Read an Excerpt
1. Funeral in Berlin
Edinburgh and Berlin 1960–1984
It’s such a sweet picture. That’s me, chuckling away, my podgy little arms waving about in delight. Behind lies the gentle curve of a Scottish beach an hour’s drive east of Edinburgh, where I was born and grew up. It’s sunny and warm; the perfect day for a drive to the shore, armed with a brand new super-8 cine-camera. Holding me to his shoulder is a man in his mid-fifties, smiling, only too happy to play his part in this little family moment. In fact, he is my German grandfather and he seems very proud of his first grandson. He has a distinctive face, with its close-cropped hair, large ears, bulbous nose, stern eye-line and slightly serrated smile. Beyond that, he appears perfectly benign, a little severe maybe, but open-faced, and unembarrassed to have his cheek pawed by a gurgly baby. It’s August 1961, and I am nine months old.
For the next thirty years, like anyone who has at least one German parent, I was taught to remember that there was so much more to Germany than just the Nazis. The world’s obsession with Hitler, and with the Second World War, was just a vast distraction from the rest of German history. Even though it was a struggle to get terribly excited about the court of Frederick the Great, or the premiership of Willi Brandt, I did my bit and tried hard to avoid simply collapsing the entire meaning of the word Germany into a synonym for the Third Reich. And then, in 1992, I realized I had no choice.
Bruno Langbehn, my grandfather, the man in the cine footage, had died at the age of eighty-five. Only in the weeks after his death did I discover that ‘Papa’, as my mother always called him, hadn’t just been a German dentist who had happened to live through the tumultuous decades of the Nazi nightmare. Nothing of the sort, in fact.
I had always had my suspicions, of course, and as the years went past I had chipped away at the protective carapace that had been erected around his early career. I had tried to prise information out of my mother, but it was only with him dead that my mother felt able, finally, to tell me the truth – or at least one tiny bit of it.
I had never met my other, Scottish, grandfather. I knew he had been marched off to the trenches of the First World War with the Seaforth Highlanders and, against the odds, had managed to survive, unlike many of his friends, or indeed his older brother. Returning from France, he had decided what he most wanted to do with his life was to fish for salmon and drive down his golf handicap, each and every day. To do so he needed a job that didn’t take him away from his rods and his mashie niblicks, so he opened a cinema in his highland hometown of Dingwall, in Ross-shire. He never needed to work during daylight hours again. My father grew up in its shadow, collecting the posters, loitering in the projector room, in his wartime Cinema Mac-Paradiso. But all that standing up to his thighs in ice-cold Highland water did for my Davidson grandfather, and he died many years before I was even born. I would never know more about him than what my father could tell me. I had no idea even what he looked like, how he spoke, no sense at all of his personality beyond family anecdote.
The relationship my sister, Vanessa, and I had with Bruno, however, was more complex, and more immediate. Our lives did overlap, and we grew up with a very clear impression of what kind of man we thought he was. To this day I can call to mind his appearance, a sense of his personality and presence. And yet despite my vivid recollections of him, much about Bruno remained unknown. The mystery didn’t arise from simple distance, and the inevitable haziness of memory. The obscurity that enveloped him always felt deliberately constructed, a smokescreen and not just generational amnesia.
It wasn’t hard to see why this might be so. Simply knowing where and when he was born – Prussia, 1906 – had ominous significance. It was impossible for him not to have come to adulthood in the heart of Nazi darkness. And, as for all Germans of his generation, it raised a mass of implied questions. What had he done? What had he been? What did he know? Bruno’s behaviour did nothing to dispel such questions; on the contrary, it positively invited them. Of all my German relatives, he was the least apologetic, the least self-effacing. Even in his seventies he bristled with views about life, about politics and human nature, about the follies of the world, which he expressed with uncompromising force, and the vigour of someone whose whole life had been one long argument. In this regard he always struck me as being the most explicitly belligerent German, the one whose convictions about the present most provoked you into daring to think about his past.
But thinking about it was as far as we were ever allowed to get. Talking about it – or even asking questions about it – was not encouraged in our home. My mother would refuse point blank to be drawn into our speculations, deflecting and evading them whenever they surfaced. We were children, indulging in subjects we couldn’t possibly understand. The subject was closed. The result was that we grew up with huge and tantalizing gaps in our knowledge of him. These only made him more mysterious, as did the defensiveness with which my other relatives had encircled him. He was a no-go area.
