GOERING AND GOERING: HITLER'S HENCHMAN AND HIS ANTI-NAZI BROTHER
By James Wyllie
History Press/Trafalgar Square, $16.95, 246 pages, illustrated
Thanks to Hitler's sidekick Hermann Goering, the name - the very word - Goering has become a veritable synonym for evil, and evil in a particularly vulgar and rebarbative form. Who can forget the image of the bloated, drug-addicted buffoon, tricked out in one preposterous hunting outfit or grandiloquent military uniform after another? Or the slimmed-down, sobered up, much reduced figure in the dock at the Nuremberg Trial, sharp, agile and unrepentant under cross-examination, but still possessed of that ingrained vulgarity that led one observer, British writer Rebecca West, to liken him to the madam of a brothel.
An early and fervent adherent of Hitler and Nazism almost from the beginning, he remained unrepentant to the bitter end, despising those of his co-defendants who renounced Hitlerism, and would have been the first to hang had he not cheated execution by committing suicide.
So it is a great surprise to discover in this well-researched book by a British screen and television writer who studied history at Cambridge University that there was another Goering, a younger brother, who was not only repelled by Nazism, but who was a fervent opponent of it throughout the dozen years when it held most Germans in its deadly thrall.
James Wyllie's fascinating twin portrait throws a spotlight not only on this other, very different, Goering, but also on some aspects of the horrible Hermann. Not that Mr. Wyllie in any way tries to redeem him or even to minimize his dastardly deeds, but he does reveal that, for reasons of brotherly loyalty and affection, he protected and sheltered Albert from the retribution that otherwise would certainly have been visited on him by a regime notable for the harshest treatment of those who opposed it.
For Albert Goering did not merely talk the talk, he definitely walked the walk, first making gestures of solidarity with Jews being humiliated and persecuted then actually saving many of them from extermination. At times, especially when he was employed at the giant Skoda armaments complex, he seems to have been another Oskar Schindler, so assiduous was he in rescuing Jews.
Nor did he hesitate to invoke the name of his brother in order to facilitate his good works or, if necessary, to go to him personally, seemingly always with the desired result. Hermann Goering does not seem to have tried to stop or even to curb Albert's activities, urging him only to try to avoid "embarrassing" him too much by what he was doing. Fervent Hitlerite though he was, he does not appear to have been a fanatic in his anti-Semitism, nor was he apparently alone in this among top Nazis.
Mr. Wyllie tells of a fascinating incident when Albert went to his brother in order to secure protection for the Jewish wife of Franz Lehar, who despite (or perhaps because of) being one of Hitler's favorite composers, was being pressured to divorce and abandon her to her fate. Hermann actually enlisted the help of an equally willing Joseph Goebbels (so fanatic a Nazi that he and his wife killed their six children before committing suicide themselves in Hitler's last-stand bunker) to "aryanize" her.
Which raises a truly perplexing - and fundamentally unanswerable - question about these top Nazis. When it comes to genocidal racial hatred, is it worse to be sincerely fanatical or to be so cynical that you are prepared to use it with all its deadly consequences without even really believing in it? Certainly, the portrait of Hermann Goering in these pages is as flamboyant, roguish and villainous as that of his brother is modest, decent and good.
Those qualities were, of course, their own reward for Albert Goering, but he did not have a particularly easy time in the decades following the war. Because of his name and that-once-so-useful association, he was treated with the utmost suspicion by the Allied occupying authorities and subjected to harsh treatment in prison. Only a steady stream of witnesses from Skoda testifying on his behalf overcame the grudging attitude of his captors and brought about his eventual freedom to live out his life in poverty and obscurity.
Only recently has he been celebrated as one of those few righteous in a time of great iniquity. But for this man who had previously led a "quiet, conservative and uncontroversial" life, the choice was simple, as Mr. Wyllie relates. "When ... asked why he undertook all this assistance to the Jews and other victims of Nazi persecution, he replied that he was completely uninterested in politics, that he loathed all oppression and tyranny, and that he was doing in some small way, everything in his power to atone for the evil and brutality of his brother and all the leaders of the Nazi regime."
Martin Rubin regularly reviews books for the Wall Street Journal.
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