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HomeBook Reviews"The S.S. Officer's Armchair" (I): The Crimes of Parents

“The S.S. Officer’s Armchair” (I): The Crimes of Parents

Osman Kavala*

In the book “The S.S. Officer’s Armchair: Uncovering the Hidden Life of a Nazi”, Nazi historian Daniel Lee tells the life story of SS member and lawyer Robert Griesinger, whom he discovered and uncovered after learning about documents accidentally found inside a chair in Prague. His research sheds light on important facts about that period and the families of the Nazis. In the introduction to the book, Lee emphasizes that very little is known about low-ranking Nazis. He states that it is important for us to learn about the experiences and feelings of “insignificant characters who served during the Nazi era, about whom we have no knowledge, and to understand what it means to live in harmony and consent under the swastika.” According to the author, Griesinger’s life story reveals how these low-ranking officials lived between two separate worlds. One of the findings from Lee’s research is related to SS membership: “While one of these worlds was filled with famous high-ranking officials of the regime, the other consisted of ordinary Germans.” Griesinger “adjusted his involvement with the SS as needed.” SS membership helped him advance in the bureaucracy, but it did not have a decisive impact on his private life or social position.

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The book tells two intertwined stories. “One is the life story of the young lawyer Griesinger. The other is… the unveiling of the mystery shrouding this life…” The focus of the second story is the author’s meetings with Griesinger’s daughters, which is also the subject of my writing. Lee states, “I became a source of information for them about their fathers who died… when they were children… For Griesinger’s daughters, their father was only a name back then and even today,” he says.

Jutta was eight years old, and Barbara was six when they were separated from their fathers. They know that their fathers were members of the National Socialist Party and served in the government. However, it is through these meetings that they learn about his connection to the SS, which the author had discovered during his research.

Jutta remembers that when she was a child, her questions about her father were left unanswered, silenced. “It had become a taboo of the past. We knew we shouldn’t talk about the past.” As Lee points out, it was common for the older generation not to speak about the war after it ended. Most Germans wanted to create new identities for themselves and distance themselves from the past. Lee reminds us that behind this behavior lies “the heavy devastation suffered by Germany, the great scarcity of basic necessities, and the threat of sexual violence posed by the occupying forces.”

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Lee states that in this atmosphere of silence, “most Nazi perpetrators, collaborators, and those who turned a blind eye to their crimes lived without talking about their past sins, and for many Germans, the relationship between their parents and the crimes remained a mystery.” Regarding this situation, he makes a comparison with a heavy, thick veil that weighs upon the majority of children and young people who lived after the war: “Many young people chose to remain silent and not delve into their parents’ pasts because they didn’t want to be someone who tarnishes their families. They preferred to believe in sanitized narratives where their parents were absolved of guilt.” Lee points out that influenced by the ’68 generation, in the 1980s, children started to critically question their family histories. Although he doesn’t mention it, I believe that Germany’s construction of a strong economy, the dominance of the welfare state and the rule of law, and the completion of the process of purging Nazism, have also encouraged facing the past.

In his book “Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich” (Vintage Book, 2023), where Herald Jahner describes post-war Germany and the state of mind of the Germans, he interprets the silence and avoidance of confronting the Holocaust as a defense mechanism developed in response to the horror and the heavy sense of shame that would arise from engaging with it. The prevailing belief in post-war Germany was that the German people had experienced an extraordinary catastrophe that began with National Socialism and ended with the defeat in the war. Some probably added the defeat in World War I to this perception. Jahner says that as the final defeat approached in the later stages, the Nazi regime’s terrorizing of its own people, compelling them to sacrifice themselves in the fight against the occupying forces, gave the Germans the opportunity to see themselves not as supporters of Hitler but as his victims.

By considering themselves victims rather than supporters of National Socialism, the Germans prevent the assumption of responsibility for the crimes and the realization of justice. However, Jahner believes that this perception allowed the Germans, after the defeat, to completely sever their ties with National Socialism without feeling dishonorable, cowardly, or opportunistic, and to transform themselves into voluntary citizens of the democratic regime established under the control of the occupying forces.

In his book “Guilt About the Past: Reflections on the Vertical and Horizontal Spread of Guilt” (Zoe Kitap, 2019), Bernard Schlink examines the issue of the horizontal and vertical spread of responsibility for crimes committed during the Nazi era. He states, “Not only the perpetrator but also everyone who is part of a community of perpetrators and continues to be part of it after the act becomes entangled in the web of guilt. A shared belonging to a family, a group, an organization, or even a nation establishes this community of perpetrators… Whoever establishes or perpetuates this community of solidarity becomes implicated in the crime.” He then states, “Those who are not guilty through the act but are attributed guilt through the act’s association with the community of solidarity and who do not respond to the accusation by rejecting the crime they are implicated in will have been burdened with the guilt of the act.”

