Heinous crimes committed years ago cannot be excused by appealing to the ‘social context’ of the age
Rooting around the basement of my family home in Mannheim, south-west Germany, some years ago, I discovered evidence that in 1938 my grandfather had taken advantage of antisemitic Nazi policies to buy a small business from a Jewish family at a low price. I also found letters from the only survivor of this family: his relatives had been killed at Auschwitz. After the war he wrote asking for reparations, but my grandfather refused to face up to his responsibilities.
I was shocked. Seeking to investigate my family’s Nazi history for a book I was working on, I started by calling on two first-hand witnesses. My aunt Ingrid, born in 1936 and who suffered through wartime bombardments and postwar poverty, excused her father’s actions: “We can’t put ourselves in their place. They lived under a dictatorship – you had to be a hero to resist.”
My father, Volker, born in 1943 and part of the generation in the 60s that forced German society to face its Nazi past, was much less lenient: “I used to tell my father: what upsets me is not that you’ve done the Nazi salute, since I might also have done that; its’s that even today you still don’t recognise the atrocities of the Third Reich and your own responsibility.”
Testimonies are less reliable than documents. They are filtered through experience and emotion, sadness and anger, but also love and loyalty. I had to confront them with historical facts. How far was it possible not to be a Nazi under the Third Reich? What were the risks? What did ordinary Germans such as my grandparents know about the Nazis’ crimes, about the fate of the Jews?