goldberg’s father was fired from his job when Hitler came to power because he was a Jew. Werner was unable to get a job for the same reason. Werner needed to make money to feed his family, so in 1938 he joined the army. Werner saw military action soon after completing basic training. He participated in the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Shortly after the invasion of Poland began, a German army photographer took photos of Werner Goldberg and sent them to the Berliner Tagesblatt, a major newspaper in Germany’s capital. They liked the photos and published a full-page picture of Werner Goldberg in their Sunday edition. The newspaper didn’t state his name. They probably didn’t know it. They captioned the photo ‘The Ideal German Soldier.’ Hitler was very impressed by the picture and ordered it reprinted on Nazi propaganda and army recruiting posters. Eventually Nazi officials discovered the truth, that the ‘ideal German soldier’ was a Jew. Goldberg was forced out of the army, but he was never sent to jail or a concentration camp. In 1942, Werner Goldberg rescued his sick father who was being held in a Gestapo prison hospital for Jews. On Christmas Eve, Werner went to the hospital. He gambled that the guards and Gestapo agents at the door would either be absent from their posts or drunk because of the holiday, and he was right. Werner got into the hospital by showing the guards a photo of himself captioned ‘the ideal German soldier.’ The guards recognized the photo and let Werner into the hospital. Once inside, Werner simply went to his father’s room, dressed his father in street clothes that he brought with him and simply walked out the door with his father. Werner Goldberg survived the war and died in 2004.
I teach history at a junior high school in Orinda. I talk to my students fairly often about widely held historic myths. Some historic myths are harmless, but others are dangerous. When people believe that a historic myth is true, they will sometimes act on that myth with terrible consequences. I think this will be a big year for historic myth making. This is a presidential election year, and presidential candidates are always a major source of historic misinformation – especially when talking about people in the other party.
One of the most persistent and dangerous of all historic myths is the myth of Nazi efficiency. According to this often-told story, the Nazis were ruthlessly efficient. The logic of this myth is that since the Nazis were not constrained by moral considerations, they were able to maximize economic production through a system of slave labor and confiscation of resources. I have heard this story all my life, and I know people who believe that it is true. While the myth of Nazi effciency sounds logical, it is completely wrong. The Nazis were not ruthlessly efficient; they were just ruthless. For the Nazis, economic efficiency never came first. Proving that their racial theory was correct always came first. As a result, a lot of competent workers and managers were removed from their jobs by the Nazis simply because they weren’t ‘pure Aryans’, a term that was never clearly defined. These people were often replaced by incompetent Nazi party members simply because they had ‘Aryan Certificates’ proving their ‘racial purity’, not because they knew how to do their jobs. Incompetent Nazi party officials took positions of power throughout German industry. Graft, cronyism, nepotism, and bribery were so rampant that the economy of Nazi Germany was never really on a wartime footing. Throughout the war, German factories continued to produce luxury consumer goods for people with money or party connections. Incredibly, many German aircraft and tank factories operated from 9 to 5 and were closed on weekends right until the end of the war. In the United States, on the other hand, the aircraft factories never closed. They operated 24 hours a day, every day, 7 days a week. In Nazi-controlled Europe, trains and airplanes badly needed by the German army were used throughout the war to transport luxury consumer goods to Germany from the occupied countries, including perfume from France, lobsters from Norway, and stolen art from all over Europe. Trains transporting Jews and others to death camps had the right-of-way over troop and ammunition trains headed for the front, and millions of Jews Poles, and Russians with valuable job skills, like doctors and engineers, were simply murdered. After the war was over, economists from the United States, England, France, and Russia went to Germany to study the Nazi economic system. They all returned home with the same conclusion – there was nothing to learn from the Nazis about how to run an economy. The reason that the myth of Nazi efficiency is so dangerous is that the people who believe that the myth is true think that the way to stimulate a stagnant economy is to ‘go Nazi’, and that is a terrible idea!
Have you ever seen the movie ‘Titanic’? No, not the 1997 movie with Leonardo DiCaprio, but the 1943 version made in Nazi Germany. I collect movies made in Nazi Germany, and this is one of the best. No expense was spared in making this lavish movie. There are spectacular sets, beautiful costumes, and amazing special effects. The producers of this movie made a detailed 20 foot long model of the Titanic for the sinking scene, and they used a large luxury liner, a real one, to film the deck scenes. The special effects in the sinking scene are truly amazing considering the technology available in 1943. Despite the movie’s tremendous cost, ‘Titanic’ was never released in Nazi Germany. Dr. Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, did not like the movie’s message. In this version of the Titanic story, the hero is a German officer named Petersen. Petersen is convinced that the ship is traveling far too fast and is heading for disaster. He tells his superiors about his concerns, but he is repeatedly told to just obey orders and stop questioning the judgement of higher-ups. Petersen reluctantly does as he is told, and this leads to disaster. Goebbels did not like that message. He wanted the German people to just do as they were told, without asking questions. In this movie, the villain is a greedy, degenerate Englishmen named Ismay. In movies made in Nazi Germany, the villain was usually either an Englishmen or a Jew. Since there are no Jews in this movie, the villain is an Englishmen. If you would like to see this movie, give me a call. I have several copies with English subtitles.