If, as a child, I hadn’t been curious about my older German relatives, everyone else around me certainly was. The culture of Britain in the 1960s and 70s was dominated by the long shadow of the Second World War, which had ended only fifteen years before my birth. Like the rest of my generation, I may not have known much about their historical reality, but the ‘Nazis’ were as vivid to me as the Daleks on Dr Who. I thought I knew what they looked like, what they sounded like, how they behaved. Defeating them had been the greatest achievement of the twentieth century.
They were tall and blond; they often had scars; they clicked their heels and held their cigarettes with sadistic precision. They didn’t talk, they barked, though sometimes they issued their threats in quiet, determined tones, choosing their every word carefully, and with cruel, menacing deliberation. More usually they shouted, especially when enraged, which they seemed always to be, at which point they would scream into phones, or bring their fist crashing down on desks. They were oleaginous in their behaviour towards attractive women, who would recoil and squirm when their hands were kissed. I knew all this because not a week went by without some kind of war film on television, whose basic grammar got replicated wildly in comics and playground games. I watched them all avidly, as did everyone my age. We all loved imagining what it must have been like to have been a Spitfire pilot, a jungle commando or a cocoa-supping officer on the bridge of an Atlantic destroyer. I may have been half-German, but I wasn’t the slightest bit confused about who the heroes were. Every Messerschmitt shot down, every German battleship sunk, every defeated Wehrmacht soldier was a triumph to cheer. Above all Nazis were them, separated from us (not just the British, but the entire human race) by an uncrossable divide. And yet I still stopped short of seeing my grandfather reflected in these depictions.
There was no question that my German relatives, especially my grandfather, had been on the wrong side, and yet even as a child I couldn’t fully equate him with the grimly robotic ‘Krauts’ and ‘squareheads’ whose walk-on parts were so unvarying – there to display the arrogance and cruelty that would be tamed by Tommy bravado. He would have had to have been unutterably evil to have been one of them. Surely the truth was less melodramatic than that. The movies appeared to bear me out. As I grew older, a new generation of Second World War Germans were depicted in a much less one-dimensionally unpalatable way. They had stopped being either morons or psychopaths and had become, instead, conflicted officers usually alienated from, and deeply disillusioned by, the Nazi regime. Most ambiguous of all was Das Boot, which featured in the character of the captain played by Jurgen Prochnow, the ultimate example of a man with no love for the politics that had triggered the war, anxious only to do his duty and get his men out alive. Perhaps that was what my grandfather had been like? Needless to say, my mother felt much more comfortable with these more complex and ambiguous portraits of Germans at war. So it appeared possible to wear a German uniform without necessarily being a fanatical Nazi.
But as a twelve-year-old, I felt residual self-consciousness about having a German mother. It still chafed a little. Talking to the parents of school friends, my heart would always beat a little faster when explaining how Berlin was our favourite holiday destination. Nobody ever said anything, but I knew what they were thinking. Of course, far less inhibited were my school friends. For them it was all too obvious. They would taunt me with their playground Sieg Heils, giggling as they decided my mysterious German relatives must all have been Nazi soldiers who knew Hitler personally. It was embarrassing, though I don’t recall finding any of this especially traumatic. I was big, I was good at sports, and therefore not a natural public-school victim. Anyway, it wasn’t as if I had an overtly German name. But they only had to come and visit our house to see with their own eyes that I wasn’t, finally, 100 per cent British. Anyone meeting my mother could see, and hear, in an instant, that she was German.
She had come to Edinburgh in 1958, to learn English, had met my Scottish father, got married and stayed there ever since. But she never concealed, or even camouflaged her roots. She has always kept her German passport and maintained her ties with Germany through frequent trips and a network of family and friends. Later she became a brilliant German teacher at the school I had attended, introducing her pupils to a vast array of subjects that weren’t just the Third Reich.
Of course, the experience of the Second World War might just be the stuff of movies for me, but it wasn’t for her. She had lived through it as a child far younger even than I was. Every now and again she would drop hints about what it had been like, and then even as a naive schoolboy I would sit up, dumbfounded. There were memories of times spent shivering in Berlin air-raid shelters as night after night the RAF pounded the city. The rubble, the sirens, the casualties. And then there had been Prague, where she had been at the end of the war, where she got to witness and experience at first hand the nightmare of the collapsing Eastern Front, and the spasms of revenge and bloodshed that greeted German capitulation; the summary executions, the bodies littering the streets, the terrible acts of physical retribution. These were not things to stir up lightly. The more she squirmed at talking about it, the harder it was to dampen our sense that it was simply impossible for an entire family to have lived through those years and not have something to hide.
