We still live with fa­ther’s evil legacy


IHAD A won­der­ful child­hood till 1945,” says Nik­las Frank, de­scrib­ing a life that sounds al­most mag­i­cal. He warmly re­calls play­ing hide-and-seek among the “won­der­ful mon­u­ments” to an­cient kings and queens in the cathe­dral of Wawel Cas­tle in Krakow, Poland, where his fam­ily resided for half of the year, and vis­it­ing nearby parks with his beloved nanny Hilde. The fam­ily had the run of an­other cas­tle at week­ends, and would of­ten re­turn to their house by a lake in Up­per Bavaria, where they’d fish, swim and ski.

Wawel Cas­tle, though, was Nik­las’s fa­ther Hans’s “king­dom”. His mother, Brigitte, called her­self Queen of Poland. The Franks weren’t roy­alty, how­ever, but a fam­ily in the top ech­e­lon of the Third Re­ich. In 1939, the year Nik­las was born, Hitler had made his lawyer fa­ther Gover­norGen­eral of Nazi-oc­cu­pied Poland, a role that saw him im­ple­ment the Fi­nal So­lu­tion with such ruth­less­ness, that he be­came known as the Butcher of Poland.

Hans was ar­rested in May 1945, four days be­fore the end of the war, and put on trial at Nurem­berg. Nik­las had been pro­tected from the truth about him; bloody re­al­ity now poured in. “When I saw the first pic­tures of corpses in news­pa­pers in 1945, with the word Poland un­derneath, I knew there was a con­nec­tion,” he says. “My fa­ther was de­tained, so I knew he was re­spon­si­ble for th­ese corpses.”

Hans was found guilty of mass mur­der and hanged. To­day, Nik­las car­ries around the last ever pho­to­graph of his fa­ther, taken post mortem, as a re­minder of his crim­i­nal­ity. He once de­scribed him as a “typ­i­cal Ger­man mon­ster”, but now cor­rects him­self. “Mon­ster was the wrong word. He was very ed­u­cated, he knew by heart and brain what he was do­ing. Mon­ster is an ex­cuse. A mon­ster is not re­spon­si­ble.”

What did he mean by “typ­i­cal Ger­man”? “A typ­i­cal Ger­man al­ways fol- lows or­ders,” says Frank, sneer­ingly. “If you are or­dered to kill some­one, you say: ‘It’s or­ders, I have to ful­fil this task.’ They forget their hu­man­ity and fol­low the or­der, not think­ing that this is a crime.”

De­spite over­see­ing the mur­ders of mil­lions of Jews, Hans wasn’t an­ti­semitic, he in­sists. “He cursed the French peo­ple in his pri­vate diary, but there’s not a sin­gle an­ti­semitic sen­tence. If Hitler had said the French are the ones, he would have made sure they would all be killed.”

Nik­las ac­knowl­edged his fa­ther’s guilt from the mo­ment he found out what he had done, and has hated him ever since. This brings him into con­flict with an old friend, Horst von Wachter, in the new doc­u­men­tary My Nazi Legacy, when Horst won’t ac­cept — un­der pres­sure from Nik­las and the hu­man-rights bar­ris­ter Philippe Sands — that his own late, Nazi fa­ther, whom he still loves, was re­spon­si­ble for mass mur­der as the Gov­er­nor of Dis­trict Gali­cia.

Ac­knowl­edg­ing what Hans did has kept Nik­las sane. “My wife would tell you: ‘He’s not crazy. He never needs Killer: Hans Frank was one of Hitler’s most trusted aides ther­apy,’” he says, laugh­ing. Nonethe­less, did find­ing out that he was the son of one of the Nazi era’s big­gest crim­i­nals make him look at him­self dif­fer­ently? “No,” he replies.

“I said to my­self, ‘I en­joyed [my child­hood] be­cause I didn’t know bet­ter. So it’s okay, I don’t have to feel ashamed that I was very happy then.’ So it was never about shame with me; it was al­ways that I be­came fu­ri­ous.”

This fury ex­ploded onto the page in a con­tro­ver­sial 1987 mem­oir, The Fa­ther: A Set­tling of Ac­counts (pub­lished in English as In the Shadow of the Re­ich). A bit­ter J’ac­cuse, the book shocked read­ers with its vi­tu­per­a­tive lan­guage and shat­ter­ing hon­esty. Nik­las had found none of the lat­ter in his fa­ther, al­though he did find some in his mother.

