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Guilt and the Legacy of Nazism
Book Essay on:
Dan Bar-On, Legacy of Silence: Encounters with Children of the Third Reich
by Kelsey Figge
About Kelsey Figge
I am a third-year senior History of Public Policy major who is mainly studying twentieth century U.S. and (a little) European history. I had limited German history prior to this course from general European history but decided to enroll because it was the twentieth century which I am focusing on in my study of the United States and thought it would provide an interesting contrast. I chose to write about the legacy of Nazism because I wanted to look at the Second World War and the Holocaust from the German perspective instead of the U.S. or Jewish.
Abstract (back to top)
Legacy of Silence: Encounters with Children of the Third Reich is a collection of thirteen interviews from the 1980s of children (then adults) of Nazi perpetrator fathers. The author Dan Bar-On attempts to show how fathers’ experiences and occupations influenced the lives of their children. If the occupations of the fathers were openly discussed and known by the children, it seems that their guilt is less than those whose fathers expressed little or no guilt. Many of the fathers committed suicide in order to escape the guilt that haunted them for the crimes they had committed. My essay focuses on guilt and how it affected the lives of the children of the Third Reich based on how much their fathers’ actions were discussed with them.
Essay (back to top)
Legacy of Silence: Encounters with Children of the Third Reich by Dan Bar-On is a collection of thirteen interviews from the 1980s. Bar-On tried to discover the experiences of the children of the Third Reich in Germany. After researching survivors of the Holocaust who had copious amounts of information and accounts written about their experiences, Bar-On wanted to learn about the perpetrators’ children. The children often experienced a fatherless childhood, even a fatherless life after their fathers committed suicide or were executed. Bar-On seeks to answer one main question: did the children’s fathers feel guilty for their role in the Third Reich? In order to answer this question Bar-On also asks many questions as simple as the interviewees’ birthdates to the complicated question of what effect their fathers’ experiences have had on their lives and personal relationships. This book shows the legacy of Nazism through the eyes of the children and young adults at the end of the Second World War. Their fathers were literally guilty of war crimes and involvement in the Third Reich. Despite the popular post-war repression of memories of Nazi Germany, Third Reich fathers and their children suffered from guilt, literal and moral; the way in which children were exposed to their fathers and their jobs had a large effect on the amount of guilt that the children felt.
Bar-On interviewed thirteen children of the Third Reich:
Some of the children did not know their fathers very well because they died before the children were even old enough to know them from suicide or execution. The fathers’ presence in the lives of their children affected how the children remembered the Third Reich because they were told different things by different people; most of what they know about the Third Reich and their fathers they have learned from family, friends, and their own research. Remembering their fathers was difficult and emotional for the children. The history they learned in school ended right around Bismarck and World War I and left out the Third Reich as well as the atrocities that these children had to live through whether cognizant of them or not.
Several of the children lost their fathers to suicide, which was committed mostly to avoid going to trial. In many cases the reasons for suicide were unclear to the family and sometimes it took a while for the child to find out. Manfred’s father committed suicide because of “certain political matters from the Third Reich that finally caught up with him,” when Manfred was only eight months old, so he only knew about his father through what others told him (45). Although unspecific, these certain political matters were apparently enough to make his father feel guilty enough to kill himself. His mother said her husband “had taken his life because he was a Nazi…he had done bad things during National Socialism,” (39). Despite this knowledge and implication of guilt of her husband, Manfred’s mother was in disbelief that her husband had actually committed suicide and did not believe it until she heard about the trials and more facts were later presented to her, demonstrating the repression of memories of Nazism. Manfred said, “It shapes and continues to shape me in that I think it places a certain moral guilt upon a person,” showing that feelings of guilt can be passed along from generation to generation, even though he was not directly involved in the actions that caused the guilt initially (54). He felt deeply affected by his father’s position, and he did not even know his father, he said that “Guilt is present even in the case of a single victim,” from a moral standpoint that his father must have felt guilty even if he was only responsible for one victim, as anyone in his position would have been (54).
