Dan Tetsell grew up with an uncomfortable family secret - his grandfather was an SS officer. The more he's got to know about him, the more Dan realises his grandad was, in many ways, just an ordinary guy. And that's what's worried him.
Lots of people find their grandparents embarrassing. Maybe they pretend to be hard of hearing, maybe they have a weird fondness for boiled sweets. Or maybe, like my grandfather, they were a Nazi.
I don't mean a Nazi in the jobsworth sense. No, unfortunately, my grandfather Kurt Martens was in the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, the premier regiment of the Waffen SS.
Kurt was killed or went missing during the fighting around Prague castle sometime in early May 1945, so I never knew him. In fact, my mother was born a few months after his death/disappearance, so she too never got to know the man.
All we really had is the image of him in his uniform - the sly, boyish smile at odds with the double lightning flashes and death's head cap of the SS.
For many years, ever since as a child I really discovered the magnitude of the Holocaust and began to associate it with my German heritage, my grandfather's actions have held a slightly disturbing fascination for me. Here was a member of my own family involved, even at a very low level, with the defining horror of the twentieth century and I'd never got to ask him that age old question: what did you do in the war, grandad?
If grandfather could not only stand aside while bad things happened but actively take part, then it could happen to any of us
Growing up half-German has its fair share of drawbacks. I'm marked out by my Germanic pronunciation of marzipan, for giving Porsche two syllables and for putting an F and a V in Volkswagen.
Children in the late 1970s and early 1980s, raised on a diet of Bank Holiday war films, seemed unable to grasp the concept that Britain was no longer at war with Germany. In playground games of soldiers, I was always the Nazi hordes and - bizarrely by extension - Darth Vader's storm troopers.
But behind all this lay the real nature of my family's involvement the events these games mimicked. Until I began really researching the subject, my mother and I never really talked about it. Not so much a taboo subject as an unpleasant one.
It's only in the last year that I've set about trying to find out if, to put it bluntly, my grandfather had been a war criminal.
As a soldier he seems to have been a steady hand, promoted three times, decorated twice including the Iron Cross. This means he was never a concentration camp guard or a member of the Einsatzgruppen death squads.
However, again and again there are reports - some substantiated, some unsubstantiated - of the Waffen SS and the Leibstandarte in particular being involved in the execution of civilians and prisoners of war. As a non-commissioned officer I can't see how he couldn't have been involved at some level, even if that involvement was just driving a truck and turning a blind eye.
I can't see how he couldn't have been involved at some level, even if that involvement was just driving a truck and turning a blind eye
Ever since the end of the war, debate has raged as to the actions of the Waffen SS - between those that see them as no better than the rest of the SS and those that view them as soldiers, no better and no worse than any other fighting unit.
The Nuremberg Trials declared the Waffen SS an illegal organisation, but membership alone was not enough to mark someone as a war criminal - they had to be accused of a specific crime. Of course, my grandfather didn't live long enough to be accused of anything, so we have no way of knowing. As a non-commissioned officer he is too small a cog to show up in most official documents.
The most tangible reminder of him, therefore, are the photographs he left behind. The German army during the Second World War was famous for, among other things, its rapacious appetite for amateur photography and my grandfather seems to have been no exception.
A few years ago my mother uncovered a few rolls of undeveloped film that my grandfather had brought back with him while on leave from the front. They are a fascinating insight into a angle on the war we rarely see - the Waffen SS at play.
A sightseeing tour of Paris; swimming and football; a visit to the war cemetery at Verdun; fraternisation 'On The Town' style with three French girls; young men posing proudly in their uniforms or lounging jokily against a shot-up staff car smoking a cigarette.
One of the family photos showing Kurt Martens on holiday in Paris
Looking at these photographs it's impossible to avoid what one always hopes wasn't true about the Third Reich - these men are not monsters. No matter what sort of gangsters, charlatans and psychopaths they may have been following, the vast majority of the German people, even the vast majority of the Waffen SS were normal people.
In fact, my grandfather liked football and swimming, he seems to have been more normal than I am. And his two last letters home speak of a loving family man desperate for the war to end so he could return to his pregnant wife and young daughter.
And that, I suppose, is why I find this microscopic story of an insignificant part of the Third Reich so fascinating. If it shows that my grandfather can not only stand aside while bad things happen but actively take part, then it could happen to any of us. It's a lesson that's been taught again and again, but in this anniversary year it's worth hearing again.
Dan Tetsell's show Sins of the Grandfathers will be running at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 4-28 August.
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We just have to accept the deeds of our ancestors. We don't really have much choice in the matter. My son has one great-grandfather who was a civilian hero of The Dunkirk Little Ships, and another who was a member of the National Socialist Party and, who died on The Eastern Front.
Stephen Hastings, Munich, Germany
Very interesting read - at the time your grandfather must have been very proud to serve in an elite regiment. It must be very hard for you especially with what history tells us about what the SS did. As you have no idea what he actually did in the war its best to think of him as a proud soldier serving his country and not as one of the monsters. Even though the SS were supposed to be the worse of them all there are storys of SS men in camps and on the battlefield that did not agree with what was happening and even helping the people they were meant to kill.
