In 1955, when Wibke Bruhns was 17 years old, she was thrown out of her school in Germany for disobedience. The headmaster remarked that it was no wonder she was a troublemaker. After all, her father had been hanged for treason.
A decade after the war, many Germans still believed that those who plotted to kill Adolf Hitler in July, 1944, were villains who betrayed the Fuhrer when he was fighting a desperate war for German honour. Wibke's father, Hans Georg Klamroth, was among 200 officers executed after Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg planted a bomb that was intended to kill Hitler but merely injured him. That event, much studied and dramatized over the years, is the subject of Valkyrie, a film to be released next winter with Tom Cruise as Stauffenberg.
"We were considered traitor families," Bruhns recalled when she visited Toronto recently. They were deprived of respect and even military pensions. Those who remained loyal to Hitler automatically received pensions but traitor families were refused help till 1957.
In the 1960s, as Germans began acknowledging Hitler's crimes, traitors turned into heroes. HG, as everyone called Klamroth, was a counterintelligence officer and a marginal figure in the plot. His death, when Wibke was six years old, became the shaping event in her family history. A much-admired journalist, she decided to investigate and write his story.
In 2004, she produced an eloquent, often surprising book, My Father's Country: The Story of a German Family (Bond Street Books). She imagined it might sell 10,000 copies but sales in Germany reached 550,000. The clear, effective English version by Shaun Whiteside, one of 14 translations, appears in Canada today.
When Wibke was young, relatives avoided talking about HGbecause society considered him a criminal.
Growing up, she learned they had another reason: He was also an enthusiastic Nazi -- and so was his wife, Else, Wibke's mother.
My Father's Country is an intensely personal book, lively and engrossing yet appalling. Bruhns, working her way through family diaries, letters and even recipes, sets the events of the Klamroths in the context of German history and never hesitates to tell us how she feels about the material she's uncovered. She finds her father's bathetic patriotism, and his love for military bands, ridiculous. Beyond his family, nothing mattered more to him than German military glory.
She reads his youthful expression of that feeling with bitter regret, knowing where it will lead him and Germany. Yet she wants to sympathize and she tries to offer him a measure of daughterly love. She never knew him, but in his photograph she sees her own eyes. She admits that she, too, was a fool in youth, a Marxist fool.
She grew up respecting her mother and sympathizing with Else's heroic management of the family in postwar Germany. But the words "Oh, Else!" begin to occur again and again as she discovers that her mother, too, was among those who loved the Fuhrer. Else taught her older children to sing "Hitler songs," concocted by propagandists.
Sifting through the documents of 1933, the year Hitler took power, Bruhns watches in horror as her father swiftly evolves into a Nazi and even an SS officer. Earlier, being no more than a common everyday anti-Semite (with, yes, a few Jewish friends), he considered the Nazis goons.
Yet when Hitler came pouring out of the radio, screaming for revenge against Germany's enemies, HG converted. The Third Reich excited him and he couldn't wait to jump on the bandwagon. Anti-Semitism became part of his personality.
The Klamroth family association, a mutual support group based on blood ties, passed a resolution promising expulsion for anyone who married a Jew and thus tainted the family's "racial purity."
HG introduced the resolution and that incident now shames his daughter. Hitler had been in office only four months and wouldn't get around to passing the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws for another two years. HG became, at least on this occasion, more Nazi than Hitler. Bruhns writes, "Couldn't one wait and see, before becoming their lackey?"
The Klamroths, who carried family pride to a fanatic level, began the 20th century as a dynasty of country merchants in the north German town of Halberstadt, having grown wealthy selling seeds, fertilizer and agricultural tools while speculating in farmland. They lived in a handsome villa with many servants, many friends, and many connections to the affairs of the day. This gives Bruhns a chance to see modern German history as they experienced it.
Sometimes she pauses to pass on striking family gossip. She learns that her father, as a young husband, began an affair with the wife of the local dermatologist. Else, learning of this betrayal, became the dermatologist's lover. All four participants accepted both affairs and became close friends, partying together while the six children of the two marriages played in the background. Every night the four adulterers played bridge -- so they wouldn't have to talk about their relationships, Bruhns guesses. After two years of increasing tensions, the four-way arrangement ended. HG went back to more commonplace adultery, so extensive that it drove Else to despair.
Bruhns leads us through the First World War, the hyperinflation of the 1920s, the street battles between communist and fascist gangs, the assassinations and demagogy that led to 1933. Writing a history of modern Germany through one family's life, she makes this familiar technique feel fresh and urgent, as if she had invented it.
In conversation about her years of research she seemed to me most deeply impressed by German ignorance during the First World War. The government told the citizens nothing but good news, which they believed -- after all, there were no troops invading Germany, and no bombs. In 1918, the government issued one bulletin a day, always optimistic. In November, three days passed ominously without a bulletin -- and on the fourth day surrender was announced.
The shock was beyond imagination. It seemed the worst thing that could possibly happen. In fact, for Germany it opened a new age of tragedy, 27 years of economic chaos, political madness and unspeakable horror. Bruhns does justice to her father's tragedy, and at the same time to the vast historic tragedy of the nation he loved so well and so unwisely.