A Nazi in the family

My German grandmother lived in Berlin
during the war and saw through all but
one of the Nazis. Minna Niemann poured
scorn on the man she called Herr Hitler
and lambasted his odious deputies: “That
Goebbels is a gangster!” she would declare
indignantly. Within four walls, the woman
who was adored by all who knew her
carried out private acts of resistance. On
the birth of her fourth child, she was
awarded the Mutterkreuz (Mother’s Cross)
to mark her achievement in producing
Aryan offspring. She threw her medal
straight into the bin. Every winter, the
family was sent a candle that was meant to
be lit in a shrine, a kind of Nazi alternative
to Christmas. Minna expressed her
contempt and loathing for this affront to
her Lutheran faith by disposing of it at
Men in dirty striped uniforms came to the
house, bringing furniture they had made,
fitting bunk beds for the children,
building an air-raid shelter and carrying
out general repairs. These were
concentration camp inmates from
Sachsenhausen and its satellite camps.
Though it was strictly verboten, Minna
spoke to them and brought coffee and cake.
My dad remembered the poor, half-starved
men telling her how much they liked
coming to their house.
My grandmother’s antipathy towards the
regime boiled over in the last months of
the war, at a time when the merest whiff of
dissent saw offenders hanged from
lampposts in the streets. She spoke out
often, and loudly. Her daughter Anne
wrote a worried “What are we going to do
about Mother?” letter to her boy
soldier brother, Dieter. The family began
to fear that their phone was tapped.
For all her evident opposition to the Nazis,
there was one man who escaped Minna’s
wrath and condemnation, her husband,
Karl. Less than three years ago, I found out
the truth about my grandfather – he was a
committed member of the Nazi party, an SS
officer, a manager of slave labour in
Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald and other
concentration camps. How was it possible
for my grandmother to live a life of glaring
My grandmother, a seamstress, met Karl
Niemann, a bank clerk, in the pied piper
town of Hameln (Hamelin)in 1912. Their
relationship would last 48 years, though it
would be marked by long periods of
separation. The first came in August 1914,
when Karl went off to fight. Wounded and
captured by the French, he remained in a
prisoner of war camp until March 1920.
Minna waited six years for her fiancé to
return – they married the following year.
In the weeks after Minna gave birth to
Anne, the couple’s first child, Karl brought
home his wages in a wheelbarrow.
Germany was in financial meltdown, with
rampant hyperinflation. The economy
recovered, and shortly after the birth of
their son, Dieter, Karl took a job as an
auditor in a private company and the
family moved to Dortmund.
Three years later, in 1929, came the Wall
Street crash. In the midst of soaring
unemployment and pitched battles
between factions on the right and left, Karl
joined the Nazi Party, immediately
becoming a minor official. In the year
Hitler came to power, Minna, pregnant
with my dad, was pictured with her
uniformed husband, an Oliver Hardy
lookalike wearing swastikas. There was
nothing funny about a man who was under
instructions to inform the Gestapo about
people who showed suspect political
The couple had three young children to
feed when Karl, the only Nazi in the
company, fell out with his boss and was
sacked. They were now in desperate
straits. Their landlord knew an influential
man who had gone to the same school as
Karl and could perhaps find him a job. He
happened to be Heinrich Himmler’s
I do not know what Minna thought of her
husband going to work for the SS. Perhaps
it was enough for her that he had a job
again, and a fairly well-paid one at that.
Karl went on ahead to Bavaria to be
inducted into the SS, settle into his new
post and find accommodation. Minna
stayed behind with her children and wrote
to Karl that Anne had a new friend and
visited her often at home. The order came
back – Anne was not to speak to Jews.
My uncle told me that his mother did not
want him associated with the town where
she took her family to live in early 1936:
Dachau. She went to a hospital in the next
town to make sure that he would not have
Dachau on his birth certificate. My uncle
was christened Ekart Josef, after Karl’s
colleague (and presumably friend) Josef
Spacil, a dubious character who made off
with much of the Reich’s gold bullion at
the end of the war.