David Smith, London, Uk
As the author never got to meet his grandfather, it is indeed fortunate that he at least has such a treasure trove of photographs and documents that give him clues as to what the man was really like. Were I in his position, I think I would be pleased, if not proud, of the fact that a relative of mine was directly involved in a pivotal moment of our species' history -- the side served on would not matter too much. It makes for a terrific story and, besides, guilt isn't hereditary. I think that sometimes there is a tendency to throw a little too much guilt at the feet of those who wore a German uniform during the War... Considering how much evil was manifested in the leadership of the Reich, it is statistically unlikely that there would have been much left to spread too far among the rank and file. I think even allot of the SS men were more ordinary than we might want to believe.
Alex Kinnan, Los Angeles, USA
You say you have highlighted a small thing, I disagree. These people were not born monsters, nor were there special places to turn them into monsters, the fact is they were just like us. That is what we should remember, (absolute power corrupts absolutely).
Yours is a very human story. One of my grandfathers was a Nazi, the other one a Socialist, they never spoke to each other as long as they lived. Both were Austrian, and so am I, born 12 years after WWII. Austrians and Germans of my generation have been brought with many different messages concerning recent history. One of them was that most perpetrators were helpful neighbours and loving fathers. Nazis don't look like Nazis. But even 60 years later, nasties speak like Nazis.
Verena Taylor, Brussels, Belgium
My grandad was a Nazi too - an administrator at Dachau concentration camp. I grew up feeling a huge sense of shame. Now, with some age and experience of life, I realise that he was an ordinary guy, swept up stupidly in a horrendous system that compromised moral values. Unless we resist the brutal herd instinct, manipulated by misguided people and learn from the past, the capacity for great evil rests within us all.
Derek, Sandy, England
There are those that are not blind, that do not want to see.
If you had shown some loyalty to your own grandfather (no matter who he was and what he did), one would have had some sympathy for YOU. As it is, having read this little PC piece of yours, one can only regard you with utter contempt.
Vellies. , South Africa
Being half german as well, I can really empathise with a lot of the comments made and fully support the sentiment that it can happen to anyone, to anyone's family, given a certain set of circumstances. I think it is also important to remind people in this country not only that the Germans in the army, in Nazi uniforms were average people but that Germans today are just like us and have about as much to do with the war as we do. The British harp on about the second world war and prop up the same old stereotypesfar too much - in this respect, it is time to move on.
rebecca, Windsor, Berks
This is a great article, and I think it is high time to realise that amongst the 3rd Reich were a few psychopath who had the power and had incredible comunication/leadership skills in the sense that they managed to convince and appeal to a vast number of common people, who finally found themselves (hopefully without purpose)complice of one of the greatest series of crime ever made. I think it becomes more and more admitted that most of those soldiers were normal people, and maybe the idea that it could have been any of us amongst them won't remain politically incorrect for long.
A very interesting story, but when one thinks back there were many grandparents/great grandparents involved in the war killing people. Do those whose relatives bombed Dresden worry what people think? It would be interesting to know more from the German perspective of things for history's sake. What were the soldiers being told, what motivated them, did they think they were winning the war, when did they realise they were losing the war etc. How do their grandchildren feel now, like Dan.
Bill Brandon, Ormskirk
I don't think Dan should be so quick to condemn his grandfather. History is a story written by the victors you know.
Donald Wong, Edmonton AB Canada
This article rings so many bells for me. I too have a German mother, and have seen pictures of my grandfather smiling in his uniform. The same grandfather I have fond memories of cuddling on family holidays, memories of walks in the woods to find the eggs the Easter Bunny had left, memories of him teaching me to play Dominoes. It hurts when I hear generalisations about the German people and see the ridiculous xenophobic headlines that seem to appear each time an international football tournament takes place, just as it hurt to hear the taunts of "we won the war!" from my classmates in junior school. The truth, of course, is that no matter which side of any war you are on, if you're a young man with a family to look after and a future to hang on to, you do what everyone else does - join up and do what you're told to do.
Maria, Cheshire, UK
A very moving account of growing up half-German and having to deal with the azi past. Yes, Dan's grandfather was just an ordinary man, and, like in Rwanda, with the Huts, in the Former Yugoslavia, mainly with the Serbs - and in so many other places -, all that good people need to do for evil to triumph is to turn a blind eye to horrors being commited.
Milan Perveze, Lisbon, Portugal
It is often a strange experience when we discover things about our forefathers that we didn't expect or doesn't go well with our current beliefs or way of life. A uniform doesn't tell us everything, or we'd be judging a book by its cover. A person is different things to different people. Many a good man died on all sides and all fronts of the war. Good depends on which angle you are focusing on.
JT, Tunbridge Wells, UK
Just an ordinary soldier doing what soldiers did. Not Himmler, nor Heydrich, nor Ilse Koch. Kurt Martens was no different to "Sergent Wilson" or "Pilot Officer Prune" in his way. Now that the 60th Anniversary of WW2 has has come round is it not time we got closure on those events and moved on? There is another War we fight now against terrorism. Let us concentrate on that instead.
