William Heinemann 240 pp £14.99
Reviewed by Sean Gabb
(Published in The Literary Review some time in 1991)
This is undoubtedly an interesting book. Its occasion was a series of interviews conducted with the children of eight prominent National Socialists, plus two others. “I knew that several books had studied the children of concentration camp survivors” Posner explains, “but… I was not aware of any attempt to study the children of the perpetrators.” And so, he set about tracking some of them down and putting them through a long and minute examination. In preparing, he consulted, all the available sources ‑ the standard published works, the Nuremberg transcripts, the various American and German archives, and so forth. This enabled him to check or to amplify the answers given by his interviewees. But all reduces to the basic question: How does it feel to be the child of a mass‑murderer?
Now, Posner is well‑informed; and his amplifications amount together to a brief history of Hitler’s Germany. He is also an engaging writer, and I have no doubt that the reader will be entertained as well as informed. But, it must be admitted, the answers to his question have little value as history. The children are of no importance in themselves. They never chose their parents, and often never knew them. They had no part in the crimes. How they regard the facts of their ancestry adds nothing to our understanding of the Third Reich.
What the answers do illuminate is a problem that recurs, if with different circumstances, in every generation. I doubt if anyone has devised a code of practical morals that is both consistent and entirely acceptable to human nature. We are told “Honour thy father and thy mother” and “Thou shalt not kill”. In itself, each appears to be absolute. But how are they to be reconciled if they conflict? How far ought one to honour a father who has killed? Here is the book’s real interest.
Norman Frank, whose father, Hans, was the Butcher of Poland, stresses the latter of the above commandments. He is disgusted by his father. He has even remained childless ‑ “because after all I know, I don’t think the Franks should go on”. Edda Goering is more relaxed, stressing the former. “I actually expect that almost everybody has a good opinion of my father” she announces, “except maybe in America”.
But these are both people whose fathers died at Nuremberg. However resolved, they have had only to face their problem retrospectively. For the ultimate in moral uncertainty, look at Rolf Mengele. His father, Dr Josef, was the “Angel of Death” at Auschwitz. His crimes stagger belief. He ordered the deaths of 400,000 civilian prisoners. His “experiments” would have shocked the most hardened vivisectionist. He tested the endurance of some of his victims with electric shocks, until they died or fell into comas. On others, he performed repeated and unnecessary amputations ‑ always without anaesthetic. Once, he sealed a woman’s breasts to see how long her baby could live without nourishment. He was denied an answer here, for a nurse quietly gave the poor woman enough morphine to kill the baby.
Mengele survived the War unscathed. He evaded capture by the Allies and returned to the Baverian town where he had been born and brought up, living there more or less openly until 1949. No one denounced him. He had no trouble leaving the country for Argentina, nor in returning for a brief visit in 1956. He did once come under police suspicion. But a bribe ensured his release. Back in Argentina, he lived for a while under his own name, obtaining proper identification and even a passport from the West German embassy. He died in 1979, utterly unrepentant.
All this was known to his son. While the Israeli secret service was turning South America upside down, looking for any clue to the good Doktor’s whereabouts, the Mengeles carried on a long correspondence, debating the ethics of the Final Solution and various other matters. In 1977, they met in Sâo Paolo, spending two weeks together and continuing their debate. “I am ashamed of him” says Rolf, “but in the end he was my father ‑ I could not turn him in”.
It would be strange not to feel some distaste at this lifetime of dithering. But it would be inhuman not to feel a little sympathy as well. To whom was Rolf’s true duty ‑ to a man who, in spite of all else, was his father? Or to a crowd of strangers? Posner states a terrible problem. Perhaps wisely, he makes no attempt to solve it.
© 1991 – 2017, seangabb.
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