Professor Rudolf Siebert is not only one of Western Michigan University’s oldest sitting professors, but he also has a long, fascinating life history as a soldier in the German army.
Siebert, 88, has been a professor in WMU’s comparative religion department since 1965. He has written over 20 books and has been published in over 200 scholarly publications and magazines.
Perhaps more interesting than his academic achievements are Siebert’s personal life stories.
A German native born in 1927, Siebert spent his formative years under Adolf Hitler’s regime. Siebert said the time he spent under fascist rule and as a member of the German Air Force were important in shaping the person he is today.
“In 1933, I was six years old, that is when Hitler rose to power,” Siebert said. “From that time on, the German liberal state was transformed into a fascist state. So, from six years on until 1945 when I was taken prisoner, I lived under fascism.”
As a child, Siebert lived a double life as both a member of the Catholic youth movement and the Hitler Youth movement.
The Catholic youth movement was a Christian group that disagreed with Nazi policy and actions. In some cases, members aided and protected Jewish refugees.
In contrast, the Hitler Youth movement was a paramilitary group existing from 1933 to 1945 that was aimed at indoctrinating German youths in the ways of the Nazi party. The group was mandatory for German children to attend.
“I felt much closer to the Catholic youth movement than I did the Hitler Youth movement,” Siebert said. “What [the Hitler Youth movement] told me was just too narrow minded.”
However, that does not mean Siebert didn’t understand the appeal of the Hitler Youth movement.
“The truth is that the Nazi movement was very attractive for boys and girls,” Siebert said. “They had all kinds of clubs, motorcycle clubs and glider clubs and swimming clubs and so on. They could attract all kinds of people, and I was attracted by it, but never enough to make me join them.”
At age 15, Siebert was drafted in the German Air Force to serve in World War II. At first, Siebert resisted the draft because he had learned in the Catholic youth movement the German war was unjust, but he was eventually taken to his post by a German officer.
“While I was forced to go into it, I also found some meaning in it,” Siebert said. “I thought to defend the women and the children in the basements of the cities that were being bombed by British and American forces.”
In 1945, at the end of the war, Siebert surrendered to U.S. General George S. Patton after he was caught in Berlin. From there, Siebert became a prisoner of war at a camp in Worms, Germany before being moved to an American military camp in Marseilles and then to Camp Allen in Norfolk, Virginia.
“It was a good time in my life, strangely enough,” Siebert said.
While at the camps, POWs were categorized into sections of Nazis and anti-Nazis. POWs categorized as Nazis were placed into sub-categories dependent on what kind of war crimes they had committed.
“I was categorized as an anti-Nazi, then I was set free and I could study,” Siebert said. “I studied with professors from Harvard, I studied economics and sociology, because I was supposed to go back to Germany to help change the state from a fascist state to a liberal state.”
Siebert said his resistance to fascism, especially from the very beginning, was rare in Germany during Hitler’s time in power. He lists his faith as a contributing factor in his refusal of Nazism.
“I always lived a very critical life, and in Germany, I think it had to do with Christianity which attracted me much more than National Socialism,” Siebert said. “I never got engaged on the other side fully and happily.”
In 1946, Siebert returned to Germany in an attempt to liberalize the country. He stayed there until he returned to the U.S. in 1953. During that year, Siebert finished his Masters of Social Work and met his late wife Margie. The couple moved back to Germany after 1954 and remained there until they returned to the U.S. for good in 1962. Siebert and his family moved to Michigan in 1965 and he began teaching in WMU’s Religion Department.
Siebert does not regret the time in his life as a German soldier.
“I did my duties as a soldier to protect civilians,” Siebert said. “I was never convinced of Germany’s war goals, but I was convinced to help the Jewish people, and I was convinced to help the people in the basements.”