Helmuth’s father experienced “concrete guilt in respect to euthanasia,” and his mother believed his suicide was to protect the family from liquidation (73, 79). The suicide desperately affected Helmuth’s family life later; he was married and divorced twice and suffered his politically active son’s suicide. His father’s guilt made Helmuth feel guilty for his own son’s suicide even though unlike his father, he was never directly involved with killing anyone. It is possible that Helmuth’s father’s suicide created a feeling of guilt for Helmuth because his father sacrificed himself for this family and Helmuth felt guilty about that. Gerda’s father knew about the exterminations but was not part of them. Something possessed him to kill himself “under terrible circumstances” (123). It is unclear what these terrible circumstances are, but he was a close friend of Hitler’s which could have presumably created a heavy enough burden of guilt to lead to suicide. Gerda learned about her father from her family as well as her father himself, whom she found “very human” (125). Thomas’ father also committed suicide, although according to Thomas the “immediate reason for his suicide – namely the danger that he might be discovered – well, that danger didn’t exist at all,” implying that his father succumbed to the guilt and fear he felt because of his involvement with the SS (150). Thomas’ father had said he wanted to live because he had a lot to do, he felt he had to redeem himself (149). These are examples that, yes, members of the Third Reich did indeed feel guilty about their actions, whether their exact reasons were clear or not. They are also an example of how the children still think about these suicides and are affected by them.
Effects of Guilt:
The guilt of the children varies, some did not feel guilty because of their father’s actions, while others did and are deeply affected by the actions of their fathers. The extent to which fathers talked about their involvement and actions influenced the guilt felt by their children. Monika felt that Germans in general had to feel guilty and said, “We are the guilty ones,” (273). Although she was an illegitimate child and did not know her father, she still felt his guilt was also her guilt, and that it was all of Germany’s guilt. Bernd assumed that “they all had some feeling of guilt at some moment, to some extent” in reference to a story told to him in confession by a man who was haunted by his past (196). This assumption helps Bar-On prove that guilt was present within the Third Reich, despite the fact that these people were still carrying out their orders. Gerda felt guilty about her father, because he knew what was happening to the Jews and did not do anything. She takes on the guilt that her father should have had for his actions. Peter’s father, Ernst, felt guilty for being part of Auschwitz which played an essential role in the carrying out of the establishment of the Germanic race. Ernst used an analogy of snails in his garden to explain his guilt regarding the selection process at Auschwitz, “…but then there’s one that I miss, that I see and have to kill, to dig up and kill the last one. That’s what’s so unpleasant,” (25). He was haunted by the guilt for being at Auschwitz even after refusing to make selections because he felt at least semi-responsible for the atrocities that occurred there.
Another interesting example of guilt is Menachem, who became a Jewish rabbi in adulthood. It is possible that subconsciously he developed his interest in Judaism in order to redeem his father’s antisemitism. Although he says that his conversion to Judaism stemmed largely from his studies, it is not unlikely that he was influenced by his father’s past. Hilda also felt guilty, but for her father being sent to the front, “I didn’t want to show how guilty I felt,” (105). Her guilt was a different type of guilt, because she had grown up around the camps for a few years with her dad because he was a supplier and took her with him, until he was sent to the front. Her guilt was unlike the moral or literal guilt that other children and fathers suffered, hers was very personal which affected her family life because it was totally different when she had to live with her family instead of roaming around the camps. Her guilt was caused by her upbringing, directly in and around the camps. Manfred did not feel “personal guilt,” however he recognized the notion of “guilt by association” suffered after National Socialism (56). This distinction shows that although Manfred himself did not feel personal guilt, guilt could be projected on him because of his father, possible for any of these children.
Rudolf’s father felt so guilty about his actions that he wrote a long letter entitled “Our Guilt,” which discussed his feelings toward the things he was asked to do and that he did feel a great amount of guilt because of it. Rudolf’s father is an example however, of someone who tried to change what was going on, he attempted to save Jews in a ghetto by saying he needed them to work for him. His guilt was seemed to overtake him and cause him to do something to redeem himself. Unsuccessful in saving the Jews, he was overcome by illness, perhaps caused by the extreme guilt he suffered. Rudolf’s father’s guilt and the legacy of Nazism continued to haunt him even though he was advised by a doctor to “try to forget things – something that was, and is, impossible” (208). Rudolf’s father’s guilt took over his life and health, which Rudolf was a witness to. His father’s guilt shaped him because Rudolf did not understand what his father was talking about due to his own involvement in the Hitler Youth (209). As his father became more and more silent about it, Rudolf’s feelings vanished (209).
A Lack of Guilt:
Dieter came from a family of soldiers, however his father discouraged him and his brother from joining the army and neither did. Unlike the fathers previously discussed, Dieter’s felt little guilt for what he had done, so during their father’s trial for war crimes Dieter and his brother, unaware of degree of father’s guilt, thought, “he was a soldier, he’d been ordered to do this, and now we are burdened with these difficulties as a result,” (226). They did not feel he could be completely responsible and realized what an effect this would have on their lives. It is difficult to assess how guilty one is if it is unclear what exactly they are guilty of. Dieter’s father was very open with his children about his involvement, more so than any other, as well as the fact that he did not like Hitler or the Nazis (222). Renate was also unclear on her father’s guilt as he had never indicated any (254). Her siblings had accepted that he had no guilt about what he had done, while she felt that he should feel guilty and was guilty of something. She believed that her father was rightly sentenced, but that physical punishment could possibly free someone like him from guilt that they have (254). This is significant because although she was not directly involved, she took on the guilt that her father ignored.
