Hitler's Children, BBC Two | TV reviews, news & interviews
Hitler's Children, BBC Two
Moving documentary encounter with the conflicted offspring of the Nazi top brass
Did Magda Goebbels do her children a favour by murdering all six of them in the bunker? Her rationale, as reported in the film Downfall, was the impossibility of imagining a life after Hitler for anyone called Goebbels.
Most descendants of the Nazi top brass were not afforded this ghastly reprieve, and survived into a conflicted adulthood. Not long ago a son of Reinhard Heydrich offered to fund the restoration of the Prague castle, now ruined, from which his father terrorised the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The city government was suspicious of his motives. It was his childhood home, he explained, which turned out to be the wrong answer, so he tried another: that he was eager to atone by creating a memorial for the victims of Nazism. His offer was declined.
The story neatly illustrates a potential split that confronts those blameless offspring whose dread surnames bring such a heavy freight. Hitler’s Children, a documentary examining the dilemma of five of them, asked to what extent the sins of the fathers should become the burden of their sons and daughters? Or in the words of Katrin Himmler (above right), great niece of You Know Who: “Until what point can you love your parents? Most can’t find the balance. Most decide to cut themselves off or decide on unconditional love and sweep all the negative stuff away.”
Himmler – how odd it is to use that surname of anyone but her great uncle – opted to confront the skeletons of a family tree riddled with ardent Nazis by writing a book about three brothers, one of whom was her grandfather, another the head of the SS. It caused a rift in her family with those who would have preferred to sweep the legacy under the carpet.
Niklas Frank is similarly active in the business of excoriating his forebears.The son of Hans Frank, he too has written books presenting his parents as monsters. He ceaselessly tours German schools (pictured left) not, it would appear, as a way of doing penance, but to issue a practical warning to posterity - that in troubled times populist rabble-rousers spouting snakeoil solutions will be granted easier access by disgruntled voters to the reins of power. His loathing for Hans Frank was visceral. Recounting a story of the day Hitler telephoned to offer him Poland, the son conjured an image of his father springing naked out of the shower: “He stood to attention. Probably his penis too.” He fell out with all but one of his siblings, now dead ("as it should be").
Others dealt with their legacy silently if just as drastically. Bettina Goering, great niece of the man whose square features she has inherited, is haunted by her grandmother’s insistence that the Holocaust is a lie. She has not only emigrated to a remote corner of New Mexico where she lives off the grid. Like her brother, she has also had herself sterilised “so that there won’t be any Goerings”. Monika Goeth (pictured below), daughter of Amon Goeth, was equally unable to extract any expression of guilt from her mother, beyond a concession that perhaps a few Jews had died in Plaszow work camp. When she asked too insistently what her mother meant by “a few”, she was thrashed with an electrical cable. She only really found out the truth about her father when she saw Ralph Fiennes’s portrayal in Schindler’s List. She recognised him in an instant. “It was like being struck.” Struck again.
The exploratory core of this film featured a trip to Auschwitz taken by Rainer Hoess, the grandson of the camp's notorious commandant. The guilt he lugged around with him had bypassed his father, who grew up idyllically just over the wall from the gas ovens, never abandoned Nazi ideology and deplored unmanly displays of emotion. “I think that must be the only reason I exist,” his son explained. His journey was all about release and redemption. It was intensely moving to see him stand in front of a group of Israeli students at Auschwitz and answer their questions. “Why are you here?” asked one. “Do you feel guilty?” another wanted to know. One girl whose family had been exterminated broke down mid-question. “What would you do if you met your grandfather?” Hoess's grandson, perhaps caught up in the moment, girded his loins and gave them the answer they and no doubt he wanted to hear: “I will kill himself myself.” A survivor of the camp who preaches reconciliation wanted to shake his hand. “I tell them you weren’t there," he said as they hugged. "You didn't do it.”
The Third Reich won’t go away - not for any of us. Only this week the movie Iron Sky found the Nazis invading Sarah Palin’s America from outer space, while next month at the Barbican Stuart Schulberg’s restored 1948 documentary Nuremberg – Its Lesson For Today is screened for the first time in the UK. But it really really won’t go away for these thoughtful, dignified, haunted people, the fruit of Nazi party’s loins. It was a mark of the quiet force of Chanoch Ze’Evi's film that it more than deserved its slot outside the History Channel, whose specialist interest in Nazi porn has earned it the moniker the Hitler Channel. Only one key question went unanswered: why had none of them changed their names?
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