Memories of WWII: A German Family's Tangled Wartime History

By Marianne Wellershoff

Photo Gallery: Historical Contradictions Photos
Dieter Wellershoff/supposÈ Verlag

Her aunt was executed by the Nazis, her uncle was a far-right political leader and her father told her stories of nighttime battles on the Eastern Front. SPIEGEL's Marianne Wellershoff traces her family's complicated place in World War II history.

World War II made its presence known again during the summer vacation of 1969. My father was in his bathing suit and I could see two holes in his thigh, one large, long one and one somewhat smaller. There was "shrapnel" in there, he told me, a war wound. But I was six years old and didn't know what shrapnel was. What I knew was that I didn't want to touch those two strange, yet fascinating hollows in the flesh of my father's leg.

Around 10 years later, we were driving along a transit route through East Germany (one of the few official motorways that connected West Germany with West Berlin) when my father cried out, "That's the village! That's where I stood in the village pond while the Russian tanks arrived!" At the end of this particular family trip, I found myself at the grave of my maternal grandfather, Adolf von Thadden, a nobleman from Trieglaff. The family cemetery was ravaged, its crosses torn down, everything that could be destroyed had been. I was rescuing the frogs unlucky enough to have fallen into the grave, which had been broken open.

Underneath the bookshelves in my parents' living room are cardboard boxes full of old black and white photos that I used to look at when I was a child. There's my father as a young man in uniform, his black hair and sensitive, observant face very different from the usual angular heads of Nazi men, with their hair left long in front and cropped short in the back. Then there's my mother, with her blonde hair and symmetrical features, so beautiful and so German she could easily have been designed by Nazi ideologues.

My parents' life stories could not be more different from one another. My father, writer Dieter Wellershoff, was a leader in the Jungvolk, a subdivision of the Hitler Youth. He told me that as a teenager he admired the students in the classes above him, who got to wear uniforms and were successful with the ladies -- something my father longed for at that age. In 1943, at age 17, he volunteered for the Wehrmacht -- the regular German army -- so he wouldn't have to join the SS, which had already tried to recruit him.

My father's father, as director of the building authority for the city of Grevenbroich, was a member of the Nazi Party, and served as an officer in both World War I and World War II. My grandmother, on the other hand, had no interest in politics. She fled to Silesia, today part of Poland, to escape the bombing, and died there during a gallbladder operation. My father's younger brother spent the last years of the war at a boarding school for war orphans.

My mother, Maria von Thadden, was born to a very Protestant aristocratic family in the region of Pomerania. She never joined the Nazi party's League of German Girls. Her family considered the Nazis abhorrently low-class and politically intolerable. My mother's half-brother, Reinold von Thadden, was active in the Confessing Church led by Martin Niemöller, which opposed the Nazis, and was imprisoned for it in 1937. After the war, he founded the German Protestant Church Conference.

The Nuance of 'Collective Guilt'

Talking about Germans' collective guilt ignores the fact that a collective is not just the sum of many individual fates. There were clear perpetrators in the Third Reich: Adolf Hitler and his henchmen. There were also clear victims: Jews first and foremost, but also those who were persecuted for political reasons, or for being gay or having a disability, to name just a few groups. There were those who helped the Nazis, and those who turned a blind eye to their crimes. And there were also those people who helped the victims, and those who at least didn't participate in the persecution and atrocities. Then there were the German soldiers who were dragged along by the situation of a country at war, who weren't given a choice whether they wanted to be in the trenches, and who ended up operating machineguns and killing people.

Given that my parents had such opposing life stories, I never understood the way people made generalizations about the war generation. I myself never knew if I should count myself among the guilty, or see myself as a descendant of the victims. My father fought on the Eastern Front, and although his injury would have excused him from returning there, he threw himself back into the war. "Did you shoot and kill Russians?" I asked him. He told me he didn't know.

During nighttime combat, they simply shot in the direction where they could see the flash of the other side's weapons, he said. He didn't participate in executions -- in his armored division, he would have had to volunteer directly to Hermann Göring to do so. My father chose not to, he told me, because he didn't want to shoot men who were bound and captive. That he was in Berlin while part of his division was in Italy murdering partisans, my father told me, was simply luck. To this day he can't say for sure how he would have behaved if he had been present for that massacre.

My mother's half-sister, Elisabeth von Thadden, was sentenced to death by the Nazis' People's Court and guillotined at Plötzensee Prison in Berlin in 1944. At a tea party, she had expressed her opinion that the war was as good as lost and was reported by a Gestapo spy. Ever since my mother visited the Plötzensee memorial site, she has been plagued by the memory of the short flight of steps up to the guillotine, where her half-sister sang a hymn by Paul Gerhardt -- "Put an end, oh Lord, put an end to all our sufferings" -- as she climbed. "The flight of stairs was too short," my mother says. "She couldn't have had time to complete even the first verse."

