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30/3/2019 Opinion | I Loved My Grandmother. But She Was a Nazi.

- The New York Times


I Loved My Grandmother. But

She Was a Nazi.
By Jessica Shattuck

March 24, 2017

My grandparents were Nazis. It took me until recently to be able to say —

or write — this. I used to think of and refer to them as “ordinary Germans,”
as if that was a distinct and morally neutral category. But like many
“ordinary Germans,” they were members of the Nazi Party — they joined in

My grandmother, who lived to be almost 100, was not, as I knew her,

xenophobic or anti‑Semitic; she did not seem temperamentally suited to
hate. Understanding why and how this woman I knew and loved was swept
up in a movement that became synonymous with evil has been, for me, a
lifelong question.

She and my grandfather grew up in a working‑class suburb of industrial

Dortmund, where unemployment was rife; it had been occupied by the
French after World War I. They joined the Nazi Party to be youth leaders in
an agricultural education program called the Landjahr, or “year on the
land,” in which teenagers got agricultural training. My grandmother always
maintained that she had joined the Nazis as an “idealist” drawn to the
vision of rebuilding Germany, returning to a simpler time and, perversely,
promoting equality.

In the Landjahr, sons and daughters of factory workers would live and work
side by side with sons and daughters of aristocrats and wealthy
industrialists. She liked the idea of returning to “traditional” German life, 1/4
30/3/2019 Opinion | I Loved My Grandmother. But She Was a Nazi. - The New York Times

away from the confusing push and pull of a global economy. Through
research, I understand the Landjahr program was part of Hitler’s larger
“Blut und Boden” (“blood and soil”) vision of making Germany a racially
pure, agrarian society. The “racially pure” part was not something my
grandmother ever mentioned.

“We didn’t know” was a kind of mantra for her on the long walks we took
when I visited her at the farm she lived on, not far from where she grew up.
“But didn’t you hear what Hitler was saying?” I would ask, grappling with
the moral paradox of a loving grandmother who had been a Nazi.

My grandmother would shrug and answer something like, “He said a lot of
things — I didn’t listen to all of them.” Didn’t she see Jews being rounded up
and taken away, or at a minimum, harassed by the police? No, she
maintained, not in the countryside where she lived. And anyway, she was
focused on her own problems, on making ends meet and, once the war
began, protecting her children.

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This insistence on her own ignorance was an excuse, and I didn’t and still
don’t accept it. It is impossible that she wouldn’t have known of Hitler’s
virulent anti‑Semitism and the Nazis’ objective of ousting Jews, whom
Hitler had falsely (but successfully) linked to a Bolshevik terrorist threat.
But did she follow what she knew of Hitler’s plan to its horrific,
unimaginable end? In the late 1930s there was talk of sending Jews to
Madagascar and to “settlements” in the east. But even if she believed this,
why wasn’t she appalled at the injustice? At the dangerous stripping of

In German there are two words for knowing: “wissen,” which is associated
with wisdom and learning, and “kennen,” which is like being acquainted. 2/4
30/3/2019 Opinion | I Loved My Grandmother. But She Was a Nazi. - The New York Times

Acquaintance is, by definition, a surface understanding, susceptible to

manipulation. When you are “acquainted with” something it’s much easier
to see only part of the whole. Especially if the other half of what you hear
and see is appealing. Hitler brought back jobs and opportunity, restored
national pride and told seductive, simplifying lies; in the beginning, my
grandmother, like many Germans, believed, for instance, that Germany’s
war against Poland was begun in self‑defense. (In 1939, Nazi operatives
donned Polish Army uniforms and staged a takeover of a German radio
station at Gleiwitz that Hitler then held up as an act of provocation by the

“But what did you think when you started hearing the rumors about
concentration camps?” I would press her. “Didn’t you ever listen to the
foreign news reports?”

“Allied propaganda” was my grandmother’s answer. That’s what Hitler said

it was. And she, like many Germans, trusted him. Her trust, apparently,
relieved her of the need to understand.

How do I square the loving grandmother I knew until her death, in 2011,
with this person? I have often worried that my attempt to understand the
choices she made — and didn’t make — might be confused with an attempt
to justify or forgive. But for me it is the only way I know to confront the past
and take responsibility.

My grandmother heard what she wanted from a leader who promised

simple answers to complicated questions. She chose not to hear and see the
monstrous sum those answers added up to. And she lived the rest of her life
with the knowledge of her indefensible complicity.

But in her willingness to talk about a subject few members of her

generation would, she taught me the vital importance of knowing better.

Correction: March 31, 2017 3/4
30/3/2019 Opinion | I Loved My Grandmother. But She Was a Nazi. - The New York Times

An Op‑Ed essay on Saturday about a writer’s Nazi grandmother inaccurately

described an aspect of life in Nazi Germany. Nazi Party membership was
voluntary; it was not mandatory except for certain civil servants.

Jessica Shattuck is the author of the novels “The Hazards of Good Breeding” and the forthcoming
“The Women in the Castle.”

A version of this article appears in print on March 25, 2017, on Page A21 of the New York edition with the
headline: My Grandmother Was a Nazi