Last week, two elderly Germans were on stage at London’s Southbank Centre in a debate about their fathers. Onlookers might think that the scene was one well-rehearsed presentation of theatre performers. However, the debate was real and the lines spoken by the performers onstage were genuine and unscripted.
The scene was being filmed for a documentary. One gentlemen spoke of his father’s legacy as a protagonists while the other spoke in sheer antagonism. Both are sons of high-ranking Nazi officials.
Niklas Frank, son of Hans Frank who served as the governor-general of Poland when occupied by the Nazis, sat on one corner. His father was hanged at Nuremberg after having found guilty for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Niklas Frank honestly and openly condemned his father’s acts and role in the genocide of Jews during the SecoAnd World War. He also said that his father had been a “coward” and that although he “was well-educated and he knew everything about the Holocaust and he went on and on”.
On the other corner sat Horst von Wächter. His father, Otto, had been the Governor of Krakow and then Galicia. He sought sanctuary in Rome under the protection of pro-Nazi Bishop Alois Hudal after the war. Without the protection, he would not have been spared by the fate of Frank.
Unlike Niklas Frank, Horst von Wächter does not condemn his father for his role in the Holocaust. “I cannot say my father was a criminal,” he stated. “I love him. I know my view is not the mainstream view… You have to understand the system.”
The exchange of different views captured the sentiments and opposing insights of the Germans about the history. Their Nazi past remain to haunt them as the polarisation of views continues to run deep. They, thus, spoke not only of their own personal views coming from Nazi families. They also represent the sentiments of many others who fathers, grandfathers and relatives played a role in the genocide during the Nazi era and those whose ancestors were part of the commission of crimes in the name of their regimes and causes.
Since the end of the war, Germany have been trying its best to cope with its painful and smeared past. A year after the war, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer called on the Allies to stop their prosecution and pursuit of the Nazis and their collaborators. Churchill also shared the same concern. His opinion was aligned with the Chancellor because of his wariness that the tables might be turned and the attention would be focused then on “the possible crimes the Allied powers had committed”.
In the Fifties, Nazism continued to be a subject of major debates in Europe. In Germany and Austria, the country which colluded with the Nazis, half the population were in agreement to the opinion that “Nazism was a good idea, badly carried out”.
Many of the former Nazis were still placed in very important positions in all branches of the state. There was a dwelling illusion that the war was a thing of the past and the country should put their crimes behind them.
In April of 1961, Adolf Eichmann stood under trial in Jerusalem. The former SS Officer was famously labelled as the “banality of evil” by the political theorist Hannah Arendt. He was known to have organised the transportation and destruction of millions of Jews all around Europe.
But, opinions claim that Arendt’s tag was not highly suitable. Eichmann was no banal. He was merely a zealous Nazi who enjoyed his role in ensuring that the gas chambers did not run empty of Jews.
And it was exactly this line of thought that many Germans preferred to pursue to extricate themselves from the painful process of self-examination. At least, it was delayed for many years.
Guy Walters claim that this argument “produced a relatively easy pill for the Germans to swallow. You see! Uncle Fritz was just a functionary! A cog! Sure, he may have sent people to their deaths, but he was no murderer, and what else could he have done? It was the war!”
In the Sixties, the division between the East and West Germany ran deeper when the west started to take up a rebellious question on what their fathers and uncles had got up to “in the East”. The debate started to surface to the public by the mid Eighties. In 1985, Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl braved the opposition when they planned to visit the German military cemetery at Bitburg. The cemetery is a site where some 50 members of the Waffen-SS are buried.
The debate on whether or not the men buried and the other Nazis as well were criminals can be summarized by one of Kohl’s aides. He recalled, “Once we knew about the SS dead at Bitburg – knowing that these SS people were 17 to 18 years of age, and knowing that some Germans were forced to become members of the SS, having no alternative – the question was, ‘Should this be a reason to cancel?’.”
The visit transpired despite of the opposition of some of the known critics. It was a statement to itself. A few days after, Reagan also visited Bergen-Belsen.
Today, the line that divided Germany has long been officially gone. But although reunited, Germany still hosts the fiercest debates about its Nazi history such as the one the public witnessed in Southbank only several days ago. While Berlin is now but a “Holocaust memorial city, and the world has started to move on despite the conflict that occurred several decades ago, there is still much of the stigma left to the country. The memory of a nation which was responsible for the horrors of Auschwitz among others remain among the majority. Most of the members of the SS who were buried in Bitburg were still not conscripted.
Many of the children of the Nazi officials have an inkling to align with Niklis Frank’s sentiments. But some remain steadfast in their extreme “atavistic expiation”. Bettina Goering, for instance, took a bold move to have herself sterilised to cleanse herself and the future generations off the “blood of a monster”. She is the great-niece of the head of the Luftwaffe and also the known founder of the Gestapo.
Germany does not take the sole burden of self-examination and remorse for history holds the records of ghosts of the past that haunt other countries as well. They also undergo the examination of their accountability to past misdeeds, great or small. South Africa, for example, established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to acknowledge the crimes against humanity committed during the period of apartheid.
Germany, however, continues its long period of unique self-flagellation due to the notion of familial responsibility where the sins of the fathers are passed down the generations. This familial responsibility taken up by the descendants was inculcated deep during the Nazi period – the same kin liability is also seen in other totalitarian regimes such as North Korea. However, this is quite rare in many democratic countries.
The democratic countries also have monsters that constantly nag in the psyche of their people. But, in the opinion of Guy Walters, the “descendants are not brought to account in the same way as in Germany.” He went on to raise the question, “Is it likely that the grandchildren of Brigadier-General Dyer, who was responsible for the massacre at Amritsar in 1919, will ever sit on stage in India and account for their ancestor’s actions?” to which he responded, “Of course not.”
Britain also undertook the same process. In the film, 12 Years a Slave, the actor Benedict Cumberbatch, one of the stars, recognized the role of his family in the slave trade. He further confessed that his mother advised him, at the start of his career, not to use his surname to avoid the descendants of their slaves from claiming reparations from the family. There was less truth to the fears of his mother. Only this month, the descendants of the slaves in the Caribbean have pursued their claim of billions of pounds in reparations from Britain.
The Telegraph reports that Richard Dawkins also shared the same fears. It was recently reported that his family’s wealth largely depended on slavery. In fact, one of his direct ancestors was known to have owned over a thousand slaves at the time of his death in 1744. However, Dawkins claimed no familial liability for his ancestors’ sins.
“One of the most disagreeable verses of the Bible – amid strong competition – says the sins of the father shall be visited on the children until the third or fourth generation,” Dawkins said.
Slavery is not the only ghost that continue to haunt the British. They also have to undergo the process of re-examination of their accountability on what happened in Africa years ago once the documents about the Mau Mau uprising are released by the Foreign Office from Hanslope Park. Familial responsibility or not, the countries eventually would need to face their pasts and pay for the sins of their ancestors. Guy Walters said, “What is harder to establish is how high that price is, and for how long it needs to be paid.”