In the summer of 1947, two years after the end of the Second World War, the British historian Eric Hobsbawm travelled to the British occupation zone of Germany to re-educate young Germans. A recent graduate of King’s College, Cambridge, where he had also joined the Communist Party, Hobsbawm was working on his PhD dissertation and had just secured his first appointment as a lecturer at Birkbeck College in London. Born in 1917 into a Jewish family in colonial Egypt, Hobsbawm grew up in Vienna, his mother’s hometown, and witnessed the street clashes between Nazi stormtroopers and Red Front fighters in Berlin in the tumultuous last years of the Weimar Republic. His parents had died young, before 1933, but most of his Viennese family was murdered in the Holocaust. The British government didn’t make use of his German during the war, and his career in re-educating postwar Germans, arranged by his Cambridge colleagues, was cut short by the anti-Communist purges of the early Cold War.
A seminar at an imperial hunting lodge in the countryside of Lower Saxony was Hobsbawm’s first encounter with Germans who grew up in the Third Reich. Among the participants was Reinhart Koselleck, then in his first semester at Heidelberg University. Koselleck had joined the Wehrmacht in February 1941, two months before he turned 18. The following year, a German artillery wagon crushed his foot on the march towards Stalingrad, which probably saved his life. Koselleck was sent home before the gruesome debacle of Hitler’s army began. His two brothers were killed in the war – the younger brother during an Allied bombing raid that destroyed the family home, and his older brother, a committed Nazi, in the final weeks of the war; one of his aunts was gassed in the Nazi euthanasia campaign in 1940. In the last months of the war, Koselleck was sent again to the Eastern Front, which by then had reached German territory. His unit fought against the Red Army in Moravia. Captured by the Soviets on 9 May 1945, he had to march on foot to Auschwitz for two days, together with thousands of other German prisoners of war. There he took part in the dismantling of the IG Farben chemical factories, which were sent by train to the Soviet Union for reassembly – the very same factories adjacent to Auschwitz-Birkenau where Primo Levi was forced to work until the liberation of the camp by the Red Army in January.