When You Can’t Avoid Knowing Grandpa Was a Nazi

by Eric on May 1, 2015


With Abenesia in the news, I thought it might be useful to talk about another Axis nation’s complicated struggle with the memory of the Second World War. Jennifer Teege found out, at the age of 38, that not only was her grandfather a Nazi, he was an especially infamous Nazi: Amon Goeth, the commandant of Płaszów concentration camp, the man played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List. On trial after the war, Goeth sneered at the witnesses against him, “What? So many Jews? And we were always told there’d be none left.” He gave a Hitler salute on the gallows.

Hence the title of Teege’s memoir: she has an African father, and a Nazi grandfather who would have regarded as subhuman a person of African descent. The book is a great deal subtler than the title suggests. It is saturated in memory, and forgetting, and the fault lines between memory and history run throughout it. Teege describes her attempt to reconcile what she learns about her grandfather with the kind – but, she now knows, complicit – grandmother she remembers. The book presents Teege’s reminiscence and necessarily somewhat therapeutic work alongside the sober, reportorial voice of Nikola Sellmair, whose dry factual rendering of verifiable history often undermines Teege’s hopeful, emotional writing.

There are different kinds of memory in the book. Teege’s adoptive German family had a more usual relationship to the Nazi era – her father didn’t really know the extent to which his family had taken part in Nazi crimes. Sellmair discusses such modern Germans, summarizing Harald Welzer’s study “Grandpa Wasn’t a Nazi.” Latter day Germans seize on any opportunity to construct a guiltless, even noble past for their forebears – as with the French, they were all in the resistance.

Teege’s brief narrative also encompasses also the memory kept by Holocaust survivors and their descendants: before Teege found out about her grandfather, she traveled to Tel Aviv, made friends there, and lived there. Her discovery imposes silence between her and her Jewish friends. She doesn’t know what she can say. Her grandfather might have shot their grandparents.

“There is no Nazi gene,” Teege insists, struggling against the idea that she must bear some guilt for her grandfather. But she clearly feels that guilt. We all inhabit the world the bloodthirstiest conquerors made; only some of us grew up with them, personally.



Steven 05.01.15 at 7:32 pm

”There is no Nazi gene,’ Teege insists, struggling against the idea that she must bear some guilt for her grandfather. But she clearly feels that guilt. We all inhabit the world the bloodthirstiest conquerors made; only some of us grew up with them, personally.”

Interesting and nuanced. How does this type understanding bear on things like reparations?


LFC 05.02.15 at 2:04 am

Don’t think I’ll read this book but interested to learn of its existence, and nice to see a post from Eric on a subject other than FDR (and closely related matters). ;)


Phil H 05.02.15 at 3:09 am

This is only tangentially related, but:
I was just talking to a British friend in his 60s who was angry about the fact that he was, he feels, railroaded into Europe by politicians who lied and told him it was a trade bloc only.
I thought: pretty much every other institution you belong to was created through bloody conquest. If you’re only in Europe because of lies, that’s a massive step forward.


bad Jim 05.02.15 at 6:07 am

Latinos and American blacks are generally the descendents of both the oppressed and the oppressor, which makes pride in their heritage somewhat complicated.


P.M.Lawrence 05.02.15 at 1:49 pm

… as with the French, they were all in the resistance.

Er, no. Not all the French were in the resistance. At any rate, my uncle Arnold wasn’t. However, he was almost certainly involved with the black market, as he was on the dodge during most of the occupation after escaping from internment (after the surrender, P.O.W.s like him were reclassified as internees, which led to worse conditions but poorer security).

By the way, Phil H, lies are not an improvement over brute force, because when they succeed they internalise the chains; the deceived, thinking they are free, have no hope of escape.


Philo Vaihinger 05.02.15 at 4:15 pm

Mitterand was in the Vichy government, as I recall. Did very well for himself as a Socialist, after the war.


William Berry 05.02.15 at 4:39 pm

@P.M. Lawrence:

Eric was being sarcastic.

B.N: ” Latter day Germans seize on any opportunity to construct a guiltless, even noble past for their forebears – as with the French, they were all in the resistance.”

I.e., the likelihood that most Germans have a “guiltless, noble past for their forebears” is as probable that all, or even most, French were in the resistance (mere thousands were, in actuality, and the many of those were in relatively safer North Africa).


Philo Vaihinger 05.02.15 at 5:08 pm

“We all inhabit the world the bloodthirstiest conquerors made[.]”

Just so, and the takeaway should be fear and wariness, not guilt.

Be warned.


