Even during her childhood in the 1970s, Katrin Himmler understood that her surname linked her to Heinrich Himmler, head of the Nazi secret police, mass murderer of Jews, second in command to Hitler. He was her great uncle. But the surviving Himmlers assured her that he was an unfortunate aberration. They explained that his crimes embarrassed the whole family.
They praised Heinrich's younger brother, Ernst, Katrin's grandfather, as a more typical Himmler: Indifferent to politics, he had nothing to do with Hitler's murderous regime. He worked in public radio till his death in 1945. He might have joined the Nazi party, but only to keep his job.
A political scientist with a special interest in the Nazi era, Katrin accepted this family history. Readers of her remarkable book, The Himmler Brothers: A German Family History (Macmillan), out this summer in English translation, will guess that she sensed (as children often do) that this story was fiction but was not to be questioned.
She makes her account of uncovering the truth into an absorbing and chilling family narrative that takes on a larger meaning in the context of modern Germany. Within one family, the Himmlers acted out the buried guilt and moral evasion that have afflicted Germany since 1945. Their experience renews our sense of how deeply the corruption of National Socialism affected German life.
Her research began in 1997, when her father asked that she look up the government records on his father, Ernst. When she began uncovering facts that shocked her, family members suggested that it might be best to let the past remain the past. But the past was also her present. By that point she and her Israeli-born companion, a young man from a family of Holocaust survivors, had a son, born in 1999. She realized that her great-uncle had presided over the murder of her boy's relatives. If only for the child's sake, she had to know what happened.
She discovered that her relatives had all lied to her. There were three brothers, Heinrich, Ernst and Gebhard, the children of a headmaster in a secondary school. He and his wife were royalist and conservative Roman Catholics in Munich. Upward strivers, they were proud when Heinrich became a Nazi chieftain.
By then, they too were Nazis -- and in fact, Katrin seems to have found few relatives who were not. Various Himmlers acquired jobs and houses through the Nazis, socialized with Nazis, married Nazis. Katrin, who loved her grandmother, discovered that after 1945 the old lady remained part of a network of mutually supportive Nazis.
In Ernst's file, she learned that he joined the party in 1931, well before that became a necessity. And in June, 1933, he enlisted in the SS, eventually rising to major. She found a letter from Ernst to Heinrich, reporting that a half-Jewish employee of the radio system should be dismissed because his abilities did not outweigh his racial impurity, and his presence on a mainly "Aryan" staff undermined the morale of other workers.
Katrin found that Ernst received a loan through the SS to buy a house, which had been expropriated in 1934 for Nazi officials. He had a Ukrainian forced-labour maid; in other words, a slave. Ernst was a Nazi opportunist.
In accepting official favours, he emulated his famous brother. Heinrich Himmler borrowed party money to buy a house for his former secretary, with whom he had two children. Conveniently, he believed that "Teutonic custom" justified a second wife. Monogamy was a "diabolical invention of the Roman Catholic Church."
Gebhard, the oldest brother, was a lifelong Nazi, a veteran of Hitler's Beer Hall putsch of 1923, an SS officer proud of his performance when Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and eventually a high-level Nazi politician. His brother-in-law was the governor of Krakow when the city's Jews were deported.
Ernst died when the Russians overpowered Berlin and Heinrich died not long after. When he failed to organize a surrender that would have made him Hitler's successor, he was captured by the British and bit on a cyanide pill rather than face a war-crimes tribunal.
Gebhard outlived them both by many years. In the 1970s, he wrote a 70-page autobiography to explain his life to his children and grandchildren. He ignored his success as a Nazi politician and omitted his membership in the SS. An innocent reader would assume that he spent the years 1933-1945 as a neutral civil servant, just doing his job. Not once did he mention the name of Adolf Hitler.