Monday, May 23, 2011
The Perfect Nazi
Throughout his childhood, Martin Davidson always wondered just who his German grandfather, Bruno Langbehn, really was. His cryptic, sometimes boastful conversations hinted at something darker underneath the relatively calm exterior he portrayed to the world. While Martin knew his grandfather had been in World War II on Germany's side, he never knew exactly what Bruno's role was.
As an adult and successful BBC producer, Martin decided to find out. But what he discovered shattered any type of illusion that his grandfather was just a German pulled by fate into the war.
Bruno Langbehn was a product of the tumultuous years following Germany's defeat in the Great War that produced a generation of hyper-ideological young men and women who vowed to never again be subjected to the humiliation caused by the Versailles Treaty. To them, the great German nation - the Volk - had suffered their fate because of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, and had been forced to a subservient level that denigrated their country.
Langbehn's father had fought in the Great War, and as a teenager and young adult, Bruno began to identify with National Socialism, joining the very first groups in Germany. He adhered strictly to the party line, believed every contemptible syllable uttered from Hitler's mouth, and participated in the rousing street fights popular in Germany during the political upheaval of the 1920s. His dedication and devotion to National Socialism didn't go unnoticed, and he kept advancing in the chain of command.
In short, Langbehn wasn't forced into this role and didn't enter it reluctantly - he craved it.
Davidson's meticulous research reveals his grandfather's life in Germany, from those first days where idealism was all the Nazi party had, to Bruno's application to join the SS once Hitler took power, to Bruno's role in the war, and his escape from justice after Germany's defeat.
It is a dark, harrowing story, made all the more chilling for Davidson - and indeed, for us all - because his grandfather, the man who'd taken him fishing and snuck him booze at a young age, was one of those Germans. What's worse, Bruno had no remorse for his role in the Nazi regime, but stubborn, irretractable pride. It was a pride that destroyed his first marriage and destroyed his relationship with his daughters.
Davidson's prose is unsparing and unapologetic as he tries to come to grips with the truth. It's sometimes painful to read Davidson's struggle to understand how his grandfather became such a chilling monster. This is especially true when so many Germans from this period did not wear their Nazi sympathies like a badge of honor as did Bruno during the months and year following the war.
In short, Bruno Langbehn was the perfect German and even more, The Perfect Nazi.
If this book hammers home one point, it is this: that even an ordinary individual, a man who chose the career of dentistry in the midst of all his ideological upheaval (and then spent his time off literally terrorizing people), can change the fate of nations. It was thousands of ordinary men and women, like Bruno, who made Nazi Germany possible.
And that is a sobering thought, indeed.