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Edda and Hermann Goering

Born Guilty: The Lives and Legacies of the Children of the Nazis

Book Essay on: Norbert and Stephan Lebert, My Father’s Keeper: Children of Nazi Leaders- An Intimate History of Damage and Denial
(Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 2001), 244 pages
and Helga Schneider, Let Me Go (2004)

by Katie Ritchie
June 5, 2007

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2007

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
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About Katie Ritchie

I am a sophomore history major with an emphasis on modern history. I have taken many classes about Nazi history and the holocaust. I became interested in what happened to Germany after the holocaust and in particular how German’s feel about their Nazi past. The legacy of Nazi children is the clearest example of the conflict between the new generation of Germans and the old one. I was most interested to know how the legacy of Nazism impacted the children of Nazis and if they followed in their fathers footsteps.

Abstract (back to top)

My Father’s Keeper: Children of Nazi Leaders--An Intimate History of Damage and Denial is written by both Stephan and Norbert Lebert. Norbert conducted interviews with the subjects in 1959 and Stephan, his son, followed up his interviews forty years later. Norbert manages to interview most oft the children of top officials including: Gudrun Himmler, Niklas and Norman Frank, Edda Goring, Wolf-Rüdiger Hess, and Martin Bormann Jr. When Norbert interviews each child in 1959 they all tell stories of their fathers and their experiences after the war. It was some of these experiences with the allied army which caused a distain for America and democracy especially in the cases of Gudrun Himmler and Wolf-Rüdiger Hess.

In 2000 when Stephan interviews all but two of the participants again, Gudrun Himmler and Edda Goring were living in self-exile form the outside world; the fates of most of the children have already been sealed. The interaction and the memories that each child had of their fathers seemed to dictate their destinies. If the child could distinguish between their father as a paternal figure and the Nazi actions of their father then they could find their own belief system. The children who believed their father and his actions were the same could not let go of the Nazi ideology.

Let Me Go is in contrast a woman’s own account of an interview with her estranged mother who left her family to become a SS guard. Helga’s mother had not renounced the old ideology and remained indifferent to Helga and her brother for most of her life. Helga realizes that she wants to understand why her mother would rather be in the SS over a mother to her and her brother, but in the process comes to terms with the fact that she may never know. With this interview Helga was able to differentiate between her mother and her mothers actions; she never had that before because she never knew her mother. She now knows that she has a mother but the person her mother is she will never be able to love because of her actions. It is a book or realization and healing for Helga and her mother.

Essay (back to top)


Imagine that you are fifteen years old again and you come to find out that the man you thought your father was is not the whole picture. He has been arrested and put on trial for very serious crimes including mass murder and leading a terrorist organization. He has been convicted of these crimes and sent to a maximum security prison to await a lethal injection. You and your family are suspected of involvement in these crimes and are taken into custody. When you are finally released you are left with nothing except for your last name and memories of your past. How would you feel about your father? Would you still love him and think of him as your father or a mass murderer? Would you feel guilty or would you follow in your fathers footsteps? Would you want to see your father again? How would you feel about your last name, that it is a curse or would you announce it with pride? These are the main questions raised by the books My Father’s Keeper by Robert and Norbert Lebert and Let Me Go by Helga Schneider. The questions are explored by personal interviews with the children of Nazis and Helga Schneider’s own experience as a daughter of a Nazi. Both use primary source documents written by prominent Nazi leaders and the books of the sons and daughters of those Nazis. My Father’s Keeper also integrates other historian interviews with the children such as Dan Bar-On’s interview with Martin Bormann Jr. in his book The Legacy of Silence. Each author offers the main point that the actions of their fathers influenced the whole lives of their children and that each child carries the burden of their parent’s guilt in very different ways.

A Father and a Father's Actions:

Hitler with Bormann childrenAll of the children interviewed by Norbert Lebert had not reached adulthood when WWII ended in 1945. They were adolescents old enough to have memories of their fathers but young enough to not realize what position their fathers held in the Third Reich. Most of the children of the Nazis interviewed hold the belief that their fathers are first and foremost their parental figures and second Nazi officials. The children who could not distinguish between their father’s actions and the person are the ones who usually also followed their beliefs. Martin Bormann Jr., who became a priest in the 1950s has always been able to distinguish between the actions of his father and his parent. He admits to his father’s guilt but has never really dealt with the public’s vision of his father as pure evil. Bormann still holds the picture of his father as a loving and attentive parent. He splits the image and thinks of his father as two different personas. Therefore he can come to the conclusion that although his father’s actions and ideology was wrong he is still a good father (Lebert 117).

