Saturday 9 June 2012

HITLER'S CHILDREN - "You weren't there, you didn't do it."

One of my best friends, an English guy, is obsessed with Germany. He just loves it. He knows the language, he visits whenever he can. All his favourite bands are German.

I was telling a German friend about this. It was sometime last year, I think around September. We met up in Spain -- and we were talking about the war, about her being German and me being English. I guess we were trying to figure out what it means 70 years later. Anyway, she couldn't grasp the fact that my friend adores Germany. She was uncomfortable with it, she didn't believe it. When she thought of what legacies her country has left the world, the only thing that came to mind was the Nazis. 

And she feels immensely guilty about it.

Not that she thinks about it all the time. But when you're a German and you visit another country, your accent is unmistakable. 
And I have to admit, the second I hear the German accent, I get a little trigger in my head, a little reminder, the thought of World War 2 flashes through my mind. Not in an angry way, not really in any way at all-- but it appears for a moment in my consciousness.

History takes a long time to process. People say "enough about the Holocaust already!" or "get over slavery, it was like 200 years ago!", but you can't put a time stamp on these things. The effects of history still play out in society in more ways than people realise.

Hitler's Children" is a documentary that aired on the BBC a few weeks ago. A friend mentioned it yesterday, assuming I'd seen it, but I knew nothing of it. I did a quick search online and found it on YouTube.

It's about the direct descendants of some of the biggest Nazi war criminals, such as Rudolph Hoess' grandson Rainer and Amon Goethe's daughter, Monika. It's a very touching documentary, focusing on five individuals, all of whom seem like absolutely wonderful people, but they're burdened by the guilt of what their relatives did.

How do you deal with such a thing? Goering's Great Niece & Nephew decided to be sterilised. Their grandfather attempted to exterminate the Jewish race and now his descendants are exterminating their own family. It's the best answer they've come up with. 
Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank, tries to exorcise his guilt by writing about his evil parents and educating younger people by doing talks. But sometimes he tells people that he has no trust, especially in Germans. He thinks they have the potential to do the same again.

That's what always worries me. Not about Germans, but all of us. Because the people who worked in Auschwitz were normal people; doctors, farmers, artists, etc; they came from all over to work for a cause they BELIEVED IN.

Our brains are wired in strange ways. We conform. What if our iPhones suddenly started instructing us to kill people? What if the celebrities that flood our brains every day in tabloid newspapers started subtly pronouncing hateful ideology? How strong is our will? How certain are we we'll know what's right? The Goering's and Hitler's are scary; but the everyday accomplices are even scarier; because they're no different to any of us. 

I think I'm a good person in a good country, but then I look at the Iraqi civilian death count and realise I know nothing.

As for World War 2; I feel, as an individual, that I am still processing this part of history. My grandparents fought in the war, and I love them for it. But there is so much I don't know and will never know. When I meet a German person, if I'm honest with you; I really feel the urge to talk about it. And I mean it in the best possible way, I just want to TALK! To process what it means to us as human beings in the 21st century. Part of that is a fascination with that part of history, a deep interest; but also there's a feeling of hurt, of confusion, of still grappling with the past and what it means to us, what it means to me. I think it's the same for a lot of people, from all the nations involved. 

There's this beautiful moment in the documentary when a Jewish holocaust survivor meets Rainer Hoess, the grandson of the Auschwitz commandant, Rudolph Hoess. Seeing Rainer's deep pain and guilt, the survivor says to him, "You weren't there, you didn't do it." It's a beautiful moment. The most unlikely meeting you can imagine, but you feel the world getting healed a little just by the moment they shared together.

As the older generations come towards the end of their lives, it becomes a world where none of us were there to witness it, but many of us still need to talk about it. And I hope we do. History is our greatest teacher, with endless wisdom. I hope we can process it together.

Care to share?


  1. Thanks for sharing this. What a powerful film and really tough emotions. I remember the first time I heard the name Hitler and asked my uncle who he was. It seemed like the most difficult topic for him to explain to me, because he simply wasn't sure where to start.

