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My Father's Keeper: Children of Nazi Leaders - an Intimate History of Damage and Denial

My Father's Keeper: Children of Nazi Leaders - an Intimate History of Damage and Denial

by Norbert Lebert, Julian Evans (Translator)

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In 1959 the German Journalist Norbert Lebert conducted extensive interviews with the sons and daughters of prominent Nazis: Hess, Bormann, Goring, and Himmler; Baldur von Schirach, creator of the Hitler Youth; and Hans Frank, governor of Poland. Then at the beginning of their adult lives, Lebert's subjects were the bearers of notorious names that made them outcasts to


In 1959 the German Journalist Norbert Lebert conducted extensive interviews with the sons and daughters of prominent Nazis: Hess, Bormann, Goring, and Himmler; Baldur von Schirach, creator of the Hitler Youth; and Hans Frank, governor of Poland. Then at the beginning of their adult lives, Lebert's subjects were the bearers of notorious names that made them outcasts to some, symbols of a lost glory to others.

Forty years later, Lebert's son Stephan--also a journalist--tracked down these same men and women to find out what had become of them, how they remembered their fathers, and what effect the names they carried had on the paths they had taken. Lebert's account of his conversations, juxtaposed with his father's postwar interviews, gives us an extraordinary and unflinching look at how these individuals have coped with a horrifying heritage.

The stories that emerge are fascinating, surprising, and often disturbing: The young man who refuses military service and is granted conscientious objector status on the grounds that his father is imprisoned by the state -- as a Nazi war criminal. The boy who begins his education learning the principles of fascism, finishes it at a Catholic boarding school, and later becomes a priest and a missionary to Africa. The woman who was systematically refused work because she wouldn't use an alias, but who now lives in the suburbs under her husband's name and keeps secret contacts with other nostalgic Nazis. The journalist who writes a scathing magazine article reviling the father responsible for two million deaths, and is greeted with a barrage of letters from outraged Germans -- whatever your father may have done, the letters argue, fathers must always be honored.

My Father's Keeper is a remarkable and illuminating addition to our knowledge of the Nazi past and of how this past continues to haunt the present. And it offers a chilling perspective on the way children live with the legacy of their parents' deeds.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 1959, German journalist Norbert Lebert set out to interview the offspring of former Nazi leaders young adults with surnames like Himmler and Hess, Bormann and Gering. Six years after Norbert's death in 1993, his son Stephan, a journalist, discovered the interviews among his father's papers and set out to re-interview the children, now senior citizens. Gudrun Himmler and Edda Gering refused. But Wolf-Rediger Hess, Martin Bormann Jr., Niklas and Norman Frank, and Klaus von Schirach were all willing. This is a powerful book, masterfully conceived, brilliant and devastating. The original interviews are interspersed between Stephan's conversations with (or in the case of Himmler and Gering, about) the former young adults who sat with his father. Other chapters explore the parent-child relationship and the nature of evil as they emerge from those conversations. The depth and complexity of the parent-child bond is evident throughout the book, whether the child in question has embraced (Burwitz, Hess) or rejected (Niklas Frank, Bormann) the values and beliefs of the father. Because he's viewing events from a greater distance, Stephan is able to raise a number of wide-ranging questions exploring the reasons behind the national outrage when Niklas Frank published a brutal piece detailing the depth of his hatred toward his father, former governor-general of Poland, and musing on the country's collective denial of individual responsibility during the war. There is much more to be written about the psychology and emotional life of the generation of Germans that fought WWII. But the Leberts have done a remarkable job of breaking a trail through the morass of repression and denial obscuring issuesthat will continue to disquiet future generations. 20 b&w photos. (Sept. 17) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Little, Brown and Company
Publication date:
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6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.88(d)
Age Range:
13 Years

