THE Nazis have long been a byword for extreme evil, but that in a way oversimplifies the phenomenon of what happened in Germany in the first half of the last century.
Hitler was able to rise to power because ordinary Germans voted for him, and how he gained their support for his ruthless doctrines remains a perplexing question. It's one that Martin Davidson examines from a highly personal angle in The Perfect Nazi.
His book is a fascinating combination of family and world history. The son of a German mother and a Scottish father, Davidson knew that the German side of his family had lived and fought during the war; but only as an adult did he discover the darkest of family secrets -- that his grandfather, Bruno Langbehn, had been a member of the SS.
The war was never much spoken about as Davidson grew up, but it was an undercurrent in his family life. His grandfather often hinted at the past, as if he yearned to talk about it but knew his listeners would not be pleased with what they heard; Langbehn's favourite post-war pastime was to spend time with his Kriegskameraden -- his "wartime buddies" -- reminiscing about the good old days. A striking fact about Langbehn's life is that he was never punished for his SS activities, neither was he ever forced to apologise or repent; he lived quietly with his memories, his ideology and his nights out with Kriegskameraden, until he died in Berlin at the age of 85.
With this book, his grandson aims to "redress Bruno's well-insulated sense of non-accountability" and his "apparent circumvention of any material or moral consequences of a long and embattled Nazi career".
Langbehn was a dentist by trade. As a young man, he joined the right-wing, anti-Semitic Freedom Party in Berlin before discovering the Nazi Front Regiment and then moving on to the SA (Nazi stormtroopers) and the SS (Nazi protection squad).
He was enthralled by the SS's ideology and excited by their iconography -- their black uniforms, their amulets and insignia, death's head badges and daggers, along with the theories of elitism, racial superiority and hatred of the Jews. Langbehn's political preferences were set to the right, and he was an early joiner.
The Nazis began as a minority group of thugs who spent much of their time drinking and brawling in the streets, part of the cauldron of violent debate that existed in Berlin in the 1920s. The cautionary part of this story is their gradual organisation, as they learnt how to manipulate the democratic system and introduce their ideology into the mainstream.
Davidson notes that their street antics first horrified their fellow citizens. Even after Hitler consolidated his power, there were Germans who disagreed with him, but the consequences of expressing dissent -- as little as eye-rolling or a casual joke -- could be horrendous; the mental retreat such people made against Nazi authority became known as "internal exile". Still, by the late 1930s, Nazi party numbers soared so much that they had to temporarily suspend the addition of new members.
Davidson has produced a number of documentaries on the Nazis for the BBC, and he expertly takes readers through the lead-up to the Second World War -- German anger at the Treaty of Versailles, the brief, unstable flourishing of the Weimar Republic, then the increasingly brutal behaviour of the Nazis as they gained power. The Germans quickly benefited from the war: after 1941, precious French wine, clothes, silk stockings, underwear and perfumes flowed into Berlin; you wonder what happened to their owners.
Davidson devotes much of the book to the pre-war era and his grandfather's early career, as he deftly leapt through SA and SS hoops. Yet Langbehn remains something of a mystery. He was ambitious, and his acceptance by the elite SS and its inner core, the SD (head office), at the age of 30 marked a high point in his career. But despite his initial promise, he was a poor soldier, getting injured early on, and working mostly in foreign intelligence as a spy.
Davidson finds no evidence of any specific crimes committed by his grandfather -- which may come as a surprise, given Langbehn once boasted to his family that he knew Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official "in charge of Jewish affairs" and architect of the Holocaust.
This gap is a problem, as Davidson acknowledges. There is little to indict Langbehn with. "Assuming no further evidence comes to light," his grandson writes in the postscript, "I don't think I am whitewashing him to say that he doesn't belong to the inner core of absolute Nazi atrocity, either in the war or in the Holocaust." He adds the indisputable point that "anyone, especially a long-serving, twice-promoted officer, working for the SD, was inextricably linked to the bureaucratic machinery of genocide".
War left the Langbehn family almost entirely unscathed. Afterwards, they fled from Prague, where they had been in hiding, back to their home in Berlin. They changed their identities, since they would be victims of savage reprisals had Langbehn's SS membership become known.
Davidson says his great-grandmother, who stayed in Berlin, may have been raped, since that was the fate of most women when the Soviet troops arrived, regardless of age. Whatever her story, she never spoke about it.
The evidence for Langbehn's unpleasantness, which is not forthcoming in the official record, emerges in his treatment of his family. He felt humiliated by the German defeat and took his frustrations out on his wife and three daughters, who bore the brunt of his dictatorial moods and heavy drinking.
When Langbehn was 60, he left his long-suffering wife, Thusnelda, for her best friend, a woman called Gisela (who, incidentally, had been a eurhythmics dancer in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games). Thusnelda never fully recovered and died heartbroken.
Langbehn, meanwhile, lived on happily, without repercussions, for 10 more years with his adoring new wife.