Historical Notes: Torment of the sins of the grandfathers

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The Independent Culture
ULI SONNTAG (not his real name) is one of the subjects we interviewed in the course of our research on three-generation families of Nazi perpetrators. He was born in Germany in 1971. His grandparents were enthusiastic National Socialists; his grandfather was probably involved in Nazi crimes. Uli has severe guilt feelings, is tormented by the question of his own potential for committing similar crimes, suffers from nightmares and a fear of annihilation.

Is this an isolated case? More than 50 years after the collapse of the Third Reich, we might suppose that the long-term psychological effects of that era were ever nearer to disappearing. However, our empirical study of Nazi perpetrators' families in three generations shows that this is not the case. The consequences of past events can be seen more and more clearly, and grandchildren suffer more openly under their grandparents' Nazi past than their parents did. In general, we were able to observe that, instead of challenging the grandparents' past, the perpetrators' children and grandchildren as well are often afflicted with guilt.

In the case of the Sonntag family, we also observe that perpetrators succeeded in passing guilt to children and grandchildren and blaming them when they asked unpleasant questions. For example, some years ago Uli decided to visit his grandparents to talk with them about their past. In conversation he tries hard to motivate his grandfather to admit his crimes. The grandfather grows furious, accuses his grandson of using Nazi methods and staging a Gestapo-style interrogation. That night Uli stays at his grandparents' house but is haunted by the fantasy that his grandfather might shoot him because he is on to his past and beginning to loosen the bonds of filial loyalty. Terrified, he barricades the door.

Many children and grandchildren suffer from fears of being murdered, which are related to unconscious fantasies about their own relatives' deeds. We also observe a fear of being considered "unworthy of life". Thus as a child the daughter of one Nazi doctor, a euthanasia practitioner, concealed her myopia from her father.

Children and grandchildren also suffer from quite detailed fantasies concerning the undisclosed family history or family secrets. Our analyses show a striking correspondence between these fantasies and the specific experiences of the grandparents' generation. In the Sonntag family, both the son Eberhard and the grandson Uli are preoccupied with fantasies about fire and burning people. Eberhard does not want to think about his father's past; however, he continues to ask "burning" questions with regard to his own life story; he worries whether he might be capable of murdering people.

In his fantasies he places himself in the position of a commanding officer and ponders whether he would be able to drive women and children into a church and set it on fire. His son Uli in turn has a pronounced fear of fire. In a recurrent dream he is trapped in his bedroom in his childhood home; the room is on fire and he cannot get out. He also visualises being cremated in a concentration camp; he sees himself on the pile of corpses.

To what extent are these fantasies on the theme of burning people connected with the family's hidden history? The grandfather, who as an architect, our archive research shows, may well have been involved in building crematoria in concentration camps, wonders how there could still have been so many corpses left after 1945, arguing that they had tried to burn them all.

Gabriele Rosenthal is the editor of `The Holocaust in Three Generations: families of victims and perpetrators of the Nazi regime' (Cassell, pounds 50)