Wibke Bruhns finally gets close to her father who was hanged for his part in the plot to assassinate Hitler. A posthumous meeting. Ori Golan
Wibke Bruhns counts in zillions. There were zillions of German widows after the war, zillions of stories, zillions of versions and zillions of letters. And recounting her father’s story, it seems she is zillions of light years removed from it.
I meet her on a beautiful, pellucid autumnal day in the lobby of the hotel where she is staying for the Sydney Writers’ Festival, overlooking the city’s famous harbour bridge. An elegant, poised woman with a firm handshake and a direct, confident smile. You would never guess, not in a zillion years, that she is 70.
There is something very jovial about her. When she discovers my Israeli origin, she immediately sets to tell me of the first sentence she learnt while on ulpan in Israel: Ani noladeti al oniya ba derech l’mitzrayim," she laughs heartily.
Bruhns is a high profile journalist in her native Germany – the first woman to read the news on German national television – and knows the tricks of the trade. It is riveting to watch her talk as she becomes animated. Her finger wags, her facial features change and in her impeccable English, with only a whiff of German accent, she churns out hyperboles and anecdotes at an unstoppable pace.
She is in Sydney to promote her book "My Father’s Country" which pieces the story of the father she never knew, Major Hans Georg Klamroth, referred to as HG, who was implicated in the plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944.
In the course of our interview she doles out epithets and compliments lavishly, for emphasis and effect. "He’s an idiot," she says dismissively of Philiipp von Voeselager, the last surviving conspirator of the July 20 plot, who died this month. "Listening to him, you’d think he did it all on his own, that he carried it out single-handedly."
The July 20 plot – code named Operation Walcküre – was a last ditch attempt to overthrow Hitler as the war was drawing to its disastrous conclusion. A briefcase bomb was placed under his desk during a meeting in his secret headquarters. The bomb detonated and four people were killed, but Hitler escaped the attack unharmed. An estimated 5000 people were rounded up following the failed assassination attempt; 200 were sentenced to death. Hitler decreed that they were not to be given ‘the honest bullet’. HG was hanged on a meat hook with a piano wire.
Bruhns was six when this happened. She has no recollections of him and, like so many Germans, lived in the shadow of the war with no father at home. Her mother seldom spoke of him; she only knew that he was killed in the war. That, she says, was household knowledge. All the rest remained unspoken.
In 1979 Bruhns was in Israel, preparing to open the Jerusalem bureau for Stern magazine, when her daughters’ nanny rang to tell her that German television was screening a documentary on the July 20 plot. Bruhns asked her to record it on video. "When I returned to home I found a video cassette on the television. I slotted it in, sat on the couch and watched. Then I saw him: my father, standing in front of the People’s Court. I saw for the first time footage of these trials. It hit me that I knew nothing about him - this man who was my father. I wanted to find out more, to get to know him, but was just about to move to Israel. So the project had to be postponed."
Later, another, deeper explanation is offered for this delay of 28 years. Bruhns could not bring herself to read her mother’s diary while she was still alive. "I could not dig into my mother’s papers while she was alive; it was indecent."
Still, she laid the foundation for what would later become a mammoth project: reconstructing her father’s life. She began by collecting written material from her family. And there was plenty. Two truckloads.
"You have to understand that I come from a bourgeois Prussian family," she explains. Pedantry was key. "Everything was recorded meticulously: each birth, each celebration, each party. Expenses were noted, as were the number and names of guests. People kept a diary, and then there was the mandatory Sontags Brief: every Sunday the family would sit down to write letters to relatives." As for the personal interviews she conducted, Brhuns doesn’t lend them much weight. "The people were already old, and old people make up their own stories. They compensate their experiences where there are gaps."
HG worked for military intelligence, safeguarding Hitler’s secret V2 project – the construction of high-explosive missiles– in Nordhausen, a concentration camp in central Germany. It was the most brutal of the camps in Germany; conditions there were shocking by any standard. When the Americans liberated Nordhausen, they found 34,500 prisoners. Only a handful of them were alive; most were corpses in various stages of decay.
As for his role in the plot to kill Hitler, HG’s part remains unclear. "He knew lots of people who were involved but he himself did not take an active role," says Bruhns. One thing is clear: on the 15th of August, 1944, the People’s Court convicted HG of high treason and sentenced him to death. Eleven days later he was executed.
What, I ask her, changed her father from a staunch Nazi and loyal party member, to plot against its chief ideologue and leader? Is it possible that he could see where the war was heading and wanted to be on the winning side?
"I don’t know what my father’s motivation was. I certainly don’t think it was because he wanted to be on the winning side. I believe it was only when he saw the atrocities committed in Stalingrad or when he visited Nordhausen, that he changed his mind."
But this was 1944, Auschwitz had been functioning as an extermination camp for two years. Is it possible, I ask her, that her father did not know what was happening there before 1944?
