1 June 2018 Susannah

Children of the Nazis

Hitler with staff, May or June 1940

In 2016 the Baillie Gifford Prize for a non-fiction book was awarded to East West Street by Philippe Sands. I read it recently after my sister had recommended it (thanks Rache) and found it absolutely fascinating. Philippe Sands is a lawyer and was invited to lecture on international law in the Ukrainian city of Lviv.

East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity by Philippe Sands

East West Street by Philippe Sands

This started his journey into his own family’s past – his Jewish grandfather had lived in Lviv – and into an investigation of two of the prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trials (Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin) and one of the Nazi war criminals, Hans Frank. These prosecutors invented the crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity. I had never thought before about the origins of the word ‘genocide’ and it was so interesting to discover what a hard job it was to get the word accepted in a law court. Sands interweaves the story of his own family with those of the other men, showing the scars that are left through the generations by genocide and guilt. How do some of the children and grandchildren of Nazi criminals now feel about their relatives? What sort of bravery does it take to hide a large group of Jews under your floorboards throughout the war? How does one describe the walk one’s own great-grandmother took along the road leading to Treblinka’s gas chambers? This is a remarkable book that is part memoir, part detective story, part history book. It is not a happy read, but it is a memorable one.

One good book always seems to lead to another. East West Street aroused my curiosity about the children of some of the Nazi leaders as it included interviews with Niklas Frank, son of Hans Frank who was condemned to death at Nuremberg for his crimes against Jews in Poland (Hans Frank was known as the ‘Butcher of Poland’). What sort of legacy must it be, I wondered, to know that the loving Daddy who tucked you in at night and picked flowers with you in the woods, also signed orders that sent thousands of Jews to their deaths? Children of the Nazis: The Sons and Daughters of Himmler, Göring, Höss, Mengele and Others – Living with a Father’s Monstrous Legacy by Tania Crasnianski answered many of my questions and was a most interesting read, though at times a grim one too.

Heinrich Himmler's family

Heinrich Himmler’s family

The children of top-ranking Nazis had very comfortable childhoods, but all that changed at the end of the war, when many of the wives and children were arrested. Some of the children grew up remaining convinced that their dear papas had done nothing wrong – Gudrun Himmler, Edda Göring and Wolf Hess were proud of their surnames and explained away atrocities as being imaginary or someone else’s fault. One son claimed that gas chambers were “technically impossible”, while one grandson insisted that the gas chambers of Dachau were built by American soldiers as a scary tourist attraction. Other descendants accepted the horror of what their fathers had done and lived lives filled with guilt and shame. Niklas Frank was appalled and did his best to atone for his father’s actions; others converted to Judaism, or even had themselves sterilised so they would not pass on such dreadful genes; others changed their surnames to avoid being tarnished by association. Hitler himself chose not to have children as he felt no son could match up to himself and might have to be his successor – at least posterity was spared Hitler Junior!

I have the most wonderful father of whom I can feel proud – at 85 he is an international tennis champion, his friends adore him, he grows amazing veges in his garden, he travels the world, he is a superb public speaker, and a truly fantastic man. As I read this book I kept pausing to consider how I would feel if I knew that my fabulous Dad had done something unbelievably cruel to another human being. No wonder the children of the Nazis were a mess, was my conclusion!

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   East West Street by Philippe Sands
   Children of Nazis by Tania Crasnianski, Molly Grogan (Translated by)

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Featured image credit- Hitler with staff, May or June 1940, Heinrich Hoffmann front row far right, by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R99057 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5368831
Body image credit- East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity by Philippe Sands, bookcover from https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30291809-east-west-street
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Comments (6)

  1. trevar langlands

    Very interesting Susannah, i find these kind of topice really interesting and absorbing…its a strange world is it not that one hman can be so loving and be so loved and yet comit such terrible things- but of course War does terrible things to people and survival instinct is a strong one which can take over

    • Susannah Fullerton

      War certainly does awful things to people, but those Nazi leaders were so brain washed and disturbed that it almost came as a shock to me that some of them could be good fathers.

  2. HEATHER MCKENDRY

    East West Street is an outstandingly researched and written book by a truly intelligent man, I was fortunate enough to see him interviewed by International Humanitarian lawyer Julian Burnside in Sydney earlier this year. So much of interest, including the fact that the concepts of Genocde and Crimes Against Humanity were only coined after WWII at the Nuremberg trials.
    Philippe Sands is following up with another book about one of the children of the Nazi mentioned in the book, the one who did not truly believe his father had been a monster, as opposed to the son of Hans Frank. Terrific book!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh I am so pleased to know that he is writing another book. Thanks for letting me know. I wish I had seen him being interviewed. I found East West Street so memorable and would have loved to hear him talk about it.

  3. Donald Nairn

    It s interesting to reflect on family history from this stand point. People like to invent a past to suit themselves
    often quite contrary to the facts, it seems. One of my cousins, a ruthless quester after the truth upset many family
    members by exposing family myths. Nothing horrible; just aggrandisement where displaced farmworkers from Scotland
    became exiled aristocrats.And the persistence of racial concerns as if merit . disgrace, wickedness were transmissible
    through the genes.
    I shall certainly endeavour to read East West.
    Thanks for a most interesting post.
    Donald Nairn

    W.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It is fascinating that people feel the need to reinvent their pasts in the belief that others will think better of them. Do read East West Street. You will find it very memorable.

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