My grandparents were Nazis. It took me until recently to be able to say — or write — this. I used to think of and refer to them as “ordinary Germans,” as if that was a distinct and morally neutral category. But like many “ordinary Germans,” they were members of the Nazi Party — they joined in 1937, before it was mandatory.
My grandmother, who lived to be almost 100, was not, as I knew her, xenophobic or anti-Semitic; she did not seem temperamentally suited to hate. Understanding why and how this woman I knew and loved was swept up in a movement that became synonymous with evil has been, for me, a lifelong question.
She and my grandfather grew up in a working-class suburb of industrial Dortmund, where unemployment was rife; it had been occupied by the French after World War I. They joined the Nazi Party to be youth leaders in an agricultural education program called the Landjahr, or “year on the land,” in which teenagers got agricultural training. My grandmother always maintained that she had joined the Nazis as an “idealist” drawn to the vision of rebuilding Germany, returning to a simpler time and, perversely, promoting equality.
In the Landjahr, sons and daughters of factory workers would live and work side by side with sons and daughters of aristocrats and wealthy industrialists. She liked the idea of returning to “traditional” German life, away from the confusing push and pull of a global economy. Through research, I understand the Landjahr program was part of Hitler’s larger “Blut und Boden” (“blood and soil”) vision of making Germany a racially pure, agrarian society. The “racially pure” part was not something my grandmother ever mentioned.
“We didn’t know” was a kind of mantra for her on the long walks we took when I visited her at the farm she lived on, not far from where she grew up. “But didn’t you hear what Hitler was saying?” I would ask, grappling with the moral paradox of a loving grandmother who had been a Nazi.
My grandmother would shrug and answer something like, “He said a lot of things — I didn’t listen to all of them.” Didn’t she see Jews being rounded up and taken away, or at a minimum, harassed by the police? No, she maintained, not in the countryside where she lived. And anyway, she was focused on her own problems, on making ends meet and, once the war began, protecting her children.
This insistence on her own ignorance was an excuse, and I didn’t and still don’t accept it. It is impossible that she wouldn’t have known of Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitism and the Nazis’ objective of ousting Jews, whom Hitler had falsely (but successfully) linked to a Bolshevik terrorist threat. But did she follow what she knew of Hitler’s plan to its horrific, unimaginable end? In the late 1930s there was talk of sending Jews to Madagascar and to “settlements” in the east. But even if she believed this, why wasn’t she appalled at the injustice? At the dangerous stripping of rights?
In German there are two words for knowing: “wissen,” which is associated with wisdom and learning, and “kennen,” which is like being acquainted.
Acquaintance is, by definition, a surface understanding, susceptible to manipulation. When you are “acquainted with” something it’s much easier to see only part of the whole. Especially if the other half of what you hear and see is appealing. Hitler brought back jobs and opportunity, restored national pride and told seductive, simplifying lies; in the beginning, my grandmother, like many Germans, believed, for instance, that Germany’s war against Poland was begun in self-defense. (In 1939, Nazi operatives donned Polish Army uniforms and staged a takeover of a German radio station at Gleiwitz that Hitler then held up as an act of provocation by the Poles.)
“But what did you think when you started hearing the rumors about concentration camps?” I would press her. “Didn’t you ever listen to the foreign news reports?”
“Allied propaganda” was my grandmother’s answer. That’s what Hitler said it was. And she, like many Germans, trusted him. Her trust, apparently, relieved her of the need to understand.
How do I square the loving grandmother I knew until her death, in 2011, with this person? I have often worried that my attempt to understand the choices she made — and didn’t make — might be confused with an attempt to justify or forgive. But for me it is the only way I know to confront the past and take responsibility.
My grandmother heard what she wanted from a leader who promised simple answers to complicated questions. She chose not to hear and see the monstrous sum those answers added up to. And she lived the rest of her life with the knowledge of her indefensible complicity.
But in her willingness to talk about a subject few members of her generation would, she taught me the vital importance of knowing better.
Written by Jessica Shattuck from The New York Times.