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LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 19-Mar-15 10:39:38

A Nazi legacy

How much can we really know about the secret worlds of the older members of our families? Guardian columnist and author Derek Niemann describes finding out the truth about his grandfather, and how it impacted his view of the past.

Derek Niemann

A Nazi legacy

Posted on: Thu 19-Mar-15 10:39:38


Lead photo

Karl Niemann with his wife and son.

It should have been nothing more than an interesting diversion during a holiday to Berlin. My dad told me where he had lived as a child during the war. I looked up the street on the internet. And there was a name I knew – my grandfather, together with the words 'crimes against humanity' and 'use of slave labour'. I remember rocking back in my seat as if someone had just punched me and crying: "No!"

My dad had told me his dad had been a Nazi, though 'just a pen-pusher'. It turns out that he'd been much more than that. My grandfather, Karl Niemann, was a middle manager working for the SS. I now know that on his business trips to all of the ghastly concentration camps, he saw a great deal of brutality. But he carried on right through the war, nonetheless, making work for innocent people who had been deprived of their freedom.

I went to archives in Berlin and discovered books written by historians who had pored over his records and published his words, without any of us in the family knowing anything. I visited my dad's old house in a leafy suburb of the city. The family who live there now told me that the whole estate had been built on Himmler's orders for SS families. And then I travelled to Dachau on the outskirts of Munich. My grandfather had worked for a while in an SS training complex, right next door to the concentration camp and he would have socialised with men who would be the future commandants of Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen and others.

I remember rocking back in my seat as if someone had just punched me and crying: "No!"

I retraced the family's flight in the last days of the war to the Alpine village where my dad recalled seeing American soldiers grab his sister at gunpoint, then take his father away to serve three years' imprisonment in former POW camps.

Plentiful records came to light that showed Karl Niemann had joined the Nazi Party by 1931. Even a full transcript of his postwar tribunal survived, revealing that he had told the judge he had to carry on working for the SS or he feared he and his family would have been put in a concentration camp too. Yet I read the testimony of a number of freed inmates who would have faced certain death if this complex character had not released them from the camps to work for him. My father recalled that one would even join Karl's family for Sunday lunch.

For all the dreadful things I have found out, there were some huge positives. My 77-year-old German uncle was shocked by what I had discovered, but shared all he could remember of his childhood and urged me on: "It is all true! You must tell everything, the good and the bad." And everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, has encouraged me likewise. Perhaps the last word belongs to the late German president Richard von Weizsacker: "Those who close their eyes to the past will remain blind regarding the future."

Derek's book A Nazi in the Family: The Hidden Story of an SS Family in Wartime Germany is published by Short Books and available on Amazon.

By Derek Niemann

Twitter: @DerekNiemann

annemac101 Thu 19-Mar-15 16:24:14

Goodness what a story. I. An only imagine the shock of finding out. It sounds like he did help people too and maybe many of these men associated with the SS were scared for the lives of their own family. I will have to read your book it sounds like a good read.

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 19-Mar-15 16:54:03

Hmm. Sounds like his grandfather joined the Nazi party long before anyone knew the evil that would come from it. It sounds as though he was, in fact, a "good" Nazi. I don't suppose everyone who joined that party before the war knew what was about to happen. And then, in many cases, they would be unable to get out of it.

Interesting family history, but nothing shameful. It's made a book.

His other book, Birds in a Cage, sounds good. Birding in a POW camp during WW2. The sort of book I would like my GSs to read when they are a bit older. If I can only keep them reading.

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 19-Mar-15 16:56:26

Loads of ordinary people must have got suckered into the Nazi party. That's why we can be friends with Germany now.

Venus Thu 19-Mar-15 19:34:03

There is no such thing as a 'good' Nazi. From 1931-32 'brownshirt' thugs physically prevented customers from entering Jewish shops. windows were systematically smashed and Jewish shop owners threatened. At Christmas 1932, the central office of the Nazi party organised a nationwide boycott. In March 1933, the Nazis won a large number of seats in the German parliment. Violence and hooliganism were directed at Jewish businessess and Jewish lawyers and judges were physically prevented from reaching the courts The national boycott operation marked the beginning of a nationwide campaign by the Nazi party against the entire German Jewish population.

