- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2001

In "My Father's Keeper: Children of Nazi Leaders" under the intriging subtitle "An Intimate History of Damage and Denial," Stephan and Norbert Lebert, two journalists, father and son, keep asking the same question: What happened to the children of Adolf Hitler's murderous elite and how do they cope with their ominous legacy?

Building on his father's interviews in 1959 with the offspring of Hitler's helpers, Stephan Lebert updates the disturbing accounts of the children of Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy; Martin Bormann, Hitler's power hungry alter ego; Baldur von Schirach, leader of the Hitler Youth; Hans Frank, the notorious governor of Poland; Edda Goering, daughter of the powerful Reichsmarshall; and Gudrun Himmler-Burwitz; daughter of the brutal leader of the SS and overseer of the concentration camps.

The well-researched life stories of the protagonists are the latest among German books addressing this and related matters. Faced with their infamous names, the subjects had to decide how best to deal with the past. As Martin Bormann Jr. tells the authors: "You never escape from your parents, whoever they are."

Some chose to follow in their father's footsteps. Wolf-Ruediger Hess, a prosperous civil engineer in Munich and author of a book appropriately titled "No Regrets," idolizes Hitler. He refused to serve in the Bundeswehr and spent half his life fighting for his father's release from the Allied military prison in Spandau, where until his death in 1987, at age 93, he served a life sentence as a war criminal. Charging that his father was murdered in jail so he could not tell the true story about his "peace flight" to Scotland in 1941, Mr. Hess doubts an organized Holocaust ever happened and proclaims "sound reasons" for anti-Semitism. Disapproving of neo-Nazi skinheads who idolize his father, he approves of Austria's Joerg Haider as a right-wing politician with something to say.

Another child in denial is the embittered daughter of the man whose atrocities were unparalleled: Heinrich Himmler. Working as a secretary, Gudrun Himmler felt obliged to hide her name until she married a writer and became Frau Burwitz. Doubting her father's suicide, her mission became the rehabilitation of his name and her contribution to "Stille Hilfe," an organization that supports elderly Nazis, and right-wing groups.

A study in contrast is the story of Martin Bormann Jr. The son of Hitler's powerful confidant, sentenced to death in absentia at Nuremberg, had gone underground, changed his name and finally taken refuge in the priesthood and missionary work in the war-torn Congo, before illness forced his return to Germany. His godfather was Adolf Hitler. Asserting that it is not for men to judge other men, he finds a difficult solution for his moral dilemma: Still loving his father without diminishing his guilt for the terrible crimes committed against humanity. In lectures around the country Mr. Bormann warns of the dangers of National Socialist ideology and admonishes his listeners to "take great care."

Niklas Frank's father was Hans Frank, Hitler's governor in Poland who boasted that no further food supplies would be available to the Jews in order to decimate millions by starvation. He was hanged in 1946. Unlike his brother Norman, who had sought temporary refuge in Argentina, Niklas vented his rage against his dishonorable father in a sensational series of articles, "My Father the Nazi Murderer," published in STERN magazine.

The negative reaction of the German public, culminating in the headline "Frank the son, psychopath" in the ZEIT, was surprising. Klaus von Schirach, son of Baldur, Hitler's good-looking youth leader sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, is disdainful of the media who treat leading Nazis like animals in a zoo and remains proud of his father. The successful Munich lawyer muses that everybody, including his father, was betrayed by Hitler. Similarly, Edda Goering was never burdened by her name. Sentenced to death, her father committed suicide in prison. Never married, Edda settled for a quiet life in Munich. She fondly remembers a wonderful childhood and a caring father and wishes that the public would not expect her to judge him in any other way. Her anger is directed toward the Nuremberg tribunal and the influence of the ideas and values of the United States.

While the authors deal with the continuous struggle of these individuals to come to terms with a life overshadowed by men with unsavory pasts who still like it or not are their fathers, the phenomenon of Hitler, casting his totalitarian spell over members of his tight inner circle, still remains a mystery. Listening to the tenuous conclusions of the once privileged Nazi children, one is reminded of the timeless observation by the German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886): "Neither blindness nor ignorance corrupts people and governments. They soon realize where the path they have taken is leading them. Most see their ruin before their eyes; but they go on into it."

Viola Herms Drath is the author of "Willy Brandt: Prisoner of His Past" and other books on German affairs.


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