Suppose for a moment that your mother dropped you off at an orphanage when you were just an infant. Although she could not, or would not, care for you, she did remain a part of your life. She would occasionally pick you up and take you to visit your grandmother. Those were good times, for you adored your grandmother. She was always happy to see you, and you were able to experience from her some of the love you were missing in your relationship with your mother.
Suppose further that when you were seven years old, your mother agreed to allow your then foster parents to adopt you, after which the visits with your mother and grandmother ceased. Your new home was a loving one. You gained a mother and a father and two brothers who welcomed you as a full member of the family. You call your adopted parents “Mama” and “Papa,” and your brothers speak of you as their “sister,” never as their “adopted sister.” The manner in which you are welcomed into your new family is all the more remarkable since you are a mixed-race child in a German family. Your mother was German; your father was Nigerian.
Your parents are not wealthy, but neither are they poor. You are able to attend good schools and travel abroad. As an adult, you are able to live for a time in Paris and Israel. You earn a degree in Middle Eastern and African studies from Tel Aviv University. Eventually you marry a German and have two children. Then, one day while visiting the central library in Hamburg, you happen “by chance” to pick a book off a shelf that smashes into your world like a bolt of lightning, forcing you to confront the question, “Who am I?” The book is the story of your mother, Monika Göth, daughter of Amon Göth and his mistress, Ruth Irene Kalder. Suddenly, you must face the fact that you are the grandchild of one of the most notorious mass murderers of the Holocaust.
The above is in brief the story of Jennifer Teege as she relates it in her autobiography, My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past (New York: The Experiment, 2015). Jennifer Teege was 38 years old in 2002, when she happened upon the book, I Have to Love My Father, Don’t I? by her biological mother, Monica Göth. It is Monica’s account of her life’s struggle with the knowledge that she was the daughter of Amon Göth, the commandant of Płaszów concentration camp near Kraków, Poland, who was convicted of war crimes in 1946 and executed by hanging.
Amon Göth was not just a SS officer carrying out orders given to him as the commandant of a concentration camp. He enjoyed inflicting fear, pain, and death on those who were his victims. He would stand on the balcony of his villa overlooking the camp and randomly shot prisoners with a rifle. He had two dogs, Rolf, a Great Dane, and Ralf, an Alsatian mix, that he trained to attack and tear apart prisoners on his command. He would ride about the camp on his white horse and, if he saw a prisoner working too slow or pausing to rest, he simply shot him or her, adult or child. “When you saw Göth, you saw death,” a survivor of Płaszów later recalled. Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig, a survivor who suffered daily abuse as a maid in Göth’s villa, describes the terror that Amon Göth’s mere presence inspired: “As a survivor I can tell you that we are all traumatized people. Never would I, never, believe that any human being would be capable of such horror, of such atrocities. When we saw him from a distance, everybody was hiding, in latrines, wherever they could hide. I can’t tell you how people feared him.”
As a retired history professor with a special interest in twentieth-century European history, and in German history in particular, I found Ms. Teege’s book informative and very interesting. I have often wondered how the children of high-ranking Nazi officials dealt with the burden of their parentage. How would such a person answer when asked, “What did your father/mother do for a living?” “Who were your parents/grandparents?” These survivors, sometimes called “Hitler’s children,” confronted their family’s history in various ways.
Not all of them survived the fall of Hitler’s “Thousand Year Reich.” The six children of Magda and Joseph Goebbels, one of Hitler’s closest confidents and Reich Minister of Propaganda, died in the Berlin bunker, poisoned by their mother. Magda could not bear the thought of her children having to live in a world without Hitler. She had another child by her first marriage, Harald Quandt, who survived the war. He was a successful industrialist in the postwar era, and died in a private airplane crash in 1967.
Some of the children of high-ranking Nazi officials, like Edda Goering (b. 1938), Wolf Rudiger Hess (1937-2001), and Gudrun Himmler (1929-2018), refused to ever accept the fact that their fathers could have been guilty of the crimes of which they were accused. Gudrun Himmler, daughter of the Heinrich Himmler, leader of the infamous SS and chief architect of the Holocaust, spent her life defending her father and channeling aid to former SS and Gestapo members through an agency known as Stille Hilfe (Silent Help). Among those she helped were Klaus Barbie (1913-1991),”the Butcher of Lyon,” Martin Sommer (1915-1988), the “Hangman of Buchenwald,” and Anton Malloth (1912-2002), convicted in 2001 of beating at least 100 prisoners to death in Theresienstadt.
Hitler, himself, did not have any children. The claim made by a Frenchman, Jean-Marie Loret (1918-1985), that he was Hitler’s illegitimate son, conceived during World War I while Hitler was serving on the Western Front, did not survive DNA tests. Hitler’s sister, Paula (1896-1960), did not have any children. As of December 5, 2018, there were five surviving descendants of Hitler’s half-sister Angela (1883-1949) and half-brother Alois (1882-1956). They agreed among themselves not to have any children, thus assuring that the Hitler bloodline will end with them.
Bettina Goering is the great-nice of Hermann Goering, one of Hitler’s earliest followers. Hermann Goering was one of the highest decorated heroes of World War I. He took over command of Manfred von Richthofen’s squadron, the “Flying Circus” (Jagdgeschwader 1) following the Red Barron’s death in aerial combat. Goering’s popularity as a war hero enabled Hitler to win the support of many upper-class patriots who otherwise would have ignored “corporal” Hitler. Goering served as commander of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and after 1941 was Hitler’s designated successor.
