The sins of my father

Martin Bormann Sr was one of the biggest criminals of the Third Reich. His son is still living with the legacy.
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The Independent Culture
The little town of Herdecke is not the kind of place in which you would expect to find a missing piece from a historical jigsaw. A small, modern industrial town on the banks of the Ruhr, it is busy with housewives shopping and trucks rumbling towards nearby warehouses.

But on a hillside thick with silver birch trees, on the edge of town, there lives, unnoticed by the rest of the population, a pleasant, elderly man whose memories and traumas seem to come from a different universe.

In a conference room in the modern hotel in the centre of town, Martin Bormann Jr has his head in his hands. The son of Hitler's most trusted lieutenant has just been asked how he felt on the day in 1946 that he heard, on the radio, that his father had been sentenced to death in absentia at the Nuremberg trial.

The silence lasts a minute. "Shocked and confused," he says, slowly, eventually. "I was completely destroyed. I felt so small." He looks despairing.

Martin Bormann is a handsome man, tall and upright for his 69 years, wearing a blue poloneck and sports jacket, his white hair swept back. He looks like a country squire, a retired racehorse breeder, or a landowner. When he swept in to the hotel lobby to greet me he seemed confident and relaxed.

But quickly, as he speaks of the past in the upstairs conference room with its fake wood and Athena prints, his voice starts to falter. His eyes search the room.

For this gentleman's father, also Martin Bormann, was one of the biggest criminals of the Third Reich, a fiercely ambitious and brutal man who became Hitler's private secretary and leader of the Nazi party, taking over many of the Fuhrer's daily duties during the war.

Martin Jr was born in 1930. Too young to have participated in the Nazi era, he was nevertheless old enough to remember it quite clearly.

He can certainly remember hearing the Nuremberg trials over the radio, from the farm where he was hidden after the Third Reich collapsed. The man described in the dock "was not the father I knew", he says, with some difficulty. "But it was there, every day, in all the newspapers, all the evidence of the concentration camps. Documents with his signature on them." He looks up. "That signature I knew so well." He switches from his distinguished, old-fashioned High German to softly accented English. "I cannot deny what my father did. I cannot." He looks pained. "I cannot stop thinking about my father," he says, with a sad smile.

Until he was 15, he loved his father as any child should. Martin Bormann Sr was, by all accounts, a good family man, dutifully visiting his wife and nine children from wherever he was based, taking pains to ensure their schooling and home life was correct. When he was 10, young Martin was sent to the elite Nazi Party Academy in Bavaria ("to make me a good German," he smiles), where he stayed for five years until the Third Reich started collapsing.

"We only saw him three or four times a year during the war, but he was a good father," he says, with a mixture of wistfulness and disbelief. "He wanted to make his own family because he had nothing as a child," Mr Bormann says. "He was strict, but he had a very big heart."

Though he will talk at length, like an academic, about the objective cruelties of the Third Reich, it is more difficult for him to describe his own feelings. He tells me of a postcard he received while he was a 14-year-old at the elite Nazi Party Academy in Bavaria. "It was addressed `to my dearest, darling child' and asked, `I would like to come and see you next weekend, the 14th. Would you be able to see me then? With all my love, father.'"

Martin Bormann has quite a different perspective to that of another child of the Nazi regime. Gudrun Burwitz is the daughter of Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the Final Solution. An unreconstructed Nazi, she is in the news in Germany at the moment, and has been ever since she was revealed to be helping a former Nazi concentration camp commandant fight extradition to be tried for war crimes in the Czech Republic.

A German-Jewish investigative journalist, Peter Finkelgrun, found that Burwitz who, like Bormann, is 69, was advising and helping the man whom he believes kicked to death his father and numerous other inmates of the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943. Himmler's daughter is the head of a charity, Stille Hilfe (Silent Help) which aids ex-Nazis.

"Gudrun Burwitz has created a golden image of her father and she will do anything to keep that," says someone who knows her. Ironically, Himmler was known to be a poor father, a violent and unfaithful man who neglected his children, so the image Ms Burwitz is trying to create may well be of the father she wishes she had.

Nobody will ever know. Himmler's child will take her thoughts and her secrets to her grave. She doesn't give any interviews and Stille Hilfe remains an organisation that is steeped in secrecy.

Mr Bormann, on the other hand, is brutally honest. The difference is that he's confronted the truth about his father. When asked if the Nuremberg death sentence on his father was correct, he says, slowly but firmly, "Yes, I believe it was."

To start with, the young Martin Bormann ran away. When Allied forces started closing in on the Nazi Party Academy on the Starnbergersee in Bavaria where he was at school, the 15-year-old joined his family at home. His mother and younger siblings moved south into Austria, but Martin had to stay in Germany because he was sick with food poisoning and too ill to travel. He was looked after by family friends.

Martin Bormann Sr died near Hitler's bunker in 1945, but his death was only proven definitively last year, when Martin Jr provided blood for a DNA test on his remains. "It was very difficult, not knowing for sure for all those years," he says.

After the war, helped in his conversion by the pious farmers who were sheltering him, he started studying to become a monk. Mr Bormann spent six years as a missionary in Congo, and then, after retiring from the priesthood and getting married, worked as a lecturer in religious studies at a university in central Germany.

Now retired, Mr Bormann spends his time voluntarily touring schools in Germany and Austria telling children about the dangers of Naziism. He visited 157 schools last year, driven by some undefined torment. He is also a frequent visitor to Israel, talking to cultural exchange groups about his pet subject, the language and propaganda of Nazism. He has no children, though his wife, also a former missionary, has suffered three miscarriages.

Has he never considered changing his name? "No, because nobody can choose his parents. And nobody can deny his parents. We are forever linked to them with an unbreakable bond."

His memories of the 1930s are becoming hazy now, he says, distorted by what he has learned since then. He remembers Adolf Hitler coming to his family's house at Christmas, in 1939, and presenting him with a set of toy soldiers and a toy gun. "I was nine," says Mr Bormann, with a rare smile. "I shot the soldiers with pencils from the gun. They soon became war casualties." Hitler was aloof and removed, he says, and his parents became subservient and scared in his presence.

On another occasion, the eight-year-old Martin was presented to the Fuhrer. "Heil Hitler, mein Fuhrer!" the little boy proclaimed, only to receive a hard slap from his father. "I'd forgotten that to greet the Fuhrer you had to say Heil, not Heil Hitler." The dictator himself remained impassive throughout. His family home was next to Hitler's within the Fuhrer's Bertchesgarten compound, and he remembers "a big fuss" one day when he was seven. Neville Chamberlain was visiting Adolf Hitler.

Does he feel guilty about his father? "No. The sins of the parents are not visited on their children," he says firmly. Even if he's not guilty, though, he's certainly haunted. As he leaves the hotel car park, he says, "Goodbye. And peace. Peace to all of us." A last, sad smile and then he climbs into his Subaru and drives off past the trolleypark of the Aldi supermarket.