The Unexpected Benefits of Growing Up With a Nazi Name

A fascinating review of the BBC documentary series Hitler’s Children appeared in The Atlantic recently. […]

David Zahl / 2.19.13

A fascinating review of the BBC documentary series Hitler’s Children appeared in The Atlantic recently. The film catches up with various descendents of major Nazi figures, such as Herman Goering and Heinrich Himmler, and explores how they’ve dealt with their family names and legacies. These are people for whom “the inheritance of sin” is not an abstraction, and for whom there is no easy psycho-sociological excuse for the burden of guilt (or the existence of evil, or the need for some kind of atoning or mediating presence, etc). Almost uniquely so. The reviewer’s concluding remarks are particularly germane:

Poster-art-for-Hitlers-Children_event_mainThe person in the film who seems to have made the most sustained effort to grapple with his Nazi heritage is, unsurprisingly, one with a very direct connection to that past. Niklas Frank, son of the Nazi Governor-General of Poland, Hans Frank, has spent much of his life researching and denouncing his father’s crimes. The film shows him speaking to a number of student groups, often reading from his books about his parents. He clearly finds these readings–which include, for example, his imagined reconstruction of his father’s death by hanging–upsetting and stressful. But he is spurned on by his loathing of his parents and of what they did–a loathing that, as he says himself, is rooted in thwarted love. His mother never once held him or expressed any affection for him. As for his father, he says, through all his research, he kept hoping to find something, anything, good that he had ever done; some evidence that he tried to save at least one person, one time. But there was no such evidence.

Katrin Himmler comments that her family was lucky to have Heinrich. He was such a monster that they didn’t have to think about all the other, everyday Nazis among them–like her beloved grandmother, who, she discovered to her disgust, had sent care packages to convicted Nazi war criminals. Katrin’s being ironic when she says this is “lucky,” of course. But there is a sense in which people like Himmler and Frank and Hoess did leave a kind of gift for those of their descendants willing to take it up. The Nazi atrocities and their architects are so thoroughly evil that Niklas and Rainer and Katrin and Bettina have been forced to acknowledge that evil, and to make their lives, in part, about acknowledging it and dealing with it. “It’s really insane,” Rainer says, looking around his grandfather’s idyllic home at the gates of Auschwitz, “what they built here at the expense of others.” Surely when he says that, he knows that one of the things they built was the family that, eventually, included Rainer himself.

PHgKo3jcv1cdin_1_mRainer and Niklas and Katrin and the others in the film have had–not the opportunity, perhaps, but the necessity to take moral responsibility for their part in atrocity. As a result, their lives are–while certainly not perfect–more honest and more honorable than those of some of their peers and some of their family members, who continue to deny the Holocaust ever happened. More honest and honorable, too, I think, than those of many people who aren’t Germans. I’m writing, after all, in a country that still celebrates Columbus Day, and where most people don’t even know who the Arawaks were, or what Columbus did to them to ensure his place beside Goering and Hoess as one of history’s monsters.

No doubt there are some Americans who will leap to Columbus’s defense. The evil related to you is always the hardest to see and the easiest to deny. Which is why we should listen when Frank, and Hoess, and Himmler, and Goering tell us, out of hard-won experience, that atrocities aren’t always committed in someone else’s name.

You can actually watch the whole thing on YouTube: