My father, myself
Today, at 65, Wibke Bruhns has published a book about her father, in which she attempts to deal with someone whom she never knew and about whom she had heard nothing, a person who, because of her family's silence, had been a total stranger to her.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper calls Wibke Bruhns' new book, "Mein Vaters Land: Geschichte einer deutschen Familie" ("My Father's Country: The Story of One German Family") "sensational," claiming that, in writing about her father, she has told the story of all fathers.
At age six, Wibke asked her mother, "Where has all the love for the Fuehrer disappeared to? Why has everyone stopped saying `Heil Hitler'?" Her mother's response was a slap Wibke would remember for the rest of her life. She has no earlier recollections. She remembers only the slap and the Allied bombing raids of April 1945. The rest has been erased from her memory.
Wibke was the youngest of five children in the Klamroth family of Halberstadt. The Klamroths were like many other German families. Initially, they considered the Nazis violent commoners. Afterward, they collaborated with them. Finally, when the war ended, they had lost everything, much more than they ever imagined.
In one respect, the Klamroths differed from other German families: The father was one of the people who plotted against Hitler's life. He was executed in 1944 and was thus considered a hero by the family. His daughter Wibke began grappling with that status after seeing a documentary film on the July 20, 1944 assassination plot.
One day in 1979, after Wibke - then 40 and a news correspondent for the ZDF German television network - returned to Germany after a grueling trip to Israel, she could not fall asleep. Pouring herself a whisky, she began watching a videocassette that had been taped for her. It was a documentary on the trials in Berlin in 1944 against the July 20 plotters, led by Count Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, who had tried to kill Hitler with a bomb. The attempt failed, Hitler survived and most of those involved and their collaborators were arrested. Those not shot on the spot were put on trial.
Suddenly, in the documentary material from 1944, Bruhns saw her father. He was one of the defendants and was sentenced to death in a show trial. Eleven days after the sentence had been carried out, his body was still hanging in Ploetzensee prison. His daughter Wibke had been six at the time. The film footage she saw had been discovered only then, in 1979. Excluding a few anecdotes, she knew nothing about her father. That night, the night of her return from Israel, she vowed she would find out all she could about her father and write a book about him.
More intense fear
The book has now appeared. It not only presents the story of the fate of a typical middle-class German family that lost all the capital it had accumulated since the 19th century, and a moving, intimate human portrait, but it also addresses key questions: How did all this happen, how did the system work and how was it destroyed? "We can understand what happened," writes the Allgemeine Zeitung's literary critic, "and the fear becomes far more intensive."
To build her portrait, Bruhns was "helped" by her dead father and the rest of her family. It is hard to believe how much they wrote down. Her grandfather kept a diary during World War I, carefully typing it up. Other relatives wrote chronicles of their social life and vacations, as well as diaries and letters. Even during the Allied bombings, her mother took her typewriter to the air-raid shelter to continue writing her own diary. In Wibke Bruhns' Berlin apartment, family papers fill an entire cupboard.
Thus, with the help of all the writings, the author was able to describe the routine of a middle-class family during holidays, hunting expeditions, social events, parties, ceremonies - and also learned about the huge amount of money such a family spent. However, there are also surprises, things not commonly found among upper-middle-class families. Her father, Hans Georg Klamroth, referred in the book as "H.G.," had many mistresses. In Germany's bourgeois society at the time, with all its ceremonies, the path was also paved to the Nazi Party, although such families considered the Nazis loud, violent and common.
Today, at 65, Wibke Bruhns has published this book about her father, in which she attempts to deal with someone whom she never knew and about whom she had heard nothing, a person who, because of her family's silence, had been a total stranger to her. "My Father's Country" is a fascinating combination of private chronicle, historical document and a search for personal identity. It is Bruhns attempt to know the stranger - her father - who left a vacuum in her life.
For the past 25 years, Bruhns has sought the truth about her father. The quest began the night she saw her father in the documentary, someone who "looked so sad and lost." Only after her mother's death in 1987 could she access the family's rich legacy: an incredible quantity of diaries, letters, certificates of every possible kind. From all these documents, she constructed her family's and father's portraits. She goes far - very far.
The Klamroths were an affluent, respected family from the town of Halberstadt whose members were proud of their long family tradition. The family firm was in the seed trade and was also successful in selling artificial fertilizers. Bruhns traces her ancestors' rise to prosperity and social prominence. She presents the biographies of her great-grandfather, grandfather and father, and her mother Elsa's family. She describes her father Hans Georg as someone who was hard to live with. He was very shy and wanted everyone to like him. He was clever and would invent lies to impress those around him. Like his father, he was loyal to the Kaiser.
Father and son-in-law
When World War I broke out, he joined the army, ultimately becoming an officer. In April 1918, he underwent a traumatic experience that would haunt him for the rest of his life. On patrol in a Baltic village, H.G. shot a drunk German soldier during a robbery. He feared a court martial. It never took place, although the scenes from that incident pursued him constantly. Guilt continued tormenting him even after he married Elsa, the daughter of a wealthy contractor. The young couple lived in Halberstadt, where they raised five children and had many friends.
The author was shocked to read in her parents' diaries that, over an extensive period of time, they regularly had sex in a foursome with another Halberstadt couple. For appearances' sake, they pretended they were meeting for bridge. Bridge and sex. H.G. called his mistress "my wife's little deputy." Even after the quartet dissolved, happiness did not return to the household. H.G. was unfaithful to his wife with a long series of mistresses, betraying her whenever and wherever possible. For H.G., women were like drugs. He brought some of them to Halberstadt and Elsa served them. Despite many reconciliation attempts, their marital life kept on deteriorating and their relationship was on a constant decline. Bruhns' mother found love letters that one of her best friends had written her husband and the discovery shattered her. That incident occurred, however, only toward the end of their marriage.
The first to join the Nazi Party in Halberstadt were the Klamroths. H.G., a reservist army officer, joined the SS. His wife was appointed leader of a Nazi women's group. In 1933, H.G. had to tackle the new ideology. A Jew named Jakobsohn was banished from the Halberstadt labor union and H.G., the union's leader, did nothing. His daughter asks herself: "Could he not have acted differently?" Her answer: "No."
During the war, H.G. was sent to Denmark. With a natural talent for languages, he spoke Danish and had many friends and some relatives there; also, his mother-in-law was Danish. H.G. served as an officer in an intelligence unit and was sent to Russia to capture underground members and partisans. Finally, in 1943, he was sent to Berlin to monitor the manufacture of new weapons - missiles and an atomic bomb. Meanwhile, his second cousin, Bernhard Klamroth, married H.G.'s daughter Ursula. Bernhard was an officer in East Prussia and a secret member of the resistance. He was responsible for obtaining the explosives for the assassination attempt against Hitler.
To what extent did his father-in-law know about Bernhard's activities? After years of research, his daughter concludes: "Many things indicate that H.G. knew about the plot whose planning took nearly two years." He was one of those who "were in the know," although not one of the plan's implementers.
However, when the plot failed, both Bernhard and his father-in-law were arrested and subsequently executed. Wibke remembers nothing of those events. She needed this book to work through her loss. She closes "My Father's Country" thus: "I wish I had had the opportunity to love you. You paid with your life, so I do not have to pay anymore. I learned from you what I should avoid. Is that not what fathers are for? Thank you."