Every year till my late teens, we would visit the part of Germany that wore its history in the most open-scarred and still-threatening way, staying there for up to five weeks at a time. It became the regular and most glamorous experience of our year. Compared to Edinburgh, Berlin was huge, modern and in the front line of world current affairs.
The simple business of getting there was so fraught with Cold War drama that it was hard not to feel we too were plunging down the throat of history. We almost always drove, down to Harwich, and then by overnight ferry to the Hook of Holland before ploughing across the Netherlands and into West Germany. After we reached Hanover, though, a heavy silence gradually fell as tensions mounted. My mother would light up her first, and only, cigarette of the whole trip, because ahead of us lay the dreaded border.
The ‘zone’, as it was called then, involved a four-hour piece of Cold War purgatory, crossing at Helmstedt from West Germany into the GDR. Endless, countless passport checks, full car searches, East German conscripts with terrible skin stuck their heads into the car, and assailed us with a list of weapons they demanded to know if we were smuggling: revolvers, rifles, semi-automatics, machine-guns, grenades, etc. It was heart-pounding stuff. Behind the two-way mirrors, the dogs and the barbed wire lay the tangible sense that the price for any irregularity or anomaly could be really serious. It was my first encounter with genuine enmity. These people didn’t like us and they didn’t want us visiting that thorn in East Germany’s flesh, West Berlin. But our unease was as nothing compared to my mother’s. She would retreat into frown-lined silence, her body rigid behind a shell that refused to be violated by these Soviet-Sector East German faces, and their East German accents, even when her posture so clearly provoked them. I could tell that behind this spectacular disdain there lay a real fear that had its origins long before my time, in experiences I didn’t comprehend.
After the border, West Berlin was a further four hours’ drive. We experienced the frisson of knowing that the road we were travelling on had been one of Hitler’s great autobahns and still had its original 1930s road surface. It was a very physical reminder of what kind of city we were entering. And then, at the outskirts of the city itself, another ‘zone’, reprising the unpleasantness and apprehensions of the earlier one.
But once through that, we were at last back in the safe embrace of Western Europe, in the Allied Sector of what soon became West Berlin. All that remained to do was thunder along the old Avus racing track, join the Messedamm, pass the Funkturm (Berlin’s mini-Eiffel Tower) on our left, before reaching our destination – the Kaiserdamm, the great East–West axial boulevard that bisects Berlin. A quick left turn at the lights, find a parking spot, pour out of the car, march up to a familiar grey door and we had arrived. For the next month or so this would be our home, the flat that Thusnelda, (or Mutti, as my sister and I called her), our grandmother, shared with her fox-haired terrier, Pippi.
She greeted us at her flat’s front door, beaming and hugging us, as we slithered out of the inevitable kiss like eels. Within hours we were back in a warm and familiar groove, which started with raiding the mirrored cabinet in the living room that contained its irresistible booty of marzipan animals and bars of Kinder Schokolade. Breakfast-time meant the Brötchen breakfast rolls, drenched in cherry jam, that we bought every day from a bakery on the other side of the Kaiserdamm. We were sent out to the cigarette machine to walk the dog and returned with endless packs of Milde Sorte brand cigarettes, which my grandmother chain-smoked all her life.
I loved not only West Berlin’s sheer scale and cosmopolitan excitement, but the unmistakable, slightly ominous rumble that lay just below the surface. Everything about Berlin reeked not just of the Cold War, but of the war that had preceded it. Even as children, our familiarity and ghoulish relish for the Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, the Sie verlassen jetzt die Amerikanische Sektor signs, and all the rest, served to underline the fact that, whatever else our German family had done, they had certainly lived through interesting times.
Nowhere was that more discernible than in the other fabulous, old-world Berlin apartment we regularly visited. This was owned by the oldest of our living relatives, my great-grandmother, Bruno’s mother-in-law and, like him, a dentist, still practising in her seventies. Her name was Ida Pahnke-Lietzner, and she was as formidable as her name, a matriarch, and Prussian to her core. Her flat was a thirty-second walk from where my grandmother lived, but felt like it was separated by decades. If the city provided us only with distant murmurs of its hidden past, then Ida’s flat turned these echoes into a shout.
It was the kind of apartment you can only get in metropolitan Europe. Reached via a marbled vestibule, with infinitely receding opposing mirrors, and an elevator with clunking metal gates, it was up on the first floor. A heavy door would open, and we would be drawn into a large hallway, with a deep, dark corridor penetrating the main salons. This doubled up as her dentist’s waiting room, which guarded her fully functioning surgery, complete with rows of specimen dentures and magazines to soothe the nerves of waiting patients.
By now, all outside sounds had been banished, muffled by thick walls overlaid with dozens of Persian rugs, too many for the floor alone. And around them were hung the fruits of her other great passion – oil painting. Taking pride of place was the great battleship, the Graf Spee. The creaking parquet floor, the dark wooden panels and the wide double windows looking out on to the breadth of the Kaiserdamm outside made it clear how we were supposed to behave: very formally, and very politely. We would make our way to the heart of the flat, the great sliding doors behind which was located the Herrenzimmer. Now we would have our audience with her.
As we sat nervously in this throwback to an earlier era, the Biedermann vitrine, with its myriad wines, champagnes and liqueurs, flutes and glasses, and the dark leather and velvet sofas, powerfully evoked an earlier era of Berlin life. It wasn’t the flat she had lived in before or during the war, that was a few miles to the west, but it might as well have been. The most unsettling part of any visit was the way she would make her patient wait until she had finished her conversation with us before she would see them. The look of fraught concentration on my mother’s face told me that her grandmother was not somebody to be trifled with. I suspected it was a lesson she had learned early in life.
So even if you didn’t go rooting around after it, and despite Berlin’s feverishly modern urban cladding, its shops, its neon, its signature modern buildings, its past history remained conspicuously part of its DNA. There was the Russian T34 tank on a plinth down near the Brandenburg Gate. There were bullet-hole pockmarks on the side of older buildings. There was Teufelsberg, an entirely artificial hill built out of bomb rubble, and wildly rumoured to be home to all sorts of British spook activities. And above all was the Death Zone, the widest area covered by the Wall separating East and West Berlin, a strip of waste land that only the guard dogs could now roam, but which had once been the most important real estate in Nazi Berlin, home to Hitler’s Chancellery and its underground bunker, visible now only as a small mound in the earth. (It was finally flattened only when the Wall came down in 1989.) So alongside the beautiful Grunewald lakes, the outstanding new architecture of Mies Van Der Rohe’s New National Gallery and the seductive expanse of the Ka De We department store, all of which made our Berlin holidays so exciting, there was also, undeniably, a darker character. Even as children we knew it.
Berlin contained other family traces, the names of people whom, though still alive, we never got to meet. There was my mother’s uncle, Ewald (Bruno’s brother-in-law), who had been banished as the family black sheep after getting a housemaid pregnant. Great-grandmother Ida was clearly a woman unstoppable in her pursuit of family success and not very forgiving in the face of weakness or fallibility. Much more frequently – and warmly – talked about though, was der alte Herr, the old gentleman, her second husband (her first had been killed in the First World War). He had been a professional soldier his whole life, ending up a major at the end of the Second World War, an officer of the old school, with the reputation for having fought a decent war. My mother would always speak fondly of him, with palpable and infectious respect – not something she ever did about her own far more abrasive father.
But none of these family members could compete with Bruno for notoriety and mystique. This was reinforced by his sudden absence; one year, he simply wasn’t there any more. Only later did we discover the real reason. My grandmother had divorced him, after he had left her and moved in with her one-time best friend. It was a grim reward for all her years of keeping the family together. My mother squarely sided with my grandmother, and he retaliated by severing all contact with the rest of us. One consequence of this rift was that, when we did later resume contact, his visits assumed the proportions (and complexities) of major diplomatic events, fraught with tension. There was no chance he could simply sidle in and out of our lives as of old; from now on, our encounters with him would be especially tough for my mother, still bristling at his treatment of my grandmother.
