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SS chief's great-niece says many Germans still loth to confront family
Not such a black sheep ... Himmler in 1933, the year in which the Nazi party came to power. Photograph: Getty Images
When Katrin Himmler was 15, a classmate at her Berlin school asked her during a history lesson if she was related to Heinrich Himmler, the feared head of Hitler's SS and a key architect of the Holocaust. When she told them that he was, in fact, her great-uncle, the whole class fell silent and the teacher carried on as if nothing had been said.
"It was so embarrassing for me to be asked in front of all the class if I was belonging to this terrible family," Ms Himmler told an audience at the Edinburgh international book festival yesterday. "At the same time I realised that it was a lost chance, because the teacher didn't discuss it with us. I'm quite sure she wanted to protect me but it would have been all right with me if she had asked me about it."
Two decades later, Ms Himmler, 40, then a political scientist, would ask those questions herself, not only about her great-uncle and the crimes he perpetrated, but also about the rest of her family. During the research, detailed in her book The Himmler Brothers: A German Family History, published in Britain for the first time this summer, she discovered that far from being the black sheep of the family as she had been led to believe, Heinrich Himmler, the man who described the extermination of the Jews as a "small matter", was a respected figure.
His two brothers, Ernst - Katrin Himmler's grandfather - and Gebhart, admired him and shared his beliefs. Her own grandfather, it transpired, had in effect condemned a half-Jewish acquaintance to death by complaining about him to Heinrich. Her grandmother, meanwhile, sent packages to Nazis who were awaiting execution for their crimes after the war.
Her research, using family papers which had been locked in East German archives for a generation, had added resonance due to the fact she met, married and had a son by an Israeli whose own extended family was caught up in the Warsaw ghetto and had been victims of her great-uncle's atrocities.
Ms Himmler says her family's story is not as unusual as many in Germany would like to think, with many families holding to "myths and legends" about the previous generation's role in the atrocities, while publicly acknowledging the horrors of the Nazi era. "There is still this very big gap between official history and how history is told in families," Ms Himmler said. "Many of the young people have a big knowledge [of the Holocaust] but really think that their grandparents were against the regime; [they think] everyone was hiding a Jew in this house. Rationally they can't believe it but they try hard to believe it."
Such unwillingness to confront personal truths, says Ms Himmler, and also a belief among some in the older generations that times were good under the Nazis, is doing nothing to help counteract the rise of neo-Nazis across the country. "What frightens me very much is the young neo-Nazis, the uprising ... I think it's high time to deal with that problem and to have more of an eye on it, what's going on." Ms Himmler is also grappling with how to tell her young son about his family history.
"Every time he is asking more and I try to explain a little bit more, but you can't explain the whole story at once. He knows about Jewish history ... he knows about the mass murder already but he does not know the connection to my family."