A Third Reich Past: Why I Cannot Answer Questions about My Grandfather

An Essay by Ferdinand von Schirach

Part 2: Historians' Explanations Are No Use When It's Your Grandfather

Baldur von Schirach (right), the head of the Hitler Youth, is seen with Adolf Hitler in 1936. Zoom
AKG

Baldur von Schirach (right), the head of the Hitler Youth, is seen with Adolf Hitler in 1936.

Later, when I was at university, I read everything there was on the Nuremberg Trials. I tried to understand the mechanisms of the time. But historians' attempts to explain them are of no use when it's your own grandfather. He was a so-called man of culture who would go to his loge in the Vienna Opera while at the same time closing off the city's main railway station so that Jews could be deported. He listened to the secret speech that Himmler delivered in Posen (today Poznán) in 1943 about the extermination of the Jews. There is absolutely no doubt that he knew they were being killed.

People have spoken to me about him countless times and in every conceivable way: openly, brazenly, furiously, admiringly, sympathetically, excitedly. There have been death threats and worse; sometimes it all gets to be too much. But all of that becomes irrelevant and petty when I think about Vienna.

Now I'm being asked about him again in the interviews about my new book. People want to know whether my life would have somehow turned out differently if I didn't bear this name, whether I would have chosen another profession, whether I was preoccupied by any feelings of guilt on his account. I suppose that there have to be these kinds of questions. The journalists are always polite, but they also find my behavior a bit odd: I cancel meetings when I think they will be overly focused on him. They think I'm being evasive -- and they're right. I don't have any answers to give. I didn't know him, I couldn't ask him anything, and I don't understand him. That's why I've written this essay. It is the first time that I have written about him. And it will also be the last.

Completely Different Crimes

Crimes are examined in court. The judge investigates whether the accused was the perpetrator, and then he weighs his degree of culpability. Most of the guilty parties are not that different to us. They made a wrong move, dropped out of normal society or felt that their life was hopeless. Often it's only a matter of chance whether a person becomes a perpetrator or a victim. Indeed, killing those we love and killing ourselves are very similar.

What my grandfather did is something completely different. His crimes were organized; they were systematic, cold-hearted and precise. They were planned at a desk. There were memos and meetings. He made his decision again and again. At the time, he said that his "removal" of the Jews from Vienna was his contribution to European culture.

After those kinds of sentences, any further questions, any attempts at a psychological explanation, are superfluous. Sometimes a person's guilt is so massive that nothing else plays a role. Of course, the state itself was criminal. But that doesn't exonerate men like him, because they are the very ones who brought this state into being. My grandfather did not break through the thin veneer of civilization; his decisions were not the result of misfortune, chance or carelessness.

In criminal trials these days, we ask whether the accused was conscious of what he did, whether he can understand it and differentiate between right and wrong. In the case of my grandfather, all of these things can be swiftly answered. In fact, he was particularly guilty: He came from a family that had enjoyed positions of responsibility for centuries. He had a happy childhood, he was educated and the world was his oyster. It would have been easy for him to decide to live another life. He did not innocently become guilty. In the end, a person's degree of guilt is always also determined by their circumstances.

No Inherited Guilt

My grandfather's guilt is my grandfather's guilt. According to Germany's Federal Court of Justice, guilt is that which someone can be personally accused of. There is no collective responsibility, no inherited guilt, and everyone is entitled to their own life course. In my book, I'm not writing about him or his generation. I don't know anything more about these men than what has already been said and investigated a thousand times.

I'm more interested in our own world, the world of today. I write about the postwar prosecution of crimes, about the courts in postwar Germany that handed down atrocious judgments, about the judges who only imposed five minutes of imprisonment on Nazi perpetrators for each murder they committed. It's a book about the crimes committed in our state, about vengeance, guilt and the things we continue to fail at even today.

We believe we are safe, but the opposite is true: We could lose our freedom once again. Doing so would mean losing everything. That is our life now. That is our responsibility.

At the very end of the book, the Nazi's granddaughter asks the young defense lawyer: "Am I all of that, too?" He answers: "You are who you are." That is the only answer I have to questions about my grandfather. It took me a long time to find it.

Translated from the German by Josh Ward

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About Ferdinand von Schirach
  • DPA
    Ferdinand von Schirach, 47, works as a defense attorney in Berlin and has published two bestselling collections of short stories ("Crime" and "Guilt"). His first novel, "Der Fall Collini" ("The Collini Case," Piper Verlag, currently only available in German), has just been published. The novel tells the story of an Italian toolmaker who murders a major German industrialist. The novel deals with the inherited guilt of Germans and scandals in the postwar justice system that dealt with Nazi crimes. It also poses the question of how the grandchildren's generation should deal with the guilt of their grandfathers. Schirach's own grandfather, Baldur von Schirach, became the head of the Hitler Youth in 1931. A decade later, he became the Reich governor of Vienna and was responsible for coordinating the deportation of the city's Jews to Nazi concentration camps. In 1946, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison at the Nuremberg Trials for crimes against humanity. Baldur von Schirach died in 1974.

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