I recently read Laurent Binet’s terrific novel HHhH, and was reminded of a newspaper piece I’d done years before, in November 2001, an interview with a German who had himself interviewed the offspring of infamous Nazis. Him, his book and the interview made for gruesomely compelling, fascinating reading. I’m republishing it below:
Armistice Day, which falls this Sunday, has been the subject of much controversy over the years, particularly when Irish people choose to wear the poppy, which is seen as an Imperialist symbol. But whatever the relative merits of each side’s argument, there should at least be consensus that the victims of all wars, on all sides, deserve commemoration on this day. And, perhaps, the perpetrators of wartime atrocities also need to be remembered, as a grave but necessary moral on our potential wickedness, and its far-reaching consequences.
An old saying goes, “The sins of the father shall be visited on the child”, one which most people take as a vaguely scary piece of theological mumbo-jumbo which doesn’t really mean very much. But depending on the nature and scale and depth of those sins, this symbolic aphorism can actually become reality for someone unfortunate enough to be the child of a very bad person.
And in the pantheon of “bad people”, few can match the Nazis for the sheer undistilled evil of their actions and thoughts. While words like “monster” and “butcher” are childish and simplistic and only serve to hoodwink us into believing that evil is something unconnected to us, an external force only working on other, inherently wicked individuals, there is no doubt that Nazi Germany plumbed the depths of human depravity about as far as it is possible to go.
Names like Hitler, Himmler, Göring and Hess have assumed almost mythical significance in the popular imagination, a roll call of blackhearted bogeymen from dark, distant days when the world tore itself apart and the unspeakable became the unavoidable. These were the facilitators and instigators of the Holocaust, the men who made it happen because they genuinely believed themselves, and their race, to be superior to lowly Slavs and Jews and Gypsies, who died unrepentant of the atrocities they had committed, merely rueful that they’d been caught.
And these are the fathers whose sins have been, inexorably, visited upon their children. While Hitler had no children that we know of, all his lieutenants were devoted family men, doting on their brood and securing the Fuhrer as godfather. All of these children survived the war and their father’s execution or lifelong incarceration. Where they travelled from there – from the definitive full stop of the Nuremberg trials in 1947, when any surviving high-ranking Nazi was summarily sentenced to death or life without possibility of parole – was what motivated Norbert Lebert, a German journalist, to locate and interview several of the so-called Nazikinder in 1959, when they were in their late teens and early twenties.
His researches made for surprising and slightly unnerving reading: many, like Wolf-Rudiger Hess, Gudrun Himmler and the Von Schirach brothers, refused to fully accept their fathers’ culpability, while Edda Göring seemed, if not in denial, then strangely indifferent to the real, human cost of Hermann Göring’s actions. A globally familiar list of excuses and justifications was parroted: They were only following orders. They didn’t realise what they were doing. They were misguided. Not all Germans were Nazis. Not all Nazis were bad. What happened then, the Holocaust, that was somebody else’s fault.
Only Martin Bormann Jr., who had become a Catholic priest, and the Frank brothers, Niklas and Norman, spoke, unflinchingly and honestly, about their fathers’ malevolence and the weight of guilt they had had to bear all their lives. While Bormann had dealt with his grief and shame in a reasonably constructive way, Niklas Frank scandalised German society in the 1980s with a series of explicit, ferocious magazine articles detailing the hatred and disgust he felt for Hans Frank, the self-styled “King of Poland”.
Lebert’s pieces were well-received, though not without some criticisms of being too soft on the Nazikinder, and forty years later the torch was picked up, appropriately enough, by his son. Stephan Lebert is a bespectacled, slightly nerdish figure, middle-aged and balding with a gentle, kind countenance. Also a journalist, he collated his father’s researches and made his own approaches to the Nazi offspring, now middle-aged or older themselves, as a sort of progress report on their weird, unique lives; or a lack-of-progress report, in some cases.
