Last week, two elderly German men sat down on a stage and proceeded to squabble about their families. One might be forgiven for thinking that this was some dreary piece of avant-garde theatre, but it was in fact an electrifying and unscripted performance that was being filmed for a documentary, in which the protagonists spoke honestly about the legacies left by their fathers, both of whom had been high-ranking Nazi officials.
In one corner of a Southbank theatre in London sat Niklas Frank, whose father, Hans, had been the governor-general of Occupied Poland, and who was hanged at Nuremberg for crimes against humanity and war crimes. Niklas Frank openly condemned his father's genocidal role, and stated that his father had been a "coward", who "was well-educated and he knew everything about the Holocaust and he went on and on".
The man in the other corner was Horst von Wächter, whose father, Otto, had been the governor of Krakow and subsequently of Galicia. Had he not been sheltered in Rome after the war by the notoriously pro-Nazi Bishop Alois Hudal, he would have likely suffered the same fate as Frank.
Unlike Niklas Frank, Horst von Wächter is adamant that his father was not a bad man. "I cannot say my father was a criminal," he stated. "I love him. I know my view is not the mainstream view. You have to understand the system."
Had the exchange indeed been written by a playwright, critics might have suggested that this polarisation of views captured rather too neatly the angst felt by Germans at large in coming to terms with their Nazi past. But the men were speaking not only the truth about themselves, but also about many others whose fathers and grandfathers had committed terrible crimes, not just to advance National Socialism, but also in the name of many other vile regimes and causes.
Since 1945, Germany's attitude towards its past has developed in several painful stages. Just one year after the war, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer insisted that the Allies should stop prosecuting those who had collaborated with the regime. Such a view undoubtedly tallied with that of Churchill, who openly expressed concern over the continuing pursuit of Nazis, for fear that the spotlight would be shone on "the possible crimes the Allied powers had committed".
Even in the Fifties, as the horrors of Nazism continued to emerge, opinion polls in Germany and Austria – let's not forget Austria's complicity with Nazism – showed that half the population agreed with the statement that "Nazism was a good idea, badly carried out". Many former Nazis were still in senior positions in all branches of the state, and there was an acceptance that the war was history.
And then, in April 1961, came the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, the former SS officer who had organised the transportation and destruction of so many millions of Jews. Famously, Eichmann was labelled as embodying the "banality of evil" by the political theorist Hannah Arendt.
But Arendt's thesis was deeply flawed. Eichmann was far from banal. He was a zealous Nazi, who relished dispatching families to the gas chambers. Thanks to Arendt, the vital process of German self-examination was delayed for many years, because the "banality" argument produced a relatively easy pill for the Germans to swallow. You see! Uncle Fritz was just a functionary! It was the war!
In the West Germany of the Sixties, it took a very rebellious mindset to question exactly what their fathers and uncles had got up to "in the East". Slowly, the debate emerged into the public arena by the mid Eighties. Such soul-searching was particularly manifested in the spring of 1985, when Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl intended to visit, in the face of much opposition, the German military cemetery at Bitburg, where some 50 members of the Waffen-SS are buried.
The issue of whether these men were criminals or cogs was encapsulated by one of Kohl's aides, who recalled: "Once we knew about the SS dead at Bitburg – knowing that these SS people were 17 to 18 years of age, and knowing that some Germans were forced to become members of the SS, having no alternative – the question was, 'Should this be a reason to cancel?'"
Despite the opposition, the visit went ahead, although as a somewhat cynical sop to the critics, Reagan was to visit Bergen-Belsen a few days later.
In today's Germany – now of course reunited – the debate about the Nazi past continues, as we have seen at London's Southbank only last week. There are some who think there is too much guilt and self-flagellation, with Berlin now little more than a "Holocaust memorial city", whereas the majority view is undoubtedly that the nation which built Auschwitz should not forget. After all, most of those SS members buried at Bitburg were not conscripted.
Most children of senior Nazis tend to adopt the position taken by Niklas Frank, although some are more extreme in this atavistic expiation. Bettina Goering, the great-niece of the head of the Luftwaffe and the founder of the Gestapo, even had herself sterilised for fear of passing on "the blood of a monster".
Germany is not alone in undergoing a process of examination and contrition. Other countries have had to face the monsters in their past, and to explore how they were responsible for such vile deeds. In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has done much to acknowledge the crimes against humanity committed under apartheid. However, what makes Germany unique is the notion of familial responsibility for crimes, even down the generations. Ironically, this idea of kin liability was in vogue during the Nazi period, and is common to many totalitarian regimes, including North Korea. But it is very rare to see it promulgated in a democracy.
Other countries too have their share of monsters, but their descendants are not brought to account in the same way as in Germany.
However, there is perhaps a swing towards such a process elsewhere. The release of the film 12 Years a Slave has seen the actor Benedict Cumberbatch, one of its stars, acknowledge the role his family played in the slave trade. Cumberbatch admitted that when he was starting his career, his mother advised him against using the distinctive surname for fear that descendants of their slaves might claim reparations. Such fears are not unwarranted, as just this month, descendants in the Caribbean have asked the British to pay billions of pounds in reparations.
Another who may fear such moves is Richard Dawkins. Recently, it was revealed that his family's wealth was largely derived from slavery, and that one of his direct ancestors owned over one thousand slaves at the time of his death in 1744. Dawkins accepted no familial liability. "One of the most disagreeable verses of the Bible – amid strong competition – says the sins of the father shall be visited on the children until the third or fourth generation," he stated.
But slavery is not the only skeleton in the British cupboard. When all the documents concerning the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya are finally released by the British Foreign Office that country may certainly need to ask itself some big questions of what its grandfathers and great uncles got up to in Africa all those years ago. Ultimately, all countries need to pay for the sins of their fathers. What is harder to establish is how high that price is, and for how long it needs to be paid.
Guy Walters is the author of 'Hunting Evil' (Bantam)