Some guilt was by association like Manfred described, male children shared the last name of the perpetrators, their fathers. Thomas kept his distance from all ties and connections to the Nazis while growing up despite his feeling of being a “crown prince” because of his name, an example of trying to break the legacy of Nazism and fix the guilt and shame he felt because of his familial background (139). His father did not discuss with him what was going on in Germany and he saw a great change in his father’s personality after he went to war (137, 138). His guilt feeling was not great enough to make him change his last name, but only to consider it. He kept it despite the connotation that the last name “Heydrich” received due to his uncle’s behavior in the Nazi intelligence organization. In even just considering changing his name, Thomas felt some guilt for both his father and uncle’s actions. Like Thomas, Fritz also felt guilt attached to his last name, but he chose not to change it because, “I don’t have any children. We’re going to die anyhow,” (305). He felt anger toward his father, and did not want to have his name, but did not want to change it either. These are examples of the literal legacy of Nazism because these men, even if they do not feel personal guilt for their father’s actions, they have a piece of Nazism attached to them for eternity. Unlike Thomas and Fritz, Gerda did change her last name and even then was very secretive about her father’s identity causing Bar-On to have to find out on his own (128).
The Perpetrators’ Literal Guilt:
All but one of the fathers put on trial were sentenced to prison or executed. Peter’s father Ernst was acquitted of his charges in Auschwitz trials, so he only suffered from personal guilt, difficult but not physical. Unlike Ernst, Dieter’s father was indicted in 1965 to stand trial and because he could not prove that he refused to join the SS, he was sentenced to jail but released due to ill health. When Dieter suggested his father could have became an SS general if he had tried, his father replied, “You just don’t know what you’re talking about,” suggesting that perhaps his father thought his position was bad enough, that it produced enough guilt (223). Renate’s father was tried on two separate occasions, the first he served three years of a four year sentence for taking part in, or commanding, a firing squad involved in executions of Russian partisans, , and the second time he was acquitted of similar accusations (250). When he found out he could be jailed, her father said of his potential to be jailed that he, “a decent and proper German civil servant, was locked up with criminals” (250). He did not think of himself as a criminal; he never felt guilty for what he had done, only sorry for himself. This is a different feeling than many of the other fathers, because most felt some type of guilt. Fritz’s father was also tried and executed. His mother had believed all the people that told her that he would not be executed, just sentenced to life in prison. Fritz’s father’s execution proves that even if his wife did not believe he was guilty, it was very possible that he was guilty of something, so guilty that he was worth killing.
Speculations and Conclusions:
The feeling and implication of guilt was Bar-On’s key question in his interviews. It is evident that most of the fathers suffered guilt from their positions in the Third Reich, and their children often suffered guilt as well. To speculate and look at the issue of children of the Third Reich more broadly, there probably are some children whose fathers truly did not feel guilty, morally or literally. It is possible that although they committed these crimes they felt that they were in fact just following orders, and not responsible for the outcome of their actions. It is hard to know exactly how much guilt was felt and why it was felt, because some of the information is hard to uncover. It seems that most perpetrators did indeed feel some sort of guilt for their actions whether it was while they were carrying out their duties or afterward. It is important to note which fathers talked to their children and which did not and how that made the children feel later in life. It seems that those whose father’s expressed guilt openly did not pass on guilt, while those that did not express any did cause their children to feel guilt or have a hard time in personal relationships. It is interesting to note how their relationships effected the proliferation of guilt. In some cases, however, a suicide, and/or lack of relationship caused a feeling of guilt so it is hard to generalize what causes guilt and what does not.
Bar-On’s examination of effects of fathers of the Third Reich on their children in the Nazi era is interesting because it shows that although it was hard for these children to think back to their past, they were able; in most cases, with some coaxing, to provide insight into the Third Reich. Many of the children were deeply affected by their parents’ political decisions. While some became rabbis or priests, others’ personal lives were also greatly shaped by these atrocities and guilt. Shame and guilt toward what their fathers had done caused them to forget about or block the memories. Some were not active in their fathers’ lives while others were, and this influenced both how they thought of their fathers and themselves. Many of the perpetrators and their families both felt guilt for the atrocities that occurred during World War II.
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