The purpose of this follow-up book – titled My Father’s Keeper: the Children of the Nazi Leaders – was simple, and its realisation was relatively trouble-free. “It was basically not difficult to bring together my father’s and my different journalistic styles…of course as it is 40 years later I had to look more thoroughly at the topic. In writing this book I wanted to relate stories: exciting, tragic, terrible stories…but certainly I wished also to enlighten and inform the reader. The reader should realize that the shadows of that time persist to the present day.”
In terms of personal political belief, he declares himself to be “quite leftist and an SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschland – Social Democrats) voter”, and while he didn’t feel this particularly affected the book or its direction, Lebert recognises the modern-day dangers of a renascent Far Right.
“During my research, it did become clear to me just how dangerous the threat from the Right is because National Socialism is a particular way of thinking: the strong against the weak, the healthy against the sick, German against foreigner…and here and there, in certain sectors of our society, we can get a sense of some of that. In the Nazi era, Hitler embodied a Zeitgeist which found some resonance in the German people of the time, and while I don’t believe that Nazism is likely to reappear in that form, those ideas do persist.”
In virtually every area of German life, the past is constantly knocking on the present’s door, whether on a personal or national level. Stephan Lebert’s father was an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth as a teenager; he stuck pins on a map of the world, denoting which areas Germany had conquered, and suffered the Allies’ victory as a “catastrophe”. While he was obviously young and ignorant of the true nature of Nazism, and had recanted thoroughly by adulthood, his association with such a reviled system had its knock-on effects on the son.
“Of course it was significant that my father was in the Hitler-Jugend. He suffered his whole life because he had been a Hitler supporter when he was 15 years old. But for me it was easier that he suffered because of it…I didn’t need to attack him. He was aware of his own mistakes.”
The Leberts may have come to terms with the dark little corners of their past, but unfortunately not everybody has. Stephan asserts that, “Politically, academically and culturally, in all of these areas, I would say that Germany has dealt with the past well and sufficiently. However, what is missing is the working through of the past on a private level, in the family. Certain questions – what did one’s father or grandfather do, was he a victim or perpetrator, what were the consequences in bringing up the children or grandchildren – far too little has been discussed in these areas…until now.”
Lebert’s interviews with the children of such notorious criminals (is that even a large enough word to encompass their transgressions?) make for bizarre, compelling reading. While individuals like Martin Bormann and Niklas Frank are, in some way, reassuring – they rage against their genetic heritage, they despair of their fathers’ sins and, in Bormann’s case, they illustrate the complexity and ambiguity of humankind by continuing to love him – others still refuse to accept, let alone condemn, that dear daddy was capable of the most horrifying atrocities.
Speaking to people like Klaus Von Schirach or Edda Göring must be like stepping through the looking glass, into a parallel universe where normal values and perspectives are so distorted that they cease to matter. But it must also be a melancholy and desolate place, where time stands fixed and the course of the future is forever beyond one’s influence because one chooses to block out the past.
Stephan Lebert concurs: “It was above all very weird – but also sad, because most of the children were unable to break free of their parents’ shadow, in one way or another. Sometimes I became angry, because they continued to babble the ideals of their parents without any reflection or thought – Hess, for example, but also Gudrun Himmler and Edda Göring. But sometimes I felt pity for them because it is a bloody difficult fate to have to bear these names. Anyone can imagine it for themselves: how would I fare if my father had been a mass murderer?”
My Father’s Keeper is a valuable book, a chronicle and insight into one of the more tangential aspects of a black spot in history, and is engrossing, thought-provoking stuff, agreeably written yet difficult to stomach in parts. After reading of Himmler’s chairs made from human shin-bones and prized copy of Mein Kampf bound in human skin, it comes as no surprise that Stephan Lebert should say, “Well, (talking to these people) doesn’t give you hope. No, I was sad and sometimes really depressed”.
And while a little more surprising, it’s still understandable, in this context, that he should describe his next project thus: “For the moment I have had enough of this topic. My next book will deal with the topic of love.”
- My Father’s Keeper: the Children of the Nazi Leaders is published by Little Brown