Hitler’s children and the sins of the fathers

The Hitlers used to live near to me in Highgate, north London. Quiet family, kept themselves to themselves; weren’t terribly keen on the Jews, as far as I remember.

Bridget Hitler, the Führer’s Irish sister-in-law, and her son, the improbably named Scouse-born William Patrick Hitler, lived in England after her husband Alois Hitler had been deported as an undesirable alien, most likely a pimp. (While one of the stranger immigration ironies of history is that the judge at Adolf Hitler’s 1923 trial could have had him kicked out for the same reason, but allowed the young extremist to stay in Germany on account of his war record – what’s the worst that can happen, your honour?)

‘Willy’ Hitler ended up joining the US Navy, where, along with all recruits, he had to fill out a form listing any relatives who might be fighting for the enemy (one can imagine the recruiting officer chuckling: “Ah, Mr Hitler. Any relation?”). Rather unsurprisingly Hitler changed his name after the Second World War and none of his four children have ever had offspring, which has long since led to rumours of a pact to ensure that the line died out.

That struck me as absurd, yet that is exactly what the Göring family have done, as was revealed in the powerful documentary Hitler’s Children on Wednesday. Among those featured was Rainer Höss, grandson of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf, who travelled to the death camp where he met survivors. (Höss senior was the ultimate murder-bureaucrat, his diaries recording the industrial-scale slaughter as if he was working in a ball-bearing factory, and seemed to show no understanding of the enormity of what he had done until four days before his execution, when he repented.)

We can only imagine how difficult it is to be grow up knowing one’s grandfather committed such evil; I suppose I’d want to devote myself towards helping humanity, and especially Jewish people. But what is harder to understand is the mentality of Bettina Göring, the great-niece of Hitler’s deputy Hermann, who, along with her brother, had herself sterilised. As she said: “We both did it… so that there won’t be any more Görings.” How strange, and perhaps a fitting microcosm for Germany’s itself, with its total fertility rate of just 1.36; perhaps subconsciously they wish to ensure there won’t be any more Germans.

Victims often behave curiously, too. Personally I’ve never met a Jewish person who expressed open resentment towards Germans, although this is certainly a generational thing; if anything there is more historical bitterness towards Poles or Russians, suggesting that people are more likely to acquire these feelings from families (the majority of British Jews descend from people who came from Polish-majority areas of the former Russian empire). Israelis don’t seem particularly anti-German, perhaps because from the start they’ve had to focus on defending themselves from neighbours who think that Höss’s only crime was to not kill more.

But the idea that Bettina Göring should end her line because of what her great-uncle did strikes me as appalling. It is not as if the Görings carry a variation of the gene responsible for making people genocidal maniacs, and they have a 50 per cent chance it will express itself in their children. There is no “evil gene”, to quote Dr Hibbert.

For example, one of the great monsters of European anti-Semitism is Edward I of England, portrayed in that moving historical documentary Braveheart, who expelled all Jews from England in 1290. And millions upon millions of English, American and Australian people are descended from him, including David Cameron and Barack Obama, and pretty much every US president in history. In fact if you’ve a drop of English blood you probably are too (and even if you’re Irish there’s a 50 per cent chance you carry his anti-Semitic genes).

The concept that we are responsible for the sins of our fathers is a terrible idea, and one ironically used by anti-Semites throughout the ages, who argued that the Jews were to blame for killing Christ. And this idea that the Nazi bloodline must be eradicated seems to be a legacy of the bleak perversion of Darwinism that infested Germany in the late 19th century and which led many people to think of humans only as machines of nature; this sort of thinking was well-established long before Hitler came to power, and it was one of the reasons why American Christians so reacted to Darwin and still refuse to believe the overwhelming evidence for evolution. I don’t share their beliefs, but I understand the motivation, and their horror of certain European ways of thinking. Someone should tell the Görings, and the Germans generally, that they’re not to blame for what their uncles and grandfathers did.

Firs published on the Daily Telegraph blogs, May 25, 2012

What do you think?