My grandfather was a Nazi.
He was an SS officer who served on the battlefields of World War II and actively participated in one of the darkest periods of modern history following an ideology that I cannot comprehend.
Like the majority of Germans, I do not descend from the heroes of the Nazi resistance or those who aided those deemed undesirable in the Third Reich.
My mother, born some five years after the war, grew up in a Germany built upon collective guilt and shame based upon the actions of her parents’ generation.
I was born more than thirty years after the war and have also experienced those same feelings of shame and guilt. For as long as I can remember I have heard comments about our German, and therefore according to far too many, Nazi heritage.
At last year’s “Independent Woodstock Literary Festival” Professor Bernhard Schlink, author of The Reader, told the audience that “contemporary Germany is not entirely free of this “second guilt” felt by younger generations for the “sins of their fathers.”
According to The Independent he also spoke about how young Germans still have to “answer difficult questions” about their country’s past.
I believe in feeling shame for the heinous crimes committed by the Nazis during the Third Reich.
And indeed I am ashamed. I do not however believe I should feel guilt.
Guilt stems from responsibility. And I do not understand how anyone can be judged based on the actions of previous generations.
Yet it happens all the time, and it is happening right now in Sweden.
For more than a year the media in Sweden, and abroad, have been reporting on Queen Silvia’s father Walther Sommerlath’s actions during the Third Reich.
It began when a group of investigative journalists from TV4’s programme “Kalla Fakta” (Cold Facts) concluded that not only was the Queen’s father a member of the Nazi party (as had been previously reported) but he had also benefited financially by taking part in “the Aryanisation of Jewish-owned businesses”.
The result was a media frenzy culminating in Queen Silvia, along with members of the Sommerlath family, ordering their own investigation into Walther Sommerlath’s Nazi past.
These findings were released in August.
The Queen however continues to face criticism for everything from not distancing herself enough from her father’s actions (in a statement released by the Royal Court the Queen actually did say she was sorry that her father had joined the National Socialist Party in 1934) to the report being self-serving and defensive.
If the Queen is being defensive it is only natural, after all this man everyone is talking about in the media was her father. A man she deeply loved and cared for. The same way my mother and I felt about my grandfather.
In the end though what do the actions of, and interest in, Queen Silvia’s father have to do with her?
TV4’s motivation for investigating the Queen’s father was that it is “important to examine all those who have power in society. Whether it is the Migration Board, trade and industry, the police, healthcare, the Salvation Army or the Royal Court.”
However, the investigation and programme had nothing to do with the Royal Court or Queen Silvia. The Queen’s father was never a member of the Royal Court or a member the Royal Family and therefore never a man who held any “power” in Sweden.
Journalists and media in Sweden are considered to be among those who hold power in society.
Is it therefore relevant to investigate what the reporters’ of “Cold Facts” parents and grandparents did during the years 1932 – 1945?
I am sure that most people would agree with me that it should be irrelevant, just as the children and grandchildren of those Swedes who willingly enlisted in the Waffen-SS, or carried out forced sterilization in Sweden, or abused children in Swedish orphanages should not be held accountable either.
The journalistic profession is built upon scrutinizing, and thus reporters should investigate and question those in power, including the Queen and the Royal Family.
But then this scrutiny should focus on the Royal Family or the institution of monarchy and not Walther Sommerlath.
In an article in the daily Göteborgs Posten (GP) about the Queen’s own investigation into her father’s past, historian and active republican Henrik Arnstad wrote that “guilt is never inherited” but continues that the Royal Couple’s heritage gives rise to “responsibility” and that the history of Queen Silvia and her father only continue a “prolonged tragedy, both for the Bernadotte family and the Sweden they represent.”
While I agree the Queen has a responsibility to Sweden in her role as the wife of the Head of State, she cannot take responsibility for the actions of her ancestors. Words like Arnstad’s only fuel the belief that an entire people should feel guilty for events they have renounced over and over again.
In 2010, Holocaust survivor Anita Epstein wrote an article in the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz asking if a Holocaust survivor can ever forgive the Germans.
Epstein herself concluded that she could not. She wrote that “if the pain of the past is always present in me, as it is in many other survivors and their children, it does not trouble me that contemporary Germans live with the hurt from that past as well. After all, just as children inherit wealth and otherwise benefit from what their parents achieve, so do they sometimes inherit their parents’ debts, including this one.”
Although I respect Epstein’s answer and her choice not to forgive, I do wonder if we ever will be able to move on and let the post-war generations of Germans be judged for their own deeds as opposed to those of their predecessors.
In an interview with Göteborgs Posten (GP) the Queen told journalist Britt-Marie Mattsson, “I do not have any memories from that time, as I was so young. Afterwards, nobody could bring themselves to talk about the war. I assume that this was because their experiences were so hard to deal with.”
My mother rarely spoke with her father about that time either. They did not have to because the consequences were all around them. Germany was a devastated nation not only trying to recover from the ravages of all out war but also atone for its sins against humanity. The guilt and the shame were always there.
And they still are.
The atrocities committed in Nazi Germany hover over Europe and the world like a dark and heavy cloud. Many, both in Germany and abroad, looked on in silence while millions of innocent people were murdered in Nazi death camps.
I condemn these heinous crimes against humanity but I cannot take accountability for them. I do however have a responsibility, a responsibility I share collectively with everyone else; to make sure it never happens again.
Juan Navas is a public relations consultant and former journalist who previously worked as an information secretary at Sweden’s Royal Court