‘The Holocaust Is German Family History’: Book Urges Germans to Quiz Dying Nazi Generation
German historian Moritz Pfeiffer asked his granddad what he did in World War II, and then fact-checked the testimony. His findings in a new book shed light on a dying generation that remains outwardly unrepentant, but is increasingly willing to break decades of silence on how, and why, it followed Hitler.
Germany has won praise for collectively confronting its Nazi past, but the subject has remained a taboo in millions of family homes — with children and grandchildren declining to press their elders on what they did in the war.
At least 20 to 25 million Germans knew about the Holocaust while it was happening, according to conservative estimates, and some 10 million fought on the Eastern Front in a war of annihilation that targeted civilians from the start. That, says German historian Moritz Pfeiffer, makes the genocide and the crimes against humanity a part of family history.
Time is running out. The answer to how a cultured, civilized nation stooped so low lies in the minds of the dying Third Reich generation, many of whom are ready and willing to talk at the end of their lives, says Pfeiffer, 29, who has just completed an unprecedented research project based on his own family.
“The situation has changed radically compared with the decades immediately after the war,” Pfeiffer, a historian at a museum on the SS at Wewelsburg Castle, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “The generation of eyewitnesses evidently wants to talk now, at least that’s my impression. Towards the end of one’s life the distance to the events is so great that people are ready to give testimony.”
“Immediately after the war, conversations about it between parents and children appear to have been impossible because it was all too fresh,” Pfeiffer continued. “Now the problem is that no one is listening to that generation anymore. As a source of information, one’s relatives are largely being ignored. But one day it will be too late.”