A Nazi in the Family: The Hidden Story of an SS Family in Wartime Germany by Derek Niemann
|A Nazi in the Family: The Hidden Story of an SS Family in Wartime Germany by Derek Niemann|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: A great addition to the Holocaust book shelves, as what a family thought was a low-level office worker in Nazi times was finally revealed to be someone much more interlinked with the regime's evils.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 288||Date: March 2015|
|Publisher: Short Books|
I'm sure someone somewhere has rewritten The Devil's Dictionary to include the following – family: noun; place where the greatest secrets are kept. The Niemann family is no exception. It was long known that grandfather Karl was in Germany during the Second World War, people could easily work that out from the family biography. Yet little was spoken of, apart from him being an office-bound worker, either in logistics or finance. Since the War two of three surviving siblings had relocated to the Glasgow environs, and there was even a family quip concerning Goebbels and Gorbals (family: noun; place where the worst things are spoken in the best way). What was a surprise to our author, and many of his relatives, was that things were a lot closer to the former than had been expected, for Karl was such an office worker – for the SS. With a lot of family history finally out of the closet of silent mouths, and with incriminating photographic evidence revealed in unlikely ways, the whole truth can be known. But this is certainly not just of interest to that one small family.
There're many reasons I keep on reading Holocaust literature, either that from a dwindling band of survivors and witnesses (and sometimes the perpetrators) or from the descendants of the same, finding out the reality in their own literary manner. One of those reasons is the way the books always bring out the incidental detail that help patch up my understanding. I didn't realise how blood-boilingly hard done by German POWs after WWI were – it wasn't just Hitler fomenting things and saying Versailles was bad for Germany, no – men like Karl Niemann were kept in POW camps for a full 16 months after the outbreak of peace, released only once the Treaty had been knocked out and initially adhered to, even when their opposite numbers had been returned much prior to that. I didn't realise during the War itself that the Gestapo would nab you and confine you to a camp, such as Dachau that had started out as a repository for political prisoners, if you were bad-mouthing the Reich's regime in Istanbul.
But beyond those over-arching facts, each tale on the Holocaust shelf provides some specific colour, and there are few more colourful than this one. It's hard to define such a book as warm, but this one is – take away the harsh B/W cover photo of a man in an SS uniform gardening on a private Nazi family community outside Berlin, and you get a completely readable, open and warm biography. It's a perfect balance of the family's joint memoir, and reportage of the secrets' discovery, with the important reveal of just what this man was up to, that nobody was vocalising for generations. Niemann was a pen-pusher as the family called him, but he was involved in the logistics of the Final Solution, and part of his job was to survey the progress in camp factories, checking up on all his thousands of slave labourers as they went about the company tasks of woodworking on industrial scale for the sake of the Reich. It was probable that such workers ended up creating window frames and doors, such was the bomb blast damage that Germany suffered, but their prime concern for a lot of the war was creating bunk beds for other concentration camps. At one point things were so fired up with increased business the company was creating one set of bunks every two minutes of a ten-hour working day for a full month.
Better that than bullets, you have to agree, but this is where the book really opens the story out. There is no way this man can really be condemned as a fully-fledged Nazi. So he joined the Party? – many, many did. So he used slave labour, for fairly innocuous reasons? – but he also had several people released from prison so they could do the work as a free man. So he had to know the worst excesses of the regime, visiting practically every death camp it built? – here you can read the court documents that finally and for all declared what kind of Nazi criminal he was, if any. And that's something the family have had to battle with, as well. What kind of criminal was Karl? What would be the natural response – to hate his record, to clam up about it, or to write around and analyse the matter?
Well I'm completely glad that Derek Niemann has done just that. This is a breezy, quick read that doesn't stint on the nightmarish circumstance the War caused, on any scale. It's not glossing over cracks, either, but neither does it read like some dry, dark and drear Holocaust literature. That, I think is down to the family coming over so strongly on these pages. That warmth that I spoke of isn't misplaced, or false. Derek had the job of finding out what he could, and the travels and archives involved span the globe. He had the personal connection to need to find out just what kind of man Karl was, and I'm really happy I was able to myself. Family: noun; place wherein even the blackest sheep has shades of grey. Karl's was no black and white story, yet it's here in those colours now and you should read it.
I must thank the publishers for my review copy.
We rated this author's debut book - Birds in a Cage very highly, too. To return to the 'my relative was a Nazi' sub-genre, there is none better than Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz by Thomas Harding.
A Nazi in the Family: The Hidden Story of an SS Family in Wartime Germany by Derek Niemann is in the Top Ten History Books 2015.
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