The Perfect Nazi: Uncovering My SS Grandfather's Secret Past and How Hitler Seduced a Generation

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9780670916160: The Perfect Nazi: Uncovering My SS Grandfather's Secret Past and How Hitler Seduced a Generation

A unique and highly personal history of Nazi Germany, supported throughout by documents and transcripts.

In 1993 Martin Davidson discovered that his German grandfather, who seemingly spent the war as an unassuming dentist in Berlin, had been a Nazi. And a thoroughly committed one, too: he had joined the Bund as a child, graduated to the brownshirts, and signed up for the party as soon as it had become legal, seven years before Hitler came to power. Davidson became determined to discover who and what his grandfather had really been. This book is the story of that quest. It is the piecing together and fleshing out of an archetype on which the Nazi party was founded: the middle-ranking, cogwheel-oiling, in-tray-emptying, memo-writing, fanatical fascist. As Davidson trawls through the archive, discovering many revelatory documents, he comes closer and closer to a mind-reeling possibility. His grandfather had been in Hungary in 1944. Did his commitment to evil go as deep as working with Eichmann on the sending of 700,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz?

Davidson also investigates and considers the lives and careers of other members of his family, some of whom made very different choices. He asks, what does it mean to discover that so many of one's relatives operated on the wrong side of the greatest moral divide of modern times? And what light does that discovery shed on the inner workings not just of Nazi bureaucracy, but on the complex of emotions and calculations that drew millions of Germans to throw in their lot with an insane ideology of mass murder?

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About the Author:

MARTIN DAVIDSON has two degrees from Oxford University and worked at J Walter Thompson before becoming a filmmaker and author, specializing in historical and cultural subjects. He was executive producer on Simon Schama's award-winning series A History of Britain (History Channel), and his many director credits include: Albert Speer: The Nazi Who Said Sorry (A&E); Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Lie (BBC); and The Nazi's and "Degenerate Art" (BBC). Four years ago he became head of history at the independent production company RDF Media, and oversaw films on a wide range of subjects, including Nazi attitudes to homosexuality; the role played by defeat in the Great War in the rise of Nazism; and a year in the life of Windsor Castle (PBS). He is the author of five previous non-fiction books.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

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 ...

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Davidson, Martin
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Editore: Viking (2010)
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