Sasha Clarkson 05.02.15 at 5:14 pm

” “There is no Nazi gene,” Teege insists, struggling against the idea that she must bear some guilt for her grandfather. But she clearly feels that guilt. “

On one level it is obviously true that people cannot be held responsible for the actions of their forbears. One cannot blame the child fathered by a rapist for being born. I know of a number families, including my own, where different family members were fighting each other in the same conflict. Individuals must find their own path irrespective of their ancestry.

Steven @1 asks how this impacts on the issue of reparations. If the “guiltless” generation benefits materially from the crimes of their ancestors, then there is clearly a case for restitution. Of course, reparations after WWI acquired a bad name, because the German people were being punished for the sins of their leaders, so West Germany after WWII didn’t have to pay reparations, it got the Marshall Plan instead.

Germany has been criticised in recent years for its desire to punish the Greece with something similar to what Keynes called the “Carthaginian” peace which was imposed on Germany post WWI. Others have claimed out that Germany has actually benefited from the crisis, because its export based economy has benefited from a value of the Euro which was consistently lower than that of an independent Deutschmark would have been. Perhaps it would benefit Germany’s image to be more generous to Greece, rather than plugging its own self-serving and sanctimonious economic morality tale.


David 05.02.15 at 5:24 pm

Whatever the quality of the book, it’s really important that we put these ideas of collective, racial or inherited guilt to bed once and for all. They serve no good purpose, and simply enable histrionic posturing by interest groups for political and financial gain. (OK, if I were a Russian, and Germans had killed twenty-five million of my countrymen I might feel differently, but “feelings” are not the issue here)
Guilt is individual, or it is meaningless. “Guilt” often depended on who you were, how old you were, and where you lived. Given that half a million foreigners served in the SS, for example, and millions more worked as auxiliaries, guilt is pretty evenly divided among the nations of Europe, if you want to play that game. Take, for example, the case of modern citizen of Croatia, one of whose grandfathers was a member of the Ustashi, and a guard at the Jasenovac concentration camp for Serbs and others, while another grandfather was in Tito’s Partisans. What mix of genes does this person have? And look at what followed the end of the war, when victims became killers and killers became victims as the sides changed. If you insist on collective “guilt” few European nations have anything like clean hands.
On the French, of course not everyone was in the Resistance, although a significant part of the population was involved in the facilitation of resistance work. The generally accepted figure for Resistance members executed before 1944 is 30,000, and of course many thousands more died in the fighting that followed, as well as in concentration camps. On the other hand the number of hard-line collaborators (including those who fought in Russia) was probably only in the thousands. Most people kept their heads down, which is what you and I would probably have done. The Resistance as such was not active in North Africa (i.e. Algeria) which was not occupied by the Germans, although De Gaulle of course established his HQ there in 1942.


William Berry 05.02.15 at 5:49 pm

“The Resistance as such was not active in North Africa (i.e. Algeria)”

Not so. Much of the propaganda apparatus of the Resistance was operated from N.A.


Bruce Baugh 05.02.15 at 7:08 pm

Responsibility is of course a wider concern than guilt. Externalities exist.


john c. halasz 05.02.15 at 9:05 pm

Bruce Baugh @ 10:

Props! Guilt is an entirely private and unfathomable affect. “Collective guilt” is an oxymoron, pace Jaspers. But collective responsibility is an entirely legitimate public-political conception, if any reconciliation and advance is to be achieved, even if it entails that the guilty and innocent must suffer alike.


LFC 05.02.15 at 9:55 pm

Sasha Clarkson @7
There was a long discussion about reparations on one of the WW1 threads here quite a long time ago, one takeaway from which was that there has been considerable controversy in the historiography in recent decades about the “Carthaginian peace” view. All I really remember clearly from the lengthy discussion is that reputable historians are divided about exactly how punitive the reparations actually were, with some close to the Keynes position, others not. No point in rehashing all this here, just thought I would mention that it is apparently a point of live historiographical debate.

Obviously from the standpoint of the victors postWW2 and U.S. in particular, the Marshall Plan made much more sense than imposing reparations would have. For one thing, Germany was defeated, in ruins, split up, and occupied, and in no position to pay any immediate reparations, even token and symbolic, to anyone. Eventually I believe W. Germany made payments to the Israeli govt; I don’t recall for sure whether those payments were labeled as reparations (though I think they were).


LFC 05.02.15 at 9:58 pm

p.s. Also of course the beginning of the Cold War was an important factor in tilting the U.S. toward reconstruction aid (as opposed to some other kind of policy).


dr ngo 05.03.15 at 12:22 am

“The generally accepted figure for Resistance members executed before 1944 is 30,000, and of course many thousands more died in the fighting that followed, as well as in concentration camps. On the other hand the number of hard-line collaborators (including those who fought in Russia) was probably only in the thousands.”