    I'll never forget that day though, when I realized how disturbing people can be. That was more frightening to me than any horror movie.

    I have to admit, thanks to my exposure to the word "Nazi" in pop culture, I used to lump all Germans into that category. I know that's ignorant, but until I was older, Nazi and German were synonyms for me.

    Seventy years later, I hope films and moments like the ones you described can help us to learn and move on.

    1. Thanks for the comment -- I know what you mean, re: the ignorance. I mean, we seemed to get taught about Hitler for years; and it was always this kind of mentality of 'us' the English, and 'them' the Germans. It was only really growing up and looking at things myself, that I saw it differently. But I think my school, looking back; implanted a prejudice in a lot of young kids.

  2. Powerful film, thanks for letting me discover it. All thru it, I was reminded of a recent favorite documentary THE OTHER F WORD. Highly recommended. You will end The F Word aplenty in this - it's screamed, shouted, written, sprayed, everything. But still, THE OTHER F WORD wonderfully becomes the lasting concept.

    And it's closing comment is what resonates as I watched HITLER'S CHILDREN: "Want a better world? Be a better father."

    It's interesting to see Japan has taken a polar-opposite approach. Cover-up, deny, lie, avoid, don't teach, don't admit and don't allow anyone with expert knowledge do it either.

    Two choices made by two protagonists. I'd always tell the Germans to consider the Japanese option, and hold your heads high because the Germans made the better choice.

  3. I'm fascinated by this subject too, especially as we Finns first sidled with Germans in WW 2 because we were attacked by the Russians who were on the other side. Even so, Germans did some terrible things to Finns, and many older people won't still have any German tourists in their shops etc. in the countryside. When I was younger I had a German boyfriend who talked to me about his guilt - his grandfather had been in the war but not a Nazi. Still, he felt a real responsibility for what his country had done.

    Excellent post as always.

    Helena xx

    1. Tell me more about you feel as a Finn, and how the Finnish feel in general about the war. I'm really interested. You spoke a bit about this already but I'm interested in hearing more!

    2. (Apologies for jumping in here.) When you were learning 2nd languages, was Russian or German common among your friends? Did the student's choice of a foreign language separate friendships? (If I selected German, would it be likely my best friend would select Russian?) -Idly Curious

  4. I recently read about these descendants and it was a truly touching story. It does make you wonder about all these horrific things that have been perpetrated by humans. We like to think of them as monsters but at the end of the day we have to realise and acknowledge that they were people just like us, and that's where the true lessons lie – how is it that ordinary people could support and even participate in such horrors? And how do people like Hitler come about? How much hate needs to be built up within one person to turn him/her into such a monster?

    My family was touched by WW2 as well, but since we're from Southeast Asia it wasn't about the Germans and more about the Japanese.

    When they came to Singapore there was an effort to exterminate as many Chinese as they could. They told the Chinese to report to Changi Beach. Many of my grandfather's uncles, cousins, friends and neighbours went and never came back – it was later discovered that they had been lined up on the beach and shot. My grandfather's family escaped because they were warned by their Malay friends not to go, and because they spoke Malay they were able to disguise themselves and live among the Malays.

    I always loved listening to my grandfather's experiences, and the way he has processed them. Sometimes he would speak of the cruelty and you can see the anger – at those times he would always refer to the Japanese occupiers as "those bastards".

    But other times he would talk about the officers who taught him Maths, marveling at their skill and the way they held their classes. He would tell me about how he used to play the violin at the soldier's camps in exchange for food for his village. He would play their old Japanese folk songs and they would cry because at the end of the day they were just men who wanted to go home. Although he was angry at them for the horrible things that they did, he was also able to recognise that not all of the Japanese were bad people, they were just people caught up in a horrible time. And I think that has helped him to move on in a way, instead of being caught up in resentment and hate.

    I remember once he told me, "I will never forget, but I can forgive."

    1. Kirsten, thanks so much for writing this --- I have not much to say apart from thank you, it's wonderful.