Historian Lee (Pétain’s Jewish Children) reconstructs the life of a lower-level SS officer in this richly detailed and eloquent account. Asked by an acquaintance to examine a cache of documents discovered in the cushion of an armchair her mother had taken in to be reupholstered, Lee linked the papers to Robert Griesinger, a Gestapo lawyer in Stuttgart. Lee tracks down Griesinger’s surviving daughters; reviews his SS file; and traces his family roots to America. One of the “countless enablers who kept the government running, filed the paperwork and lived side-by-side with potential victims of the regime,” Griesinger was the grandson of German-American slave owners in Louisiana. Despite an undistinguished academic career, he landed a job with the Ministry of the Interior after passing his law exams in 1933, joined the SS, and went on to serve in an army unit that executed Jews in the Soviet Union (though there is no evidence he directly participated in the murders). Lee compares 20th-century America’s anti-miscegenation laws to Nazi racial classifications, and offers numerous prosaic details drawn from the documents, including Griesinger’s difficulties in getting official approval to marry a divorced woman. Lee’s granular focus reveals the mechanisms by which ordinary Germans were drawn into horrific crimes. Even those well-versed in the history of the Holocaust will learn something new. (June)
In 2011, Lee (history, Queen Mary, Univ. of London; Petain's Jewish Children) attended a dinner party in Florence, Italy, where another guest told him of a discovery made by her mother in Amsterdam. While reupholstering an old armchair, the restorer uncovered a packet of Nazi documents sewn into the seat cushion. This sparked Lee's search for information about the documents' original owner: Stuttgart lawyer Robert Griesinger, who worked for the Schutzstaffel (SS) from 1936 to 1945. What follows is a searching assessment of the beliefs, actions, and support network of a midlevel Nazi administrator. Yet just as interesting is the detailed account of how Lee tracked down information about this elusive figure. What Lee uncovered, with extraordinary persistence, helps us understand life within the administrative side of Nazi Germany, a topic little explored because of gaps in historical records; the SS destroyed most of its files in the final days of the war. Readers follow the author as he engages on this detective story, ultimately meeting with Griesinger's descendants, who realize how little they knew about their ancestor. VERDICT Readers of World War II literature and the history of the Nazi regime should find this a fascinating read.—David Keymer, Cleveland
A midlevel Nazi bureaucrat comes to life thanks to an unexpected discovery.
In 2011, a woman took an old armchair for reupholstering, and she discovered that, sewn inside a cushion, was a bundle of Nazi-era documents from a lawyer named Robert Griesinger. British historian Lee determined to learn more, and the result is a fascinating true-life detective story, as the author engagingly chronicles his searches in archives and interviews with elderly survivors. Five years of research revealed that Griesinger was born in 1906 in a family wealthy enough to escape most of the privations of World War I. Along with many Germans of his age, Griesinger hated the Treaty of Versailles and, like his family, was politically conservative. He attended university, where he acquired a circle of like-minded, fiercely nationalistic friends. Without distinguishing himself, he chose a career in the law and joined the Ministry of Interior in 1933 under new chancellor Adolf Hitler. This ministry dealt with the police, so Griesinger worked with the Gestapo, a group he eventually joined. Although working in buildings where vicious interrogation and torture took place, his duties were administrative; Lee turns up no evidence that he participated or that he disapproved. Called up in 1939, he served until wounded in 1941 and then returned to civilian duties, acquiring a plum position in Prague in 1943. Even as the Red Army approached, officials stayed on the job, so Griesinger was caught in the May 5, 1945 Czech uprising, which inflicted brutal revenge on the remaining Germans. He died in September, possibly of disease. Perhaps because few personal writings survive, Griesinger’s character remains a mystery, but Lee succeeds in documenting the life of a Nazi civil servant who, like many in his generation, showed little interest in Hitler before he took power or objection to him afterward.
An illuminating biography and more evidence for the “banality of evil.” (b/w photos, maps)
LitHub, "13 New Books to Look Out For This Week"
S.S. Officer's Armchair is an extraordinary book that lingers in the memory long after you've read the final page. I became totally engrossed in
Daniel Lee's investigations to discover the story behind long hidden Nazi documents. In uncovering the life of an disconcertingly outwardly ordinary man who became an SS Officer, the atrocity of the Holocaustand those who supported, facilitated, or chose to ignore what was happening all around thembecomes even more shocking."The Rt Honorable Baroness Smith of Basildon
"In Daniel Lee's The S.S. Officer's Armchair, the story of an utterly obscure and
'ordinary' S.S. officerrecovered through extraordinary researchis embedded in the illuminating context of upper-middle-class German society and family life in the first half of the twentieth century. The result is a fascinating combination of social history, family drama, and ingenious detective work."
Christopher R. Browning, Frank Porter Graham professor of history emeritus, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of Ordinary Men
"Beginning with his discovery of a cache of papers sewed,
inexplicably, into an old armchair,
Daniel Lee traces the life of an ordinary though far from insignificant Nazi bureaucrat, showing, as his story slides into horror, that there is no such thing as an armchair Nazi. His interviews with the surviving children and grandchildren add a poignant postscript to this powerful investigation of the war between memory and oblivion."Alice Kaplan, Sterling professor of French at Yale University and author of Looking for the Stranger
"Many of the most horrific acts against humanity during the
Holocaust were carried out by the untold thousands of low-level, virtually-unknown civil servants, who facilitated the worst deeds of the Nazi enterprise without ever getting their own hands dirty. In this brilliantly researched story of one such 'ordinary Nazi,' Daniel Lee illuminates the whole."Martha Weinman Lear, author of Heartsounds and Where Did I Leave My Glasses?
"...[A] fascinating true-life detective story, as the author engagingly chronicles his searches in archives and interviews with elderly survivors."Kirkus Reviews
"...[R]ichly detailed and eloquent... even those well-versed in the history of the Holocaust will learn something new."Publishers Weekly
"Beautiful and gripping, it unfolds like a detective story as an obscured past emerges into the light."Hadley Freeman, author of House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family
"This is a little gem of a book. It is beautifully written and reads as grippingly as a detective story. The story of the quest is fascinating in itself but the result is also a work of serious historical scholarship. Its reconstitution of the life and career of an 'ordinary Nazi' throws revealing light on the workings of the Nazi regime."Julian Jackson
"A fascinating read."Library Journal
"A very well researched publication."The New York Journal of Books
"A welcome addition to German Twentieth Century history."Seattle Book Review
"...[A] captivating portrait of an 'ordinary Nazi'... [and] a compelling account of Lee's sleuthwork, or as he terms it, 'historical detection'... [An] important book."The American Interest