Family of Victims and Perpetrators

Yet even the von Thadden family is full of contradictions. My mother's older brother was Adolf von Thadden, later a leader of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD). He had very close ties to the Nazis during the war, to his family's horror, but at the same time one of his best friends was a half-Jewish woman from Vienna. Their correspondence has survived. Shortly after the war, my uncle also risked his life in a failed attempt to rescue his mother and his second oldest sister from Russian-occupied Vahnerow in Pomerania, now part of Poland. Much later still, my mother says, he became a great admirer of the State of Israel -- because it was so perfectly organized.

My mother was 40 years old when I was born and my father was 37. Most of my classmates had parents who were themselves still children during the war. Perhaps that's why, in German schools in the 1970s, the Third Reich and World War II were taught the same way that World War I, the Thirty Years' War and the Romans' military campaigns were -- simply as history. I still wonder, though, why we never talked about our own families during these lessons. My sister is nine years older than I am and says she was outraged that her classmates' families never talked about National Socialism at home. Our parents, on the other hand, took my sister to visit the Dachau concentration camp when she was in elementary school.

To this day, I am baffled when I think back on one particular incident at my high school in Cologne. In a quarrel during a break between classes, a conflict that today seems positively harmless, a boy from my class threw an apple core in my face. I've forgotten now what we were fighting about, but I remember very clearly how the teacher reacted: Instead of asking to know why we were fighting and reprimanding us both, the teacher told me the boy had simply thrown the apple in the air and it had landed in my eye by chance. The boy was Jewish and his grandparents had been murdered in a concentration camp. For me it was a moment of realization that the teacher wasn't capable of treating this boy like any other student in the class. For him, the boy was an exception, to be handled differently.

Why? Was it perhaps because the horrifying years of the "Third Reich" were still much closer than most people would have liked to believe? It's probably true that other children's families didn't talk at home about the war, whereas my parents have both published books about their experiences with National Socialism. To this day, in fact, they talk so much about their past that it has become proof of something my father has always said: The war, and especially surviving the war, became the motor that drove everything that came afterward. My father says it gave him the feeling he was now capable of facing anything.

Aversion to Groupthink

Parents pass on their experiences to their children, their traumas as well as the things they've learned. My mother says she never sought to impart a concrete message to me and my two siblings. She simply wanted to describe to us how she experienced National Socialism. My father says he wanted to convey what he'd learned from his experience -- that ultimately you have only yourself to rely on.

In a recent SPIEGEL interview on the subject of war trauma, psychoanalyst Hartmut Radebold said, "Parents unconsciously pass on tasks to their children: Carry on with the family, do a better job." What, then, were my instructions? A German rock band wrote an ironic song called "I Want to Be Part of a Youth Movement." Personally, I never wanted to be part of any such thing. I rejected in equal measure the punks and the 1980s pop subculture pervasive in West Germany. I was and continue to be deeply skeptical of such groups. This mistrustful attitude has even affected the way I raise my daughters, because I won't accept any rationale that begins with, "But all the other kids …" It's a position that even to me sometimes seems overwrought. But I want my children to learn to rely on their own judgment, not to orient themselves according to what a group is doing or to comply obediently with authoritarian structures.

When I ask my younger colleagues about their families' experiences during the Third Reich, they talk about their grandparents with such remove that it sounds to me as if they're quoting from a novel. One colleague tells me his grandfather was a terrible Nazi, but what specifically that means, he doesn't know. And his other grandfather -- oh, right, what was the story with him?

Another colleague tells me his grandfather fought in the war, lost a leg and later banned toy guns from his house, but died before my colleague could ask him anything about his clearly terrible and unprocessed war experiences. Another colleague says her grandparents were just children during the war.

And yet the past continues to push its way into the present. Two years ago, I was sitting with my husband and our children at a restaurant in Aumühle, a town near Hamburg. It was Sept. 16. Tall, broad-shouldered young men who somehow had a dull look about them, along with a couple very old men and a few women with hairstyles that seemed to be from another era, passed us on their way into the restaurant's event hall. One man held his bomber jacket closed, so that only bits of the slogan on his T-shirt were visible. We could hear speeches behind the door, but couldn't make out the words. The sharp tone, though, was something we recognized from Nazi newsreels. This was a group of old Nazis and neo-Nazis celebrating the 120th birthday of Hitler's Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, who died in Aumühle. We didn't know how to react. What would my mother do, or my father? What would they expect of me in this moment? In the end we just paid and left, and never set foot in that restaurant again.

I wonder sometimes what I will remember years from now when I think back on my own experience of being 17. Will I remember how I once managed to sneak into a reggae club, even though I was underage? Or how I nursed sick hedgehogs back to health? Whatever the case may be, it will be unspectacular. And that's a good thing.

The book "Von Ort zu Ort: Eine Jugend in Pommern" (From Place to Place: A Childhood in Pomerania) was published in German in 2010 by DuMont Buchverlag and can be purchased at Amazon.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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