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

Bestselling German crime author Ferdinand von Schirach is the grandson of Baldur von Schirach, who was head of the Hitler Youth. In an essay for SPIEGEL, he writes for the first time about his relationship to his grandfather and why he cannot explain his grandfather's deeds.
Von Ferdinand von Schirach
Baldur von Schirach (right), the head of the Hitler Youth, is seen with Adolf Hitler in 1936.

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

Foto: AKG

My grandfather was released from prison when I was a small boy. I was two years old at the time. My family lived in the Schwabing district of Munich in a lovely 18th-century house covered with ivy. The hallways were a bit slanted, a few of the flagstones were broken and the front door would jam. A dark-green door led outside to a cobblestone street. Behind the house was a maze of rose bushes and a fountain with a naked statue of Cupid, the god of love. He still had the bow, but the arrow had gone missing.

I don't remember my grandfather's release. Everything I know comes from things I've been told, from photographs and from films. My father and his brothers picked him up outside the prison entrance in a black car. A wooden press stand had been erected out front just for this single day. My father wore a tightly fitted dark suit. He was very young and very unsure of himself. My grandfather was thin.

Then there are the images from the garden in Munich. The prominent German journalist Henri Nannen sits next to my grandfather on an old iron garden chair. He conducted the first major interviews with him. My family is sitting in the background beneath a chestnut tree. My grandfather speaks slowly and with a peculiar Weimar accent. When one listens to the interviews, one is surprised to hear that these people spoke in dialect. Albert Speer, Hitler's chief architect, spoke the dialect of his native Baden region. At the time, everybody said my grandfather spoke in a way that was "print-ready." But that's nonsense. He and the journalists had agreed on the questions in advance, and he had practiced his answers. My grandfather did not say anything that I can relate to.

When I was four, we moved in with my mother's family outside Stuttgart. We lived in a large estate that my great-grandfather had designed before World War I. It had tall old trees, a house with columns and stairs leading up to the entrance, ponds and a nursery. My father used to take me fishing and hunting. It was a world unto itself. I was usually alone. I still didn't know who this grandfather was. He had a collection of walking sticks, some of which had built-in schnapps flasks or little clocks. One contained a fencing foil.

Surrounded by Something I Couldn't Explain

Every day, we would take a walk to a kiosk outside the grounds. He had to walk slowly because he was almost blind in one eye; his retina had become detached in prison. People occasionally addressed him in the street, but I didn't like that. We played the board game Nine Men's Morris every day. He would always win using the same trick. At a certain point, I thought about it long enough to figure out how he did it. After that, he didn't play with me anymore. I was five or six at the time.

Talking with children wasn't something one did very much in our family. But that also had a good side: We were left alone; we lived in our own world. Still, I felt surrounded by something I couldn't explain. I didn't grow up like the other kids in the area; in fact, I hardly had any contact with them. Things continued to be foreign to me, and I never felt completely at home. I couldn't say that to anyone; perhaps children can never say things like that.

At home, no one said the word "prison"; it was just called "Spandau." But, at a certain point, I heard from a visitor that my grandfather had been locked up for a long time. I found that thrilling because I'd just read a book about the pirate Sir Francis Drake. I admired Drake very much, and he had been imprisoned for a long time. I asked my mother what my grandfather had done. I don't remember what she said. It was a very long explanation with a lot of words I didn't know. But I can still recall her voice; it sounded different than it normally did. It must be something bad, I thought, perhaps a curse like the ones in fairy tales.

All of a sudden, he was gone. He hadn't said goodbye to me. Much later, I learned he'd wanted to be alone. He moved to a small guesthouse in the Mosel region. I suppose it was all too much for him after 20 years in a cell. Shortly before he died, I saw him there one more time. That day, my attention was focused on the river, the vineyards and a donkey that lived there and constantly bared its teeth. My grandfather was an old man with an eye patch, a man I didn't know. I don't recall whether he even spoke with me that day. He had the phrase "I was one of you" put on his gravestone. It's an appalling sentence.

Like Creatures from a Tolkien Book

When I was 10, I began attending a Jesuit boarding school. Of course, I was much too young to do so, but somehow it worked out because all of us were too young. We received postal savings books with our allowance: four deutsche marks a month. On the first Monday of the month, the priests would give us our books, and we would go down to the post office to withdraw our money. A long line would form every time as the clerk still entered the figures by hand. On the third or fourth visit, he waved me forward. With glistening eyes, he said he'd known my grandfather and that, from now on, I could always skip directly to the front of the line. I ran away.

That afternoon, a priest tried to explain to me what National Socialism was, what my grandfather had done and why he'd gone to prison. It was still confusing and sounded like a story with strange creatures out of a book by J.R.R. Tolkien.

At 12, I grasped for the first time who he was. There was a photograph of him in our history textbook with the caption: "Reichsjugendführer Baldur von Schirach" -- leader of the Hitler Youth. I can still see it in front of me: My name was really in our textbook. On the facing page was a photograph of Claus von Stauffenberg, the leader of the failed July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, next to the caption "resistance fighter." The word "fighter" sounded much better. I sat in class next to a Stauffenberg, a grandson like me; we are still friends to this day. He didn't know anything more than I did.

No Secrets at Home

It took a while before we got to the part in the history textbook covering National Socialism. At the time, there were also a Speer, a Ribbentrop and a Lüninck in my class. Descendents of both the perpetrators and the resistance, all in the same classroom. My first big love was a Witzleben. History seemed to be one thing, my life something completely different.

Later, I was able to speak with everyone at home about this period. There were no secrets. Indeed, it might just be that the only advantage of having a name like mine was that nothing could remain hidden. We had endless discussions, and one of my uncles wrote a book about him.

I have never grasped why my grandfather became the man he was. When he was 18 years old, his older brother Karl committed suicide at his boarding school in Rossleben. It was said that he couldn't cope with the fact that the Kaiser had abdicated, but there was a book of the Buddha's sayings lying open on his desk when he died. His sister Rosalind became an opera singer. His father was the director of the theater in Weimar; his mother was an American. I have a photograph of her: a pretty woman with a slender neck. She was a descendent of immigrants who arrived on the Mayflower. One ancestor had been one of the signers of America's Declaration of Independence; another had been governor of Pennsylvania. The Schirachs were judges, historians, scholars and publishers. Most of them were employed by the state. They had been writing books for 400 years.

My grandfather grew up in this bourgeois world as a sheltered, tender child. In early pictures, he looks like a girl. He only spoke English until he was five. At 17, he met Hitler. At 18, he joined the Nazi Party, the NSDAP. Why would someone who went horse-riding in Munich's English Garden every morning during his studies be inspired by things that were dull and coarse? Why was he attracted by thugs, brutes with shaved heads and beer cellars? How could this man who wrote about Goethe and made Richard Strauss the godfather of one of his sons not have already understood at the time of the book burnings in 1933 that he had sided with the barbarians? Was he too ambitious, too unstable, too young? And why was it even important? His last words were reportedly: "What was I thinking?" It's a good question, but it doesn't explain anything.

Historians' Explanations Are No Use When It's Your Grandfather

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
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.
Speichern Sie Ihre Lieblingsartikel in der persönlichen Merkliste, um sie später zu lesen und einfach wiederzufinden.
Jetzt anmelden
Sie haben noch kein SPIEGEL-Konto? Jetzt registrieren