The WIP The global source for women's perspectives

A Current between Shores: Dictatorship & Democracy

by Rose-Anne Clermont
Germany

January 30th marks the 75th “anniversary” of Hitler’s rise to power. Today, appropriately, we begin a nine-part series by Rose-Anne Clermont conceived as “Parallel Histories from Different Worlds.” The series begins with the early experiences of two of the women closest to Clermont whose lives were tranformed under brutal dictatorships more than 50 years ago.

In the next part of this series, the two women Clermont interviewed, Barbara and Renée, talk about the challenge of growing up in poverty, with scarce food and resources. – Ed.

In this New Year, as freedom struggles to persist in Pakistan, Iran, Myanmar, Sudan, Zimbabwe and other countries oppressed by dictatorship and poverty, I have asked two wise women to reflect on their experiences of having lived through such hardships. They come from Germany and Haiti, two countries that couldn’t be more different, yet both women have lived in dictatorships and in democracies, both have experienced scarcity and excess. They would each find refuge in education and go on to nurture, heal and educate in their roles as mothers, nurses and grandmothers. Barbara Kemter and Renée Clermont are keepers of similar histories that we dare not forget. They are teachers to those shrewd enough to heed their stories.

In this multi-part series, we will hear Barbara’s and Renée’s memories and their hopes for the future of their common grandchildren. Their stories build a bridge that connects not only our fears and the madmen who perpetuate them, but the dreams of all people who conquer fears in order to be free.

Part I – On Dictatorship: The Führer and Papa Doc

Barbara Kemter was born in 1934, near Jena, in a rural town in eastern Germany a year after Adolf Hitler rose to power. As the third of ten children, she helped raise her younger siblings during the Second World War and the early years of the German Democratic Republic. Barbara’s parents, although opposed to Hitler and his regime, tried to protect their children from the knowledge of the Führer’s evil deeds. Although her family initially profited from Hitler’s economic upswing, Barbara and her siblings later found themselves living in fear of bombings and air raids. As followers of the religious philosophy, Anthroposophy, Barbara’s parents were eventually intimidated by the Gestapo, Hitler’s secret police; later they watched friends taken away to prison and concentration camps. Yet Barbara’s parents rarely spoke out against the Nazis for fear that one of their ten children might repeat something outside of the house and risk denunciation, which was woven into daily German life.

As Hitler’s army began its murderous conquest of Europe, half a world away Renée Clermont was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1940. The eldest of two children, Renée was seventeen when one of the western world’s next formidable dictators, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, was elected in 1957. Affectionately dubbed “Papa Doc” by his patients, Duvalier initially appealed to the masses and was believed to be a benevolent father-like figure. Soon after he was elected however, he would become notorious for his paranoia and terrorization of the Haitian people. Like Hitler’s SS, Duvalier’s personal army of brutes, referred to by the people as the Tonton Macoutes, (a mythical bogey man) kept Haitians living in daily fear. At least 30,000 people were murdered for political reasons under Papa Doc’s fourteen-year tenure. The Duvalier dynasty was later carried on by his son Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, in 1971.

What were your first impressions of your country’s dictator?

Barbara: “The Führer had a very penetrating voice,” she recalls of Hitler’s frequent radio speeches. “His speeches were also broadcast very loud. When he started talking, people stopped working to listen. He ‘adrenalized’ the people with his voice. I always knew when he would give a speech. My mother always made rice pudding, because she could quickly prepare it beforehand so that she could listen too. The sound of his voice left a deep impression on me as a child.”

Renée: “Papa Doc was dark-skinned and had a charisma that appealed to the blacks of Haiti–most of the people with power back then were the mulatto elite. He was a people’s candidate and he had done a lot for the people, especially with his work (as a medical doctor) that eradicated yaws (a tropical infection of the skin, bones and joints). We thought he was a humanitarian because he worked with the peasants when he could have gone into private practice and made a lot of money. So we thought he was for us. But soon after he was elected, he began killing people loyal to him, people who helped him get elected. Our impression of him changed very fast.”

What did your parents say about him?

Barbara: “My parents never ever said anything negative about Hitler in front of us children so that we wouldn’t repeat anything. I only remember once that my mother had taken my older brother to a specialist in Switzerland during the war because my brother was deathly ill with tuberculosis. The doctor berated my mother for being a terrible Nazi and she was very upset and came home and cried to my father, “But we’re not Nazis.”

Renée: “We lived in such terror that we were afraid to talk in our own house. We whispered because we worried we were being bugged, that there was a way for Duvalier to find out what we were saying.”

How did the dictatorship affect your daily life? In school? In your beliefs and fears?

Barbara: “In school, the first thing we learned was not to say good day, but ‘Heil Hitler’. Every morning we had to stand in front of the class, take a certain number of steps, turn around, raise our arm and say ‘Heil Hitler’.

“I wanted to be a Jungmädel (a Nazi group for little girls—starting at age 10, participation was mandatory) but my mother wouldn’t let me. I remember they had these smart white shirts and khaki jackets. My mother told me that we had enough children at home and that I didn’t need to join a group. I was very upset.

“My older brother was in the Hitler Jugend, (Nazi group for boys). He was good at all the marching and singing, so they made him a youth leader and once a week he led training for the other boys in marching and singing. He would practice at home and sing a horrible, anti-Semitic song that I can still remember the words to, and my mother told him not to sing it. I was young and didn’t understand. See, [but] it was a very catchy tune, so I asked my brother why our mother forbid him to sing it and he told me, ‘Mother told me to remember that Jesus was also a Jew’.”

