From an early age Hans Steinbrück struggled to find a place for himself within German society. Born in 1921 and orphaned by the age of five, he did not have any family to look to for guidance. At the age of sixteen Steinbrück ran away from his orphanage and took a job as a sailor. In his two years at sea he saw much of the world – a little too much, perhaps, as he would contract malaria while in a stop off in Africa.
When the Second World War broke out in September 1939 the shipping company that employed Steinbrück let him go. For a time he manage to maintain his maritime lifestyle by working the docks in Düsseldorf, but in 1941 he was drafted into the military to serve in a flak battery. His military career lasted only a month before he had a malaria attack and fell from his flak gun, injuring his head. Apparently unfit for service, the military released him out into a world at war with no source of income.
He was so desperate for work that he even attempted to secure a position as a Gestapo officer in 1942, but the Gestapo did not hire people off the street. Thereafter he would try to get a break on his rent by posing as a Gestapo officer while applying for a Düsseldorf apartment. Suspicious, the landlord reported him to the real Gestapo, and they arrested Steinbrück for impersonating an officer and sent him to the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Within the concentration camp system Steinbrück became one amongst a mass of downtrodden individuals exploited by the Nazi regime for their labor. At the time the city of Cologne had recently been devastated by the first thousand bomber raid of the war, so a satellite camp of Buchenwald was established there employing prisoners to clear the rubble. Steinbrück was amongst the first 300 inmates sent to Cologne for this purpose.
In the spring of 1943 the bombing of Cologne intensified during the Battle of the Ruhr. The city was soon littered with unexploded ordinance and bombs on time-delay fuses. Steinbrück was among the concentration camp prisoners charged with the dangerous job of defusing these bombs. He proved to be exceptionally capable in this capacity, personally defusing 900 bombs, and earning a good deal of local notoriety and the nickname “Bomber Hans.” He knew, though, that the job would one day take his life, so in October 1943 he escaped, becoming a fugitive.
Luckily for Steinbrück he knew a young woman in Cologne, Cäcilie Serve, who he had previously had a romantic relationship with. She agreed to take him in at her apartment on Schönstein Street. For six months Steinbrück resided with Cäcilie, living off of her state support payments. While living on Schönstein Street he also developed a close relationship with a group of boys who lived in the area, members of an underground youth movement set up in opposition to the Hitler Youth called the Edelweiss Pirates. The boys idolized Steinbrück, who regaled them with stories of defusing bombs.