Tribeca Interviews — ‘A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did’ Asks: Could You Forgive Your Dad If He Was a Nazi?
Hearing the name “Hitler” inspires a visceral reaction combined with automatic feelings of hatred, disgust and repulsion. But as much as he was the mastermind behind the Holocaust and countless other horrific tragedies of WWII, he did not act alone. Hitler enlisted a senior group of Nazis, including his confidantes Otto von Wächter (civil administrator of captured territories Kraków and Galicia as well as head of the German Military Administration in Fascist Italy) and Hans Frank (legal adviser to Hitler and the eventual Governor-General of occupied Poland), to help him execute his plans.
Carrying out orders, they systematically targeted and murdered those of Jewish descent as well as their sympathizers, contributing to millions of deaths during WWII. It’s easy for us to accept that these were men of non-negotiable flawed character. But for the children of these Nazi leaders, was it as easy to condemn their fathers for these crimes?
In A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did, Philippe Sands, a lawyer and professor of international law, befriends two sons of Nazis — the very same Nazis that killed his grandfather’s family. He ascribes no blame to their children, but is interested in the perceptions of their parents and how they have chosen to live with the memories — a family history watermarked with the attempted extermination of a race. Director David Evans says that at face value it may appear like this is a movie about Nazis. In reality, it’s the relationship between “memory, justice and love.”
Despite their parents committing the same crimes, Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter have very different opinions of their fathers. Niklas is a journalist and author, vehemently abhorrent of his father’s actions — enough to write a book about it. Published in English in 1991, In the Shadow of the Reich depicts his father as a coward and a murderer. In the film, Niklas spoke about his fractured relationship with his parents. He believes that “everything human in him,” lessons of morality, were taught by his nurse Hilda. Meanwhile, the only pleasant childhood memory of his father was Hans putting a dollop of shaving cream on his nose and smiling. His mother wasn’t much better, she took him on trips to the Jewish ghetto where she bought fur coats and had a personal enough relationship with Hitler to write him a letter asking that a divorce Hans wanted not be allowed until after the war (Hitler agreed).
Contrastingly, in Horst’s family archives there’s a book with an inscription dedicated to Otto, “With my best wishes on your birthday,” signed by Heinrich Himmler (chief of the German police and leading member of the Nazi Party). While Horst agrees that the Holocaust was a terrible tragedy, he has not gotten rid of the Nazi relics that remind him of his father. Instead of being filled with shame and wanting to throw the book out, it has become a treasured possession to him. When the camera follows Horst in that moment, he can be seen showing Philippe scrapbooks with pictures of family vacations spent skiing and swimming, alongside a home video of his father lifting him up on his shoulders for a better view of the lake. He tells Philippe, “I dropped out of normality because of my father.”
These two men have completely opposite impressions of their fathers, despite the fact that both had a heavy hand in what is arguably one of the biggest human rights tragedies of the 20th century. Justice was served in different ways: Hans was convicted by the Nuremberg tribunal for war crimes and was subsequently executed in 1946. Otto hid for years before finding sanctuary in the outskirts of Rome, dying peacefully at a hospital in 1949.
Perhaps what this film does best lies in its ability in eliciting raw emotion from all three protagonists. In the film, Philippe, Niklas and Horst visit a field near Lviv, outside of Zhovkva, Ukraine. This is the field where Philippe’s family was executed and unceremoniously tossed into a mass grave. Horst takes off his hat and picks apart a flower, while Niklas stares straight ahead, stoic. Remarkably, Philippe has been able to keep his composure during most of the film but in this moment, he shifts his back to the camera and one can faintly hear his soft sobs. Niklas turns to Horst and says, “You told me once that I should make peace with my father, and I did because I acknowledged his crime.”