He came to see us in the long, hot summer of 1976, when I was fifteen. It was the first time we had seen him properly since the divorce. I knew it was going to be a chance to gauge for myself what kind of person he really was. It could not have been more different from our previous meeting, nearly ten years earlier, in Berlin. This time, the setting was the utterly incongruous one of a school cricket match. I suspect the scene amused him too. The gap between the world of my upbringing and that of my German mother was starkly visible as I strode across the outfield in my white flannels to greet him. My first impression was how physically changed he was. When I had last seen him he had been tall, even rather gangly (as I was myself ). But the man walking next to my mother was very clearly an old man, walking slowly with the aid of a stick, his legs bowed, his face dominated by a formidable double chin. I was a lot more nervous about the encounter than he appeared to be. He clapped me round the shoulders and beamed, exclaiming how much I had grown. The bravado in his manner took me aback. Any nervousness about the intervening ten years was simply cast aside by his hale and infectious gusto.
Nor did it let up over the following few days. He wasn’t a man to waste time with pleasantries and small talk. I remember being swept up into his bon vivant gregariousness. Within minutes of our first greeting him, he was regaling my sister and me with stories about his recent trip to the States, full of anecdotes that demonstrated his single visit had turned him into an unimpeachable expert on all things American. (I later realized this must have meant he had filled in a visa application form. How, I wonder now, had he dealt with the question ‘Have you ever been a member of the Nazi party or the SS?’ – a question that is still there.) Above all, he was delighted by his capacity to remain unimpressed by things; they had flown a light plane over the Grand Canyon, but he had slept through it all, he exclaimed, enjoying the disbelief this created in my sister and me, who were unable to understand that anyone could be so nonchalant.
What I found most striking about his manner wasn’t his urge to perform, or his eccentric candour, it was the last thing I had expected of him, namely how unburdened by secrets he appeared to be. There was nothing retiring or self-effacing about him. He was a big man in every sense – though no longer over 6 feet tall thanks to a large girth and an old man’s stoop, his florid, determined face, vibrant shock of white hair and garish cravats made him impossible to ignore. He was a Technicolor character, whose unapologetic flamboyance and gallantry seemed all the brighter when set against the staid monochrome of life in 1970s Edinburgh. He never sought to blend in, to pass himself off and to go unnoticed. He was charismatic and knew it, and I have to admit to finding his persona, if not appealing, then certainly magnetic. But that, as it turned out, was his greatest act of concealment.
That evening, he took Vanessa and me out for supper at his hotel and proceeded to make us drink our way across an entire shelf of spirits and liqueurs, with all-too predictable results. By the time we got home we were completely inebriated, which earned him a tirade from my mother. He was gloriously unrepentant. We could tell how much he relished making trouble, mocking her indignation at the state we were in. It was an act of brazen hypocrisy, however, when compared to how he had brought her up as a teenager – with iron inflexibility, full of prohibitions – against jazz on the radio, against meeting boys from school, against wearing anything fashionable, let alone risque.
There were other times, though, when the bravado that had protected him all his life almost got the better of him, times when he wanted to do more than just be the centre of attention. These were the moments when he would start to play a rather more dangerous game, moments when I realized we had strayed into forbidden territory, and he started to talk more openly about the past. Not to reflect on it, and certainly never to repent – that wasn’t his way – but to tantalize, tease and boast about it. When I was in my early twenties, he would sit me down with a large brandy and an even larger cigar and drop a succession of ever more pointed hints, allusions and crypticremarks that I now realize were actually a kind of bait.
He would take a large and deliberate puff and lean over, ‘Mateen,’ he would mutter, the clipped German pronunciation of my name promising an instant semi-conspiratorial intimacy, and then it would start. Some of his taunts were historical ones: ‘You know, all we wanted was an empire too, like your Churchill’s.’ It was the first time I had encountered what is now quite a familiar piece of German post-rationalization – that the quest for Lebensraum (‘living space’) had grown out of the same impulse that had helped plant the Union Jack over so much of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century globe. Other allusions he made were far more opaque; they seemed prosaic, straightforward remarks, but they had the whiff of something darker behind them. He gave me a recording of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody. Only later did I discover that this was the favourite fanfare used at the start of all major Nazi newsreels and wireless announcements. He loved Hungarian culture, he told me, thought it was wonderful. His favourite. Only later did I start thinking – and when the hell were you in Hungary?
