I just finished reading Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, the story of William E. Dodd’s stint as U.S. Ambassador to Germany during the rise of Hitler (1933-1937).
It’s a compelling tale, involving the internal workings of the state department and the many missed opportunities to head off Nazism, with deft characterizations of the players in the unfolding global tragedy; here’s the New York Times review. Although not as graphically violent as I feared it might be from the harrowing opening scene, the subject matter was inherently disturbing, given my family’s Holocaust background. But not all of the memories it spurred were unpleasant.
Terms of Endearment
When we are introduced to Ernst Hanfstaengl, a large, bear-like German who is part of the rich social scene with which the Dodds’ daughter, Martha, is initially involved, he tells his new acquaintances, “Call me ‘Putzi.'”
Somehow, I’d forgotten: My mother used to call me “putzi” — the equivalent of “sweetie” — too. She didn’t use the term often; both my parents generally avoided speaking German to the children. Maybe it was reserved for when I really needed comforting — or when she did, for those times when only the words of her childhood would do.
When you think about it, it’s a little weird for a large, bear-like man to insist that people call him Sweetie. But Putzi Hanfstaengl — Hitler’s piano player and his leading international propagandist — was a bit of a buffoon.
A Genealogical Dilemma
My linguistic link, such as it is, to Hanfstaengl made me curious about him. An internet search led me to something far more interesting than just the details of his life, a piece in Boston Magazine by a distant cousin, John Sedgwick. “The Harvard Nazi” begins this way:
Many amateur genealogists delve into the family archives in search of heroic ancestors — royalty, most commonly — to make them feel better about themselves. What if, instead, they turn up a villain, and not just some charming rogue, but a committed Nazi who was instrumental in bringing Adolf Hitler to power? How should they feel then?
Sedgwick then goes on to talk about Hanfstaengl’s life at length, concluding:
So he was a Nazi to the end. What does that make me? No Nazi, certainly. Nor a sympathizer. But it does reduce the degrees of separation between Hitler and me. A humbling reminder, I think, about evil — that there is no clear line of demarcation around it but merely gradations of complicity. I remain at a safe remove, but I can’t say I am entirely in the clear. Adolph Hitler was, after all, a friend of the family.
Villany or Victimhood?
This made me wonder. Would I want to change places with Sedgwick, to be related to a perpetrator of evil rather than to his or her victims?
One of the things I disliked so much about Steven Spielberg’s hugely acclaimed Schindler’s List was the way it reduced all the Jewish characters to victims. Schindler was interesting, of course, but so was Amon Goeth, the Nazi guard with the Jewish mistress. In contrast, the Jews, including the character played by Ben Kingsley (see, I can’t even remember his name although that of the Nazi popped into my mind instantly), were all eminently forgettable. At the end of the film it is Schindler who has to remind the concentration camp inmates that it’s a Jewish holiday and that they might, you know, want to pray.
So John Sedwick writes a long and very colorful portrait of his relative, about whom a great deal is known, while I struggle to reconstruct the lives of my family members, who might — or might not — have been interesting too, had their lives not been interrupted. If Freud, say, had not been 82 and at the end of a long career when the Anschluss hit, there might have been a lot less written about him, too.
Would I want to be complicit in acts of evil rather than being victimized by them? That’s a more complex question, one that demands parsing such issues as “How complicit?” and “Did you live to repent and do more good than harm in the long run?”
But in the case of a distant relative, as Sedgwick points out — a bit too glibly — one doesn’t really bear responsibility. And even if I did feel more responsible than I should for an evil family member, I already have guilt in vast quantities. A little more would be a drop in the bucket.
Still, you don’t get to choose. My lot has been cast with the victims. And I concede that, while it’s more difficult, it’s also more rewarding to bring to life those who didn’t survive the Holocaust and those who were deeply affected by it — including my mother, who called me putzi, too.