I’d like to see some evidence for these – admittedly rough – estimates. The number of French who were sufficiently “collaborateurs” to have helped in rounding up Jews, Gypsies, and others like that was, I suspect, much more than “the thousands.”


P.M.Lawrence 05.03.15 at 12:47 am

I knew that crack about the French was meant as a sarcastic illustration, but I also knew that it was perpetuating an untrue calumny, and as it touched on my personal connections it bore correcting.

For what it’s worth, during the occupation practically all Frenchmen (other than a tramp in the Bois de Boulogne, who I heard emerged later without having known of the war) were involved with either the black market or the resistance at some level, whether active and hiding out or not, as otherwise existence was impossible (see David’s comment about facilitating the resistance); if nothing else they would have ended up prioritised to be deported for forced labour. But that in turn shows how so many were involved with collaboration at some level as doing that highlighted the rest and so assisted the deportations, whether for forced labour or for death camps; even doing the same routine work in the Mairie as before the war did that, and the fact that the first kind of deportation was going on blurred awareness of the second kind. All this also means that many were involved with more than one of the black market, the resistance, and collaboration (think the police chief in Casablanca).


David 05.03.15 at 6:10 am

There’s a vast literature on the Resistance, which I can’t begin to summarize here. But two things are worth mentioning.
First, the whole enterprise was hopelessly quixotic. There was absolutely no chance of inflicting even minor setbacks to the German occupiers in the zone they controlled, and, although bomb attacks and assassinations were quite frequent they were usually met with savage reprisals from the Germans. All the resistance could do was conduct propaganda, stage some symbolic actions and prepare for the eventual Allied landings. And this meant the very high possibility, after a few months, of betrayal, torture and death or deportation to a concentration camp. It’s surprising that so many people were prepared to run these insane risks for so little;
Second, most people had to survive. They didn’t like the Germans, many didn’t like the collaborationist Vichy regime, but their options were limited. I mean, what do you actually do if you are a geography teacher with a large family in a rural village? What do you do if you are a policeman in the Robbery Squad? In fact, very large numbers of French people resisted where they could. The ultras, who tended to be in Paris, and despised Vichy for its lack of commitment, were quite a small group and had little influence on Vichy’s policy, which was to collaborate with the Germans in order to keep France together, and, they hoped, influential, until the Germans eventually left. Vicky shared a number of the Nazi ideas (authoritarian government and fervent anti-communism for example) but it was largely a regime of the traditional Catholic right. Collaboration was primarily pragmatic policy, not a policy of ideological identification.
And whether we are talking about France or Germany, let’s be realistic. Most people go along with most other people most of the time. Remind me again what proportion of Americans went to prison rather than pay taxes to support to Vietnam war?


RoyL 05.03.15 at 12:28 pm

My great grandfather was a member of the 1920s era klan and a 32nd degree master mason, he burned crosses on catholics lawns in the 1920s in his small upper midwestern city, and created an anti catholic boycott league to get merchants to band together to break catholic businesses. He was convinced to his dying day of Papist plots.

The place had no african americans, and other than the Chinese he really wasn’t that racist. His sister had adopted as her own two Ojibwe children found wandering one winter after a long series of miscarriages, and he was a very good uncle with them, and he constantly praised the only Jewish family in town to my grandfather telling him to emulate them. So he was a very complicated guy.

The reason I feel no real guilt is that both his sons crossed him and were thrown out for marrying Catholic women, and all of his living descendents are Catholics today. First my grandfather, who married an Irish Catholic girl, who was out of an Erskine Caldwell novel and actually grew up poor in the Delta, and later my great uncle married a german Catholic. He never let up on the bile but he didn’t fight my great grandmother either, so my Mom grew up planning on being a nun and eating Sunday dinner once a month while he complained about papists and the degenerate Irish. I think knowing what this hate is all along makes it different. And he didn’t murder anyone.

