The photo on the right is of my grandfather, David Gummer, doing a Hitler salute in Germany. This wouldn’t be that weird if he was German but David is British, he’s from Kent. Now let’s get this clear no one is suggesting David is a Nazi but this is an interesting story.
Like all good stories let’s start at the beginning. As a child my Gramp would often tell me about visiting Germany. This was a trip that was clearly special to him and he’s told the entire family about different bits of it. Later I realised that he had visited Germany when the Nazis were in control as he talked about meeting the Hitler Youth. He always said the Hitler Youth weren’t that interested in “the Nazi stuff” as they wanted to play football rather than listen to Hitler on the radio. I also distinctly remember seeing a photo of Gramp at his brother Basil’s house of him with the Hitler Youth. No one else on David’s side of the family (my side) believed this and it became a family joke that the photo of Gramp with the Hitler Youth didn’t really exist.
Now let’s fast forward a bit. I am about to start writing a textbook on Nazi Germany (for the new OCR SHP specification) and I’ve been reading a lot about this period. As part of this I remembered that photo and thought I’d hunt it down. I emailed Basil’s side of the family who hunted for it and couldn’t find it. I wondered if I had been imagining it. Then at Christmas, Basil’s wife Phyllis sadly died and my Mum’s cousin inherited the photo collection. Last week he emailed me to say he had found the photo! No one, even me, assumed it would be David sieg heiling. But there he is, with swastika arm band and all. My entire family are dumb founded.
Now this is where it gets stranger. I had always assumed that Gramp visited Germany in 1933 or 1934 at the point where the Nazis had just taken over and the British weren’t that bothered and Europe was only just waking up to the terror they were imposing on its people. I was wrong. This is 1938. The year of Kristallnacht. I think it’s the summer of 1938 so pre-Kristallnacht but still by 1938 most Europeans were aware of growing Nazi oppression. Additionally, I’d always assumed that he’d visited the Rhineland, somewhere near to home. Nope. This is Bamberg, in the heart of Nazi Germany, near to Bayreuth, one of the spiritual homes of Nazism.
When I was emailed the photo I was told that on the back was a newspaper stamp. Ok I thought it would be a newspaper from Ramsgate in Kent where David and Basil grew up. Nope. The stamp says Gauverlag Bayerische Ostmark GmbH Zweigstelle Bamberg. When you Google this you find out that Gauverlag Bayerische Ostmark was a Nazi controlled newspaper.
So this raises a large number of questions for me as a historian. These three have stuck in the mind this week though.
1. Why is David sieg heiling?
I can confidently say he wasn’t a Nazi. He’s a 15 year old boy and despite the fact that he reads the Daily Mail he has never shown any views like those of the people represented by the symbol on his arm! I think there are two possible reasons. One, he is mocking the whole thing. Gramp was always a bit mischievous so it’s possible but less likely given the newspaper stamp. Two, the more likely option, this is the innocence of youth. Gramp had no idea what he was doing. In 1938 would it have seemed that odd to whack on the arm band of some newly made friends in Germany?
2. Why is a British scout group in Germany in 1938?
Gramp’s scout group were clearly very active and Basil remembered they also went to Belgium on a previous trip so you could say that maybe this was just an adventurous scout leader who wanted to take his troop to experience another part of Europe. But it also raises the possibility that this man had Nazi sympathies. Again, this is 1938, no one knew the full horror that would come. Is this an example of a British man who agreed with the Nazis? There were quite a few in 1938.
3. Why did a Nazi run paper take these photos?
A British scout group visiting in 1938 would make a great propaganda story. Can we therefore suggest that my Gramp was used as a tiny part of this?
As a historian I am determined to find out more. I’ve emailed the archives in Bamberg in the hope that they might find the story that ran in the newspaper. I am not holding out but I hope they do! I am also going to email the archives in Ramsgate to see if a British newspaper ran the story. Finally I am going to properly interview Gramp about this. He has dementia but his long term memory isn’t bad so I am hoping that if I show him the photo it might trigger something. I’ll write again on the blog if I find something.