In “The Perfect Nazi,” author Davidson examines truth about his German grandfather.

The Langbehn family in July 1941, with Bruno in uniform.

Shortly after the death in 1992 at age 85of his mother’s father, Martin Davidson began to probe deeply into the question that for years had haunted him and his sister, Vanessa: “What had Bruno Langbehn, our German grandfather, done during the war?” They knew that Bruno had been active in some way, and hints he had dropped over the years suggested that this was putting it mildly, but how and to what end were questions their mother and her two sisters had declined to answer.

Then, freed at last from her father’s rather ominous presence, their mother spoke. She “made the fateful admission” that “he was in the SS.” With that, Davidson, a producer and director for the BBC, was off and digging, often accompanied by Vanessa. What they found stunned them: “Neither a camp Kommandant nor an architect of the Holocaust, he was nevertheless an enabler of evil, one of its indispensable, and very active minions. . . . Bruno and his fellow early joiners [of the Nazi Party] provided the energy, the determination — and the violence — that overcame all obstacles to power. They formed the backbone of the apparatus of terror that ensured compliance in the new Third Reich and they were in the front line, fighting the war that erupted . . . later, regarding it as the final, great expression of Nazi values and its most important project.”

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Bruno’s story begins in Perleberg, “a small Prussian town in northeastern Germany,” where he was born in 1906, the son of Max and Hedwig Langbehn. His father was “barracks supervisor” at an army camp based in the town, which meant that the boy grew up among “thundering boots, marching columns, screaming sergeant majors, and endless drill,” all designed “to instill key Prussian values into the men.” To what extent Max directly instructed his son in these values is unclear, but Davidson is correct to say that, in effect, Bruno received “an unsentimental education steeped in an ethos of swagger, sacrifice, and male camaraderie that appeared to have stuck with [him] for the rest of his life.”

This was followed almost immediately by World War I’s endlessly bloody battle of the trenches, by Germany’s humiliation at the Treaty of Versailles, by the collapse of the German economy in the 1920s and by the bitter political wars inside the Weimar Republic that accompanied it. Bruno, frustrated and angered, began looking for “a program of values around which an eventual government could emerge and one day take over running the country.” Violence was a sure path to the emergence of such a government, and Bruno was ready, indeed eager, to utilize it. He was also captive to the “new, virulent anti-Semitism” that swept through Germany in the postwar years: For Bruno, “a hatred for Jews was the major pillar of his nationalistic beliefs, an entirely non-negotiable theory about the world.”

In the mid-1920s, while studying toward a degree in dentistry, Bruno found his destiny. The first form it took was the Frontbann, a “paramilitary organization” whose mission “was to mobilize Germany’s extreme nationalists and turn them into a force to be reckoned with, operating at the very edges of the law.” It had some 30,000 members, many of them unemployed young men itching for the chance to give violent expression to their bitterness. Bruno stayed with the Frontbann until May 17, 1926, when he joined the Nazi Party as member No. 36,931, which marked him as one of the earliest Nazi recruits and, as time would reveal, one of the most zealous.

What followed was “as comprehensive a Nazi experience as was possible to imagine.” Davidson’s summation of it is worth quoting:

“There was scarcely a Nazi institution Bruno did not at one point or other experience: the Party itself; the Jungbund; the Frontbann, the SA, the SS, the SD [security and intelligence], the DAF [German Labor Front], the world of Nazi medicine, the Nazi Tourist Association, Nazi civil administration, the Wehrmacht. In these capacities, he was drawn into every dimension of Nazi policy — from ideology, to welfare, to race (especially the ‘Jewish Question’), culminating in war, from the early heady days of easy triumphs to the last-ditch battles of the collapsing eastern front. Over a single career, he wore three entirely different uniforms — SA brown, SS black, and Wehrmacht field gray. Over that time he was involved in dentistry, soldiering, espionage, policy implementation, and political agitation — all in the service of the Third Reich. It also lasted pretty much the maximum period of time possible. Very few others his age could point to twenty-two-year careers so actively engaged with the movement, and across so broad a front. He had been a storm trooper, street brawler, ideologue, policy intellectual, biological warrior, acolyte, soldier, snitch, spook, bureaucrat, arbiter of social policy — in short, the perfect Nazi.”

For Bruno’s grandchildren the shocker does not seem to be that he had been a Nazi; many Germans were, whether out of conviction or enlightened self-interest. The shocker was the SS. “I had swallowed that naive canard,” Davidson writes, “that the SS contained only psychopaths and sadists, but now I realized that the truth was more upsetting. People like my grandfather had joined the SS, educated middle-class professionals — people like me, in other words.” Not merely did Bruno join the SS in March 1937, it was “the moment when he became the Nazi equivalent of a made man, when it must have seemed that his long and violent apprenticeship had at last delivered the recognition and approbation he had so ardently wished for.”

Bruno’s “decision to apply to join the SS . . . signified much more than opportunism or ambition; it placed him at the crux of the Third Reich’s transformation from authoritarian fascist dictatorship to fully fledged Nazi state, premised on racial exclusion and licensed international aggression.” It is easy to imagine the thrill that the perfect Nazi felt as he gained admission to it: “All Germans belonged to a master race, but the SS proclaimed itself to be a master race above them all, bound by ties that [Heinrich] Himmler insisted had characterized all of history’s most powerful secret organizations. . . . They were the ultimate carriers of national blood, linking Germanic ancestors to the future descendants of the Volk. Behind their intimidating facade of terror and intimidation, they proclaimed themselves the embodiment of honor and chivalry. Bruno obviously found all of this deeply attractive.”

The SS employed Bruno not for his street-fighting gifts but for his bureaucratic ones. He was attached to the Security Service Main Office of the SD, which put him “on the front line of the Third Reich’s most critical struggle — combating not just their racial opponents but so-called enemies of the worldview, a conflict with which only the most rigorous and dependable loyalist could be entrusted.” He kept voluminous records on real or imagined enemies of the regime, as part of the SD’s mission to build “a network of spies and data collation, which, in parallel with the (state-run) Gestapo, would tag and collate everything Germans were thinking and saying.”

A decade and a half after the war, when much of the world was following the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Bruno told Davidson’s mother: “I knew Eichmann. He even offered me a job.” Precisely what this meant is unclear, but the pride with which he relayed this information leaves no doubt that his sympathies remained as they had been before and during the war. Small wonder that his grandson says, “The final truth about Bruno is blunt and horrifying,” and continues: “He had worked all his early adult life to bequeath to his children, and his children’s children, a world stripped bare of democracy and Untermenschen — and above all, a world without Jews.” He may not have had his hand on the gas valves at Auschwitz, but his heart was with those who did. His story cannot have been easy for his grandson to tell, but he has done so honestly and utterly without self-congratulation. “The Perfect Nazi” is a fine piece of work.

THE PERFECT NAZI

Uncovering My Grandfather’s Secret Past

By Martin Davidson

Putnam. 370 pp. $26.95

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