Read an Excerpt

For You Bear My Name
I'VE KNOWN KARL-OTTO Saur a pretty long time, and pretty well too, as I thought. We met for the first time more than fifteen years ago, when he was teaching at the German Journalists' School in Munich. For several years he was my colleague on the Süddeutsche Zeitung, where he was media editor. Karl-Otto is easy to get on with, a friendly, open person, what you'd call a typical '68er, in the good sense. Close-cropped beard, unkempt hair a bit on the long side for his age; his dress sense might strike you as a little out of the ordinary - even when it's not. My feeling about Karl-Otto is that he's a man with a tendency to mockery, occasionally to cynicism; and that he can mostly be relied on to take the right side in politics - the correct side.
I know Karl-Otto's daughter Lela too. I remember when Lela got married and there was a big party in a Bavarian hotel. The whole family was there, obviously: Lela's brothers, her father Karl-Otto and his wife, and his brother Klaus-Gerhard, a well-known publisher. A decent, open family, whose members seemed close and happy together; a family that did not need to put up a front. For example, the fact that Karl-Otto and his wife had had to weather occasional storms and low points in their marriage had never been a secret.
One detail, however, was for a long time unknown to me: that Karl-Otto's own father had had a special past. About this man there is a tale to be told. On the day of Karl-Otto's birth, 14 March 1944, as the Second World War ground towards its end, his father, also Karl-Otto, was as usual at his desk in Berlin, on the executive floor of the Armaments Ministry. Under Fritz Todt, old man Saur had been a leading department head, and after Todt's death in an air crash he rose further, becoming head office principal and de facto one of Armaments Minister Albert Speer's two deputies. The first time it strikes the ear, 'Armaments Ministry' does not sound so bad, not as bad as other official names of the period. But bear in mind that Hitler's war machine was kept operational by Speer, Saur and others right up to the last weeks before the war's end, by every available means. In other words, here in the Armaments Ministry the orders were written that sealed the fates of millions of forced labourers. According to historians' estimates, approximately a million foreign workers died from forced labour in the German armaments industry. Burned out, used up: extermination by labour, the Nazis called it.
Karl-Otto Saur was a feared figure, much given to displays of temper, brutal in making sure the job got done. Industry bosses trembled before him. His outbursts of anger when something didn't go the way he wanted it to were legendary. He can be studied in photographs of the time: he's the broad, thickset man in the Party uniform, often standing close to Adolf Hitler or Albert Speer; the bloke with the bull neck and the razor-cut hair. 'My father', as his son says today, 'gave every outward impression of being the archetypal mean Nazi.' For many years after the war the father had told his children, full of pride, what a good and close relationship he had had with Adolf Hitler. 'I don't know how often he told me that one Christmas Hitler had said goodbye to him in unusually personal terms, calling him "a fine son of Christ".' The father was not exaggerating: Saur's proximity to Hitler is confirmed by various sources. Before Adolf Hitler stuck a pistol in his mouth on 30 April 1945 and pulled the trigger, he composed a kind of mad political testament in the crazy belief that, despite the fires burning throughout Berlin, he would still be in a position to convene the members of a new cabinet. In his hour of death, Hitler named Saur as Speer's successor.
My interest in Karl-Otto Saur senior and his relation to his son came about because of a manuscript that lies in front of me on my desk. It is 148 pages long and somewhat yellowed: even today I can easily picture my father writing these pages forty years ago. I see him like a bird of prey swooping down on its target, stabbing at the keys of his typewriter - he was a journalist and passionate with it, as they say. Up to a few days before his death in the winter of 1993, he was still working, his oxygen flask by his desk. Till shortly before he died we would chat at the hospital about the last piece he was researching: a kind of world history of minor inventors. I sat at his bedside as he died. Shortly before, a thick blizzard had started outside, and I can still remember that the howling wind twice forced open the window in his hospital room.
The yellowing manuscript on my desk, written in 1959, which I only read for the first time in 1999, treats of my father's visits to the children of high-ranking Nazis, the G?rings, Himmlers, Hesses and Bormanns of the Party. He showed how things stood with them, fifteen short years after the war's end. His report, laid out over several issues, appeared in the magazine Zeitbild. The series was published under the title 'For You Bear My Name'. I was born in 1961, and I remember that the magazine articles were often talked about in the family. Not much about their content, which remained vague. Of all his conversations, my father only spoke about the one with Gudrun Himmler, the daughter of Heinrich Himmler who had so idolised her father. He remembered how long he had needed before this excessively mistrustful girl had decided to place a grain of trust in him. He had felt sorry for her, for the way she had sat in front of him during their conversations, so skinny and transparent-looking. And he always said: 'I could so easily have thrown her to the wolves. But I didn't want to.'
