Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Out of the Archives: German Family Memoirs Reveal Nazi Past

This morning's Wall Street Journal has an extremely fascinating piece on Katrin Himmler, whose great uncle, Heinrich, was one of Nazi Germany's most infamous killers:

As a young girl, Katrin Himmler asked her grandmother about the man in a black suit in a photograph hanging on her living-room wall. Her grandmother didn't say much, but she cried.

The man in the picture was Ms. Himmler's grandfather Ernst, a brother of Nazi SS chief Heinrich Himmler. The little that Katrin's family did tell her about her grandfather, who disappeared during fierce fighting in Berlin in 1945, was that he was apolitical.

Decades later, Ms. Himmler discovered that her family's story was untrue. Her father, long suspicious, encouraged her in 1997 to go dig in wartime archives that the U.S. had recently returned to Germany. Ernst Himmler, she learned, joined Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' party as early as 1931. Two years later, he joined the SS guard, the special unit responsible for carrying out many of the Nazi regime's worst atrocities.

Now 40 years old and married to an Israeli Jew, Ms. Himmler says she was shocked when she found out that Ernst was in the SS. "It might sound strange, but I never considered this possibility," she says.

Ms. Himmler investigated further. She unearthed records of Heinrich's elder brother, Gebhard, and coaxed his children into sharing memories and letters. She wrote a book, "The Himmler Brothers," about her family's history -- and the trauma involved in uncovering it.

Ms. Himmler's book, published in German in 2005 and in English this past summer, is one of several recent memoirs by the children and grandchildren of old Nazis that aim to reflect on how the party affiliation affected their families. Another book, published this past summer in German, "Kind L 364," tells the story of Heilwig Weger, a girl reared in one of the Lebensborn settlements the SS built for orphans and other so-called Aryan children. Ms. Weger was later adopted by Oswald Pohl, a Nazi officer hanged in 1951 for war crimes. The book conveys the pain she felt at losing him, the only father she knew, while being ostracized by other children because of his actions. Later, she hid her background from her own children.
Himmler's upbringing provides a glimpse into postwar Germany's difficult process of dealing with the politics of memory:

In the postwar period, memoirs of Nazis or their families were long taboo. Ms. Himmler has vivid memories of those years. In high school one day, a classmate asked during a history lesson whether she was related to the Himmler. When she said yes, a tense silence gripped the room, Ms. Himmler recalls, after which the teacher continued her lesson as if nothing had happened.

"I think she lost an opportunity," says Ms. Himmler. "She could have used what happened to discuss the link that our generation bears to the past."
What's particularly interesting about Himmler is that she married an Israeli Jew:

She says her husband never held her family's past against her, even as he struggled with anger over his family's persecution by the Germans. His parents, who live in Israel, knew postwar Germany well from their own travels there and didn't object to their son's relationship with her.
The couple also try to teach the family's history to their child:

Today, Katrin Himmler and her husband live with their 8-year-old son in an apartment not far from the Reichstag, the seat of the German Parliament. They talk a lot with the boy about the past. Ms. Himmler says she isn't sure whether he has yet put it together that his mother's side of the family once tried to exterminate his father's.
Of all the nations of the advanced industrialized democracies, Germany is the most conscious of its wartime history, and no country has made a greater effort at cultural transformation. In escaping its past, the German polity has shed its extremely authoritarian cultural legacy, undertaking a re-engineering process that has produced widespread support for democratic values.

The story of the Himmler family is a particularly powerful reminder of the process.