Stephan and Norbert Lebert,
My Fatherís Keeper: Children of Nazi Leaders--An Intimate History of Damage and Denial
(Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 2001), 244 pages. not held by UCSB, but: DD256.5 .L41613 2001
Book essay written by Kayla Knoess
for Prof. Marcuse's upper division lecture course Germany since 1945
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2004
About the Author:
Lebert offers the examples of the children themselves as evidence of their fathersí lasting impressions on Germany. One of these was Gudrun Himmler who grew up to preserve her fatherís ideals through an organization dedicated to taking care of the elderly Nazis. Another was Niklas Frank, who wrote the self-explanatory series entitled "My Father, The Nazi Murderer." Each individual can be a metaphor for the larger part of society that shares their postwar ideals. With each example Lebert examines the relationship the child had with their father at a young age, and then how that relationship had transformed, influenced by those early memories and also by the later realization that their father was a convicted mass murderer or accomplice. Through both the interviews and the personal writings of the adult children, Norbert Lebert has captured their unique and particular shared past and how it has shaped their futures into wildly different lives.
In the case of Wolf-Ruediger Hess, son of Hitlerís deputy Rudolf Hess, one finds a complicated character. His father was argued to be "the darkest and most obscure of the leading Nazis" (Lebert p52) in My Fatherís Keeper, but Wolf-Ruediger remained close to his father and corresponded with him regularly through his entire forty year prison sentence. His case is interesting because when the son was of age to be drafted into the German military, Wolf-Ruediger appealed his obligation to go. Based on the grounds that his father was imprisoned by the same organization of Allies that were associated with the German military, he felt that he could not serve while his father was still not free. He was eventually cleared of his duty to the armed forces, but had quite a fight to be recognized as a conscientious objector. This is obviously a story of a child with loyalty to his father, even when it was not easy. He states that his life revolved around his father, whose words and writings the son carefully contemplated and held dear. Wolfís father was the only one in these examples to live long past the Nazi years. This fact alone would have allowed them the time to grow in the father/son relationship of earlier years, which would then allow Wolf to make more peace with his fatherís past than those children whose relationships with their fathers were ended by their fathersí early executions. With an actual human being sitting in front of him, Wolf had a far greater opportunity to humanize his convicted father than the children whose fathers were no longer alive. This must have allowed him to feel compassion or sympathy, perhaps lessening his more negative emotions, that he may not have felt if his father had been killed and was merely a memory.
But although he loved and respected his father, and although he was successful in his academics and career, Wolf-Ruediger looked "at the world so bitterly and filled with hate" (Lebert p75). It could be argued that here was a man who still suffers a great deal in other areas of his life despite having a close and positive relationship with his Nazi father. But perhaps we really just see a man who has had to live forty years with his dear father imprisoned, seeing him only on supervised visits, corresponding through letters once a month, and reading about him in the newspaper articles that spread rumors about him and denounced him as a murderer. These could arguably be the factors that resulted in Wolfís sometimes bleak outlook on life.
Martin Bormann, whose godfather was Adolf Hitler, found himself alone and abandoned at a very young age, hiding out as a farm hand in the country. He was running from the new anti-Nazi campaign of Allied forces searching for Nazis and their families in order to put them on trial. When he was discovered, he was given up to a priest rather than a soldier, and quickly converted to Catholicism. He entered the priesthood and spent years as a missionary, though he later quit and married. One possibility for his religious devotion is that Martin was searching for something that could not only assuage his guilt about his fatherís actions, but could grant him some kind of peace about his relationship with his father. He says he is the only one of his fatherís seven children who cared to learn about or talk about Martin Bormann Sr., which probably stems from a positive relationship with him earlier in his life, and now allows him to remember his father as a real and loving person. Despite the physical difficulties of his childhood, ultimately caused by his fatherís involvement with the Nazi regime, Martin does still have a present day psychological struggle. According to Lebertís book , though today Martin readily admits his fatherís actions and guilt, he holds that against his memories of a father who wrote to him in 1943, "My darling boy, I hope Iíll be able to see you again soon. Your Daddy." (Lebert p116-117) Bormann Jr. sustains this balance only through his spiritual beliefs, saying nothing else could explain it. Bormann has had to decide that his father and his fatherís deeds were two different things in order to lessen the burden of his fatherís legacy (Lebert p121). This idea ultimately seems to give him some peace, although Lebert points out how obviously the man still struggles with maintaining this separation in the face of what he knows his father had done. Clearly, if Martinís relationship with his father had not been so positive, he would have definitely had more struggles to contend.