My father's articles played a part in my life for another reason. As a result of the reports, he very nearly went to work for the magazine Stern in Hamburg. There was a lot of talk in the business about how my father had been able to get access to the Nazikinder (Nazi children) through the interpreter who had translated between Hitler and Mussolini: at the time this was considered quite a scoop, because the children had gone underground. Henri Nannen, the legendary editor-in-chief at Stern, wanted the story and invited its author to Hamburg. My father often spoke about the discussion they had. Nannen had been very decent and thoroughly impressive. Particularly impressive were the various interruptions: at one point Nannen was phoned by one of his editors, who swore at him in obscene terms and so loudly that he could be heard across the desk. 'You see' - Nannen grinned at my father, holding the receiver away from his ear - 'that's how my subordinates speak to me.' Shortly afterwards he asked his secretary to pass on a message to another editor, saying that he wished such and such to be dealt with. A few moments later the secretary put her head round the door and said: 'Your editor wants you to know that he won't be dealing with the thing you asked him because he was sacked by you this morning.' 'Bloody hell,' Nannen groaned, 'why does everyone always believe what I say nowadays, when they know I'm so feeble-minded that I never mean it?'
The punchline to the Stern anecdote, much cherished and repeated in our family, was that my father was due to fly back to Hamburg to sign his contract: tickets were booked and he was already at the airport when the editor-in- chief of Weltbild, a man by the name of Jovy who was also pursuing the material - and the reporter - talked him into having a cup of coffee with him just before his flight left. Jovy must have been a charismatic character: Weltbild, he said, was going to become one of the great magazines of Europe, an incredibly rich Swiss publisher was behind the expansion. Somehow this convinced my father, and the plane left without him. He started work for Weltbild. It is difficult not to see his decision as an error. Weltbild never became a world-class magazine, and closed down less than a year later.
Munich, the late 1990s: Thorsten Schmitz, a colleague on the colour supplement of the Süddeutsche Zeitung who was also a friend, mentioned one day that he was doing some research into a tricky subject. There was an organisation, he said, known as Stille Hilfe, which supported elderly Nazis: one beneficiary of its work was a Frau Hermine Ryan-Braunsteiner, who had formerly rejoiced in the nickname of Kobyla the Mare because at Majdanek concentration camp she had enjoyed ordering women and children to lie down and then trampling them with her hobnailed riding boots, sometimes to death. Stille Hilfe had to be a fairly loathsome organisation, my colleague thought. He knew that a substantial role in it was played by a woman named Gudrun Burwitz, whose own story was creepy enough. Still caring so lovingly for the old perpetrators, she was the daughter of Heinrich Himmler.
Gudrun Himmler. The small, skinny girl my father had felt sorry for. So that was how her life had turned out. At the end of a century that had consigned the project of German National Socialism to Hell, little Gudrun, now an old woman, was looking after her dear daddy's former associates. She was also, it was said, active in the ranks of the NPD; embittered and refusing to see that the world had changed through and through.
Gudrun Himmler. She lived in a terraced house in south Munich. Married to a writer whose name she had taken for her own, and spinning about her a web of cold gloom. There was a daughter from the marriage, a woman obviously long since grown up. When my colleague talked to the daughter, she had become very upset. It would be a catastrophe if her mother got into the papers. None of her acquaintances knew what her mother's name originally was, 'not even my husband knows'.
When I discovered my father's typescript about the Nazi children among other piles of papers in his workroom, it didn't take long for the idea to form: the idea that I would search out these people once more, forty years later, those who were still alive and were willing to meet their former interviewer's son. The result would be something along the lines of a documentary movie, incorporating archive stills from a long-gone time. A journey through time, through a handful of destinies bound to the bloodiest period of German history by a single characteristic: their name.
