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Nazi Fathers and Non-Nazi Sons

ISSUE:  Autumn 1989
Born Guilty. By Peter Sichrovsky. Translated by Jean Steinberg. Basic Books. $17.95.

Wen parents are silent about their past criminal acts Wtheir children can neither identify with them nor accept them, and more likely than not they will feel ashamed of themselves. And if parents do not admit and expiate guilt, the burden falls on the children. These are among the ideas which Peter Sichrovsky points up in this short book. The parents in question were Nazis.

Sichrovsky interviewed 40 of these children, now adults; 14 interviews are reprinted here in the form of monologues. These Germans and Austrians are finding that it is one thing to condemn the murders, the tortures, the degradations which the Nazis inflicted, another to learn that one’s parents inflicted them. The attitudes of the junior generation toward their fathers range from fear and hatred to quiet rejection, from disgust and revulsion to a sort of dutiful loyalty. There is no mention of love. Some of the parents were Nazi big shots, most were what Sichrovsky calls “loyal, decent bureaucrats,” a phrase whose universal applicability numbs the mind. At home as at work they were authoritarian, doing what their roles required and little more. It is plain from these narratives that the children had to relate to their fathers in terms of absolute obedience and subjection. Their mothers protected the Nazis and their terrible secrets and continued to do so after the secrets were out; they, too, were complicit. With only one or two exceptions these men pretended, and some believed, they had done nothing wrong but that others had wronged them. Yet nearly all their children are so different.

In turning against their parents almost all of them have grappled with that most unwanted of feelings, guilt. But how can one atone for guilt without rejecting one’s father? A reader will find some of these psychic struggles touching, others fascinating, a few inadequate. Only one person gave irresponsible answers, and they provoked an uproar in Germany and made the book almost a sensation in Europe. Nowhere has the outcry against her been as intense, nowhere has the indignation been as vehement, as in Germany, according to Sichrovsky’s postscript, which is perhaps a cause for hope.

To judge by the one complete interview reprinted here, Sichrivsky seems to have taken it on himself to be an avenging angel. Remorseless and sometimes gleeful in insisting the subjects stigmatize their fathers as murderers, he wanted them to “confront them with the crucial question: Why did you do it?” Sichrovsky evidently was under the impression that nothing cultivates a robust conscience quite as much as a verbal browbeating. I doubt it. Not many people enjoy wearing the mark of Cain. Besides, I have it from an unimpeachable source that conscience does make cowards of us all. Sichrovsky speaks of “attitudes toward authority and obedience” but does not discuss them. How, then, can we account for this change from one generation to another? Not, assuredly, by instantaneous conversions resulting from Sichrovsky’s moral flagellation.

The German psychoanalyst Alice Miller believes that systematic psychological and physical brutality inflicted on children as part of so-called normal upbringing, and repression of these experiences, make children feel insecure, ashamed, anxious, helpless, inhibited, submissive—in a word, potential tyrants themselves. Made to repress these bitter feelings and the experiences which gave rise to them, and then to rationalize this cruel upbringing as tender, loving care, they turn around and inflict it on the next generation, Miller claims. “Normal” child-rearing has in mind not the welfare of children but the unconscious needs of parents for power and revenge. In her opinion, these child-rearing patterns have been especially prevalent in Germany. In reading her book, For Your Own Good (1983), we can recognize the emerging personalities of the Nazi murderers Sichrovsky condemns. How could their children be so different? Miller suggests not an activation of guilt feelings on the part of parents but mourning—expressing pain over the inevitable past. More to the point, she suggests that children express feelings of outrage, even of hatred, toward the persecutors. These give way to pain, sorrow, and understanding. The monologues in Born Guilty provide ample evidence that the junior generation uncovered and loathed the abuses of their childhoods, and if few of them have achieved understanding nearly all have gone through enough pain and sorrow to have liberated themselves. Sichrovsky has benefited from their hard-won insights more than he realizes. Perhaps we will, too, on pondering his book.


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