A different case entirely is that of Niklas Frank. Here is a man who was condemned for hating his father too much. Unlike some of the other children whose lives were made difficult because of the guilt by association with their fathers, Niklasí life was made difficult by his own very vocal outbursts against his fatherís beliefs and his father himself. Niklasí writings were considered a disgrace by Germans of the 1980ís (Lebert p141), because they violently proclaim his hatred for his father. This hatred is in turn placed on himself, as he begins to see his fatherís characteristics in his own feelings and actions. Here is one child who vehemently proclaims how horribly his fatherís life has affected his own. Google marcuse 133c to find where this essay is published on the web. An insight of particular importance to this argument comes from the younger Lebert in regard to his fatherís opinion of Niklas Frankís behavior in 1959: "Maybe he [Lebert Sr.] knew all too well, after the research heíd carried out at the end of the 1950s, that anyone who wanted to overcome the Nazi past needed some sort of instrument of extreme force to do it." (Lebert 143) This could be one explanation of Niklasí reaction, but the theory of the effect of his relationship with his father offers another.
Niklas talked in 1959 about researching his fatherís life in order to get to know him, implying that they were not close before his father died. Being the only child in this book to feel so negatively towards his father as a person and not just his fatherís actions, Niklas seems to demonstrate that the closer the relationship between father and child, the more understanding, compassion, and ultimately peace the child experiences. Perhaps had he known his father more, or had a closer relationship to his father in life, he would have been able to differentiate between the man and the actions, and let go of some of his rage.
Lastly, Gudrun Himmler. She was a girl who absolutely adored her father and revered his every word. She holds to conspiracy theories surrounding his death, and believes that when she is able to examine the documents from the time he was in office she will be able to correct his reputation and save his name, which she still holds so dear. She took very drastic measures to support her father, including imprisonment and a hunger strike. She refused to change her name despite the jobs, apartments, education, and other opportunities lost because of it. She refused to go to church, saying, "I want to stay the way my father was," and when asked about her father she simply stated, "My father was the Reichsfuehrer-SS" (Lebert p174-175). Gudrun Himmler has absolutely no shame and is apparently even very proud of her family and heritage. This is an example of a child of a Nazi who would not concede for a moment that her father had any negative effect on her life. Although Gudrunís beliefs are held to be disgusting by most of the rest of the world, she still follows the argument that she is able to have some sort of stability in her beliefs because of her devotion to her father. She has taken a rather extreme route, but even she is not so unhappy as Niklas Frank, for example.
Lebertís book was an incredibly compelling read that clearly and interestingly answered the question of the personal impact of the Nazi leaders. Through the case studies of their children and families, we can see how their relationships determined their familiesí reactions and entire futures. How these people reacted to their fathersí lives differed amazingly from one story to the next, but every one seems to have stemmed from something much more personal than their fatherís involvement in the Nazi regime. In every case it is obvious that the childrenís perceptions and experiences with their fathers dramatically shaped their future beliefs and ultimately their happiness. The children who were closer to their fathers seem to be able to come to terms with at least some part of the legacy and burden than those who were not. We can see that the children who were able to view their fathers as real people and not just abstract murderers were far better equipped to deal with the entire situation and the journey to understanding and overcoming their fathersí Nazi past.