To Dortmund, where Martin Bormann picks me up at the station. White-haired and friendly, his appearance is very Christian. He has worked for long years as a missionary in Africa. He tells the story of how he had to return because he contracted an acute worm infection. In the Tropical Institute in Hamburg where he was treated, a doctor mentioned to him that not so long before, another man had been admitted also suffering from a worm-related illness, whose name might interest him. It was Wolf-Rüdiger Hess, Rudolf Hess's son, whom my father back then had accompanied on a January day in 1959 when the younger Hess was due at a review to defend his refusal of military service. He could not fight, he said, for a country that kept his father locked up. Today he lives in his terraced house in Munich, firmly convinced that his father was murdered in Spandau.
Thus the paths of Bormann's and Hess's sons had crossed at the end of the 1960s, in an institute for tropical medicine in Hamburg - a clinic with a long and meritorious tradition, but nevertheless with the odd doctor here and there who would have had some contact with the dreadful experiments on human guinea pigs during the Nazi era. Or is that to state matters too sensationally? Perhaps we should put the situation more objectively and soberly: two men fall sick abroad and are treated in a specialist clinic in Germany. What can they do about having the names they have? And what does it mean, anyway, that a hospital has a National Socialist past? Is there a single German institution anywhere without dark stains on the pages of its history?
Back in Munich, the lawyer Klaus von Schirach greets me with a statistic. Every two years, give or take a few weeks, a journalist from somewhere will try to make contact. 'I can set my clock by them.' The last time it was some newspaper people from Japan who had decided that Nazi children, hey, they'd definitely make a hot subject again! Disgusted, he says of this voyeurism: 'We aren't a subject, or if we are I wouldn't know which.' By 'we' he means, among others, Edda Göring, only daughter of Hermann G?ring, about whom my father wrote: 'She has remained the princess Hermann Göring brought her up to be.' Klaus von Schirach says he and Edda see each other regularly and talk to one another a great deal. He is the person who will make contact for me with Edda Göring, who lives an entirely reclusive and somewhat bitter existence in the Lehel district of Munich.
I'm going on a journey into the past that makes me shudder, over and over again. For instance, when Klaus von Schirach tells me about a very old woman who still likes to remember her former boss. Only recently, Schirach says, they spoke to each other again, Frau Junge and he. She was Adolf Hitler's last secretary, and during their last phone conversation she had told Schirach how kind Hitler always was to her, how he liked to give her little gifts, lipstick and make-up. Despite his propaganda chief Goebbels constantly proclaiming that German womanhood should reject all such unnatural adornments. Well, you know, Adolf Hitler was only a man, after all.
There are extraordinary family histories. One can study them to see how fateful family ties can be. You can't help thinking of Shakespeare's tragedies when you sit across a table from a man like Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank, Hitler's governor-general in Poland. If those who carried out the inferno of Auschwitz were devils, then Hans Frank was the devil-in-chief. To my father, Niklas Frank came across as an analytical young man who was in the process of facing up to the dreadful truth about his family. Forty years later, in a pizzeria in Hamburg, he speaks to me about the curse of the name of Frank; about the miserable deaths of his brother and sister, and his own despairing hatred.
'I'm sure I've hated my father so very much,' Niklas Frank says, 'because I kept on finding him in myself.'
He laughs when he makes such remarks. A cheerful, infectious laugh. But it sounds wrong, and the discordancy of his laughter seems to intensify the horror. Or is that what is right about it? Niklas Frank: 'The only thing in life that lasts is its grotesque side.'
We know a great deal nowadays about family psychology: what kind of effect it has on a child when its parents divorce, how the fundamental nature of trust is destroyed for good if a child is not properly loved in the first three years, how the unfulfilled wishes of father and mother impose themselves imperceptibly but no less heavily on the children, how the unhappy childhood of one parent is carried over into the next generation. Generally speaking, the understanding of how deep is the stamp of the parent- child relationship is common knowledge in a modern, enlightened world.
It seems all the more remarkable then that one question has still not been fully dealt with. What does it mean for this country called Germany that those responsible for the Third Reich, and their fellow travellers and accomplices, have had children and grandchildren to whom they have handed on their aggressions, their cowardice, their capacity for atrocity, their secrecy and their mechanisms of repression? In most kinds of therapy, the fact that the patient's father had a father who forbade his son's choice of profession has a role to play. Is it not possible that there might be consequences when father or grandfather happen to be murderers?