Speaking of how she remembers her father, Bettina Goering says, “When I see Hermann as a family person, I think he’s really nice, and charming, and incredibly caretaking, and it’s hard for me to see flaws. But then you see what he does in politics and how he killed people, including his so-called friends.” She has lived with the fear that some of what made her father a war criminal, though he was never the level of monster as others mentioned above and below, may reside in her DNA. She and her brother both underwent sterilization so as to bring an end to the Goering bloodline.
Some of the children and grandchildren of prominent Nazis discovered only later in life that their infamous forbearer was a war criminal, having been told as children that he died during the war, often as a hero. Some, like Jennifer Teege’s mother, Monica Göth, have personal memories of their parent or grandparent. That was true of Brigitte Höss, daughter of Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz.
Höss was born in 1900, the son of a former army officer who wanted his son to become a priest. When World War I broke out, Höss was allowed to join his father’s old 21st Regiment of Dragoons. At 15 years of age, he served in the Middle East with Germany’s ally the Ottoman Turks. During his service in the Middle East, he witnessed the Armenian Genocide. Around one million Armenians were killed by the Turks in what today would be referred to as “ethnic cleansing.” He served with distinction, having been wounded three times and received several decorations for bravery, including the Iron Crescent and the Iron Cross first and second class. After the war’s end, he joined the Nazi Party in 1922, and in 1934 the SS Death’s Head Unit. He served in both Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps before becoming Commandant of Auschwitz concentration and death camp in 1940.
As Commandant of Auschwitz, Höss oversaw the mass killing of between 2 and 3 million Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russian prisoners of war and various other individuals. After experimenting with various methods, Höss introduced the use of Zyklon B gas. At his Nuremburg trial he boasted that as many as 2,000 prisoners could be disposed of in half an hour. He was transferred to Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1943 after revelation of an affair with an inmate. He returned to Auschwitz in May 1944 to oversee the murder of 430,000 Hungarian Jews over a 56-day period. When the war ended in 1945, Höss tried to evade arrest, hoping to escape to South America. He failed. When charged at his trial with the murder of three and one half million prisoners, he replied: “No. Only two and one-half million—the rest died from disease and starvation.”
Inge-Brigitte Höss was the third of five children born to Rudolf and Hedwig Hensel Höss. Brigitte moved to Spain during the 1950’s, where she worked as a model. She met an American engineer working in Spain. They married in 1961. They eventually settled down in Georgetown, located in northwest Washington, D.C. She was employed by an exclusive fashion salon in D.C., owned by a Jewish couple who fled Germany in 1938 after the Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass) attack on Jews throughout Germany. The salon owners never revealed to anyone that their employee, whom they so liked, was the daughter of Rudolf Höss. They chose to see her as a human being, not as the daughter of the commandant of Auschwitz. Reflecting on his parents’ relationship with Brigitte, their son later commented, “I am proud to be their son.”
Should these so-called “Hitler’s children” feel a burden of guilt for the crimes of their parents or grandparents? After all, they were only children. Like all of us who are unrelated to anyone guilty of war crimes and/or crimes against humanity, they try to understand how someone can be a loving parent or grandparent, and at the same time be a mass murderer. After having breakfast with his family, a husband/father kisses his wife and children before leaving for a day’s labor of participating in the murder of men, women, and children. After returning home and enjoying the evening meal, he plays with his children before seeing them off to bed, wishing them “good night” and “sweet dreams.” Perhaps he even stands by as they say their good night prayers. Later in life, how do those children, how do we, understand that? How do we get our minds around that reality? The theories offered by social scientists are of little or no help. It is a part of that perennial human problem of the existence of evil that haunts humanity.
I have spoken above about those whose father or grandfather was a Nazi war criminal. But is it any different, should it be any different, for the children whose fathers firebombed German or Japanese cities, incinerating tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children, or dropped napalm bombs on Vietnamese civilians during the Vietnam War?
I do not have any relatives who were or are guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity. My father worked in a defense plant during World War II. One of my uncles served as an army cook, hardly a post that lent itself to the commission of war crimes. My maternal grandparents immigrated to America from Germany at the end of the 19th century. Had they remained in Germany, I too might very well be struggling with the fallout from a parent’s role during the World War II.
We all struggle with a feeling of guilt for crimes committed in the recent or distant past by individuals who chose to participate in evil acts. We struggle with the question of whether we ought to feel a responsibility to try and atone for the evil committed by past generations of the community of which we are members. Should American citizens today of European descent feel guilt for the enslavement of people from Africa by European Americans during past centuries of our nation’s history? If so, what about the genocide of Native Americans or the exploitation of immigrants during the early days of the Industrial Revolution in America? Those who committed those crimes against their fellow human beings in the past are no longer here to atone for their actions.
The United States of America that came into being following a successful revolution against British rule built an empire that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans and eventually beyond. It did so by conquests that decimated all who stood in its way. The war with Mexico (1846-1848) and the Spanish-American War (1898) are acknowledged by historians to have been wars of aggression, wars of conquest. Treatment of Asian immigrants mirrored the treatment of African Americans living under Jim Crow. The history of the United States is written in part in blood and tears, driven forward by greed and racist theories supported by Social Darwinist theories.
As we struggle with sins committed by our ancestors, should we feel that in some way we must share their guilt as if we, ourselves, committed the sins? Americans today are coming to grips with a host of institutionalized injustices that are rooted in our nation’s history, but still very much a part of who we are as a society. We may not be personally responsible for those injustices. We may not have made the choices that created them, but we must choose to remove them. We are not “Hitler’s children,” but we are all children of Adam and Eve. Like Jennifer Teege, we must educate ourselves about the burden of responsibility, if not guilt, that we carry as individuals who are part of a community. We must live with the consequences that resulted from choices our forefathers made, and we must choose to correct the injustices that still exist in our society, injustices which we inherited from our ancestors.