After World War II, Most ‘Ordinary Nazis’ Returned to Lives of Obscurity. The World Must Recover Their Stories Before It’s Too Late
The numerous tragedies of the current COVID-19 crisis include the large number of Holocaust survivors who are among the victims of the disease. In recent weeks, newspapers around the world have published moving death notices for individual Jews who fled persecution more than three quarters of a century, have hidden or survived the horrors of concentration camps. Some of these honors have even considered a world in the not too distant future where there will be no Holocaust survivors who can share their testimony. Educators who are aware of this situation have created holograms of the remaining survivors so that future generations can ask questions about life in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.
While first and second generation Holocaust survivors are often no stranger to the public that comes with their communities' education about the past, this cannot be said for most former Nazis and the children of perpetrators whose involvement in or relationship with The Third Reich has not experienced the same level of public interest or control.
After the war, most ordinary Nazis - Gestapo agents, SS and SA auxiliary troops, party members and government officials, and German citizens who accepted the party's rhetoric - disappeared into relative darkness and were able to create new false identities and take a clean break with theirs Past. They were supported by silence within families and within the community for decades. When post-war trials against Nazis took place, they generally ignored low-ranking officials and murderers and only wanted to condemn prominent members of the regime. Between 1945 and 1958, only 6,093 former Nazis were convicted of a crime - a drop in the bucket if we remember that the 1945 NSDAP had eight million members. Despite the many people who were involved in National Socialism before and during World War II, most of us can only name a handful of Nazis today, almost always those who were part of Hitler's inner circle.
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In this context, it is not surprising that we do not often see stories about Holocaust perpetrators or their descendants who are affected by the virus in German newspapers. If we look at the numbers, we find that more than 5,000 of the more than 8,700 COVID deaths in Germany were people over the age of 80. Logic dictates that many of these people would have been children or teenagers if they had parents during the Third Reich, which made up Hitler's millions of nameless and faceless followers. Other deaths from the novel coronavirus in Germany were in the late teens and even in the early 20s during World War II; More than 1,600 of the deceased were over 90 years old, while dozens were over a hundred years old.
Just as we imagine a world without survivors, the disappearance of people with first-hand memories of life under National Socialism forces us to pause for a moment and ask questions about a world without a perpetrator, and also about a world that doesn't There is more in everyone who knew, grew up with, or even loved a Nazi.
Losing those memories is important. To understand the inner workings of the Third Reich, we need to know not only its leaders, but also the ordinary Nazis who make up its ranks and whose role in war and genocide has disappeared from historical records. The restoration of the perpetrators' voices sheds light on the consent and conformity under the swastika and enables us to ask new questions about responsibility, guilt and manipulation.
In 2011, an upholsterer in Amsterdam found a bundle of documents covered with a swastika in the cushion of an armchair that he was repairing. The papers belonged to Robert Stiesinger, a lawyer from Stuttgart who worked as an SS member for the Reich in Prague, which was occupied by the Nazis. Jana, the Czech owner of the armchair, bought the chair as a student in Prague in the 1960s. As a professional World War II historian who happened to know Jana's daughter, I was asked to investigate the secret of the hidden papers. I immediately set out to learn more about this S.S. official who was not mentioned in any book about occupied Prague or anywhere online. The result was my new book The S.S. Officer's Armchair.
My search for Griesinger should take five years. It would take me to provincial German cities where he had studied and worked, and to archives and libraries across Europe and America. I discovered early on that Griesinger was not as German as I thought it was and that his father, who was born in New Orleans, came from a family that owned enslaved people in Louisiana. Griesinger grew up in a conservative military family that - as was typical of the time and place - accused the Jews of having started the First World War. It was not inevitable that Griesinger turned to National Socialism, but it is remarkable how quickly he got used to it. As a young lawyer who aspired to a career in an unprecedented political landscape, Griesinger was not even a member of the NSDAP in early 1933, but within a year had joined a variety of NS organizations, including the SS, as a broadcaster for career advancement.
I later managed to track down his daughters and even read his mother's diary. His story frighteningly recalled how ordinary people, not monsters, committed the Nazi regime and its heinous crimes.
The return of texture and freedom of choice to such a perpetrator enables Griesinger to stand up for the thousands of anonymous ordinary Nazis whose widespread fault has devastated countless lives and whose biographies have never before seen the light of day. So many other stories like his have never been put on paper, and given the rapidly declining number of people who still remember personal elements of that person, one wonders if they will ever be written.
Daniel Lee is the author of The S.S. Officer's Armchair: Revealing the hidden life of a Nazi, available now from Hachette Books.
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