Gudrun Himmler

Gudrun Himmler however, has never been able to split the image of her father. Heinrich Himmler was the man of his actions and his ideology, who he was as a Nazi was who he was as a father. Gudrun has always been loyal to her father and dedicated to him, not just as her parent but as a Nazi as well. Her inability to differentiate his actions as a father and as a Nazi has led to Gudrun adopting the Nazi ideology (Lebert 182). The rule that children who cannot differentiate between their father and their fathers actions always follow in his ideological beliefs has almost always been followed with the exception of Niklas Frank. He has always grouped his father Hans Frank together as a Nazi and a parent. He has never pretended to distinguish between the two, but instead of following his father’s ideology he went in the opposite direction. He despises his father and all that he stood for. Niklas Frank actually wrote a book in the 1980s entitled My Father the Nazi Murderer, where he described masturbating over a picture of his dead father every year on the anniversary of his death (Lebert 140). He found no redeeming qualities in his father and still harbors a deep hatred for him. Perhaps the deep rooted feelings about his father are founded on hatred because Niklas as the youngest son has very little memories of his father. Also that Hans Frank was hanged in 1946 when Niklas was still a very young boy, he never got to know his father personally. The only information he has was gathered through the media and a few stories from family members.

Gudrun and Heinrich Himmler in Dachau
Gudrun and Heinrich Himmler in Dachau

Hess and his Father

The question of why Niklas hates his father leads to another important topic, the question of whether the child of a Nazi’s ideology is a product of the relationship that that child had or in some cases still has with their father or mother. Wolf-Rüdiger Hess had to grow up with the fact that his father was still alive and he could communicate with him. He sent a letter to him every month and had a total of 102 visits to Rudolf Hess while he was imprisoned in the Spandau fortress (Lebert 80). Hess grew up knowing his father and having a relationship with him. Rudolf Hess never once gave up his Nazi ideology and his son grew up with his father preaching those ideals to him. Wolf-Rüdiger Hess devoted himself to the release of his father from prison and joined groups whose goal it was to free Hess. There he associated with former Nazis and people devoted to his father just as he was. He never spoke out about politics for fear that the allied forces would revoke his visiting rights. When his father died in 1987 he realized that all his efforts had been useless. He became embittered and disillusioned at the world. Because his father was always there he was never able to create his own identity and ideology. Hess is the product of his father still being in his life and also never being able to separate his father’s actions from a parental figure.

Absent Parents

Helga Schneider was spared Wolf-Rüdiger Hess’s fate. In her book Let Me Go she tells her readers that in her lifetime she has only met her mother once after she was abandoned by her at the age of four. Her story is of her second meeting with her mother, twenty-seven years after the first one. Helga has never known her mother as anything more than a Nazi and the only memories she has are fragmented accounts of her mother’s complete devotion to the Nazi party. She grew up knowing of her mother’s guilt but not personally ever knowing her as a mother figure. Helga did not have her mother there to influence her ideology and also like Niklas Frank she was very young when her mother left. The fact that her mother was not in her life allowed Helga to reject her mother’s ideology and create her own. Helga grew to resent her mother not only as a Nazi but as a mother too, whereas most of the children of Nazis had fond memories of their fathers.

The exception to this fate lies with Gudrun Himmler. Her father died at the end of the war by poisoning himself with a potassium cyanide capsule. She was never in contact with him like Wolf-Rüdiger Hess but remained a sort of fanatic devoted to his memory and to his ideologies. Her father was not there for her after she was sixteen and still an adolescent, so why should she become a Nazi when she was grown up? The answer may be attributed to Gudrun’s experiences after the war as a result of her father’s role in the Nazi party. She and her mother were imprisoned for the better part of two years. They were treated as criminals by the allied powers and fed two meals of mushy peas a day. Gudrun went on a hunger strike to protest her and her mother’s treatment by the allied powers (Lebert 163). When they were finally released she and her mother were sent to a rural homeless shelter where they had to start all over. The Allies forced Gudrun to change her last name from Himmler to Schmidt (Lebert 165). Gudrun grew to hate the allied forces and in that hatred identified with her father’s ideology. Another factor that led Gudrun to identify with her father even though he was not around was that their personalities were so similar. This grew to be a big problem for many of the children of the Nazis.

Family Characteristics

Gudrun was a stubborn girl, but most of all she, like her father, was a dreamer. She lived in a fantasy land by which the name Himmler was sacred and her family legacy gave her privileges over others. To this day Gudrun Himmler says that her name has never brought her anything but good, even though there are many instances where she was fired or not hired because of her last name. She was not admitted to school after school and was scorned by her peers (Lebert 175). Almost all of the Nazi children have bits and pieces of their father’s personalities. Niklas Frank admits to this, Norbert Lebert describes Frank’s process as, “going into the deepest recesses of his personality and delivering a devastating verdict: that his father was cowardly, corrupt, sexually stimulated by power, brutish, pampered, soft. And with his words the son was also raging against himself. He had recognized his father’s cowardice in himself, felt his father’s heart beating in his own breast, and was tearing himself to shreds” (Lebert 141). Karl-Otto who is mentioned in My Father’s Keeper also says that in some circumstances he found himself in opportunistic situations and did the exact opposite of what his professional side told him to do because he did not want to be his father (Lebert 224).