The Wehrmacht exhibition is so loathed by many Germans because it brought out into the open another issue about the Third Reich that had been swept under the carpet: ordinary German soldiery had also been implicated in some of the Second World War's most dreadful crimes. Of course it was hardly likely to have been otherwise; and in reality such a finding, half a century later, ought to be met with little more than a shrug of the shoulders. But for too long - into another millennium - there has been a theory of history doing the rounds, based on silence and a simple formula: there are the bad Nazis, and then there are the other Germans.
There wasn't the German soldier, there wasn't the German National Socialist, the German SS man. There wasn't the German fellow traveller and the German resistance fighter either. There were perpetrators, first and second class, and maybe third too. Different forms of fellow-travelling existed. One can dispute this as much as one wants, it changes nothing. The collective implication of Germans in the twelve-year-long thousand-year Reich has turned into the legacy of the German people. As have the ways and means by which we deal with it today, and have dealt with it up till now.
When I think of my father, I see him sitting at the dining table, usually with a cigarette in his hand and a cup of coffee in front of him. He was born in 1929, a foster child whose biological father worked in a bar at some racecourse or other, a waiter who one New Year's Eve just had to show a fifteen-year-old girl the inside of his little flat. The thing about the racecourse bar must have a genetic significance, because later on my father was a regular racegoer, as I was later still. There are hereditary factors that you just can't do anything about.
My father was a keen member of the Hitler Youth, even rising to troop leader of a small Munich section: it was a story he often told. At home they had a big map of the world on the kitchen wall, with little flags stuck in it everywhere Germany's soldiers were advancing, at least at the beginning. As a fifteen-year-old living through the collapse of 1945, he had experienced it not as a liberation, he used to say, but as a terrible defeat. He never tried to gloss over this feeling with the excuse that, well, he'd been young then; instead he used to say: 'There is no doubt whatsoever that if the war had turned out another way, I would have got on well in the world with the Nazis. My God, what would I have turned into?' Every time this question stung him to the quick. Every attempt to find out something of what used to bring on this guilt trip of his ended in failure. But perhaps it was why he described the Nazi kids almost gently, without the slightest spite or irony: sometimes his portraits were almost too sympathetic.
This book offers some dramatic destinies: each probably enough on its own for a film or a novel. Careers such as these are closer to us than many of us care to accept. At the mercy of a name, these people - in contrast to many others - had to decide how they would choose to deal with the past. Some, shockingly, chose to follow in their fathers' footsteps.
I often used to turn off the television whenever there was yet another documentary on National Socialism. Yeah, yeah, it was dreadful, I said to myself, but we know it was dreadful. After my conversation with Klaus von Schirach, I stood on the Leopoldstrasse in Munich and suddenly realised how present this history was. The equation 'National Socialism equals Holocaust' had always led me to the point where I thought, oh yes, horror. Horror ticked off like a piece of prep; horror as ritualised as a victim's story on television or at the cinema.
Schirach had spoken to me about the importance of the aesthetic impact of the Hitler Youth, which was created by his own father Baldur von Schirach. And suddenly I'd remembered a photograph, a picture that had recently done the rounds in the German newspapers. It was of a group of young men, beautifully turned out in designer suits: five young writers photographed as they discussed the state of the world, which apparently included their own belief in their position as an elite, a better class. Somehow these five struck me as being utterly typical of their time (possibly because they left such an impression of arrogance and scorn for their fellow human beings). And suddenly I couldn't stop myself wondering whether young men such as these wouldn't have made very effective teenagers in uniform fifty years before. I'm not saying that these are today's Nazis - God forbid. I only wondered whether they might not, back in those days, have been equally well suited to be the embodiment of a ruthless, glacial Zeitgeist.
It is details like these that tell you how very much you are stamped by something, the past for example. Late one afternoon, when I was having a conversation with Karl-Otto Saur, we were talking about opportunism. Suddenly it became clear to me why the two of them, he and his brother, both wore their hair too long. I saw the picture of their father: always the clean-shaven neck. The smooth bull neck.

Copyright © by Karl Blessing Verlag within Verlagsgruppe Bertelsmann GmbH, Munich Translation copyright © by Julian Evans

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