The same side of the family were involved in the Great Sioux Rising in 1862, and I grew up with stories of the burning of New Ulm, and relatives killed in isolated farms. My three times great grandfather was a leader of settlers in protesting clemency, and there are a couple of family stories that really look to imply that he and his brother were involved in a massacre. I know my own mother has long campaigned for native rights, though interestingly now that I think on it she has never shown much interest in the Dakota for example Leonard Peltier, and she has weirdly always taken the FBI side on his case. My indian cousins, which is what they call themselves, are pretty divided on these matters, but none of them ever seems to think Alcatraz was anything more than a stunt and that Pine Ridge was anything more than criminal. So that may have colored her opinion. I think the big issue is that all of us are descended from “winners”, and it is just a question of whether we have knowledge of them and if we care about them personally. I make excuses for my great grandmother who I loved, and in spite of his sectarian hatred I like to think his hatred is undercut by his humanity as expressed toward my mother, who he did not taunt even when she was going to be a novice. I have asked her about this and she said you can either repudiate the idea of family, or you can declare all your relationships to be ideological, and in that case you mist be sure of everyone you knows position and crimes. She got tired of that very quickly, and said she would rather go back to the convent and pray even though she rejected God’s existence. A friend of mine who is the daughter of an african freedom fighter killed in the 60s and grandaughter of a British officer who was accused of killings in Malaya, says pretty much the same thing. I have dated a girl whose grandfather was a senior RVN policeman who ran part of the Phoenix Program, she finally induced me to actually start Capital and though it didn’t work out with her it changed my view of history completely.

As to massacres of fleeing Dakota, I think that was another country and besides the wench is dead. There should be no taint of blood. The real crime is that the US refuses to honor its treaties which supposedly have force of law.


Sasha Clarkson 05.03.15 at 1:17 pm

LFC @14 Re the historiographical debate over Keynes: In The Economic Consequences of The Peace, which I have, Keynes detailed analyses Germany’s and Europe’s production and consumption of key commodities before the war, the present and potential productive capacity of Germany in 1919, and the impact that reparations proposed and agreed would have on decreasing that productive capacity, and thus the ability of Germany and Europe to feed itself. I very much doubt that any of Keynes’ detractors had either the patience or the knowledge to rubbish his statistical and economic analyses.

Amongst Keynes’ observations was that “… a scientific consideration of Germany’s capacity to pay was from the outset out of court. The expressions which the exigencies of politics had made it necessary to raise were so very remote from the truth that … it was necessary to ignore the facts entirely. … On a basis of so much falsity it became impossible to erect any constructive financial policy which was workable. ” (Remember that as Keynes was at the conference as Lloyd George’s economic advisor, so he was in a position to know what he was talking about.)

He further observed “It is an extraordinary fact that the fundamental economic problem of a Europe starving and disintegrating before their eyes was the one question in which it was impossible to arouse the interest of the Four. Reparations was their main excursion into the economic field, and they settled it as a problem of theology, of politics and of electoral chicane, …

After looking at all the statistics, he concluded that those signing the Treaty would ” … sign the death sentence of many millions of German men, women and children.” Keynes also pointed out that parts of Eastern Europe, particularly Russia, were in an even worse state than Germany, and would suffer further from a badly designed treaty.

Of course, the treaty was never fully implemented because it was impossible to do so. I 1921 Keynes wrote “… the Reparation Chapter of the Treaty of Versailles is crumbling. There is little prospect now of the disastrous consequences of its fulfilment.” Europe continued to suffer from the consequences of the destruction of course, and Britain was propelled into the Great Depression five years early by Churchill’s re-adoption of the Gold standard in 1925. But that is a different story.

¹ The Change of Opinion – Essays in Persuasion


Norwegian Guy 05.05.15 at 2:23 pm

While her case is more extreme than most, the general phenomena isn’t unheard of. Perhaps one of you (great)-grandparents was in the resistance, another was a collaborator. Even though most people in the occupied countries weren’t actively involved in the war, there were enough activists on both sides that today, there must be many people with a mixed heritage.


Marshall 05.05.15 at 6:10 pm

Philo Vaihinger @8
Just so, and the takeaway should be fear and wariness, not guilt.

The only way this is made appropriate is by cutting yourself down to the autonomous present-dwelling individual with no responsibility for your origins. And excessive wariness bad for community. Also per P.M.Lawrence @17 we are all complicit in the ongoing bloodthirstiness, and guilt should impose a healthy restraint.

Although there is the freedom from guilt that confessing performs, but that should not lead to fear, quite the contrary.


Bernard Yomtov 05.06.15 at 12:05 pm


I think the big issue is that all of us are descended from “winners”, and it is just a question of whether we have knowledge of them and if we care about them personally.

In what sense is an African-American descendant of slaves descended from “winners?” Who were these winners, and what did they win?


ajay 05.06.15 at 1:18 pm

West Germany after WWII didn’t have to pay reparations, it got the Marshall Plan instead.

It’s funny that so many people believe this so firmly (including me until I read Tooze) when it’s completely wrong.


“In fact both halves of Germany paid substantially higher reparations after 1945 than the Weimar Republic did”, Adam Tooze notes (“Wages of Destruction”) – though perhaps not more than Weimar was told to pay.

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