Based On Nazi Love Letters, A UMKC Professor's Play Shows Life During Wartime

May 31, 2017

Did Nazis fall in love?

Of course they did, though it may be hard to associate the idea of that emotion with a society that committed human atrocities. But as the Third Reich was rising, individuals in Germany fell in love with each other just like people all over the world fall in love every day.

Kansas Citians have a chance to hear what that felt like when actors stage a script-in-hand reading on Sunday, thanks to a trove of letters between two wartime lovers.

Learning more about the experiences of individuals in a greater society is a specialty of University of Missouri-Kansas City history professor Andrew Stuart Bergerson, who practices a branch of scholarship called "history of everyday life."

"It argues that you can better understand grand historical events by looking in a microscope at ordinary people on the ground, where they’re trying to live their lives, as the conflicting pressures and dynamics of world history are played out," Bergerson explains.

"It's a very effective way of telling history," he adds, "because it shows you people are human beings, and the situations they’re dealing with are not so strange. Of course the context, the larger picture, is very different, but the choices they’re making are things people can identify with. You cans see their actions, and their actions speak louder than ideals or generalizations."

Tellingly, the field emerged in Germany, as scholars there sought to understand their Nazi past. And when Bergerson was in Germany doing research several years ago, a man approached him about a collection of letters he had between a young woman named Hilde Laube and her boyfriend Roland Nordhoff.

This collection, it turned out, was "probably largest extant collection of consistent letters between two ordinary Germans over the course of the Second World War," Bergerson says.

Other collections existed, but usually it was only a man's letters, or only a woman's letters, he explains. But this correspondence between the two people was, he says, "a stupendous and amazing historical source."

Jackson Jerome Spencer as Roland and Anna Munoz as Hilde in a workshop production of 'Love in the Time of Hitler: A Courtship in Letters, 1938-1940.'
Credit Courtesy Andrew Stuart Bergerson

And sort of sexy.

"She initiated the relationship, and she's 13 years younger. She’s from the working class and he’s from the middle class," Bergerson notes, "so there are opportunities for class, gender and sexuality studies as well."

The letters have been intriguing to Germans, where Bergerson and his colleagues there convened groups of volunteers to transcribe the letters, a process that's brought together people of many different ages who've proceeded to learn more about each other. Interest in the letters ran so high that the scholars involved have been blogging about the project, and dramatic readings are now part of a German radio program in the style of "This American Life," Bergerson says.

Over the last five years, as he talked with friends and colleagues in America about this work, everyone told Bergerson he needed to do an English version.

Which now exists, thanks to help from K. Scott Baker, chair of UMKC's Department of Foreign Languages and Literature, and Deborah Parker, who teaches German at Lee's Summit High School.

"We decided we were going to translate a set of 90 of the letters and pick out the juiciest, most dramatic, most illustrative, and create a play that would allow them to be accessible to contemporary American audience," Bergerson says.

None of them are playwrights (though Baker has published books about German theater), so they enlisted the help of Beate Pettigrew, chair of the Department of Music, Theatre and Recording Arts at Johnson County Community College, to direct the performance. And they spent a recent Saturday workshopping the script with a troupe of Pettigrew's young performers and older people from several community organizations that are supporting the project.

"What really struck them," Pettigrew says of her college-age actors, "was that these people were corresponding through letters. That sense of self-control and self-discipline, while you were waiting two weeks for a response, is unheard-of in today's world of instant communication. Unheard-of!"  

During the staged reading, as the actors portray Hilde and Roland writing to each other about going to the store or to choir practice, or worrying about budget cuts at the school where Roland teaches, a slideshow behind them depicts the escalating war. But the couple's concerns remain personal, not political.

"Roland's worried about losing his job," Pettigrew notes. "The budget cuts are because Germany is putting together the Nazi regime, but that's not spoken of in the letters. It's all about, 'How does this affect me personally?'"

They wonder if they can still get married.

"There's a part where Hilde has to go see the doctor, and they want to see her papers because she has to prove her Aryan lineage," Pettigrew says. "The doctor says, 'We expect you to produce lots of children,' but the suspicion that anyone could have any kind of Jewish descent hung over everyone's head, and they'd go through your family tree. From Hilde's point of view that was frightening only because: 'Does that mean we can't get married?' rather than: 'Wait a minute, what are you really saying to me?'"

At another point, Hilde writes that Dunkirk has fallen.

"She worries about that for a little bit, but then goes right back to her relationship with Roland," Pettigrew says.

The two did get married, on July 13, 1940. The play spans only two years, 1938-1940. Even though the war is beginning to close in on them, Pettigrew says, they remain focused on themselves even as they get swept into the "mass opinion" of the society around them.

"We unwittingly become sheep," says Pettigrew, who has heard conflicting histories from her own mother, who grew up in Nazi Germany. "We think that we have an autonomous opinion, but I think, circumstantially, many many of us become part of the mob mentality and that’s where the danger lies," she says.

Although the project that led to this weekend's performance began years before the dramatic shift in U.S. politics that brought white supremacists into everyday headlines, Bergerson says current events have given the project a new urgency and meaning.

"We don’t want to predetermine what people think, so we don’t frame it in terms of Trump," Bergerson says. "It's about dealing with the past in the present, and figuring out the past for the present. Americans aren’t very good at that process."

But dramatizing original source material can make difficult conversations easier, he says.

"It's been going on in Germany for seven years, and it’s a public process where they have events and people talk about their shared Nazi past in public situations," he says. "But it's also a private process, in families, where people say to Grandma or Grandpa or Mom and Dad: 'What were you doing during the Third Reich?'"

As a work of art, Bergerson admits, his play "will never be Tennessee Williams. It can’t be. It's an adaptation of historical sources." But he also hopes to keep improving it. 

"They're quite interesting people," Bergerson says of Hilde and Roland. They're not particularly evil, not particularly good. They're complicated ordinary Germans. That’s what makes it so interesting."

"Love in the Time of Hitler: A Courtship in Letters, 1938-1940," performance and talk-back, 2 p.m. Sunday, June 4, Grant Recital Hall, 5227 Holmes Street, Kansas City, Missouri. Free; no advance tickets required.

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to remove an incorrect date for the beginning of World War II.