I watched BBC2’s Hitler’s Children on Wednesday night – I hope not only for reasons of morbid curiosity. Five people were interviewed: Niklas Frank, son of Hans Frank, Governor of Poland during the Reich; Rainer Hoess, grandson of Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz; Monika Hertwig, daughter of Amon Goeth, Commandant of Plaszow concentration camp (portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in the film Schindler’s List); Katrin Himmler, great-niece of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS and architect of the Holocaust; and Bettina Goering, great-niece of Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second in command and head of the Luftwaffe.
What did I learn from watching these traumatised individuals describe the shadow that has burdened their lives? Mainly that the only way to make any sense of evil, and the heavy legacy of this particular evil that has been handed down to these victims by their fathers’ wrong-doing, is through the Cross of Christ. I think it must be almost impossible for someone to cope with an inheritance like theirs without invoking religious concepts, such as expiation, atonement and self-sacrifice. The noteworthy – yet also sad – aspect of the programme was that none of the interviewees mentioned religious belief at all; it seemed to play no part in their lives. So what the viewer witnessed was a kind of fixed and stricken grief, endlessly circling the past with the unanswerable question “Why?”
Niklas Frank, aged eight when his father was hanged at Nuremburg, has spent his life hating his father for what he did; indeed, he sees both his parents as “monsters”, who were cold and detached. “I longed for my parents’ love” he says. His sister committed suicide aged 46, the same age as her father was hanged.
Rainer Hoess actually visited Auschwitz in middle age, accompanied by a Jew who had lost his family there. He is shown gazing in disbelief at the comfortable villa his own father grew up in, just the other side of the wall from the Auschwitz crematorium. Indeed, his grandmother ordered the vegetables from the garden to be washed as they were sometimes covered in ash. Rainer’s father, too, was unemotional and distant. Asked by a young Jewish girl in a question-and-answer session what he would do if he met his grandfather, he simply replied “I would kill him.”
Monika Hertwig, aged one when her father was hanged, is also clearly deeply unhappy. Having been told that her father had died a soldier’s death on the Eastern Front, she only discovered his notoriety by accident as she grew up – and was severely whipped by her mother for asking constant questions about him. She is still struggling to come to terms with the past.
Bettina Goering, now living as far away from Germany as she can, on a remote ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico, made the drastic decision, which her brother also made, to be sterilised so that the Goering bloodline would end. “I cut the line,” she says. Her parents’ generation couldn’t deal with the past, she says.
Katrin Himmler, who wrote the book “The Himmler Brothers”, seemed the best adjusted and emotionally the strongest of the five interviewees; possibly because her research and writing had helped her “to achieve a critical distance” from the past, as she explained. Yet she admitted that she was aghast when she discovered her grandparents’ knowing involvement with her great-uncle. She paid a price for her public stand, being ostracised within her family for wanting to dig up the past rather than hide it or lie about it. It also seems to have taken its toll on her marriage (to a Jewish Israeli).
So back to the point I made earlier; the transferred guilt, shame and suffering of these five innocent victims of the crimes of others are still endured – without the only consolation I would imagine possible: that offered by Christ’s redemptive love on the Cross.
Coincidentally, Major Dick Williams featured in yesterday’s Telegraph obituaries. He had been one of the first British soldiers to enter Belsen concentration camp and had to arrange for the dying and the dead there to be separated and for the latter to be buried in mass graves. “How our gunners managed to stay sane I will never know,” he later commented. I am inclined to ask the same question of the five “refugees” of the BBC2 programme.