Amazing Life of Peace Activist Hans de Boer
75 year old Rev Hans de Boer, a lively German peace activist, visited New Zealand in March to speak of his concerns about the revival of the Nazi movement in many parts of the world.
Formerly the general secretary of the YMCA in Germany and also of the Student Christian Movement (SCM) in Canada, Hans says: "I am very familiar with the Nazi movement in Germany, I remember it from 50 years ago and I am very aware of it today. I was actually beaten up recently by young Nazis as I tried to speak at their meeting. I have seen and heard the neo-Nazis in Canada, the USA, France and Australia. I know they are not a serious threat in New Zealand. But what they stand for, and the attitudes they reinforce, are known and shared by many other people - that is the danger."
Hans was educated by his father - a rich business man - to be a playboy. The family lived in an 18-room house with three servants. Not, says Hans, a typical lifestyle at the time. Because his father was a freemason the Nazi regime insisted Hans attend a 'special' school, so that he would not mix with 'ordinary Germans'.
He remembers the day a German soldier came into his school room and took three boys with Jewish names away. Whatever people said, they did know what was going on, he claims.
Hans avoided being drafted into the German army by moving to Nazi-occupied Poland where he engaged in anti-Nazi underground activity. After stealing 300 baptism certificates from the back of a church and giving them out to Jewish people, however, he got drunk and boasted rather too loudly about what he had done. As a result he was arrested and had his toenail pulled out by German police.
He was then sent back to Germany and coerced into joining the German army where he was assigned work as a telephonist. He used his position to listen in to army intelligence telephone conversations and pass the information on to the French Red Cross. His hatred for the Nazi regime resulted in many other clandestine protests, including mixing sugar into the petrol tanks of German army vehicles. For these offences he was given a life sentence in prison. During that time he saw his friend shot dead for closing his mouth as they were both forced to swim in human faecal waste. At that point he made a vow: that if he survived he would commit the rest of his life to fighting injustice.
Hans languished in prison until the arrival of the American army in 1944. The war was still not over, but Hans refused to shoot at anyone and so was given work in what he refers to as the 'psychological department'. His job was to intoxicate German officers who were prisoners of war, and so extract information from them. He describes his weapons as two bottles of what looked like Johnnie Walker whisky. One, however, contained brown tea. That was the bottle Hans drank from.
Hans became a Christian at the age of 20 when he met two young Mennonite men dressed in civilian clothes behind the American line. "Why aren't you fighting the bloody Nazis?" he shouted at them. They replied that they were Christians. "You can't be," said Hans, "because Christians are for Hitler." Until then his experience was that all Christians were pro-Nazi. (95% of the church in Germany was pro-Hitler, says Hans, 5% was against him, and of those 5%, only 1% actually did anything about it.) But these two were Christian conscientious objectors and therefore pacifists. They made a strong impression on Hans and he converted.
After the war ended Hans joined his father's mercantile business and was sent to South Africa. He discovered that his father was making huge profits off the backs of people who did not have enough to feed their families and concluded it was not possible to be both a capitalist and a Christian. (Today he remains a socialist, but advocates a socialism like Sweden's rather than its expression in the former East Germany and the former Soviet Union.) He left his father's company - and was disinherited by his father as a result - and found other work.
In 1952 he met Nelson Mandela who strongly influenced his life as a Christian and as a pacifist. "Mandela", says Hans, "had just finished his doctorate in law at the only black university in Durban, but we were not allowed to sit in the park to talk together because the benches in the park marked 'black only' and 'white only' were so far apart you couldn't have held a conversation even if you yelled at one another."
They were told they were allowed to walk together, however - but only for one hour. They walked for four hours. Mandela introduced Hans to the son of Mahatma Gandhi. They became close friends over long discussions about apartheid and racism.
Eventually Hans was arrested, handcuffed and deported to India for spending too much time with black people. He jokes that he was the first white person ever to be kicked out of white South Africa.
After leaving South Africa Hans travelled extensively in Asia looking for ways to alleviate the poverty of nations recently freed from colonialism. In Japan he walked where he had been told not to walk and was overwhelmed by the destruction and suffering caused by the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It was there that he became deeply concerned about the nuclear arms race.
The Japanese he met referred to those who had dropped the bombs as 'Christian bombers' because the plane that carried the first atomic bomb - aimed at innocent civilians - was launched with the prayers of both a Protestant and a Catholic chaplain. Hans later checked the recorded tapes from the plane and discovered this was so.
Hans married an Indian surgeon and together they went to Cambodia where he assisted her in amputating the limbs of suffering victims of war. American troops arrived on the scene and, assuming Hans and his wife were communists, tortured them. Hans tells how they were forced to drink between six and seven litres of cow and horse urine and were then given electric shocks. His wife did not recover from the injuries she sustained during the torture and died soon afterwards.
In the process of being held by the Americans Hans was separated from their son who was later forced by the Pol Pot regime to join their army. He was one of thousands they beheaded. When Hans was eventually able to return to find his son, the army offered him his son's head. He refused the offer.
Eventually Hans returned to Germany where he taught religion in schools until he was 65. Now he spends most of his time on lecture tours talking about the rise of neo-Naziism.
In Germany Hans de Boer is regarded as one of the best authorities on Third World affairs - in addition to his lengthy residence in Africa and Asia, he has travelled extensively in South America and has maintained a wide international circle of friends. He seems to have been omnipresent at memorable historic events and has met most of the well known presidents and rulers of the 20th century. He talks of speaking with Mao Tse Tung for 45 minutes and liking him, but realising two years later how wrong he had been when evidence surfaced of the one billion eight hundred thousand people who had died under Mao.
Amnesty International has twice sent Hans to Cuba to request the release of political prisoners. He talked Castro into freeing two. At 75 he continues his peace activities, having last year held discussions with former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and travelled to Kosovo to condemn the NATO bombing.
His greatest concern today, however, is the revival of Naziism. He says: "I know they are only a small movement in Germany. But I remember my parents saying before Hitler came to power: 'Don't worry. He doesn't even speak German properly.' I see the present Nazi movement as dangerous. The courts, the churches and even the politicians are largely silent. As a German I know all too well what it means to have said 'maybe we should have done something about this a long time ago'."
Hans was recently named, along with Albert Schweitzer, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, Dorothee Solle and Helen Keller as one of the saintly celebrities of German people. When asked to name the greatest people he ever met he responds quickly: "Jesus Christ and Dietrich Bonhoeffer".
Hans believes that the best way he can love his neighbours is to "wake up those who are sleeping" and encourage them to do something about poverty, violence to others and oppression of the disenfranchised.
Hans suffers major health problems resulting from his times of torture - "Hitler took one lung and one kidney and the Americans took 80% of my liver", he says - and the severe beatings he has continued to receive up until the present day in reaction to his continued protests against injustice.