"Certainly. Certainly!" she insists. "I do believe something I didn’t before: most people in Germany did not know anything about the Polish extermination camps. What they would have seen was the forced labour camps. My mother first learnt about them after the war. They knew the Jews were obliged to wear the yellow star, but they had no idea what was going on in Auschwitz. You had 80 million Germans; do you think they sat together in the evening to talk about what was happening? No. They were busy surviving."
Is it truly possible? I wonder. My mind races to Victor Klemperer, a German Jew in Dresden who avoided deportation, and in 1942, kept a detailed diary of the atrocities unfolding around him. In his notes he mentions the death camps at Auschwitz. Following the publication of Klemperer’s diary, German literary critic, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, announced on national television that no one could ever again claim they did not know: if Klemperer, in his isolation, knew, most Germans must have known, too.
Our eyes lock. Finally she retorts. "How many Israelis are really interested in what’s going on in the West Bank? Would the average Israeli know what atrocities are committed in the West Bank?" The question hangs in the air. It is, clearly, rhetorical.
I ask her whether Israeli policies can ever be justifiably compared to those carried out by the Nazis against Jews. "No!" she thunders back resolutely. "No," again, and the index finger stabs the coffee table. "No way. I am a Zionist. Let me tell you, I was stationed in Israel in 1982, when the massacre in the camps of Sabra and Shatila happened [in Lebanon]. I got a phone call from a graphic designer in Germany. He said: ‘I just want to warn you, something awful is happening. We have a double page photo of bulldozers carrying the bodies of the victims of the massacre alongside a double page of Auschwitz corpses being carried by bulldozers. I called the editor and said ‘if you do that, I am going to leave the paper and make it known why. So they did not run it with the Auschwitz photo."
In writing My Father’s Country, Bruhns tries to understand her father. To do so she goes back another generation. It is there, in the East German town of Halberstadt, that her father’s life, and destiny, is molded.
HG hails from a prosperous family owning several businesses and living in opulence. "Decent family, decent firm, decent friends", as one journal entry sums it. They live in a huge house with lawns and a goldfish pond. A typical upper class Prussian family home: orderly, patriotic and steeped in tradition. Already aged three, HG is manic for order. Every morning he checks the calendars because ‘he can’t bear it if the calendar is a day behind’.
In 1917, aged 17, HG enlists into the German army. Like so many Germans, HG feels the terrible humiliation of Germany’s surrender at Versailles in 1918. He writes: "All the pride, all the honour, all joy in life and work is irrevocably lost for our generation. […] The happy pride that comes from being a German is lost forever." He returns to civilian life, becomes a partner in the family business, and marries Else, a pretty woman of Danish ancestry and good stock. Like so many Germans, he experiences the horrors of inflation, the years of murder and the breakdown of all norms. Like zillions of others, his faith in parliamentary democracy is crashed. He is now ready for the next chapter of that terrible chronicle which will leave Europe in ruins and ultimately lead him to the gallows.
Bruhns’ book was a runaway success in Germany, not just because of her celebrity status, she points out, but because of the novel way in which history is revisited: through the individual. "I do believe that readers like the personal subject and not just the dry facts."
The weakness of this book is that Bruhns uses a limited number of sources to deduce what was going on in HG’s mind. It is replete with conjectures, assumptions and speculations. Where there are gaps in the story, she fills them in herself. ‘Presumably’, ‘must have’ and ‘in all likelihood’ are bandied about freely.
But this doesn’t actually detract from the book because, Bruhns doesn’t so much want to recount the history of the July 20 plot – it is well documented and, incidentally, is also the basis for an upcoming film, Valkyrie, starring Tom Cruise – but, rather, searches for a dialogue with her father. She frequently interjects the narrative with personal thoughts and direct questions. When HG joins the SS, she asks: "Didn't he know he was joining a gang of murderers?" She berates him for the suffering he caused her mother through his infidelities. At the end of the book, she talks to him directly. "I would have liked to laugh with you, HG, to enjoy your wit and your warmth that enchanted everyone. I would have loved the chance to love you."
This is no ordinary family biography, because these were no ordinary times. If she met him now, what would she make of him? "I think I would like him," she smiles. "We would have a great time!"
In her parting words to her father, she writes: "you have paid the blood toll so that I don’t have to." There is something eerily religious in this. Is she lifting the cross that so many Germans carry? "No. I carry a historical burden. There is a moral imperative to act differently. It is part of my heritage. You’re born with it and you schlep it around. What counts is what you draw from it."
I cannot help but wonder what choices she would have made had she been born into that era. I decide not to ask. That, I leave to conjecture. To a great extent, Wibke Bruhns is enjoying what former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl once termed "the blessing of a late birth". I would call it ‘the benefit of the doubt.’