After the invasion of Poland in 1939, the Nazis forced Jews into ghettos and completely banned them from public life. But even this was not enough for the Nazis and by 1940, they had turned to genocide, resulting in what is is now known as The Holocaust.

Where did the 'ordinary people' think the Jews had disappeared to? The German people may well not have known the fate of these people, but how many cared?

David Niemann had every reason to be horrified by what he finally discovered about his Nazi grandfather.

GrannyBe Thu 19-Mar-15 20:21:32

My Belgian husband's father came from a family of 11 children. When Germany invaded Belgium, 3 of those sons supported the Germans.
We were not allowed to mention those uncles in any conversations. I once met two of their offspring and they were just like me. We were not a real part of it but inherited a great deal - My mum's brother was in the RAF and went missing over Germany. In every country I lived, we had to visit the war cemetery - "you never know maybe the records got it wrong", bless her,she never stopped searching - she read every single gravestone - just in case. But where does that leave us? I don't have that hatred my mum had. But I have to admit there is something niggling me there ????

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 19-Mar-15 20:21:42

"...he had told the judge he had to carry on working for the SS or he feared he and his family would have been put in a concentration camp too."

"I read the testimony of a number of freed inmates who would have faced certain death if this complex character had not released them from the camps to work for him. My father recalled that one would even join Karl's family for Sunday lunch."

I'm talking about this one individual. I wonder if all Germans who found themselves caught up in this at the time, were bad through and through.

You obviously know more about it than I do. I will say no more.

Mishap Thu 19-Mar-15 20:34:16

The complexities of all this are huge. When I hear these things I always ask myself what I might have done in the same circumstances.

My FIL was a fluent German speaker and was used by the allies in various capacities during the war. He had many German friends, who became very close friends for the whole of his life. I believe some were in the Nazi party out of fear for their families; but my FIL knew the things that they did behind the scenes to save people's lives.

Very complex, as I say - and much was hidden.

Life under a dictator changes people fundamentally - intrigues and fear dominate life. How glad I am not to have lived through those times.

The most important thing is that we should not allow the hatred to extend to future generations.

loopylou Thu 19-Mar-15 20:43:36

Very well expressed Mishap
My parents generation have a different perspective to me, having been blitzed during the war, lost friends and relatives.
I just thank heavens that we've been spared the horrors experienced on both sides and by so many.

Venus Thu 19-Mar-15 22:53:37

As far back as 1921, the German student union barred Jews from membership. 76% of students voted for the exclusion. What did those students have to fear at that time? Having an odd inmate for Sunday lunch during the horrors that were being played out would be laughable, if it wasn't such a grotesque concept to consider. A man who joins the SS must surely know that he's not joining the scout movement!

These systematic measures did not blow up overnight. It was a state-managed campaign of ever-increasing harassment, arrests, pillaging and forced transfer of ownership to Nazi Party activists, and ultimately murder of shop owners defined as 'Jews'. In Berlin alone, there were 50,000 Jewish-owned businessess. By 1945, they all had Aryan owners. Where was the voice of reason before it got to that stage? Certainly not from the Aryan owners, or from the people who took over the homes of Jewish victims of the 'final solution'.

Six million innocent men, women and children died in concentration camps, and although I agree that future generations cannot be held responsible for this . . . neither should it ever be forgotten. History is now repeating itself in other countries and antisemitism is on the rise in the U.K. and across Europe.

Venus Thu 19-Mar-15 23:26:42

I would also add I never thought I would see the day, in this country, when my grand-children have to have police protection outside their school every day when they arrive in the morning, and come home in the afternoon.

Iam64 Fri 20-Mar-15 07:52:40

Thanks to Venus for telling it like it was and for her comments about a police presence outside her grand children's school.

We were in Krakow last year, we also visited Austvitch and the museum that now stands in what what Mr Schindler's factory. Oscar Schindler was a complex character, the museum doesn't attempt to present him as a 'good" Nazi, whatever that may mean.

Anti semitism was rife throughout Europe in the 1920's and 30's. I don't support the actions of the Israeli government in relation to Palestine but fear anti semitism is on the rise again. Blaming the Israeli government for attacks and threats towards Jewish children and their parents living in the Uk,France etc just won't do.

Mishap Fri 20-Mar-15 09:55:27

I am always deeply puzzled by antisemitism - unless someone is a fundamentalist Jew and the clothes give them away, how the heck do you know whether the person you are sitting next to on the bus is Jewish or not? It seems so arbitrary, but sadly it has featured in many cultures.