He then described what he did for fun. He enjoyed watching football, he said, but best of all was meeting his Kriegskameraden (his wartime buddies) around a regular Stammtisch, the table that many German pubs have, reserved for use by customers wanting a regular meeting place, perfect for eating, drinking and reminiscing. The word Krieg (war) lay quivering there in front of me, and it hadn’t even been me who had mentioned it.
For years, I had been taught to be circumspect, coded, discreet – and now the man who had motivated all that secrecy was fixing me with this skewer-like explicitness. Was he suggesting the subject was now no longer off limits? He rounded off the effect by giving me another gift, this time 1,000 DMs, to help me on my way. ‘We all need help starting our lives,’ he said. ‘I too got help when I had to start again.’ Start again? You mean like you did in 1945? But instead of picking up the gauntlet, I just sat there, dazed by the alcohol and the smoke and said – nothing. I never rose; I never reached up to swallow the tit-bits of provocation he held out to me. Instead I hummed and hawed my way back on to safer ground.
Why had I found it so difficult to just ask him questions? I wasn’t stupid. Even then, I could see what he was doing, that at some level he was desperate for me to start a conversation. Had I done what he wanted, I’m sure he would have told me everything, at least his version of it. The whole lot. Where he’d been. What he’d seen. What he’d done. What an important man he had been. But I didn’t, because deep down I don’t think I wanted to know. For one thing, I knew he wasn’t trying to recruit me as some kind of genuine confidant – I was being groomed as a foil against which to do some historical jousting. How he would have loved turning my limp liberal disquiet inside out, demolishing all my protestations and disapproval. I would have been such easy meat, and I had no desire to get sucked into whatever game it was he was playing.
But there was a deeper reason. What would I do with the knowledge, once he’d shared it with me? What would it make me feel, not just about him, but more importantly, about myself? It’s one thing to encounter one of the great evils of the twentieth century, through the testimony of others, in novels and pictures and films. It’s quite another thing to accept that a little bit of that malign phenomenon has taken up residence within the confines of your own family, that presiding silently over everything is a terrible secret, a secret that involves not the universal small sins of infidelity, bankruptcy or drink but something that speaks to the true heart of darkness. Well, I couldn’t handle it, so I nodded and kept quiet, storing away what I thought Bruno was trying to tell me until I could work out what to make of it all. It was the closest I had come to finding out, from his own mouth, who and what he had been twenty years before my birth. Was I ever going to find out?
Berlin, New York and London, 1992/3
And then came the inevitable moment when everything about him finally came to a head. He was dying. This man who had come in and out of our young lives was about to leave it for good. It was spring 1992, and my mother, sister and I were driving through central Berlin on our way to visit him. He was now eighty-five, and riddled with cancer. I was shocked to realize that it had been six years since I had last seen him. I wondered if there would be another six. We arrived at his flat only to find he wasn’t there. Gisela, his wheelchair-bound common-law wife, explained to my mother that his condition had deteriorated and that he was now in a hospice. So we sat down in the flat that had been his home and chatted with her. She had always been a sweet-natured woman, and it was almost possible beneath the pleasantries to forget that he wouldn’t ever be returning.
The following day, my mother went to visit him in hospital. He was indeed dying, she told us. Would we be able to visit him? She told us, no. He had expressly asked her not to bring us on any future visits. We were rather taken aback. That sounded rather dramatic. Why not? He didn’t feel up to it, my mother explained. It hardly seemed the appropriate moment to protest, so we accepted it, probably a little relieved to be spared some ghastly scene in a hospital ward. But it gave me pause for thought, as I realized the extent of what he would be certainly taking to the grave. I would never get the full disclosure to which I rather selfishly felt I was entitled, even though it had been years since we had last spoken to him. With him gone, all that would remain would be a series of maddeningly incomplete snippets: of wartime experiences that I had heard of from my mother, first in Berlin, and then in Czechoslovakia, where they were all captured by the Soviets. There were other bits and pieces of the puzzle that were added later on. Bruno, we were told, never drove across the GDR, but only flew, ‘to avoid being arrested by the Communists’. Gisela, we learned, had been one of the dancing gymnasts performing at the opening ceremony of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Beyond that, it was all white noise.
