From Hitler’s Army to a Ministry in Spain
As told by Georg Reuter (above, holding flag)
WHAT is the meaning of life? For most of us, there comes a time in life when we ask that crucial question. A death in the family, a serious accident, or just the ravages of old age may compel us to reflect on the whys and wherefores of our existence.
In my case it happened in the summer of 1930, when I was only six years old. I lived with my parents in the city of Essen, Germany. I will never forget how my carefree world was shattered the day I found our beloved canary dead in its cage. ‘How could this happen?’ I asked myself. ‘It has always sung so beautifully.’
I gently put the dead bird into an empty can and buried it in our garden. But I couldn’t forget the matter. Although weeks and months passed, I kept pondering its fate until I could contain my curiosity no longer. I marched resolutely into the garden and dug up the can. When I opened it, what a surprise! The bird was no longer there. All that remained was a few bones and feathers. Was that all there was to the life of a bird? And what about us? What happens to us when we die?
At that time my questions remained unanswered. But unknown to me, there were horrendous events looming on the horizon, events that would make me search more fervently for the answers to those nagging questions of my childhood.
Nazi Brainwashing and Violence
The years passed quickly, and I became an apprentice in the building trade. Meantime, Hitler had come to power, and his propaganda machine was running at top speed to brainwash the nation. People would say “Heil Hitler!” instead of “Good morning.” Everywhere there were uniforms: the Jungvolk (Young Folk), the Hitler-Jugend (Hitler Youth), the Bund Deutscher Mädchen (League of German Girls), the SA (Sturmabteilungen, or storm troopers), and the SS (Schutzstaffel, Hitler’s elite guard). And I remember vividly the countless parades, the music and the fanfare in the streets—it was an exciting time for an impressionable youngster.
Soon I found myself participating, carried along by the general enthusiasm. The air was filled with such nationalistic slogans as, “Today, Germany is ours; tomorrow, the whole world will be ours” and, “The flag means more than death.” Gullible teenager that I was, I accepted them at face value.
But even in those early years, there was an ugly side to the Nazi regime. One morning in November 1938, I saw a Jewish synagogue in flames. Strangely, there were firemen standing around, but they didn’t move a finger to put out the fire. That same day the main shopping mall was covered with broken glass. Jewish shops had been plundered and vandalized during what later came to be called Kristallnacht (Crystal Night). These acts had been organized by the SS as “spontaneous demonstrations” of popular protest against the Jews. Hatred of the Jews was preached everywhere.
My Role in World War II
When I was 16 years old, I heard the fateful radio announcement on September 1, 1939: German troops had crossed the Polish border. The invasion of Poland had begun, and World War II had erupted.
When my apprenticeship was completed, I entered the German army. After my initial training, I was sent to Poland where I witnessed the burning of the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw. I saw trains loaded with pathetic people, en route to the fearful concentration camps. Something seemed horribly wrong, but I dismissed my doubts. I still trusted in the infallible wisdom of the Führer.
Soon after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, I was sent to the Caucasus region. How sad it was to see such a beautiful area soaked with the blood of war! Then came the dreadful winter of 1942-43, for which the German army was totally unprepared. We could not even bury our dead comrades in the frozen soil. That winter marked the end of our advance—the battle of Stalingrad was lost; a whole army was lost. Although Hitler’s propaganda described our retreat as an establishment of “secure frontiers,” we soldiers just wanted to get back home as best we could. Those harsh realities of war finally convinced me that Hitler’s grandiose dreams were nothing more than shallow make-believe.
During the retreat from the U.S.S.R., I was hit by shrapnel. It caused a serious chest wound, and I was taken to a military hospital. There, I came face-to-face with the appalling aftermath of war: the mutilated soldiers, the despair, and the abject futility of it all. My thoughts returned to that dead canary. Was there really any difference between men and animals?
I was one of the fortunate ones. I recovered from my injuries and also came out of the war alive. At the end of the war, I was sent to a French prisoner-of-war camp, but finally I was able to return to my family, all of whom had survived those terrible years.