In a let­ter he dis­cov­ered from Brigitte to a friend, she’d writ­ten: “When I’m look­ing back, we really were grue­some, with­out any mercy.” Hans, on the other hand, “Never did it in such an hon­est way,” says Nik­las. “He ad­mit­ted his guilt at Nurem­berg but it was just a trick. His lawyer asked him, ‘Have you ever seen any­thing to do with the ex­ter­mi­na­tion of the Jews?’ And, af­ter a short pause, he said, ‘Yes.’ And then he changed it . . . He said: ‘A thou­sand years will pass and not take away this guilt from Ger­many.’ So what about his per­sonal guilt?”

For decades, Nik­las has been search­ing the ar­chives for some­thing in Hans’s favour — an in­ci­dence of his saving some­one, for ex­am­ple — but he hasn’t dis­cov­ered any­thing yet. His mother also did noth­ing to help Jews, even though she of­ten did busi­ness with them be­fore the war and af­ter the cre­ation of the Krakow ghetto. “She never saved one of her part­ners. Never,” says Nik­las, glumly.

She wasn’t ig­no­rant of their fate; liv­ing and work­ing in Wawel Cas­tle made that im­pos­si­ble. “Ev­ery­body knew each other, ev­ery­body talked to each other, a lot of SS peo­ple were there, all the guards; there was a lot of sex­ual re­la­tion­ships be­tween all the sec­re­taries and the SS.” He was told that his mother’s lover (whom Hans mis­tak­enly be­lieved was Nik­las’s fa­ther for a while; nor is he Hitler’s god­son, as of­ten re­ported) had once been in­vited by some­one in the SS to come on a Sun­day to shoot Jews. “Un­be­liev­able,” he ex­claims.

Hannah Arendt talked about the “ba­nal­ity of evil” while cov­er­ing the Eich­mann trial, but Nik­las thinks this is too sim­ple. “For me, it’s not a very clever sen­tence,” he says. “Even the worst athe­ist has the Ten Com­mand­ments in their brain. It’s our hu­man­ity. So there is noth­ing ba­nal about this pe­riod in Ger­many. Ev­ery­one knew [what was hap­pen­ing] and they [still] de­cided to go with it. I can’t for­give this.”

An­ti­semitism is on the rise again and he is wor­ried about what might hap­pen were a charis­matic Far Right fig­ure like Heinz-Chris­tian Stra­che in Aus­tria to ap­pear in Ger­many. “We com­mit­ted the worst crimes that were ever com­mit­ted around the world, so we should know bet­ter. But do we? I’m really afraid about what’s go­ing on. Still, our econ­omy is good. But if our econ­omy breaks, not just for one year, let’s say five years, they will hunt [peo­ple] down again. Maybe the Jews, or who­ever we make re­spon­si­ble.”

Peo­ple need to be brave and speak out more, he says. In re­search­ing his fa­ther, he re­alised that he was “a big cow­ard. . . And I found out what a big cow­ard I was my­self dur­ing my work­ing life [as a jour­nal­ist for Stern mag­a­zine], and it helped me not be as cow­ardly as my fa­ther.”

He wrote The Fa­ther to break the op­pres­sive si­lence in Ger­many about what the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion did in the war, and to show that “you have to be tough and you have to ask your par­ents”. He now takes ev­ery op­por­tu­nity of­fered to him to speak in schools about his fa­ther, and to warn about what can hap­pen when civil so­ci­ety breaks down, in the hope of help­ing to pre­vent it hap­pen­ing again. “We ex­pe­ri­enced that if you don’t have any civil courage, start­ing with the lit­tle things, it leads to build­ing up ex­ter­mi­na­tion camps,” he says, pas­sion­ately.

“I am a chau­vin­ist when it comes to Ger­man crimes. I don’t want to com­pare with the be­hav­iour of other peo­ple. Ev­ery­body knows how right-wing France is. Ev­ery­body knows about the Ital­ian fas­cists. Ev­ery­thing is con­nected, es­pe­cially in the Euro­pean Union, and you have to be care­ful.’’


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