The Descendants of Murderers

The new documentary Hitler's Children, about the kids and grandkids of prominent Nazis, shows what's gained in the struggle to confront the atrocities of one's own past.

hitlers children facebook 615.jpg

There's one moment in Hitler's Children, a documentary about the descendants of famous Nazis, which nicely calls into question the film's whole reason for being. Katrin Himmler, great-niece of the notorious Heinrich Himmler, points out that to see herself as irredeemably stained by her great-uncle would be to subscribe to the Nazi's "ridiculous ideology that everything depends on bloodlines." Looking right at the camera she says, "I don't believe in that bullshit."

Katrin's certainly got a point. But at the same time, her actions suggest that she does believe in that bullshit, at least a little. She wrote a book about her grandfather and his brother, Heinrich, which alienated members of her family. She married an Israeli descendent of Holocaust survivors--and she says that during some of their fights both of them would find themselves dragging hurtful stereotypes out of their subconscious. And, of course, she agreed to participate in this documentary, in which she is defined in large part by her relationship to Heinrich Himmler.

This is the central tension of the film. On the one hand, Herman Goering's niece Bettina is obviously not Herman Goering. Rainer Hoess is not his grandfather, Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz. And yet, at the same time, Bettina's children would carry on Herman's genes--which is why, she explains, she and her brother both sterilized themselves. And Rainer has family photos of his father playing at their home in the camp, where their toys were made by the inmates and where they had to be sure to clean their strawberries carefully so that they didn't taste of human ashes. Everything, perhaps, doesn't depend on bloodlines--but something does.

The men and women in the documentary deal with that "something" in different ways. Bettina left Germany for America, and, as she herself suggests towards the film's end, has spent much of her life not denying, but honorably turning her back upon everything Goering. Rainer, on the other hand, spends much of the film actually inside Auschwitz, which he visited with Eldad Beck, a third-generation Auschwitz survivor. The two look around, comparing his family photos to the still-standing family home. Rainer smiles with delight on occasion as he matches a scene from the photo with a scene before him, seeming almost like any other antiquarian engaged in roots exploration. Except for the part where he keeps talking about all the deaths, and, occasionally, walking away from the camera to weep.

The person in the film who seems to have made the most sustained effort to grapple with his Nazi heritage is, unsurprisingly, one with a very direct connection to that past. Niklas Frank, son of the Nazi Governor-General of Poland, Hans Frank, has spent much of his life researching and denouncing his father's crimes. The film shows him speaking to a number of student groups, often reading from his books about his parents. He clearly finds these readings--which include, for example, his imagined reconstruction of his father's death by hanging--upsetting and stressful. But he is spurned on by his loathing of his parents and of what they did--a loathing that, as he says himself, is rooted in thwarted love. His mother never once held him or expressed any affection for him. As for his father, he says, through all his research, he kept hoping to find something, anything, good that he had ever done; some evidence that he tried to save at least one person, one time. But there was no such evidence.

Katrin Himmler comments that her family was lucky to have Heinrich. He was such a monster that they didn't have to think about all the other, everyday Nazis among them--like her beloved grandmother, who, she discovered to her disgust, had sent care packages to convicted Nazi war criminals. Katrin's being ironic when she says this is "lucky," of course. But there is a sense in which people like Himmler and Frank and Hoess did leave a kind of gift for those of their descendants willing to take it up. The Nazi atrocities and their architects are so thoroughly evil that Niklas and Rainer and Katrin and Bettina have been forced to acknowledge that evil, and to make their lives, in part, about acknowledging it and dealing with it. "It's really insane," Rainer says, looking around his grandfather's idyllic home at the gates of Auschwitz, "what they built here at the expense of others." Surely when he says that, he knows that one of the things they built was the family that, eventually, included Rainer himself.

Rainer and Niklas and Katrin and the others in the film have had--not the opportunity, perhaps, but the necessity to take moral responsibility for their part in atrocity. As a result, their lives are--while certainly not perfect--more honest and more honorable than those of some of their peers and some of their family members, who continue to deny the Holocaust ever happened. More honest and honorable, too, I think, than those of many people who aren't Germans. I'm writing, after all, in a country that still celebrates Columbus Day, and where most people don't even know who the Arawaks were, or what Columbus did to them to ensure his place beside Goering and Hoess as one of history's monsters.

No doubt there are some Americans who will leap to Columbus's defense. The evil related to you is always the hardest to see and the easiest to deny. Which is why we should listen when Frank, and Hoess, and Himmler, and Goering tell us, out of hard-won experience, that atrocities aren't always committed in someone else's name.

Hitler's Children is playing now in Chicago and Los Angeles until Feb. 21.