My Outlook Changed Forever
During my long absence, my parents and my brother had become Jehovah’s Witnesses, so we were soon engrossed in long conversations about religion. I couldn’t believe in a God who would permit so much wickedness and suffering. We German soldiers had worn a belt with a buckle inscribed “God with us.” But where, I asked, had God been when we were suffering and dying? The clergy had assured us that Hitler was a gift from God, but thanks to him our country lay in ruins.
Using the Bible as the basis for his explanation, my father patiently showed me why we were living in such trying times. He helped me to understand that God does not support either side in men’s wars and that very soon He would be “making wars to cease to the extremity of the earth.” (Psalm 46:9) He showed me from the Scriptures that as far as death itself is concerned, there is “no superiority of the man over the beast.”—Ecclesiastes 3:19.
The following Sunday, my parents invited me to accompany them to a public talk sponsored by Jehovah’s Witnesses. I shall never forget that day. The meeting was held at a school where small benches served as seats. I had no desire to return to school, yet here I was, sitting with my long legs tucked under one of those tiny benches. But the talk presented was so interesting that it made me forget my discomfort. During the second hour, I noticed that the entire audience zealously participated in the consideration of a Bible subject, offering answers to the questions raised by the conductor of the meeting.
When the meeting was over, many of those present came over to welcome me. Their sincere friendliness overwhelmed me. I was quite a heavy smoker, so the fact that nobody smoked struck me right away.
From that day onward, I went to all the Witnesses’ meetings and even offered my own comments. At last, things were beginning to become clear to me. I realized that God was not the one to blame for all the bloodshed of World War II. I learned that it was his purpose to establish an earth-wide paradise with everlasting blessings for obedient mankind. And there was a place for me in that divine purpose if I so desired.
This was certainly a message worth publicizing. Hitler had boasted about his “Thousand-Year Reich” but had only ruled for 12—and with what a ghastly outcome! It is Christ rather than Hitler, or, indeed, any other human ruler, who can and will establish a thousand-year reign over the earth, after removing all forms of wickedness that presently afflict mankind.—Revelation 20:4.
That wonderful hope enthralled me, and I couldn’t wait to tell my friends about these things. At last I had found the real meaning of life. Of course, I had to quit smoking first, something that by no means was easy for me. But I set a date, and from that day onward, I refused to contaminate myself with tobacco. I realized that as a minister of God, I was required to free myself from “every defilement of flesh and spirit.”—2 Corinthians 7:1.
Full-Time Bethel Service
After my dedication and baptism, I soon began to work as a full-time minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses, along with my brother. We finished our secular work at noon, and then we would travel by bicycle to the area where we were to preach. Although we had hardly any literature in those early postwar years, we cared as best we could for the interest we found, leaving magazines, books, or brochures on a temporary basis so that as many people as possible could benefit from the message. But soon this situation was to change.
Brother Nathan H. Knorr, who was then president of the Watch Tower Society, had recently visited Germany and had seen the need for more literature. Soon the first shipments arrived from Brooklyn, which meant extra work at the branch office in Germany distributing this literature to all the congregations. One day my brother and I received a telegram saying: “Come immediately to the Bible House [Bethel].”
I remember commenting to my brother that such an assignment would surely give us the opportunity to study the Bible almost all day long. But such misconceptions about Bethel were quickly dispelled when we were told on arrival: “We need one man for the printery and another for the Shipping Department! So please think it over, and then decide who will volunteer for which job.” I ended up working in the Shipping Department, and my brother in the printery.
During those busy days, our time for Bible reading was certainly limited. Sometimes we worked around the clock in order to send all the literature to the congregations on time. Nevertheless, association with faithful brothers, such as Erich Frost, Konrad Franke, and August Peters, all of whom had spent many years in concentration camps, contributed greatly to our spiritual growth.
