„‚Shame slipped into my soul discreetly. Its presence was initially little more than an occasional flicker, a brief tonal dimming of the colourful world around me. But it would soon become master of my internal world, switching off the lights for increasing periods of time and leaving me fumbling in the dark.‘
It may seem strange that a person from England would also listen to the Gestern ist Jetzt podcast. But for me it has been music to my ears to hear other people’s experiences of the difficulties involved in trying to uncover the truth about a family member in the Second World War.
I grew up in England with a German mother and English father who had met while working in the French town of Fontainebleau – my father as a British Naval officer, my mother as a secretary in NATO. Their marriage in 1962 had been a brave decision. Both families had suffered and lost loved ones. But they overcame the past, and we visited my grandmother and relatives in Schleswig Holstein regularly.
For me, it was normal having the face of a uniformed German General staring out from a photograph on my mother’s desk. For the British people around me, it absolutely wasn’t. Germans were Nazis. They were the enemy; bad. ‘The only good German is a dead German,’ I would be told.
I never met my German grandfather. He died the week after I was born. But his absence and the silence around him became a strong, destructive albeit largely unconscious presence in my life. Throughout my youth, I struggled with inexplicable symptoms of guilt. I even forged a career working as an artist in prisons, both in Cologne and England. That is where I felt most at home, among the ‘guilty’. Nobody could identify a reason for my struggles. It was only when I turned forty and saw the film ‘Der Untergang’ that I began researching my German roots. After fifteen years of digging like an archaeologist, I finally found the source of my guilt and shame.
Born in 1893 in Plön, Karl von Graffen was a career soldier. Already a cadet aged ten, he fought in the First World War and, after the Treaty of Versailles, became one of the 100,000 soldiers of the Wehrmacht. He became a leader of departments at the Artillery School in Jüterbog. As commander of the 129th Artillery Regiment, he marched his men into Russia in June 1941 – Operation Barbarossa. In 1942 he was awarded the Knights Cross for ‘extreme bravery and excellent military leadership’ in the Battle of Volkhov. He later fought in Italy against the Allies where he eventually surrendered to the Americans in May 1945 and became a POW to the British until his trial in 1948 when he was finally released, emaciated and broken.
For a long time, I, like many, believed the Wehrmacht had been ‘clean’. When it came to the Eastern Front, however, it clearly wasn’t. Even though my grandfather never joined the Nazi party, he was a cog in the most brutal war of annihilation that the world had seen. From his countless letters, I could tell he believed that the war against Bolshevism was right. For him, the threat posed by the Soviets justified Germany’s violent attack. I had heard the same defensive threat-attack dynamic countless times in prison.
Added to the horrors my grandfather was involved in, there was also the trauma of my ten-year-old mother’s flight from Berlin, the residual traces of attitudes formed by an education of indoctrination into Nazi ideals; the shame of a father fallen from hero to war criminal overnight… All unresolved ‘baggage’ wrapped in silence but seeking resolution in the next generation.
My process to work through my emotional inheritance was to face the facts without fear, knowing the truth could not hurt me as much as not knowing had. Maybe being half-English made this easier for me. I found it important to feel the emotions that trauma, guilt and shame had frozen in my mother and grandfather. And to travel to significant places in Germany, Italy and Russia in order to better understand what had happened there. I started to write blogs and talk to British audiences about the German perpetrators, Germans’ experiences during and after the war and Germany’s process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung. “I had no idea” is the main response.
Writing my book „In My Grandfathers’ Shadow“ charts the journey I made to relinquish the impact of the past on my and my family’s present.
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