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Schlink has formulated the responsibility of children as follows: The children of Nazis “wait for the crime to find them until they are capable of learning about it and rejecting it.” However, this obligation to reject does not mean that the child cannot understand or love their parent who has committed the crime. “It rather means not wanting to live their life, not wanting to take on their fate, and not wanting to walk in their footsteps.” However, Schlink emphasizes the drawback of this situation: “Understanding and loving a parent who has committed a crime can contaminate the child with a deforming solidarity and complicity in the crime.” Schlink cites the example of the emotional detachment between Hans Frank’s son and his father, who was a Nazi jurist and held a position of authority in occupied Poland: “Reinhard Frank had to do this. The option of both loving and understanding his father and at the same time condemning his father’s actions and feeling repulsed by them would have led to a division within his own self.”

In his book “East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016), Philippe Sands narrates the life stories of renowned lawyers Rafael Lemkin, Hersch Lauterpacht, and Hans Frank. Frank, while defending himself during the Nuremberg trials, used expressions that suggested he grasped the weight of the committed crime. He converted to Catholicism while in prison and asked for a blessing from a priest before being taken to the gallows. Sands met with Niklas, the other son of Frank, who had written a book about his father’s past. Niklas says that he doesn’t believe his father truly felt genuine remorse. While being opposed to the death penalty, he believes his father deserved it. It’s impossible for Niklas, who was young at the time, to know whether his father genuinely felt remorse or not. However, it seems that he chose to think this way because he didn’t want an emotional bond that would lead to the “division within his own self” warned by Schlink.

Jutta’s behavior is different. Despite being separated from her father at a very young age, or rather, her emotional connection to him through memories that have imprinted in her mind, continues. Lee suggests that Jutta’s reluctance to research her father’s past, despite knowing about the horrors of the Nazi era from school, books, and films, could be explained by her fear of what she might discover. However, immediately after, he adds that it’s a speculation and that many children have not had the opportunity to learn more than what they heard at home. I think the reason Lee avoids making definitive judgments in this regard is due to Jutta’s behavior during the interviews: “My father died when I was a little girl. It’s incredible how he unexpectedly entered my life again. I can’t explain how happy I am… Discovering their incredible journeys gives me back a piece of my past, so to speak.”

Knowing that many individuals with Nazi parents are not willing to discuss their families’ pasts with an outsider, Lee finds it intriguing that Jutta, who is “eager to learn about her dear father,” listens to him and is curious, as she collects evidence against a perpetrator who appears more guilty with each new finding: “There was a world of difference between what I was going to tell her and what she heard in terms of the meanings and psychological effects of the truths I would convey.”

Schlink’s writings on guilt and the story Lee told made me wonder in what situations it is necessary for someone who has spent their childhood in a loving relationship with their parents to change their memories related to their deceased parent when they reach an age where they can learn about the parent’s guilt.

The realization of societal confrontations regarding major crimes committed against humanity requires state institutions to pursue policies in this direction, engage in trials, implement material and spiritual compensatory mechanisms, and transform past injustices into a historical knowledge that every citizen should learn. The absence of these actions not only encourages individuals to remain silent but also associates them with a refusal to acknowledge a public crime. In contrast, I believe that in an environment where state policies focus on facing the past and state institutions fulfill this public obligation, a distinction is made between personal responsibility and public responsibility.

Being a part of a nation is like being a party to a social contract. In democracies, every individual who has a sense of belonging to the nation – to varying degrees – has a responsibility to fulfill this contract without violating the principles of law and justice. Confronting crimes in the public sphere is also necessary for the internalization of values related to justice. Does preserving the memories that include feelings of love for deceased parents without intervening in the minds of individuals lead to a distortion of ethical values as long as citizens fulfill their public obligations by learning about the crimes committed in the nation’s history and adhering to the principles of law and democracy? It seems impossible for the children of Hans Frank, who was convicted and executed in Nuremberg for committing crimes against humanity and thus being one of the main perpetrators of the evils caused by the Nazis, to achieve a healthy state of mind without rejecting their father and holding a dignified position in the public sphere. However, the situation is different for the children of “insignificant characters” about whom we have no knowledge and who have not been condemned by public conscience, as Lee puts it. Their behavior of not wholesale rejecting their parents may not imply insensitivity to the crimes committed. Maintaining an emotional connection with memories can lead children to feel a stronger unease about their parents’ actions and think more deeply about how seemingly ordinary people could commit such crimes.

