Pros: Interesting project that gives a different perspective of some of the most evil Nazis.
Cons: Some quoted passages are too long, making the book drag on occasion.
In a 1981 interview with The Baltimore Jewish Times, the famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal said:
We need partners. We cannot fight against the neo-Nazis alone. We need friends. We can win them by telling them their history, by talking about the others, the millions of people other than the Jews, that the Nazis killed. The Holocaust began with the Jewish. But it did not end with the Jews.
There were quite a few victims of the Nazis who were not Jewish. Not all of them died. As hard as it is to believe, some of them were even people that the Nazis loved. My Father's Keeper: Children of Nazi Leaders - An Intimate History of Damage and Denial discusses one group who were never persecuted by the Nazis but were victims all the same.
My Father's Keeper is written by Stephen and Norbert Lebert. In 1959, Norbert Lebert, then a journalist, sat down with the children of some of the leaders of the Nazi party to ask them how their lives were going since fall of Nazi Germany. The results of his interviews were published in Zeitbild magazine under the title "For You Bear My Name". Forty years later, his son Stephen decided to track down the people that his father had interviewed and see if their views had changed since the first interviews. My Father's Keeper is a union of the two sets of interviews. Some chapters are copies of Norbert Lebert's 1959 work. And others are the result of Stephen Norbert's work at the end of 1999 and into the new century.
Stephen Norbert tries to make My Father's Keeper as accessible to readers as possible. He provides a brief biography of the fathers and frequently reiterates important points about the Nazis. Heinrich Himmler, the chief of the SS, is described as a doting father but as the typical Nazi, who cared little about the suffering and mass murder. Martin Bormann was Hitler's secretary. He described himself as a "string-puller" who could influence Hitler more than anyone else. Everyone except Hitler, who valued his ability to snoop, hated him. Even his wife had reason to dislike him, as he reportedly kept her "informed in cheerful letters whenever he made a new sexual conquest." Baldur von Schirach was the head of the Hitler Youth, a group that was responsible for indoctrinating young people into the ways of the Nazis. Hans Frank filled a number of roles. As governor of Poland, he was responsible for the mass murder of the Jews there. He kept meticulous records of his acts, filling thirty-eight diaries by the time he was apprehended. Hermann Goring was a self-professed "Renaissance man" who loved playing with his pet lions. Hitler favored Goring because he found ways to make whatever Hitler wanted come to pass. In return, Goring used his position to gain more spoils for himself. Rudolph Hess was Hitler's deputy. Hess was so thrilled when his son was born that each district send him a small sack of German dirt. The earth was spread beneath a specially prepared cradle so that the infant would symbolically begin his life on the whole of German soil. It's a pretty diabolical group, not exactly the kind of guys that you would like living next door.
My Father's Keeper shows how each of the children has been affected by the father's actions. Both Leberts show considerable sympathy for the children, even when the children have lived less than admirable lives themselves. Many of the children ended up in foster homes. Some were shuffled from prison camp to prison camp as the Allies repeatedly questioned them about what they and their mothers knew and when. To be sure, every child was affected.
The interviews show the children are now varied in their beliefs. While some (Wolf-Rudiger Hess and Gudrun Himmler) remain extremely bitter and convinced that their fathers were heroes, others are very philosophical about what it means to have a father who is a mass murderer. How does one "honor thy father" while still loathing the things that the father did? Is it possible? Should the child even try?
The interesting aspect of this book comes from Stephen Lebert's look at his own father, who was a fervent participant in the Nazi Youth. Stephen admits that his "father's biography came pretty close to being that of a perpetrator." Stephen says of his father:
Until the day he died he was imbued with, and haunted by, the realisation that one cannot trust oneself, that one is capable of anything, even the most wicked acts, when external circumstances call them forth. The only thing that didn't chime with this lifelong burden was that he thought of himself as one who had been led astray. He knew one thing, which was that one should take good care never to treat one's own moral code as something universally valid.
Stephen Lebert repeatedly poses the question of personal accountability and even stretches it into a question of ancestral and cultural accountability. In Stephen Lebert's view, his father was letting himself off easy, excusing his actions by saying that he was "led astray." The junior Lebert doesn't feel that this is quite enough. Likewise, he chastises the direct descendents of all those who supported Nazi rule (from the camp guard to the Hitler Youth) for not taking enough credit for the atrocities. But he admits that, given the scale of the atrocities, the lack of personal accountability is perfectly understandable.
My Father's Keeper includes a number of black and white photos of the children. The pictures are large and clear enough to be appreciated. The most remarkable of the photos are those that show Hitler at private family gatherings. Unfortunately, many of the pictures seem to be slightly out of order or, at a minimum, poorly placed. For instance, a picture showing a particular event appears several pages after the event is mentioned in the text.
My Father's Keeper is a quick read. (I'm not a fast reader by any stretch of the imagination, but I still read it in a couple days.) At times, the book includes over-long quotes from other sources that slow down the pace. Since the book was written in German and translated to English, it is filled with British spellings (like "realisation" instead of "realization"). I did not find that to be overly distracting though.
My Father's Keeper may not be the definitive book of its type. Stephen Lebert includes references to several other books that may be better. But this one is still well worth reading. It is a warning to be vigilant. Never forget what happened before or how easily it could happen again.