BORN GUILTY Children of Nazi Families By Peter Sichrovsky Translated from the German By Jean Steinberg Basic Books. 178 pp. $17.95
IT IS remarkable, considering the stupendous amount of research that has been done on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, how little attention has been paid to the children of the Nazis. Quite understandably and deservedly, the children of the Holocaust have been given ample scrutiny, and as a result we know far more now about what it means to be the offspring of victims. But what, if anything, does it mean to be the children of oppressors and murderers? Do the children as well as the perpetrators bear the burden of guilt? How do they feel about their parents, once confronted with the enormity of those parents' actions? What are their own attitudes toward the Nazis, toward Hitler, toward the Jews?
These are the questions that were asked by Peter Sichrovsky, an Austrian journalist and a Jew whose grandmother died in a concentration camp, as he interviewed 15 children and grandchildren of Nazi activists. Though only their first names are given, doubtless we would recognize the surnames of some of them, for some -- scarcely all -- are the children of prominent war criminals:
"What I was after was a mixture of important personages and simple fellow travelers. To limit the book to children of well-known Nazis would have given it a nuance I hoped to avoid. After all, the Third Reich was not made up solely of leaders. On the contrary. It was the vast mass of loyal, decent bureaucrats -- policemen, officers, mayors, railroad employees, teachers and so on -- that greased the wheels of the Nazi dictatorship. These were the people that interested me. I wanted to know their children: how they grew up, what they knew, what questions they asked, and how they managed to live with what they knew."
What he learned from the Germans and Austrians with whom he talked adds up to a haunting and depressing catalogue of grief, guilt, confusion, anger, bitterness and evasion. These men and women, most of them now in their 40s, by and large have not led happy lives. One of them, whom Sichrovsky calls Stefan, speaks for many when he says: "There's all that talk about you Jews being the victims of the war. But for those of you who survived, the suffering ended with Hitler's death. But for us, the children of the Nazis, it didn't end. When their world collapsed in ruins and ashes, the heroes of the Third Reich staked out another battleground -- the family."
Rudolf speaks along similar lines. "My parents, they're already roasting in hell," he says. "They died a long time ago; it's over for them, this life. But they left me behind. Born in guilt, left in guilt. . . . Today I am a German, a German bearing the identity of the son of a criminal. A life sentence. Reason: son of a murderer. Sentenced to parents who'd led the lives of butchers. How do I know what they'd really done?" That question occurs over and again, either to men and women who refuse to face the reality of their parents' acts or to those who, when they learn the truth, find it, as it is for Rudolf, unbearable: "Once, one single time, my father was drunk enough to talk about it, how terrible it had been, that time they had to shoot the children one by one with a hand gun because those idiot soldiers had aimed their automatic weapons too high above the heads of the adults."
For Anna, a good woman who has managed to create a happy life with her husband and daughters, "the most important event" in her life was the discovery, when she was 13 years old, "that my father had been head of a guard detachment in a concentration camp and that he'd been accused of murder." She then goes on to ask the questions that all of these people, in their different ways, ask:
"I found out about it. And what happened then? Do you think that my discovery changed anything? Should I have run away from home? Or drawn up a private indictment against a mother and father who for years had lied to their child? They had fed me, clothed me, and at Christmas there was a tree and presents. Do I do any more for my children? A father who was a murderer. What does that sound like? My life wasn't like a Dostoevsky novel."
THIS IS by now a familiar theme within Holocaust literature -- the banality of evil -- but it acquires new force and meaning when seen from the vantage point of those who, although themselves innocent, find that they cannot escape the burden of guilt. Their parents, ordinary people who fed and clothed them, were murderers or silent accomplices in murder: What a terrible affliction to bear. As a man called Rainer says of his father: "He wasn't simply one or the other, either my father or a criminal. He was both. And that's what I hold against him. How could he play ball with me as though nothing had happened?"
Small wonder, in the circumstances, that many of these people passionately declare themselves innocent of their parents' crimes. An 18-year-old girl, granddaughter of a war criminal who was convicted and executed, says, "I didn't murder anyone, I didn't mistreat anyone, I didn't cheer Hitler. . . . They executed all the guilty ones back then at Nuremberg. They had their show. My own grandfather was among them. What do they want from me?" A woman called Brigitte says, "I never witnessed the Third Reich, I wasn't in the Hitler Youth, my neighbors weren't deported because they were Jews, I didn't amuse myself watching the Jews sweep the sidewalks with toothbrushes. I never participated and I never looked away." Or, as poor Stefan puts it:
"I'm not responsible for what my father did. I wasn't born then and have nothing to do with it. And I don't feel responsible for it. And I think that words like 'complicity' and 'shared responsibility' or 'continuing to mourn' are inappropriate. I can't apologize for what my father did. It's he who did it, not I. I have as little to do with what he did as with him. I am an entirely different person, perhaps even his exact opposite. I think of myself as being in the other camp, someone who is suffering under him just as all those others during the Third Reich."
To Peter Sichrovsky, looking back over these interviews, what stands out is "doubt whether they, the new Germans, are really so different from their parents and grandparents, whether a residue of the perpetrator mentality is not part of their psychological baggage." This gives him "enormous hope," because he believes the Germans now acknowledge, as for years they could not, that what happened in Nazi Germany could indeed happen again -- and the vigilant awareness of this "is a greater safeguard against a possible fascist resurgence in Germany than the conviction that it cannot happen again."
Perhaps he is right; certainly we must hope so. But what may be even more encouraging in the testimony of these 15 people is that so many of them identify with the Jews and seek to understand them. One, an Austrian woman called Ingeborg, is married to a Jew:
"Perhaps my marriage to Alex is proof of the stupidity and also the transitoriness of ideologies like National Socialism. Perhaps my life here in Austria with a Jew is also my personal contribution to reconciliation and restitution. I couldn't change my parents, but I could get them to accept a Jewish son-in-law. At our wedding they told everybody that they were very happy and that they liked Alex a lot. Fifty years after Auschwitz that must be seen as a step forward, and not such a small one at that."