Children of the Third Reich: A critical moral debate
It’s Valentine’s Day and I am writing about the Nazis… again. “Will she ever let up?” I can almost hear people asking. But I’m afraid I can’t… won’t. Not yet. It is still too relevant a topic, as was proved by last night’s debate at the Southbank Centre where not one person in the packed hall moved, let alone left, even after 2.5 hours of listening to two elderly men, children of high-ranking Nazis, as they revealed their opposing relationships with their long-dead fathers.
To voluntarily exchange views and answer questions publically on this delicate and sensitive subject makes Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter very brave and admirable men in my eyes.
Niklas, whose controversial book of 1987 “Der Vater” (The Father) broke taboos in Germany by admitting categorically that his father was a bad man, has always been determined to “acknowledge the crimes”. This led to a total rejection of his father. “But don’t you want to make peace?” Horst asks, driven by a strong sense of “duty” and “moral obligation” to find the good in his father. “I have. By acknowledging his crimes”, responded Niklas.
I couldn’t help feeling that neither men had found peace, however. In his refusal to soil his father’s “character” with the horrors of his deeds, Horst at times came across as being in full denial. “I love him. I cannot say my father was a criminal”. But in his decision to have “no love for his father”, Niklas came across as slightly hardened, maybe bitter. At any rate, both mens’ dilemmas were unresolved.
For me it was like seeing my inner dialogue of the past 10 years of research into my own German grandfather’s war time activities, externalized. These two men were enacting the see-saw argument between the natural desire to believe your family member is good, and the potentially terrifying acknowledgement that he was bad. After all, where does that leave you, as the descendent?
During questions, a slightly aggressive female journalist in the audience expressed her intolerance of Horst’s “extraneous” excuses not to admit his father was complicit in Nazi crimes. Some other members even clapped. It made me feel uncomfortable. For while I am definitely more with Niklas in his determination to acknowledge any guilt, I felt sympathy for Horst who had spent his life in what he clearly felt was a worthy pursuit of love and peace but in reality was possibly more like a paralysing inability to face the horrors of his father’s deeds. Both men were right, both wrong, I would refrain from judging like the journalist did. Because I know from my own lesser but similar journey, that it is terrifying looking at the facts of that horrendous period of history in the face. But you have to before you can begin to find a genuine source of peace.