Steve Foley, Reading UK
I can associate Dan Tetsell's article, but from a slightly different perspective.
When I was 8 years old I took too history and started doing family trees. One day I started pushing my grandmother for family history details. My normaly placid and easy going grandmother snapped, and exclaimed that she was not a 'damn dog to have its pedigree written!'.
I was Shocked, but luckily my aunt calmed her down and then took us to one side. She then explained to me that my gran was sensitive on the subject, and at the start of the First World War, she was a girl of 7 years of age, living in London. That in itself was no revelation, but then she explained that my Great Grandfather's surname was Engler; a Saxon! At the start of WWI my Great Grandfather had been incaserated as an illegal alien, the families assets frozen. My grandmother was often packed under the stairs with her 2 younger sisters for fear that the police might come to take them away. My great grandmother was regularly spat on for being German, and pushed to the back of ration queues. One has to remember at this time that people with German dogs were having them distroyed, anything German was vilified and people were lynched in London for alledgly being German. The family changed its name to Williams.The fallout from this was that my grandfathers business and health were destroyed.
My grandmother never liked fuss and to the end of her days mistrusted authority and the police.
MH Sweeting, Bristol
It must be difficult addressing this issue, but we should always remember that it was precisely those people that "turned a blind eye" who were complicit in the Holocaust. The BASF chemists at Auschwitz; the train drivers who drove the cattle trucks into the death camps - the Holocaust was allowed to happen through the indirect support of people who 'didn't ask questions' or 'did not want to know'. Hannah Arendt spoke of "the banality of evil" after the trial against Adolf Eichmann, one of the principal organisers of the Holocaust. We miss the point by dismissing these people as monsters; they were people like you or I. The question is what turns us into executioners and careless bystanders?
Kai Jones, Cardiff, Wales
I can relate to this story. It seems my Mum's father became a Nazi rather than joining the resistance. My father's father was an objector and spent his war on a farm. From my prespective, this was their choice, and I am not in a position to judge from hindsight. If the Nazi's had won, I would probably have been given a former Jewish owned Country Mansion in my grandfathers will! The point is, we now live in a very different world, but we are still only a few steps away from being manipulated by our governments to do exactly the same thing again.
What I find so interesting about Mr Tetsell's comments is both the all too human desire to come to terms with events some time ago in a way that sanitizes and therefore in some small way makes it more "ok" in terms of what happened. Again and agin he referrs to the statement that "it could happen to any of us." I must fundamentally disagree with this. As much as I sympathize with the predicament of the German people for having this stain on their conscience, this nevertheless reminds me of the statement of "I was only taking orders," used by many to justify inhumane actions they had taken. However, he does have a point. But the real question is could "any of us" or any nation indeed have perpetrated such atrocities. While the answer is theoretically yes, it does take a certain type of society to allow itself to fall into this trap. The Germans are by no means alone in this category. The fact that these guys were regular family men, had casual girlfriends and went on happy tours of Paris, while in their work time committing acts of and or being party to acts of extreme inhumanity makes them all the more monstrous. But then the reality of the monster lurks deep in many of us. Mr Tetsell needs to come full circle and realize that his grandad was indeed very possibly one of those people. And that had he grown up in the 1930's he might well have done the same.In a roundabout way he is saying this, but there is still an element of denial in the act of saying that anyone could have done it. This part may not be true. And it also makes for the ultimate justification of what went on on many many levels back then.
ONLY at this point of self introspection can he start to address the elements of his basic humanity and then begin the process of real change.
It is a challenge that many many young Austrians and Germans struggle with to this day. This point of self acknowledgement marks a point of departure. Acknowledgement of what happened. And then a process of self examination -- rather than guilt -- beginning the process of healing and change.
Larry Levy, Cape Town, South Africa
A very interesting story, It's is always poignant when you look past the uniform and see that "a loving family man is underneath" Yes the Waffen SS did have some pure evil parts to it but it also has to be recognised that the majority of the units were brave soldiers, not fighting for the ideaology of their mad Fuhrer but fighting for one another, band of brothers if you will.
Stuart , UK
Being German myself I am familiar with the playground problems, though in my case more bullying/beating than games. One of the the scariest lessons of the Nazi era is that we are all capable of doing what they did, under certain circumstances. They were no monsters. We must prevent those circumstances from arising again.
Barbara Karayi, London, UK
Over my desk, tucked away in a local government legal office in Barnsley, hangs a photograph of a man in his fifties in judicial gown. On the face of it harmsless enough, but Grandad was a German judge during the war and, so Schindler's List now informs me, a card carrying member of the Nazi Party - indeed all practising professional had to be. As to what he did during the war, apart from flee from the Russians as they invaded, I don't know. I don't know just what the German Judiciary did during the war. Grandad took that to his grave with him and I suspect my mother doesn't know either. But I don't think there is anything 'horrific' in his past. Just another ordinary professional unfortunately trapped in the asylum when the lunatics had taken over.
David Cutting, Sheffield
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