Germany has won praise for collectively confronting its Nazi past, but the subject has remained a taboo in millions of family homes -- with children and grandchildren declining to press their elders on what they did in the war.
At least 20 to 25 million Germans knew about the Holocaust while it was happening, according to conservative estimates, and some 10 million fought on the Eastern Front in a war of annihilation that targeted civilians from the start. That, says German historian Moritz Pfeiffer, makes the genocide and the crimes against humanity a part of family history.
Time is running out. The answer to how a cultured, civilized nation stooped so low lies in the minds of the dying Third Reich generation, many of whom are ready and willing to talk at the end of their lives, says Pfeiffer, 29, who has just completed an unprecedented research project based on his own family.
"The situation has changed radically compared with the decades immediately after the war," Pfeiffer, a historian at a museum on the SS at Wewelsburg Castle, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "The generation of eyewitnesses evidently wants to talk now, at least that's my impression. Towards the end of one's life the distance to the events is so great that people are ready to give testimony."
"Immediately after the war, conversations about it between parents and children appear to have been impossible because it was all too fresh," Pfeiffer continued. "Now the problem is that no one is listening to that generation anymore. As a source of information, one's relatives are largely being ignored. But one day it will be too late."
New Approach to Questioning Relatives
Oral history has become increasingly popular, even though personal reminiscences are chronically unreliable as they are distorted by time. But Pfeiffer took a new approach by interviewing his two maternal grandparents about what they did in the war, and then systematically checking their statements using contemporary sources such as letters and army records.
No one has done this before.
He juxtaposed his findings with context from up-to-date historical research on the period and wrote a book that has shed new light on the generation that unquestioningly followed Hitler, failed to own up to its guilt in the immediate aftermath of the war and, more than six decades on, remains unable to express personal remorse for the civilian casualties of Hitler's war of aggression, let alone for the Holocaust.
His recently published book, "My Grandfather in the War 1939-1945," (published in German only) is based on the interviews he conducted in 2005 with his grandfather, named only as Hans Hermann K., who was a career officer in a Wehrmacht infantry regiment. His grandmother Edith was too ill to be interviewed at length but he analyzed many of her letters. Both died in 2006.
Both of them supported the Nazi regime and Pfeiffer admits that they were morally "contaminated," like millions of ordinary Germans of that generation. He describes his grandmother Edith as a "committed, almost fanatical Nazi."
'No One Can Say What They Would Have Done'
But the project wasn't an attempt to pass judgment on his grandparents, says Pfeiffer. He only wanted to understand them.
"No one today can say what they would have done or thought at the time," he said. "I believe that people will learn a lot if they understand how their respected and loved parents or grandparents behaved in the face of a totalitarian dictatorship and murderous racial ideology," Pfeiffer said.
"Dealing with one's family history in the Nazi period in an open, factual and self-critical way is an important contribution to accepting democracy and avoiding a repeat of what happened between 1933 and 1945."
Hans Hermann K. was so good at goosestepping that he was briefly transferred to a parade unit in Berlin. Edith joined the Nazi Party and was so zealous that when she married Hans Hermann in 1943, she provided documentation tracing her Aryan roots all the way back to the early 18th century -- even SS members were "only" required to verify their racial purity back to January 1, 1800.
During the course of his research, Moritz Pfeiffer found large gaps, contradictions and evasive answers in Hans Hermann's testimony -- regarding his purported ignorance of mass executions of civilians, for example.
Grandfather Fought in France , Poland , Soviet Union
Hans Hermann was a lieutenant in the famous 6th Army and fought in the invasions of Poland, France and the Soviet Union, where he lost an eye in September 1942 when a shell exploded near him.
His wound probaby saved his life. Shortly after he was evacuated back to Germany for treatment, his unit was sent to Stalingrad and virtually wiped out. Only 6,000 men survived out of the more than 100,000 that were taken prisoner by the Red Army at Stalingrad.
Few would disagree that Germany as a nation has worked hard to atone for its past, unlike Austria and Japan which have cloaked themselves in denial. Germany has paid an estimated 70 billion in compensation for the suffering it caused, conducts solemn ceremonies to commemorate the victims and, above all, has owned up to what was done in its name.
Companies and government ministries have opened up their archives to historians to illuminate their role in the Third Reich, and a late push in prosecutions of war criminals is underway to make up for the failure to bring them to justice in the decades after the war.
But millions never confronted their own personal role as cogs in the Nazi machinery.
Hans Hermann was no different, even though he readily agreed to talk to his grandson.
He was born in 1921 to an arch-conservative, nationalist family with military traditions in the western city of Wuppertal. His father, a furniture store owner, regaled him with stories about his time as a lieutenant in World War I, and it was instilled in him at an early age that the war reparations of the Versailles Treaty were exaggerated.
The store boomed after Hitler took power because the new government provided cheap government loans for married couples to buy kitchen and bedroom furniture.
In the interview, Hans Hermann was frank about his attitude towards Jews in the mid-1930s, when he was in his early teens and a member of the Jungvolk youth organization, which was affiliated with the Hitler Youth.
Asked by Moritz whether he thought at the time that the racial laws banning Jews from public life and systematically expropriating their property were unfair, he said:
"No, we didn't regard that as injustice, we had to go with the times and the times were like that. The media didn't have the importance then that they do today."