In a new film, Philippe Sands goes on a journey into the past with two sons of prominent Nazisby Sameer Rahim / January 5, 2016 / Leave a comment
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Like many other descendants of Holocaust victims, Philippe Sands wanted to find out more about the circumstances of their deaths. The lawyer and academic, author of Lawless World and Torture Team, travelled to the Ukrainian city of Lviv in 2010, where his grandfather was born in 1904. “He never wanted to talk about it,” Sands told me, referring to the deaths of 80 members of his family. “I went back wanting to fill the gaps.” While he was there, he heard about Hans Frank, a senior Nazi in Ukraine found guilty of war crimes at Nuremberg and hanged in 1946. Sands met Frank’s son Niklas, a journalist who wrote a “remarkable book” in 1987 excoriating his own father’s actions. Niklas introduced him to Horst von Wächter, whose father was a Nazi who had worked with Hans Frank. Horst, however, had a more forgiving attitude towards his father.
The story of the three men’s friendship and their exploration of memory and guilt is told in a subtle and affecting new film My Nazi Legacy, directed by David Evans. I asked Sands why he thought there was such a marked difference between the two sons’ reactions. “Niklas despises his father,” he told me. “When he was asked by John Humphrys on the Today Programme about whether his father was a monster, he replied: no, that’s too generous and too easy: he was a very refined, civilised man. He did what he did, knowing what he was doing.” On the other hand, Sands continued, “Horst seems to love his father for reasons that are not immediately apparent: he really didn’t know him, yet there is this deep desire to honour his father, which actually really resonated with me.”
Many people who see the film have confused reactions, he told me. “They ought to really like Niklas and really hate Horst but actually it’s more complicated than that. The two polar extremes emerge over the course of the film.” His own role as neutral mediator is also disrupted. “I’m trying to be the dispassionate, academic-type lawyer but in the end I fall off the fence because I get so irritated and so caught up in my own family story.”
I asked Sands if their reactions reflected a split between those Nazi descendants trying to come to terms with the past, and those who would prefer to gloss over it. “Niklas is exceptional; he’s rare… He was the first child of a senior Nazi who said my father was a terrible man who deserved to be hanged.” While “Horst is the norm… Despite the overwhelming evidence, he seeks to see the good in his father in a way that’s both infuriating but understandable.” Horst has paid a big price for speaking to Sands. “He’s basically been cut off by his own family for breaking the silence, which makes me feel even more empathetic towards him.
“It’s also important to remember that Niklas is German and Horst is Austrian—both countries have engaged very differently with that period. I don’t feel that Austria has really engaged with what happened in the Second World War and its own role in what happened. Germany has at least made that effort.” Sands said that he made this point when he was at a screening of the film in Vienna. He provoked a debate between the older generation, who disagreed with him, and the younger, who thought he was right.
The trajectory of the film initially reminded my of Gitta Sereny’s biography of Albert Speer, in which the writer interrogates Hitler’s architect over 800 pages and eventually elicits some guilty regret over his complicity with the Holocaust. In My Nazi Legacy it appears we are building up to a similar moment. Sands confronts Horst with documents that prove his father’s role in the Final Solution. He takes him (and Niklas) to the burned-out synagogue in Ukraine that Sands’s family attended, and the field where half the town’s population was shot.
But, says Sands, “Horst never cracked. At each stage, I thought that he would now see the truth, the reality, but at each stage he dug himself ever deeper.” Horst even invited the filmmakers to a burial ceremony for Nazi soldiers, where he was lauded by far-right activists for being his father’s son. At that point, Niklas says to camera that he thinks Horst is “a Nazi.” Sands was disturbed by what happened in that scene—“it was really shocking to see hundreds of people burying old German soldiers and Nazis, and marching round in real SS uniforms”—but he doesn’t think Horst is a Nazi. “Horst just remembers his childhood as a time of love, normality and tranquility… the rest of his life has been spent trying to recreate that moment.”
The dramatic twist comes when Niklas, not Horst, reassess his father. He and Sands visit the prison cell where Hans Frank was held the night before he was hanged. For the first time, Sands hears him express some tenderness towards Hans Frank. Strikingly, his reasons echo Horst’s. “He does it by recalling when his father was a little boy. I think that for both men their memory of their own childhood was infused with the imagined memory of their own childhood.”
This highly charged film leaves the viewer with divided sympathies. But it shows that two men grappling with their pasts in different ways are more similar than they might think. “In one sense this is a film about Nazis and Jews,” said Sands, “but it’s also about fathers and sons.”
Details of how to watch My Nazi Legacy can be found here. It is released on DVD on 18th January.