Hitler Youth to Church of England Priest
THIS delightful book is a rarity — an autobiography from the time of the Third Reich and the Second World War which is not a misery memoir. On the contrary, George Gebauer (born 1925) tells a tale of human sympathy and divine oversight, beginning with his childhood in a poor but happy working-class family in Berlin. (For a bleaker view, read Hans Fallada’s Little Man, What Now?)
Just as he had been confirmed in his Lutheran parish church, together with most children of his age-group, so, at the age of 14, he joined the Hitler Youth, which played much the same part for him as Scouting did for his contemporaries in England. He seems to have been untouched by Fascist ideology; and the pre-military training was little different from our own cadet corps.
Even in the army, he led a charmed life, as he says of his posting to France, "Luck was with me, as it had been all my life." In the battle of Normandy, he was captured by the Americans and transported by them to the west coast of the United States, an odyssey that he describes with childlike awe and wonder. He was transferred to England, to a prisoner-of-war camp near Romsey, and billeted in a farmhouse near by, where he married the farmer’s daughter, inherited the farm, and was set to live happily ever after.
As part of his integration into English ways, he was drawn into the life of the parish, asked to ring a bell, become a sidesman, read a lesson, join the PCC, and train to be a Reader. Then, "As I got deeper into my studies I had an urge to make a greater commitment to the Lord and felt the call to the priesthood."
This involved selling the farm and training under the incomparable Harold Wilson at Salisbury, one of the few theological colleges then with a civilised attitude to married couples.
Everything flows on naturally and organically with no sharp breaks or sudden conversions, no angst or profound insights. It is a story of constant kindness rather than of cruelty and of providential care rather than of irruptive miracles; and it is none the worse for that. In fact, it is a joy to be reminded of a lost and golden age of cheerful Tommies, good neighbours, and helpful vicars, even if the background is catastrophic, almost apocalyptic, devastation and loss.
Perhaps it can help us to understand what St Paul meant when he said that we are those upon whom ages overlap.
The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.