Horst doesn’t deny the horrors of WWII; he simply refuses to attach any responsibility to his father. He insists that his father wasn’t anti-Semitic and was merely a pawn in a Nazi regime that would have killed him if he rebelled. His denial of the evidence is reminiscent of a child putting his hands over his face and saying, “You can’t see me if I can’t see you.” Unfortunately, history cannot be rewritten or reversed, but it can certainly repeat itself. Hence, it is up to such stories to serve as a constant reminder, so that there will never be a time when Nazi atrocities are forgotten or given the opportunity to destroy lives again.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with both protagonist and writer Philippe Sands and filmmaker David Evans on April 19. As we settled into our seats at the Smyth Hotel in New York City, before the film’s premiere that night, we spoke about the friendships, the raw emotions felt, and how the film could be seen as a catharsis for the individuals involved.
GALO: No one ever thinks about what the children of Nazis must feel like in knowing that their parents were murderers. Noting that this must be a sensitive topic for you, Philippe, especially in terms of family history, how did you manage to meet Horst and Niklas?
Philippe Sands: I’m writing a book, which will come out next year, and in my research I got interested in Hans Frank. He was Hitler’s lawyer and became the Governor-General of Nazi occupied Poland. I came across a book by his son and I devoured it because it’s a vicious attack on his father. So I tried to track him down. When I found him, I called him out of the blue and asked if we could meet. He said, “Let’s get together in Hamburg.” We spent three hours together, which was weird to begin with…because it just is — and then we became friends. One day he said, “You must meet my friend Horst.” And the reason he introduced me to Horst is he said that not everyone was like him.
GALO: Did Niklas ever tell you how he met Horst?
PS: It turns out that all the children of senior Nazis are in touch with each other. Horst got in touch with him because they were all curious to know about who their parents had been in touch with. He’s known Horst for quite a long time.
David Evans: He’s actually known Horst since they were children.
GALO: It was interesting to kind of see their friendship deteriorate as the film went on. I think the one part that stuck out to me was when you, Philippe, had asked Niklas, “Would you consider Horst to be a Nazi?” And he said, “Yes.” That moment was very striking. Niklas had said previously, “I like Horst personally, but I don’t like the brains in his head.” It certainly felt like this was a severe transition for them. At some point, though, you do have to associate what someone thinks with who they actually are, I think.
PS: For me, I was surprised that he said that, actually. It began with me saying to Niklas, “Do you think that Horst is an apologist?” And he said, “Yes.” The second question I asked tentatively was, “Do you think he’s a Nazi?” And he said, “Yes.” I wonder, actually, if that goes too far, and I said so in the film. I feel, in a weird way, slightly protective of Horst. It came right at the end of a year of working together.
DE: Well, the film is about an emotional journey that all three of the protagonists make, Philippe as much as the other two guys. But that comment Niklas makes was made on the strength of the weekend filming, which was kind of the most intense part — that cluster of visits to various places in Ukraine happened during a short space of time, and that was a moment of terrible discovery for Niklas about a well-liked acquaintance of his. Niklas — and probably Philippe, too — assumed that when the evidence was stacked up against his father, Horst would even, if only reluctantly, concede that his father was a Nazi who should have been tried and suffered the same fate as Hans Frank.
It might have been Niklas being impulsive calling him a Nazi, but that’s what the film is about — deep-seated emotional states of what you think about your parents. That can completely restore or change your attitude about history. No matter the significance of the historical event, if it had to do with people you loved or who loved you, you just lose perspective.
GALO: Surprisingly, Horst is a hard person to hate. I noticed that when Horst was in the field outside of Zhovkva, he was the first person to take off his hat.
PS: You could see that Horst was struggling with his emotions. And yet, as Niklas and I were focusing on the 3,500 Jews that had been killed in this field and that are still there in an unmarked grave, Horst said, “Well, there are Austrians that were killed here 100 years ago.” So there’s him constantly looking for a way out, and I think that caused Niklas to snap and it very much almost caused me to snap.
GALO: How did you manage your emotions when Horst was continuously denying what his father had done? How did you reel yourself back?
PS: With difficulty. I was conscious that I wanted to be very fair to both men equally and not disclose too much, if possible, my empathies toward one or the other. Because I knew that if that happened, the triangular relationship would be fragmented, so that was very important. I’m a courtroom litigator, so one of the golden rules of litigation is that you don’t show your own personal emotions. Partly because during cross-examination, the moment you show your own emotions, the person you’re cross-examining clams up. You get a lot more out of someone if you withhold your own emotions.