The Reluctant Nazi

Searching for my Grandfather

History Press , 2012

ISBN: 978-0752464473

When I was studying at Columbia University in New York, a fellow student started a conversation with me saying: “So, you’ve made soap out of my aunt.” He meant it as a joke, but I could only run away to hide my tears.

I was shocked and hurt without, however, at that time feeling implicated in the horrors of the Nazi regime. Growing up in post-war Germany, the Third Reich hadn’t been part of my world.  Then over 60 years later I made two discoveries which changed everything.  The first brought the war back to me in terrifying detail.  The second opened the floodgates to a torrent of questions about my family and the Nazi era.

After my mother’s death, my husband and I were vacationing in her Vienna apartment when I discovered two green notebooks hidden at the back of a book shelf.  Flipping through them, I immediately recognised my grandfather’s tiny precise lettering.  I had spent the happiest years of my childhood with him.  My father had been killed in the war, shot down over England in his single engine fighter plane and my mother had to work full time.  I was moved around, sometimes in Kindertransports, ending up in a convent school in Vienna where I fell ill with scarlet fever.  My grandparents, evacuees from Berlin, were squeezed into one and a half rooms of a farmer’s cottage without running water. The larger room also had to serve as my grandfather’s makeshift eye surgery. Nevertheless they gladly took me in and gave me a loving home. When my grandmother was hospitalized, my grandfather took me on calls to patients on the back of his bike, telling me stories along the way.  Later he taught me Latin and built kites with me. As long as he lived, he was both father and grandfather to me.

The diaries cover the time in 1945 between the fall of Berlin and the beginning occupation when my grandfather worked in cellars and bunkers of central Berlin, a stone’s throw from the Reichstag. Without water, light, or even bandages there was so little he and the other doctors could do to lessen the pain of the wounded and dying.  “Corpses lie in a chapel of the Ziegelstrasse Clinic, for the most part without clothes, men and women together in layers.  Over all hangs the stench of decaying bodies and excrement.”  Reading on into the night I followed my grandfather as he scrambled over the ruins of fallen houses, through streets buried in rubble to reach a medical cellar. The acrid smoke that hung over the city made it hard to breathe.  “Towards evening the sky to the east is a ghastly sea of smoke. I creep out at 10 o’clock at night to the clinic under whistling grenades and bombs, a wilderness of fire and dust, behind it, although already high in the sky, the blood red moon.”

But then the diaries delivered another punch to my stomach.  My grandfather had been a member of the Nazi Party.  I had not known this.  Sixty years after the end of the Third Reich I was confronted in a most immediate way with the problem of German guilt.  Now at last I had to reach some kind of a personal accounting.  I had to try to understand why a gentle and humane and deeply religious man like my grandfather joined the Nazi Party in 1933 although after that he was not active in it.  The words of that student at Columbia came back to me and I experienced that the Third Reich has after effects that span generations.

However, it took me many months to reach that point during which time I buried the diaries in the bottom of my desk and did not talk about them even to my husband Mike. After more than a year of silence, my secret finally burst out.  Mike surprised me by urging me to write about this and show not only German guilt but German suffering and how ordinary people get caught in totalitarian regimes.  So I began to tell my grandfather’s story and it became interwoven with my own.

Finalist Non Fiction New Millennium Writings 2016

  My story "Ambushed by the Past" is a non fiction finalist in the 2016 competition of New Millennium Writings

Editor's choice and review Notre Dame Review Spring 2013


Gabrielle Robinson,The Reluctant Nazi: Searching for my Grandfather. The History Press, 2012.

NDR published a chapter from this fascinatingand moving memoir. Doing somefamily research, Robinson discovers

that her beloved grandfather wasa member of the Nazi Party. “As Iworked my way through the diaries,

an abbreviation kept appearing moreand more frequently. They were twoletters: ‘Pg.’ From dim memories

I recalled that this may, no, mustmean ‘Parteigenossen,’ ‘Party Members.’ Surely not my grandfather?

I had not known this. It had neverbeen mentioned in my family.” Robinson’s account of the war years, and

the horrors of living in bombed-outruins immediately after, are riveting.

She sets herself a difficult task, morally, ethically, and aesthetically. Herbook adds to our slowly accumu-

lating knowledge of what the warlooked like from “the other side,”and takes its place beside books

like W.G. Sebald’s On the NaturalHistory of Destruction and AntonyBeevor’s The Fall of Berlin 1945.

My grandfather’s diary Berlin 1945

Berlin, April 26, 1945: Towards evening the sky is a ghastly sea of smoke. I creep out at 10 o’clock under whistling grenades and bombs, a wilderness of fire and dust, behind it, although already high in the sky, the blood red moon.

Digging into family history

Long after World War II, I made two discoveries that changed everything for me. The first brought the war back into my world in terrifying detail; the second opened the floodgates to a torrent of questions about my grandfather, the Nazi era, and my involvement in German guilt.

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