Opinion |

My Grandfather Was Executed as a WWII War Criminal. I Know Why Germany Still Has a Nazi Problem

It was always 'other' Germans who perpetrated Nazi crimes, not our own families. That's the lie that has enabled the far right to return to power in Germany

Alexandra Senfft
Alexandra Senfft
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People hold flags in Erfurt, central Germany, Wednesday, March 16, 2016, during a demonstration initiated by the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party against the immigration situation.
Anti-immigration rally in Erfurt, central Germany, Wednesday, March 16, 2016, initiated by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party Credit: Jens Meyer / AP
Alexandra Senfft
Alexandra Senfft

The past casts long shadows.

A German historian Niklas Krawinkel just published a significant 500-page research report on Hans Gmelin. Gemlin was the right arm of my maternal grandfather, Hanns Ludin, Nazi Germany’s envoy to Slovakia.

While Ludin was executed as a war criminal in 1947 – primarily for instigating the deportation of the Slovak Jews – his adjutant Gmelin went on to make a splendid career.

In 1954 he was elected as mayor of Tübingen (Baden Wuerttemberg) – an expression of the German people’s determination to put an end to the Nazi era (in German it’s referred to as Schlussstrich: putting the Nazi past to rest, or doing away with it, an approach embraced by the German far right today).

After his 20 years in office, the city declared Gmelin an honorary citizen in 1975. In principle this title expired with his death in 1991, yet - until now - it was never officially revoked.

This was partly out of consideration for Gmelin’s daughter Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, Social Democrat and former German minister of justice, who for family instincts, and possibly due to a sense of shame and denial, has always been fiercely protective of her father’s image.

That posthumous revocation has finally happened.

The historical report, commissioned by the city of Tübingen itself, exposed once and for all what was already an open secret: Gmelin’s involvement in the persecution and deportation of nearly 60,000 Slovak Jews, as well as draft resisters, gays and partisans.

"He knew by 1942 that deportation meant murder," said the research supervisor, Eckart Conze of Philipps-University Marburg University. In its statement announcing the revocation, the municipality stated that the report clearly showed Gmelin was a Nazi criminal.

A person holds a flag reading "No Nazis" as they protest against the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany Party (AfD) in Dresden, Germany, February 13, 2018.Credit: \ HANNIBAL HANSCHKE/ REUTERS

But this was a rare victory for historical truth and responsibility. In spite of the abundance of academic efforts, denial in Germany over Nazi crimes was and is still alive and kicking – and a system of complicity and silence, as well.

Indeed, the statement noted: "After 1945, and especially during his tenure as Tubingen’s mayor, Gmelin supported others accused of Nazi-era crimes, including convicted war criminals, in their social reintegration."

Among my late mother’s relatives, some prefer to remember the postwar butter rations that the same Gmelin organized for my grandfather’s widow (after her husband’s execution) and her six children in Tübingen, where he’d also found them a place to live. After all, Gmelin was an honorable man.

Pared-down version of Berlin's Holocaust memorial built by political art activists next to the home of Bjoern Hoecke, a senior AfD member critical of the Berlin memorial. Germany, November 22, 2017Credit: KAI PFAFFENBACH/REUTERS

And my grandfather, his superior, was, in their eyes, an innocent Nazi who didn’t know what fate awaited the deported Jews – a ludicrous belief adopted to avoid facing the unbearable truth.

My relatives’ reaction to the dissertation: "Small fry, who cares,” and that it was "nectar for self-righteous denouncers." In Germany, defensiveness is still high – and not only in my family.

The denazification program, all the public accounting for the Nazi past, the leftist, anti-fascist student uprising in the 1960s, the grand works in academia and politics, have all contributed to establishing a highly developed culture of memory; and yet the majority of Germans still suppress facts when it comes to their loved ones.

The perpetrators and bystanders among them disappear behind a façade of generalized and ritualized memorial days, monuments, politically correct speeches, books, movies and theatre plays.

The Nazi is the abstract Other.

In order to really grasp how violations of human rights, crimes against humanity and genocide come about, a look into the abyss of the inner self and one’s own family biography is unavoidable.

As long as Nazism’s crimes and violations are seen to be related solely to those outside one’s inner circle, the mechanisms of denial and silencing create complicity. Family loyalty is thus built on lies, a misinterpretation of love.

Police block demonstrators protesting against the far-right AfD party after parliamentary election polling stations closed. Berlin, Germany, Sept. 24, 2017, Credit: Michael Probst/AP

A process of coming to terms with the past does indeed need public declarations, gestures, rules and prohibitions. All of this has happened in an exemplary manner in Germany, West and East.

Yet officially dictated commemoration lacks sustainability if it excludes the painful work of facing the perpetrators among us. That silencing means keeping up the good memory of the victimizers, while ignoring their victims.

Many Kriegskinder (war children) suffer quietly from feelings of guilt and shame, from disorientation and detachment. In many cases they were verbally, non-verbally or even physically beaten into silence. They were left in deep emotional puzzlement because the covering-up of their silent parents contradicted their intuition of a hidden reality.

They didn’t receive the clear message that all Nazi crimes were unjustifiable and must be condemned – for the crimes of family members were given a pass.

In "The Third Reich in the Unconscious," by Vamik Volkan, there’s an exploration of how this repression allowed Nazi patterns of thinking and feeling to remain dormant and be passed on transgenerationally, instead of being eradicated - and this is a phenomenon not only confined to Germany.

After all, the Holocaust would not have been as successful had the Nazis not found their accomplices all over Europe. Transmitted down the generations, these patterns of thinking are now breaking the surface, spreading fear and racism. Hence the rollback against liberal values and the re-eruption of far-right nationalism in Poland, Hungary, Austria, France and the Netherlands.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, bottom left, watches the far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) faction during the first post-election session meeting of the German parliament. Berlin, Oct. 24, 2017Credit: Ferdinand Ostrop/AP

The far-right, so-called Alternative for Germany (AfD) – which won 13 percent of the vote in the 2017 general elections - aims to dismantle all the human rights achievements that have been achieved since World War II. The AfD scorns modern democracy, and idealizes a nationalistic past.

It targets our commemorative culture, burying ugly family secrets ever deeper underground, ruthlessly displaying a petty nationalism and inciting enmity against strangers, particularly Muslims.

The leaders and followers of this ghastly party, now the third largest in the German Bundestag, are my generation and younger – the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Nazi-era perpetrators and bystanders.

While spoilt by a thriving economy and then numbed by neo-liberalism, this generation became complacent, assuming that peace and democracy, once established, would be here to stay, or could just be casually disrespected.

A few days ago, I heard a woman who experienced the war as a child on German TV. Smilingly, she said she had not suffered, in fact the experiences had made her tougher.

A young journalist added that in Kriegskinder stories she often heard about moments of wartime warmth and Nazi esprit de corps. “They made a positive contribution," she said naively, perhaps voicing Granddad’s romantic tales of war.

Was this just a bad TV report? Or did it reflect the direction of the general mood among many Germans today? Only a few months ago, a founder of the AfD declared Germans should be "proud of the achievements of the German soldiers in two world wars," without differentiating WWII German soldiers who took part in crimes against humanity.

Whichever is the case, it is exactly these kinds of belittlements and historical distortions that could lead to an even broader appeasement of the Nazi era in Germany.

Alexandra Senfft is a German author. Her latest book is "The Long Shadow of the Perpetrators: Descendants face their Nazi Family History."

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