The "perfect Nazi" took many forms in the Third Reich. It had to, in order to ensure the mass mobilisation of the population behind the National Socialist cause. It could take the form of an Aryan woman pushing out baby after baby, serving as an incubator of future soldiers for the Reich, or of an ardent Hitler Youth member who was quick to denounce his parents if they deviated from the Nazi world-view. Or it could take the form of an SS officer, actively hunting down opponents to the regime and pursuing whatever channels deemed necessary to ensure the longevity of Hitler's rule. Martin Davidson's grandfather, Bruno Langbehn, fell into the latter group.
Langbehn was a career Nazi. He joined the party early, in 1926, when it was on the fringes of German politics. The humble trainee dentist from Perleberg soon exchanged pre-war involvement in the Brownshirts for power in the SS, collecting two Nazi accolades for loyalty: the Gold Party Badge and the Death's Head Ring. Did he kill any Jews personally? At the very least he was a "desk perpetrator", part of the think-tank that prepared the way for the Holocaust. In examining how and why Bruno Langbehn so wholeheartedly endorsed Nazism, this book offers insights into why the regime had such enduring appeal among Germans. The Perfect Nazi is also an attempt by Langbehn's grandson to uncover his grandfather's very active involvement with the Nazi party. A great deal of ink has been spilled on the subject of how Germans got into Nazism. Less attention has been given to how they emerged at the end of the war, a defeated nation collectively responsible for the murder of around six million Jews. Ever since, Germany has been engaged in coming to terms with its past – so much so that the word for "coming to terms with the past", Vergangenheitsbewältigung, has immediate Third Reich connotations.
Germans were generally so consumed with their own suffering in the immediate aftermath of defeat that they showed no remorse for their involvement in the persecution of the Jews, even when the Allied troops frog-marched them to Nazi death camps to see the mounds of corpses. If Germans chose suppression over contrition, how did individuals respond to the realisation that they or their families had served a criminal regime?
Davidson explains that his mother, the daughter of Bruno Langbehn, chose to bury the past. She showed no desire to learn more, presumably reasoning that ignorance is bliss. Davidson, by contrast, was beside himself with curiosity, and, though he never discussed the matter directly with his grandfather, he nevertheless describes his story as "a book that had to be written". In Davidson's quest, it is fascinating to observe his struggle to place his grandfather within the well-worn narrative of Nazism that we all know.
In family histories of this period, it is quite common for grandchildren to have a good understanding of what the Nazis did (as any German school child would tell you, there is never any danger of this subject being neglected in the classroom) and yet simultaneously profess "Grandpa wasn't a Nazi". Quite understandably, nobody wants their family to be mixed up with the bad guys. Davidson is no apologist for his grandfather, however. His condemnation of Bruno is loud and clear. Davidson will have wanted to avoid accusations of white-washing his family's past. In merging the personal with the historical, he both helps us to understand what motivated Langbehn, while simultaneously casting judgement upon his grandfather.
This highly readable, thought-provoking book highlights the challenges that German families have faced as they seek to put the past behind them. The former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl once talked of the "Gnade der späten Geburt" (the grace of late birth), suggesting those born after 1945 had a lucky escape. But, as this book shows, it is not so easy to draw a line under the past. The Perfect Nazi offers a window on how the different generations grappled with the Nazi past.
Hester Vaizey is the author of 'Surviving Hitler's War: Family Life in Germany 1939-1948' (Palgrave)
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