Initially, Karl worked as an auditor for an
SS complex next door to the concentration
camp, but his job morphed into managing
slave labourers from the camp itself. SS
officers and their families were expected
to socialise freely. Minna went on day trips
to the Alps with her husband’s colleagues
and their wives.
A year before war broke out, Karl’s job
relocated to Berlin and Minna brought the
children to live on an estate purpose-built
for SS families. She played the
subordinate, domestic role that Hitler’s
Germany demanded, an ideology that
reduced women’s role to Kinder, Küche,
Kirche (children, kitchen, church). Karl,
meanwhile, had become a business
manager for the SS, travelling through
occupied Europe to inspect his
concentration camp “factories”,
undoubtedly witnessing scenes of
unimaginable brutality.
How much of what he saw did he bring
home to his wife? My dad remembered his
father guarding an inner world: “He was
very much his own man.”
As a child of 11, my dad witnessed – and
remembered – a telling conversation
between his parents. In April 1945, as
Russians closed in on Berlin, the men in
Karl’s office were redeployed with their
families to the Alps. The entourage halted
for two or three days at Dachau, sleeping
in the bunks of former guards. My father
watched as Karl and Minna looked out at a
low building with tall chimneys. There
was smoke rising from the chimneys. “You
know what they’re doing there?” asked
Minna. “They’re killing the Jews and
burning the bodies.” Karl was quick in his
denial: “No, they wouldn’t do that.”
“Yes, they would,” replied his wife. “Can’t
you smell the flesh?”
So Minna knew, as many in Berlin did,
something of what was happening in the
Holocaust. Either she believed her
husband didn’t know or she was testing his
level of knowledge. When the family
reached their dead end, an isolated lodge
at the top of an Alpine valley, Minna said
bitterly: “Look where your Herr Hitler has
got us now.”
The day after Germany surrendered,
American soldiers came for Karl: he served
three years’ internment in former PoW
camps. Minna took her children back to
Hameln, where she proceeded to delete the
past. All of the photographs of old Nazis
disappeared. She hung up a picture of her
dead soldier son, Dieter, after carefully
obliterating the SS flashes on his uniform
with a pencil. And, in common with
millions of other Germans, they did not
talk about what had happened.
None of the family had ever seen the
papers from Karl’s tribunal until I tracked
them down in a Hannover archive two
years ago. They drew out the remarkable
story of the man who came to dinner. My
dad recalled his mother saving the family’s
meat ration to share with a thin guest who
came on Sundays late in the war. He was a
former concentration camp inmate, whom
Karl had had released from Dachau to
work for him. And, it transpires, there
were others. Karl emerged as a man of
complex motivations, fixing deals with the
Gestapo to have inmates freed. Some of
those inmates testified in his favour at his
tribunal. My dad had always clung to a
story, garbled in family mythology, that his
father was “the only one who treated
inmates like human beings”.
Even so, the judge condemned Karl for
expressing no remorse about exploiting
people reduced to slavery. I had assumed
that the broken man who returned from
prison was overwhelmed with guilt. Was
that the case? I simply don’t know.
As for Minna, the historian Katharina von
Kellenbach said of the wives of Holocaust
perpetrators: “We can safely assume that
many of them knew enough of their
husbands’ assignments to conclude that
they would be better off not knowing more
of the sordid details.” And so I imagine the
couple lived out the rest of their lives with
a giant barbed wire elephant in the room.
I cannot question my grandmother, who
died before I was born. I would love to
believe that her little acts of resistance and
kindness within a Nazi enclave
represented some kind of heroism. But I
have come to accept that, like millions of
other Germans, she put her own family’s
welfare first and shut her eyes and ears to
what was going on outside her home. My
dad and uncle said their parents were
mutually devoted to the end. But did
Minna ever look at Karl and wonder about
the dark things that remained in his head