A week after Bruno’s death, I was on the phone to my mother. She was in a reflective mood. We started talking about Bruno, and soon she was recounting her wartime memories. I had heard these all manytimes before, but on this occasion she was reliving them with unusual intensity. I picked up the pace still further, asking her more and more about her days in Berlin, and in Prague, about what she had seen, what it had felt like, what she thought about it now. And still she kept on talking, long after our normal conversations on the subject would have been discreetly wrapped up. And so, finally, out of nowhere, I simply blurted it out, the question that had welled up in me and which would finally breach the dam of silence that had surrounded my grandfather. ‘What kind of soldier takes his family with him to foreign postings? Why were you with him in Prague at all?’ She didn’t answer. ‘Come on,’ I said, ‘it doesn’t make any sense. He couldn’t have been a civilian, not that late in the war, when they were calling up teenagers, and old men. And if he was an ordinary soldier, why would he have had you and your sisters there with him – families stay at home, they don’t travel with the army. What was he doing there?’ She paused, and I carried on: ‘He wasn’t in the army, was he?’ And then, unburdened by his presence at last, she made the fateful admission: ‘No, you’re right, he wasn’t, he was in the SS.’
For all my dispassionate bluster, nothing had prepared me for the echoing hiss of two tiny letters, whispered over the telephone line. The SS. Bruno Langbehn, my grandfather, the retired Berlin dentist, the man who had hoisted me on his shoulders as a toddler, lavished watches, cameras and cigars on me as a teenager and embroiled me in combative conversation as a young adult, had been an officer in the SS. It was a fact that had been assiduously kept from us for all those years, but now, finally, I knew. I had probed and pestered, and now I had my answer.
It made sense of all my foreboding that there must be more to his past than met the eye. It had simply never occurred to me, for all my suspicions about this aggressive, reactionary man, that he had been in the SS. ‘All I can remember,’ she told me next, ‘was he was a Hauptsturmführer. And he had nothing to do with the camps, I know that.’ I put the phone down, my heart thumping. All I could hear were these two phrases: ‘a Hauptsturmführer’, and ‘nothing to do with the camps’. I had no idea what a Hauptsturmführer was, but it was my mother’s desperate certainty about what he had not done that most struck me. Well, I thought to myself, you sound very sure about that. I really hope you are right.
Solving the first of these two mysteries was easy enough. The following day, I found a list of SS ranks in the appendix of a history book and ran my finger down it till it came to rest on the right one. A Hauptsturmführer was the equivalent in rank to a captain. It didn’t sound very senior, certainly not ‘policy-making’ senior. But as I had no idea how rank and seniority worked in the SS, it remained an open question just how much comfort there was to be derived from his apparently modest place in the hierarchy. It was the second mystery which I knew, with some dread, would take a lot more investigation to solve, one way or the other. What kind of SS officer had he been? What had he actually done? I was just allowing this all to sink in, when I suffered another pointed awakening.
I got older, and I suppose Bruno and the untold story of his SS career might slowly have receded into the hazy landscape of the past. I brooded over it in the months after learning the truth, but, with him dead, there didn’t seem anything more I would be able to find out. I realized too just how little I really understood about the system that had created him, and men like him. I became a documentary maker for the BBC and made a series of films about the Nazis, particularly those who had wrestled after the war with the meaning of their infatuation with the regime: one on Hitler’s friend and architect, Albert Speer, and the other on the talented but deeply flawed Leni Riefenstahl. What drew me to them was that both had managed to reinvent themselves and had all but succeeded in making their intellectual and moral complicity with the regime appear at worst merely ambiguous and at best simple human fallibility. Guilt and responsibility in all their complex manifestations fascinated me – as did the historians and writers who had made this their subject, and with whom I was now collaborating, such as Gitta Sereny, Ian Buruma and Hugh Trevor-Roper, all of them authors of major works exploring these and related topics. And inevitably I thought about Bruno.
The names of the architects of Nazism acquired a kind of horrible familiarity during the 1946 Nuremberg trials, or fifteen years later with the capture of Adolf Eichmann. But the stories of the anonymous men who actually made the mechanics of the system turn, whose malign perseverance in their allotted tasks turned Nazism from rhetoric into action, remain largely hidden from history. We know they were there – and gradually scholarship is revealing more and more about what they actually did – but we still don’t know much about who they were or what they felt or why they did what they did.
The story of the choices Bruno made from early adulthood right up to 1945 is therefore about much more than an episode from one family’s past. It illuminates a crossroads in the life of a whole nation. The decisions that transformed him from a young, newly fledged Berlin dentist into an ambitious, committed flag-waver for the Nazi regime were mirrored all over Germany.
