Book: Tell it to your child – national socialism in the own family


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Reichel complex

(First chapter translated by Lisa Rosenblatt)

Friedemann Derschmidt

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When I was a kid, about eight or nine years old, I stood in front of the genealogical chart that my grandparents had in their house. Of course, I was amazed by the extremely peculiar way my grandmother and her eight siblings were depicted. There were three photos for every person: once, face first; once in profile; and once in semi-profile. That was striking—but what really caught my attention was that one person, namely, my grandmother’s twin brother, only had one of these three photos. That prompted me to ask:

“Grandma, why does everyone have three pictures, but this man here has only one?”

“Well, you know, we took away the other three, after the war that was too dangerous.”

“… but why dangerous?”

“Because my brother was wearing an SS uniform.”

“OK …” (At the time, I didn’t know what that meant.) “… but why don’t I know him? After all, I know the others, more or less.”

“Well, you know, he was shot back then, in Russia,” and after a short pause, “It was probably better that way.”

In the late 1960s and early 1970s I was raised in a well-known, Upper-Austrian family with the awareness of being somehow “special.” What was special about us was not really clear.

Over time, and with the help of a few critically-minded family members, I found out that in the extended family, a very complex web of myths, legends, and lies had been woven about the past and my grandparents’ and great grandparents’ generations. I realized that also people whom I was very close to had an active part in the self-aggrandizement of the extended family and, in part, continue it until today. Inside this cocoon of stories, it became increasingly obvious to me, step-by-step, that quite a few family members had been active and enthusiastic Nazis. Of these, many were NSDAP members, some even high-ranking officers in the SS and SA, and some had held influential positions in various areas of society during the Third Reich.

I began to interview relatives and gathered a significant amount of material. At that point, I became a family chronicler of sorts. Nevertheless, I didn’t have the slightest idea of what to do with all of the information.

My great grandfather clearly played a major role in what I documented as the “family system.” A doctor and university professor, he was also a well-known proponent of eugenics in Austria. He impressed upon his students that family studies and ancestral research were important tools of what was called “racial science” at the time, and that it was immensely important to sire and raise lots of children. A founding member of the “Reichsbundes der Kinderreichen” (Reich’s Union of Large Families), he set a very good example with his own family.

This subsequently became the linchpin of my project. Even today, the majority of my relatives feel obliged in one way or another to my grandfather’s ideas.

Together with my cousin Eckhart Derschmidt, I published an internet platform in October 2010 based on Web 2.0 and encouraged family members to participate. The text on the starting page was, admittedly, meant as provocation, and it definitely had the desired effect. Basically, I wrote, “Did the eugenicist Dr. Heinrich Reichel start his own entirely personal inheritance experiment at the start of the twentieth century? After all, he had nine children, thirty-six grandchildren, and more than eighty great grandchildren, etc. Are we the result of a genetic trial? Let’s evaluate this experiment …”

I promised the family members[1] that I would run the website privately for two years (2010–2012). Of the sum total of all family members (including small children and elderly people who do not use a computer), over the course of a very difficult and painful process, one-third have currently registered as users.

Ironically, I became an opposing player, of sorts, to my great grandfather. I am now doing exactly what he demanded, as though in mirror image: namely, family research. Unlike him, I am not in the least interested in the genetic transfer within what the eugenicists called the “hereditary stream.” On the contrary, my focus is on how world views, ideologies, and political attitudes are passed down over six generations in this bourgeois extended family.

My next move was to contact historians, sociologists, psychologists, and other experts. I invited them to join our project committee. The project data bank was thus supplemented with numerous archived documents, theoretical texts, and other materials.

In conjunction with one of my other projects, I was invited to Leipzig to give a talk in 2011. On a stroll through town, an inscription on the memorial site for the former large synagogue caught my eye: “Here stood the Great Synagogue of the Jewish community of Leipzig; Fascist mobs torched it on November 9, 1938. Do not forget.” I asked the man accompanying me where these “fascist mobs” had come from and where they then disappeared to. For me, this inscription was enlightening to the extent that it revealed something fundamental about the way that national socialist crimes were dealt with in many places, for a very long time.

For this project, it is crucial to understand that the Nazis did not emerge from a void like a horde of madmen and then disappear into it again. They were also not “others” who turned up from outside, but instead, came from the heart of society: our own fathers and mothers, grandparents, aunts, and uncles were “the Nazis.” Taking a step back, and from this wider perspective, also taking the nineteenth century into consideration, based on the concrete example of my extended middle-class family, it is possible to clearly reveal how the frequently disastrous interplay of nationalism, youth movement, reformation and purity fantasies, and no least modern science, etc., must have unfolded. My specific family is, in this regard, not at all special or unique. The “Reichel complex” project can, instead, serve as a model for many Austrian, German, and other European families that were involved in the Holocaust.

For the generations alive now, it is probably less about guilt than about shame. The shame also does not necessarily refer to the (possible) acts of one’s own parents or grandparents. Meanwhile, I have the impression that the shame rises from asking why someone spent their entire life without asking, and without wanting to know what happened; or that so-called “values” were perpetuated and cultivated without question, values that trivialized the Austrian post-war narrative,[2] conforming to its ideological appeal, or simply considered it harmless, and in some cases, still do.

Also when I look into my mother’s family, I cannot find any victims of national socialism or resistance fighters. There, too, I find photos showing Hitler Youth uniforms, NSDAP memberships, a mixture of folksy-youth-movement notions, in this case combined with overt Catholicism. The Klebel family even has a scientist among its ranks: Dr. Ernst Klebel,[3] a historian, who—doing a bit of research—for some reason or another had to reckon with a kink in his career after 1945. In his confession, the letter bomber Franz Fuchs quoted extensively from Klebel’s research on the “Bavarians.”

Nevertheless, personally, I will always be a part of this system, whether I want to or not. There is no escape.

[1] I started from my great grandfather and his two brothers Carl Anton and Friedrich. Taking their direct descendants be considered, including their partners, then we are speaking of approximately 350 people.

[2] See Margit Reiters Beitrag “Framework. Postnationalsozialistische Familien(re)konstruktionenim österreichischen Kontext” in the present book.

[3] Cf. Ziegler, Wolfram, “Ernst Klebel (1896–1961) – Facetten einer österreichischen Historikerkarriere,” in Hruza, Karel (ed.). Österreichische Historiker – Lebensläufe und Karrieren 1900–1945, vol. 2 (pp. 489–522). Vienna, Cologne, Weimar: Böhlau, 2012.

Sag Du es Deinem Kinde – Nationalsozialismus in der eigenen Familie
Friedemann Derschmidt
Löcker Verlag
17 x 23,5 cm | Broschur
336 Seiten | € 29,80
ISBN 978-3-85409-764-8


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