Yes To No

Susanne Hirzel described her youth in Nazi Germany as a period of going from Yes to No. That turn of phrase caught my fancy the first time I ran across her memoirs.

She portrayed the reasons she initially wanted to go along with her other friends in Hitler Youth-League of German Girls (BDM). Her longing to belong went beyond spiffy uniforms and warm camaraderie. She genuinely believed that their cause was just.

In her heart she felt like it was a good thing to align with a leader who proclaimed that morality was important, who made her feel good about being a German after growing up in the shadow of hyperinflation followed by financial depression and massive unemployment. This little man in Berlin told them it was all right to be patriotic. It was healthy (he said) to wave the flag and sing the national anthem at the top of your voice.

When they got together for their weekly meetings and daily activities, national pride and Germany First became the focal point of their fun. They learned German folk songs, they were encouraged to create within the framework of the German experience. They came together as Germans. Hitler did a great job of tearing down the walls of class distinction. Susanne recalls that the daughters of factory workers sat together with the daughters of factory owners, with neither side granted special privilege. It was a heady feeling for a teenage girl, especially a gifted and beautiful child.

What turned it around for her? She was lucky enough to have teachers who taught her to think, to listen to the words behind the spin. Within the parameters of a National Socialist education, they managed to convey a sense of logic and rational thought. Using history instead of current events as their subject matter, these dedicated teachers pointed out the fallacies of blind obedience, the dangers of a State that assumes too much power with too little control.

And she had friends who, like her, heard the message these closet doubters said and drew her out of her fear into a better understanding of what was going on.

Susanne Hirzel never became a revolutionary. She never joined her more courageous friends in their active resistance. But her No finally became clear enough to do a little. And for doing a little, she was arrested and spent six months in a Nazi prison. For doing that little, she knew her own parents' displeasure and censure.

I thought about her in the brouhaha focused on Trent Lott's tactless "tribute" to Strom Thurmond. Trent Lott embodies several generations of Americans who were insensitive to the devastation wrought by slavery and subsequent overt racism. To what it meant to be deemed guilty without a trial, simply due to the color of one's skin. To be sloughed off to schools with outdated textbooks and untrained teachers. To be abandoned by one of the wealthiest societies this world has ever known.

There were others who initially said Yes to that system of degradation, only to grow up and realize what they were agreeing with. Their No caused them to assume roles in changing the world they lived in, made them campaign to rewrite laws that excluded some Americans from the very privileges that make our country great.

Those who genuinely went from Yes to No - along with those whose No has been constant - represent the conscience of our country, a conscience that seems to be silenced with alarming frequency in this 21st century.

We should encourage our youth, the students who will lead our nation tomorrow, to examine the causes they agree with today. To engage in rational discussion of political events and social trends. To recognize when blind obedience is being called for, and recognizing it, to step forward and shout their No.

It is when we go from Yes to No that we move forward. It is when we go from Yes to No that we are truly great.

- Ruth Hanna Sachs

With gratitude to Dr. Erich Schmorell (sel. A.) for letting us know about Susanne Hirzel’s book by this name – VOM JA ZUM NEIN.

(c) 2003 Ruth Hanna Sachs. All rights reserved. Please contact us for permission to quote.