WITHIN THE DEMOGRAPHY OF HIS San Diego condominium complex, Alfons Heck fits comfortably: 63 years old, married, retired driver for the Greyhound bus lines, dog owner. These essential facts are well known by his neighbors. Also now known is the more chilling fact that has made Heck the topic of this month’s HBO documentary Heil Hitler! Confessions of a Hitler Youth. Joining the 8-million-strong young people’s corps as a 10-year-old, Heck by 16 was Germany’s top sailplane pilot (and a Luftwaffe second lieutenant). By 17 he had won the Hitler Youth rank of brigadier general and a command of 3,000. A year earlier, Hitler himself awarded Heck the Iron Cross for excellence of service. “He held out his hand,” Heck recalls. “It was very moist, almost as if he had fever…. I was surprised at how light blue his eyes were.”
Heck’s youthful obsession with his leader animates Heil Hitler!, making more credible the idea that Hitler held in heavy thrall millions of German boys and girls. Removed as much as possible from their homes, they spent long days in class or on retreat—away from any influence other than Nazism. Most, Heck insists, did not know of the fate of the Jews; officers claimed that they were merely being deported.
Captured without a struggle when the Allies seized his hometown in 1945, Heck was restricted within town limits by occupying French forces for two years. Only then was he forced to recognize the genocide. Heck didn’t fully accept the truth, however, until he was allowed to go to Nuremberg to watch the war crimes trials. Soon afterward he left Germany for Canada, where he met June Appleby. They moved to the U.S., married in 1965 and eventually became citizens. “To this day, when I look back on the Nazi era, it’s as if I am a schizophrenic,” says Heck. “The happiest years of my life were between 1942 and 1944, when I was flying. [Yet] there [is] a feeling of guilt because I had believed unconditionally in a regime that would have murdered all of the Jews.”
For Heck, the odyssey that HBO’s Sheila Nevins calls “such a simple trip, from innocence to evil” began in 1928 in a small town near the Luxembourg border. One of identical twins born to a farmer and his wife, Alfons was separated from his brother, Rudolf, at 6 weeks, when their grandmother took Alfons to raise as her own. He rarely saw his natural parents, and school, where Nazism was preached, became Heck’s dominant influence. “Out of millions of basically innocent children,” he says, “Hitler succeeded in creating potential monsters.”
Heck was unable to come to terms with the actions of his youth until 1972, when he suffered a massive heart attack. Confined to his home for six months, he fell deeply into depression. His wife, who had taken a job as a credit clerk at JCPenney, urged him to use the time to write a book. “You’re always talking about your war stories,” recalls June. “[They] seemed bottled up inside him.”
From this despair emerged Child of Hitler, which was published in 1985 and has sold more than 100,000 copies. “As I began to speak and write about my past, the guilt left and became a sense of responsibility,” he says. Heck now gives up to 20 lectures a year about the Hitler Youth, often before Jewish audiences. “It has never resulted in an open physical confrontation,” Heck says, but there have been protests, and June, 59, worries about his safety.
At their housing complex, though, where Alfons and June share a simple one-bedroom condo, Heck’s neighbors (including 14 Jewish families) are on good terms with the couple—even electing Heck complex president. The couple have no children. “To some degree it’s an act of cowardice,” Heck says. “I don’t want to have happen to a child of mine what happened to me.” Every few years he returns to Germany to visit some 40 family members, though he rarely sees Rudolf, who lives in Paris with his French wife, Josiane.
A few crank calls may arrive with the HBO telecast—and perhaps even death threats, which Heck has received in the past. But, he supposes, life will quickly return to normal. “He has no illusions about himself,” says Nevins. “He has an average-Joe complex. That’s why it’s so terrifying. I think if he thought he was evil, or a hero, he couldn’t have told the story. But he sees himself as an American bus driver who happened to be in Germany, who happened to be 10 years old and who happened to fall in love with Hitler.”
KRISTINA JOHNSON in San Diego