As Lee stated, his interaction with Griesinger’s daughters is quite different from the communication between a researcher and an information source. Lee identifies himself as a “Jewish Second World War historian” and comes from a family that has experienced the horrors of war. There has been a critical geographical intersection in the histories of the two families. Lee’s maternal family is from a town called Stavyshche in Ukraine, where mainly Jews lived. Griesinger participated in a Nazi motorized infantry division that entered Ukraine in 1941 and passed near this town. With the occupation, special extermination squads arrived in the region and started massacring Jews. Lee says, “Griesinger may not have personally executed my ancestors and other Jews, but it was clear that he was very close to the killers. Although he didn’t know their names, he recognized their faces.” Feeling the weight of such a past, Lee expressed his expectations before starting the meetings with the daughters as follows: “For me, revealing the truth was a matter of justice… Jutta and Barbara represented their fathers in my mind; they had to accept the weight of the evidence I presented to them and testify to compensate for what their fathers had done – or at least that’s what I thought.”

Lee mentions Jutta’s daughter, Astrid, in the chapter before the Epilogue of the book. He says that Astrid also inherited Jutta’s behavior of not making an effort to investigate her grandfather’s actions during the Nazi era. “Astrid also harbored affection for Griesinger like her mother… Even in the face of the evidence I presented to them, she did not let go of her loyalty to her family.” However, as seen in Jutta, the meeting had an impact on her: “Since the first day I visited her mother, she had started thinking more about her grandfather and now wanted to learn more about him.”

By remembering their childhood experiences with Griesinger’s daughters as positive memories and not severing the emotional connection, they are kept in a position that represents their fathers, just as Lee thought. Therefore, during his meetings with them, Lee must have felt the weight of the past more intensely and experienced the encounter between the children of the perpetrator and the victim more vividly. He said, “One aspect of their experiences oddly mirrored mine. The traumas of the war for both families were enveloped in a gloomy silence that persisted for generations. Even if they were never spoken about, secrets would divide into a tangible, distinct appearance.” Schlink also suggests in his book that there may be a similar mindset among the children and grandchildren of perpetrators and victims, including “an introversion triggered by fear and suspicion, a defense mechanism resulting from it, and the need for parents to find their own identities under the burden of their destinies that made them victims or perpetrators.”

We do not know if Jutta and Barbara said anything “compensatory” from Lee’s perspective during these meetings. If they had, Lee would probably have conveyed it. Despite its absence, Lee gives the impression that the meetings were a positive experience for him: “Decades after their fathers’ deaths, even though I approached them as complete strangers, they were quite polite, hospitable, and willing to talk. In fact, when I considered them independently of their fathers, I liked them.”

Although the encounters between Lee and Griesinger’s daughters took place in the shadow of their parents’ memories, perhaps the burden of the past has lightened for both sides after these meetings.

Lee also examined Robert Griesinger’s family background. His father, Adolf, was born in New Orleans in 1871 and grew up in Louisiana. He lived in places where racism was rampant during that period. Lee wonders, “When the Nazis took to the streets openly advocating similar ideas about races… did Adolf ever think there was a connection between these words and actions that he was familiar with from his youth and his family’s world?” This and the racist nature of the Nazis’ war on the Eastern Front will be the subject of my second writing.

This article was originally published in Birikim Magazine on June 18 and has been translated from Turkish. The book was translated to Turkish as ‘SS Subayının Koltuğu: Bir Nazinin Gizli Yaşamının Peşinde’ by Iletisim Yayinlari in 2022.

* Osman Kavala (born 2 October 1957) is a businessman, activist and philanthropist who has supported numerous civil society organizations in Turkey since the early 1990s. Kavala is the founder and chair of the board of Anadolu Kültür, an Istanbul-based nonprofit arts and culture organization. In 2019, he received the European Archaeological Heritage Prize from the European Association of Archaeologists for his efforts to protect and preserve significant examples of cultural heritage in danger in Turkey and the Ayşenur Zarakolu Freedom of Thought and Expression Award by Human Rights Association‘s Istanbul branch. His arrests in Turkey caused the European Court of Human Rights and ambassadors from ten Western countries to demand his release. These demands were rejected by Turkish courts and president Erdogan.

On 25 April 2022, a court sentenced him to life in prison.

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