Dealing with the past has never been an easy task for post-WWII generations in Germany. Many have been growing up with the ambiguous feelings of disgust and denial about their ancestors. The most radical solutions have been, in one way or another, offered or forced upon those related to the most prominent Nazi leaders.
The heyday of the racist white supremacist ideology might well be behind us, but it nevertheless continued mutating in some unexpected ways. In Germany, it took the reverse form of sterilizing oneself in order not to protract the family line of the Nazi murderers.
This was the case of Bettina Goring, grandniece of Hitler’s right-hand man, Hermann Goring. Even though she was born well after her grand-uncle committed suicide, his legacy stood heavily on her shoulders. She changed her surname, underwent sterilization and moved to Mexico in an attempt to escape from her haunting past. In her own words, all her life she was afraid of ‘confronting [her] dark side’.
But not everyone sensed their ancestors’ past as their own. The shadow creeping behind them could be confronted – and defeated. This is the case of Katrin Himmler, grandniece of the SS mastermind, Heinrich Himmler.
Heinrich Himmler was among the most powerful men in Nazi Germany and one of the main architects of the Holocaust. The usual account of Nazis being essentially black sheep who against all odds took hold over German society breaks apart in her own family history.
While digging through her family files, for a long time stuck in East German archives, she discovered what many would fear. His less known brothers, one of whom is Katrin’s grandfather, admired Heinrich greatly. Her grandfather was guilty of condemning a half-Jewish man to death, by tipping him off to his powerful brother. After the war, her grandmother used to send packages to Nazi criminals who were on a death row.
Katrin had a vast amount of data to support the claim that basically her whole family was involved in the Holocaust, war atrocities and state terror against the opposition. The weight upon her shoulders was a mountain. Accepting the essentially racist idea that this evil was somehow wired into her family’s genes would have seemed like the easiest way out. But she chose to fight.
Not willing to absolve or endorse her ancestors’ thoughts and acts, and not willing to succumb to internalizing the feeling of guilt, she opted for a third way. Confrontation.
In 2005, she published a book Die Brüder Himmler: Eine deutsche Familiengeschichte, that was two years later translated into English and published as The Himmler Brothers: A German Family History. In her work, she traces the lives of the three Himmler brothers and their evolution into Nazism. This research cut her off from a part of her family but at the same time helped her not only come at peace with herself but support the wider attempts to deal with the troubling past in Germany.
Her life journey led her to fall in love with and later marry an Israeli Jew, whose ancestors suffered immensely in the Warsaw Ghetto. Even though the marriage offered her a chance to change her surname, she declined. She felt that life needs to move on and that new generations must learn from the past, rather than be silenced and safeguarded by its horrifying truths.
Her explication for why she chose to write the book that would expose those family members previously concealed from the judgment of history, she simply replied: ‘When my husband and I had our son, it became clear I had to break with the family tradition of not speaking about the past. I wanted to give my son as much information as possible, so that when he starts asking questions about my family, at least I can answer him.’