In the department where I worked, there was a young sister, Magdalena Kusserow. She had endured four years in a concentration camp for refusing to give the “Heil Hitler!” salute, whereas I had been sent to a French prisoner-of-war camp for having fought misguidedly in behalf of that ideal. Nevertheless, the truth of God’s Word had brought us together. We had the same goals, and we decided we wanted to serve God together.*
After our marriage, we were eager to continue in full-time service, knowing that there was so much work to do. And we were blessed with many interesting assignments. For example, in 1951, I was assigned to supervise the Cafeteria Department for the three-day convention in Frankfurt am Main, where we planned to feed some 35,000 delegates.
Ahead of us was a daunting task—to provide, with so little equipment, hot meals for such large numbers. But we hit upon the idea of using 51 large steam kettles, which could be heated by means of a steam locomotive. Where would we find a locomotive? We finally convinced the railway company to lend us one of theirs, and a firm in Frankfurt am Main manufactured some low-pressure valves for us. This meant that the locomotive could supply steam at just the right pressure for cooking.
What a relief it was for all of us when a trial run the day before the convention proved to be a great success! There were extensive newspaper reports describing this “new invention” for mass feeding, accompanied by photographs of our kitchen and the locomotive. Thus, much favorable publicity was given to the “Clean Worship” assembly, where the attendance finally reached over 47,000.
While still at that convention, I received the invitation to serve as a traveling representative of the Watch Tower Society. Accompanied by my wife, I served first in the circuit work, visiting a different congregation each week, and then in the district work, visiting whole circuits at assemblies. What a privilege it was to serve alongside brothers like Martin Poetzinger (who later became a member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses), H. Dickmann, and R. Kelsey. We learned so much from these mature brothers. Each day spent with them turned out to be a blessing because each had different gifts to impart.
Missionary Service in Africa and Spain
In 1961, I had the privilege of attending the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead in Brooklyn, New York, in a class that consisted mainly of brothers and that lasted for ten months. During that time, my wife, who could not accompany me, remained in Germany. Although separated, we exchanged our experiences in our frequent letters, so the time just flew by.
Our missionary assignment was Togo, a small country in West Africa. There we had to learn a new language, Ewe, in order to reach the hearts of the people of that land. It was well worth the effort. To the hospitable people of Togo, any foreigner is a friend, but if he speaks their language, they consider him their brother.
Soon after arriving in Togo, I began conducting a Bible study with a young African named Abraham, who spoke some English. Before long he was accompanying me in the preaching activity, and he proved to be an invaluable assistant in helping me to explain the Bible’s message to Ewe-speaking people.
We made good use of the book From Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained, which contained many pictures and was ideal for conducting Bible studies. Even so, some concepts were hard for the simple rural folk to grasp. How could they understand the number 144,000 mentioned in Revelation chapter 7, when they were familiar with coins of only 25, 50, or, at the most, 100 francs? My companion was adept at using his fingers, and if necessary his toes as well, to overcome this problem. And on other occasions, we would make drawings in the sand.
We felt very sad when we, because of health problems, had to return to Europe, first to Luxembourg and then to Germany. But the missionary spirit was still in our hearts, and after a short while, we thought of moving to serve where the need was greater—to Spain.
After learning another language, we again had the privilege of serving our spiritual brothers in the circuit work and of spending a year at the construction site of the new Bethel Home near Madrid. It has been most satisfying for Magdalena and me to serve here in Spain. Although we don’t have the strength we had before, our lives are meaningful because we keep on learning, and we keep on sharing with others what we have learned.
Looking back, I can say that my search for the meaning of life was greatly rewarded. I saw the fallacy of trusting in men like Hitler, and once I got to know the truth of the Bible, I dedicated myself to God. What satisfaction that has given me! Now I know that my future need not be like that of the dead canary. I have the hope of a meaningful life that will never be cut short!—Revelation 21:1-4.
The life story of Magdalena Kusserow Reuter appeared in the September 1, 1985, issue of The Watchtower.
[Picture on page 18]
Georg and Magdalena Reuter in Spain