The most controversial and undecided issue is the topic of whether Nazi children are victims of their parent’s actions for which they hold no responsibility or are they born guilty. My Father’s Keeper attempts to answer this question but never really comes up with a solid answer. The only real answer that they came up with is every child feels guilt but they all deal with it in different ways. Each child carries the burden of their father’s actions. Martin Bormann Jr. has long ago accepted that his father was a guilty man, but he also feels guilty for being related to his father and participating in the Hitler Youth. Stephan Lebert incorporates a piece of Dan Bar-On’s book The Legacy of Silence which observes that Martin Bormann seemed to physically carry the weight left on him by his guilt for his father’s deeds. Stephan Lebert observed the very same thing after his interview almost fifteen years later (120).

A Question of Responsibility

Many people who study this topic feel that the child should carry no responsibility for the parent’s actions. They should only be held responsible for their own actions, if they become Nazis then they should be held accountable but you cannot judge on someone’s parents alone. Others still maintain that the children are fruit from the poisonous tree and that anything they touch will rot. The fact that these children are related to such people means that they are also capable of committing atrocities and are dangerous to society. Their name is a curse and in most cases this is true. They faced scorn by the public and judgment for something that they had never done. Most children carry this guilt because they are told to do so and somehow feel responsible for the past. Some feel no shame or guilt outwardly because they are proud of their father and his actions cannot be wrong. Hess and Himmler carry this notion with them, but each has faced hardships because of it.


Now imagine again that you are fifteen. Your whole life is still ahead of you but is being dictated by someone else’s actions, your father’s actions. How will you turn out? Will you follow in your father’s footsteps, destined to become someone else? Or will you learn from your father’s mistake and carry on with your life educating others about the past? These answers will depend on many key factors: whether you can separate your father from his deeds, whether he will be around to influence you, if you have too much of his personality in yourself and how you carry the guilt of your own name. One thing is for certain, you will always have to deal with the consequences of your father’s actions but it is up to you how you deal with this guilt and if you carry on to make your own legacy.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 6/x/07)

Book Reviews:

  • By Marcus Wendel in “The Axis History Factbook” June 24, 2005 URL: http://www.axishistory.com/index.php?id=6075 This review criticizes My Father’s Keeper for not adding more historical context to the first interviews in 1959. It also points out two factual discrepancies in the book and critiques Stephan Lerbert for not presenting more factual evidence to support his theories about the children of Nazis. Overall the review still states that the book is worth reading because of the interesting interviews conducted by Norbert Lebert.
  • By Betty Reeve in “Tasmanian Angelican” November 2002 URL: http://www.anglicantas.org.au/tasmaniananglican/200211-11.html This review offers some questions raised by My Father’s Keeper and reminds the readers that parents may shape the future generation but their children cannot ignore the past generation’s actions.
  • By Kara Keller Bell in “The New Review” 2005 URL: http://www.laurahird.com/newreview/letmego.html This review of Let Me Go gives a synopsis of the book as well as describing the importance of the personal account in historical terms i.e. How children of the Nazis came to feel about their parents.
  • Hist 133c review by Kayla Knoess

Books and Articles:

  • Dan Bar-On, Legacy of Silence: Encounters with Children of the Third Reich (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1991) 352 pages (Amazon page) This book, like My Father’s Keeper, is a collection of interviews with children of Nazis and an analysis of those interviews. It explores the same concepts and is used as a reference in My Father’s Keeper. (Hist 133c review by Kelsey Figge)
  • Peter Sichrovsky, Born Guilty: Children of Nazi Families (Basic Books, 1989) 192 pages (Amazon page) This book includes fourteen interviews with children and grandchildren of Nazis. It describes their trouble to come to terms with their fascist heritage and their lives in Germany’s new democracy.

Web Sites:

  • “Chapter Excerpt: My Fathers Keeper” http://www.hachettebookgroupusa.com/books/45/0316519294/chapter_excerpt13445.html
    This is a chapter excerpt of My Fathers Keeper in which Stephen Lebert interviews Martin Bormann Jr. It is entitled “For You Bear My Name.”
  • By Thomas Bernard, translated by Anja Zeidler “Interview with Niklas Frank: Views of an Incorrigible Utopian” URL: http://www.thomasbernhard.org/interviews/1982intnf.shtml
    This is an interview conducted with Niklas Frank in 1982, it draws a picture of Niklas in between the two interviews with Norbert and Stephan as a man who loves writing but is a bit eccentric and does not mind gruesome images.
  • by Robert Faurisson “Confessions of SS Men who were at Auschwitz” Institute for Historical Review URL: www.ihr.org/jhr/v02/v02p103_Faurisson.html
    This article is the confessions of men who guarded Auschwitz and the diary of Dr. Kremer. It includes an in depth analysis from Robert Faurisson about the SS guards.
    [NOTE: The IHR is an institute devoted to denying the Holocaust, and its analyses usually distort the historical record]

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

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