Renée: “We were in constant fear. There was no social life in the evenings. We used to go to camp as girl scouts and we couldn’t do that any longer. We had curfews that started as soon as the sun went down and they were strictly enforced. My best friend was studying one night by candle light and a Tonton Macoutes knocked on the door and told her to put out the candle or he would shoot her. So she had to study outside under a street lamp. Eventually all the bars and clubs where young people hung out were closed. (Duvalier feared groups of young people were discussing communist ideology). It was terrible.”

How visible was the SS/Tonton Macoutes in your daily life?

Barbara: “The SS, who brought people to the camps, were not as visible. But there was the SA; my uncle and grandfather were in it. They were convinced Nazis, who used to have brawls against the communists before Hitler rose to power. They marched through the streets and sang Nazi songs and wore these brown uniforms. . . to this day I can’t stand that color brown.

“The SS lived on our property at the end of the war. They were actually friendly to us and warned us when the Americans were approaching. [They] would eventually open the Saale valley, which would have flooded us out had the SS not warned my parents to take us children to safety.

“One day the Gestapo (secret police) stormed into our house when I came home from school and took away all of our books on Anthroposophy and communism.”

Renée: The Tonton Macoutes paraded the streets. They wore dark glasses and carried guns and abused the people. They were the worst in the provinces. They stole people’s property. They raped young girls. One day I was going to school and a Tonton Macoutes who I knew because he was a medical student and I was in nursing school, called my name and I was so embarrassed that I knew someone like that. That same Macoutes would later turn on best his friend who tried to protest the regime.”

What was mentioned of protest or uprising?

Barbara: “There was no protest. People like the Scholl Siblings were never mentioned (university students who protested the Nazi regime by distributing leaflets calling for resistance of the Nazi regime but were eventually caught and immediately executed in 1943). I heard from our neighbors, I remember the day exactly – July 20, 1944 – that there was a failed assassination attempt on Hitler. Hitler said ‘Providence’ protected him. And we heard that the assassin was immediately killed. Very few people knew what was happening to the Jews. Our parents had friends who were imprisoned for their beliefs. And they had friends [who were] sent away but we didn’t know they were being sent away to be killed. We knew that they were treated badly but not to what extent. Not until after the war.”

Renée: “In 1960, university students, medical interns and residents went on strike to protest Duvalier. They just stopped going to classes, and the universities, even my nursing school, were shut down. Many university students, including my future husband and [my] brother in law, who were medical students, had to go into hiding from the Macoutes. My husband went to a doctor’s home who had a clinic. He worked there and didn’t leave the house. He didn’t let himself be seen by other people because there were, of course, students who were also Macoutes. Eventually, Duvalier forced universities to re-open and forced those who were in hiding to return. They didn’t have a choice but to return. Many of them were sent to prison; some were never seen again. Those who were allowed back had their names put on Duvalier’s list.”

You experienced democracy as a young adult, after having grown up in a dictatorship. What did you cherish most in the beginning?

Barbara: “In the free West (after having grown up in the GDR after the war), you could say what you wanted, which was a relief. But we couldn’t take advantage of the luxuries because we were too poor (the value of East German currency paled in comparison to West German currency). Life was very hard.”

Renée: “You didn’t feel the constraints; you were able to express your opinion without fear. The fear just went away. It was a terrible thing to feel like you couldn’t even talk in your own home. You could go anywhere you wanted. We got to the US in 1966 and saw the civil rights movement happening and saw democracy in action, with people protesting on the streets and not being killed for it.”

Today’s democracies are flawed. People are not treated fairly and equally, civil liberties are infringed upon daily for the sake of security. What are the dangers, in your opinion, of the compromises being made in your democracies?

Barbara: “I feel helpless and angry about laws like the recent data retention law. Everything has become so inhumane, today’s society dehumanizes people. What’s dangerous is that the coming generation doesn’t know anything; they are uneducated and uninformed. They only know about electronics and they are sleepy and ignorant and they are made dumb by all kinds of distractions.”

Renée: “After being in the US for a while, we realized that it wasn’t what we understood as democracy. You weren’t as free as you thought you were. After September 11th, the way they treated immigrants — We heard about Haitians being deported for voicing their opinions. You asked yourself, ‘Is that constitutional? Is that democracy?’”

How did you react to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination? You know from experience how dangerous bringing democracy to totalitarian regimes can be, just as Benazir Bhutto did. And though risks must be taken so that change can happen, her death was almost inevitable. In your opinion, should she have remained in exile so that she could have been vocal from afar? Do you think she died in vain?

Barbara: “I can’t say if she died in vain. But it seems that all the people who want to do good are killed. John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Ms. Bhutto. It is an unfortunate loss.”

Renée: “I don’t know if she died in vain. In my opinion she could have done more in exile. To stay (in Pakistan) was honorable, but what did she accomplish by dying?”

About the Author
Rose-Anne Clermont was born in New York City and first lived in Germany on a Fulbright grant from 1998-1999. She holds a Liberal Arts Degree from Sarah Lawrence College and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Columbia University. She has contributed to Spiegel Online, The International Herald Tribune and, in German, to Die Zeit. She currently lives in Berlin with her husband and three sons.

A Current between Shores, appearing on The WIP as a nine-part series, was conceived as “parallel histories from different worlds.” In it Rose-Anne explores the lives and remarkably similar experiences of two of the women closest to her, Renée Clermont, her Haitian mother and Barbara Kemter, her German mother-in-law. Both had their lives transformed under brutal dictatorships more than 50 years ago. Coincidentally, both became nurses and lived to build new lives, raising their children in different worlds from the ones in which they grew up. Now they are grandmothers to shared children. As Rose-Anne says, “They are teachers and keepers of similar histories that we dare not forget.”

Back to top