The attempts to define what is or is not Jewishness by the nazis were both tragic and laughable and they seem to have tied themselves in knots over it. A bit like apartheid S Africa when they went into ridiculous contortions to define who was or was not black.

It seems that if these lunatics are determined to hate someone they will find a way, however tortuous.

How very sad. A pitiful waste of the lives of both the victims and the torturers.

TriciaF Fri 20-Mar-15 11:32:47

There was plenty of antisemitism in the UK prewar, (as there still is now) many of whom admired the nazis. Not just the NF as it is now, but it was rife among the upper classes.
I daren't think what it would have been like if they had invaded the UK, they would have got plenty of support, and many of the neutrals would have caved in out of fear.
As to opposition to the nazi regime in Germany, I've just started reading a book called An honorable Defeat by Anton Gill. It's heavy going because it's so depressing - any opposition was squashed at once, with violence.
The Germans have been trying to make reparation for years since then, they still are, though there are few elderly victims still alive now.

Mishap Fri 20-Mar-15 12:12:57

It must be a heavy burden for young Germans who are innocent of any crime to realise what their recent forbears did. It makes me shudder - if that were my grandfather for instance I would not know how to deal with it.

jinglbellsfrocks Fri 20-Mar-15 13:03:03

Well, the blog's worked so far as I am concerned. I've just bought the book on Kindle. Sounds interesting.

TriciaF Fri 20-Mar-15 15:11:24

This is one of my passions - to try to find out how a cultured nation like the Germans, who had produced such composers as Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Schumann et al as well as poets and novelists, could allow themselves to be brainwashed into following such an idealism. And to be swept away by such a megalomaniac as Hitler. He wanted to establish the 3rd Reich for 1000 years - they believed all this!
All based on his theory of racial purity.

merlotgran Fri 20-Mar-15 15:23:03

I think the Nazis would have only found support from some of the upper classes if they had successfully invaded at the very beginning of the war.

Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, food shortages and huge loss of life unified the nation as the war progressed. Of course, they may have just been hedging their bets but their own family losses would have affected them in just the same way as everyone else.

Venus Fri 20-Mar-15 15:29:04

When things are not going well on the home front, people look for a scapecoat . . . someone to blame, and there is always a minority group available to lay the blame on. If a leader emerges that promises a better future, however misguided it is, many will go along with it.

Mishap Fri 20-Mar-15 17:52:45

The aftermath of the first world war had a lot to do with it - the Germans were aggrieved and Hitler presented himself as a saviour of the nation. His ghastly racial purity views then began to surface with grim consequences. It is always intriguing to try and understand how one lunatic can carry thousands with him - as has happened in other countries too.

I agree about the culture - German poetry is some of the best in the world.

nannymeryl Mon 23-Mar-15 08:45:13

biologically we are all hard-wired to follow a charismatic leader. we've been lucky not to live at a time when there was such a deranged monster on the make.

vampirequeen Mon 23-Mar-15 08:48:05

Very true.

Goldbeater1 Sat 28-Mar-15 05:16:48

I believe the aftermath of WW1 had a lot to do with the outbreak of WW2 but the holocaust was something different ... it was, amongst other things, a means of committing theft on a grand scale. First take everything someone owns, then make them work for nothing until they drop. THEN take such bits (gold teeth etc) of their corpses as you may have a use for.

Accounts of personal (German) friends and my own (ex pow) father have convinced me that many, if not most, people were too terrified to do anything because if they protested they would be next. I think that - as individuals without first hand knowledge- we have to accept that many unwilling individuals were dragged into the whole mess through fear. One German friend asked her parents why they had joined the Nazi party - her mother said that she had taken the papers to her husband and said 'You have three children. Sign.' and he did.

However, there is a difference between looking the other way and actively joining in. I believe those who were involved from the very beginning were probably enthusiastic participants ... difficult though that is to comprehend.

Anyone wanting an idea of what it was like in Nazi Germany during WW2 may like to read 'Alone in Berlin' by Hans Fallada. A fictional account but powerful and convincing. Lets not forget either, those rare and special people who did stand up and say 'no' even knowing it would cost their lives.

EvaC Wed 15-Apr-15 14:53:53

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