There’s a photograph of Bruno dated 1931. It shows him tall, gangly, too young yet to have filled out into the commanding figure he later became. His wife stands next to him. They both look into the sun, slightly uncertain, wishing to please. He is a Monsieur Hulot figure, on his way to play that famous game of tennis. This is not, you feel, the man whose sheer force of personality later announced itself the minute he entered a room. Compare it with the family portrait taken in July 1941. These were among the few pre-war and wartime photographs owned by my mother, and kept in a large, heavy German photo album, each page separated by a sheet of heavy tissue paper. My sister and I had been very familiar with most of these as children, and I later realized with a shock that I had seen this particular photograph many times but had never identified the uniform. As it was neither black nor sporting the SS symbol, I had always assumed it was just a generic army uniform. Now I knew differently.
But even if Bruno’s uniform is hard to identify, the way he wears it is not. He exudes the conviction of the true believer. His wife gazes into the middle distance with eyes lit up, her blonde hair gleaming in soft, tight Valkyrie waves. She no longer remotely resembles the rather frumpy figure of ten years before, but it is Bruno who has been most strikingly transformed. Not a hint of diffidence; no trace of doubt, ambiguity or hesitance. This is a man who could quell you with a glance; he radiates cold command. Tomorrow – and the day after – you feel, really does belong to him.
What did they do for the rest of that July day on which the picture was taken, at that point in 1941 with Europe at Germany’s feet? What kind of party did they make, leaving the studio, walking down whichever Berlin thoroughfare it was located on? Had the two girls (my mother and aunt) overcome their very apparent ill-ease, thankful that they hadn’t spoiled the picture? Did fellow pedestrians stand to one side on the pavement, unconsciously even, to let them by, this man with the cascade of SS pips on his collar, his wife beaming imperiously on the arm of one of the regime’s undisputed winners? Did he slip off back to the office? Did she get home feeling that things just couldn’t get any better? Beautiful, healthy girls; a husband involved in the most important state work; and a homeland on the march to unimagined greatness?
Ten years separate the two photographs, just one decade that turned the gaunt, rather gauche newly weds, into the chilly, beaming poster couple for the 1,000-year Reich. One German had irrevocably become another, as surely as the nation itself had turned into something different. I knew I had to find out who this man and his wife really were.
But the question still haunted me: did we want to know more? Of course, we didn’t have the faintest clue what he actually did. My mother said she had no idea, and we believed her. She had been far too young during the war to be entrusted with that kind of knowledge and after the war had done everything in her power to avoid it.
There is a stark and shocking brutality to the phrase ‘SS’; it has no ambiguity, no obvious possibility of extenuation. It opens up a plague of possibilities that start with the merely criminal and proceed from there. It might mean anything, from simple bureaucratic handling of some of the most pernicious memos ever committed to paper, all the way through to actions that are unimaginable. I had swallowed that naive canard, that the SS only contained psychopaths and sadists, but now I realized that the truth was more upsetting. People like my grandfather had joined the SS, educated middle-class professionals – people like me, in other words. I also realized how little I really knew about the SS, and the rise of Nazi Germany, beyond the framework of dates and generalizations. It would have to be a dual exploration.
I was particularly interested in the story of the years that created him. I wanted to put a career to a face, by discovering what it was my grandfather did in the SS. In the process I also wanted to do the opposite, to put a face to a career, by finding out more about the SS in general. What kind of men did it attract? How did they join? Was Bruno typical? What role did he and men like him play in the larger trajectory from ideology and careerism to genocide?
The story of Bruno’s SS career might shed light on the last century’s most horrifying question – why had these people done it, and why were so few of them sorry? There is a further personal element to this too, of course. The German part of me has to face the question: what would I have done? I asked my mother once if she thought he slept well at night. Oh, yes, she said. He wasn’t the sort of man to have nightmares.
For the rest of us, things were different. Strangely enough, it was we, his relatives, who had become the true keepers of Bruno’s secrets. It was we, not him, who left thoughts unspoken. And, in doing so, we had become unwittingly complicit in his secrets. To break the hold his powerful personality still exerted, a decade after his death, I would have to discover the truth. Only by breaking the shell of silence that had grown, little by little, to obscure his life, would we ever, finally, be free of him.