National Socialism remains the defining moment in the history of the German people. Never before had a European government planned the annihilation of an entire people. When the Nazis said “exterminate all Jews”, they meant all deported, all exterminated, even newborns (for they, too, were potential enemies of the Third Reich).
The ritual humiliation and murder of Jews as well as other “useless mouths” (Roma, homosexuals) was made a civic virtue in Hitler’s Germany; the country that gave us Goethe and Beethoven thus departed from the community of civilized human beings. Robert Griesinger, a low-ranking Gestapo officer and SS lawyer, was one of Hitler’s legion Schreibtischtäter – “desk murderers”. He eliminated the innocent at the stroke of a pen, but was too civilized to condescend to actual murder. As the London-based historian Daniel Lee makes clear, Griesinger’s apprenticeship in totalitarian obedience required a stunted moral imagination. His “special competence” in signing legal documents and police paperwork ensured that he was kept at a remove from the horror.
The SS Officer’s Armchair, a grimly absorbing work of historical detection, reconstructs Griesinger’s biography by means of an unexpected discovery. Nine years ago in the Netherlands, an old armchair was taken in for re-upholstering. The owner was shocked to be told that a cache of swastika-stamped papers had been found sewn inside the cushion. Who can have hidden it there, and why? Lee (whose own Jewish antecedents, incidentally, were murdered by Hitler) sets out to learn more.
Caught up in the May 1945 Czech uprising, Griesinger must have hidden his personal papers in the cushion in order to evade detection. In German-occupied Prague he had a plum job in the Ministry of Economics and Labour. Thousands of Czech civilians, Jews and non-Jews alike, were forced by Griesinger to work as slaves for the Third Reich’s armaments and phosphate mining industries. Greisinger would have been strung from a lamppost if he had been caught with his SS paperwork. Instead, in the autumn of 1945, he died of dysentery in a Prague infirmary.
Admirably diligent, Lee tracks down Griesinger’s two daughters but, unsurprisingly, neither Jutta nor Barbara has any idea of their father’s part in the Hitler machinery. It took the 1978 Hollywood television soap opera Holocaust, starring Meryl Streep, to break 33 years of near-silence in Germany surrounding Hitler’s war against the Jews. Even then, a “culture of emotional evasion” ensured that the war generation largely stayed silent about the Nazi past. Born into a wealthy Württemberg family, in 1933 Griesinger joined the Ministry of Interior under the new chancellor, Adolf Hitler. As a lawyer his duties were administrative but, later, he served in a German army unit that executed Jews in the Soviet Union. Seventy years on, we are still trying to understand the catastrophe that engulfed the Jews in the Hitlerite storm. Lee’s riveting book opens a window onto the life of an “ordinary” Nazi and the depredations attendant on his desk job.
The SS Officer’s Armchair: In Search of a Hidden Life by Daniel Lee (Cape, £20), buy it here.