Brothers in arms
The List, August 9, 2007
Most of us have family members that we find rather embarrassing, or that are possibly even disreputable, but that sort of low-grade familial resentment is put in perspective by talking to Katrin Himmler. Her great-uncle was Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s right-hand man, head of the SS and chief perpetrator of the Holocaust. As far back as she can remember, Katrin’s family have distanced themselves from Heinrich’s abhorrent behaviour, but as she got older and married a descendent of the Polish Jews persecuted by the Nazis, the need to examine her family history became an itch she had to scratch.
The result is the enthralling The Himmler Brothers, which examines the relationship between her grandfather Ernst and his two brothers Heinrich and Gebhard. ‘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,’ she says. ‘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.’
The family line was always that Heinrich was the black sheep, but as she researched, Katrin discovered that his brothers and other family members were also enthusiastic Nazis, and implicated in dubious behaviour, albeit not on the scale of mass murder. Benefiting from association with Heinrich, many Himmlers turned a blind eye to goings on, or even helped Heinrich in more disreputable duties. ‘Many times during my research it was quite difficult for me to go on,’ Katrin admits. ‘As things were revealed it became more and more shocking. We descendents were left in no doubt about what Heinrich had done. But his actions cast a large shadow that the rest of the family were standing in, many of them hiding in there.’
Katrin’s book is admirably level-headed, a meticulous memoir of an extraordinary family, and the author never resorts to histrionics, preferring to let the facts speak for themselves. Originally written as self-therapy, the book stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of guilt the Nazis left behind for future generations. ‘It was very painful for my father to read it, to read about how his father and uncles behaved and thought,’ says Katrin. ‘I’m currently trying to write a book about other Nazi families, which is a lot easier for me. It’s horrible enough to go into these stories, but at least with this new book it doesn’t touch me personally.’