Genealogy is fun, but it has never been an entirely innocent pastime. The establishment (or fabrication) of pedigrees has been essential to the policing of social and racial hierarchies. The Nazis, however, made it a murderous obsession. A banal family record could be a license for advancement or a death warrant. According to the historian Eric Ehrenreich, “It is probably not an overstatement to say that by 1945, aside from the very old and the very young, virtually every Reich citizen, or would-be citizen, had made an ancestral proof at one time or another.” During their twelve years in power the Nazis promulgated about two thousand statutes, ordinances, and decrees defining legal rights through family history.
Proving one’s status as a pure-blooded Aryan unlocked access to membership in the Nazi Party, to the military and state apparatus, to a university education. Party leaders and their spouses had to show their freedom from the stigma of “racially alien” heredity back through all direct ancestors who had been alive on January 1, 1800. Conversely, of course, to have the taint of Jewish blood was to be fair game for annihilation. The Reich Office for Kinship Research dealt not just with the exploration of the familial past but with the possibility of having a future. It defined its dual mission as “the establishment of the racial inventory of the German Volk” and “the extermination of alien blood and its influence, and the keeping of it away in the future.”
“Kinship research” is now, in the United States and elsewhere, both a popular hobby and a literary genre. From websites like Ancestry.com and DNA analytic services like 23andMe to scores of memoirs in which the author seeks to unravel some mystery of a previous generation, it pervades contemporary American culture. Even in these incomparably more benign forms, it retains the core idea that one is, in some crucial sense, defined by one’s ancestry. It asks, as in the title of the NBC genealogy series, Who Do You Think You Are? and answers, implicitly, that you are what is in your blood. Perhaps this is an inevitable effect of the power of biology in the cultural imagination: it was Charles Darwin himself who told us that “the natural system is genealogical in its arrangement, like a pedigree.”
As the sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel has put it, “Rather than simply passively documenting who our ancestors were, [genealogies] are the narratives we construct to actually make them our ancestors.” When the ancestors are Nazis, and their descendants are Americans, there is a peculiar irony in this process. The Nazis themselves denied their victims this very choice: Jews could not make or remake their own ancestry. Their bloodline contained a final and implacable fate. Looking back, however, American writers can pick a Nazi as the most significant of their ancestors, according him precisely the imaginative power he denied to others. In Nazi ideology, descent was destiny—inescapable, unmerciful, and total. In the ancestor-making of twenty-first-century narratives, descent is exploratory, a matter of choice. In this respect, the enterprise is innately unjust. It rescues from the void figures whose only claim on public memory is that they were minor participants in an attempt to erase from memory millions of other people.
Is this injustice justifiable? The task of the writer is to make it so. The risk inherent in humanizing figures who were directly or indirectly implicated in crimes against humanity has to be balanced by some larger sense of purpose, some necessary illumination of the relationships between private and public memory. In Fatherland, the New Yorker writer Burkhard Bilger describes his task as “part storytelling and part safecracking.” To make the storytelling valid, something of value has to be found inside the safe. Both Bilger and the writer and editor Linda Kinstler, in Come to This Court and Cry, manage, in their different ways, to extract from their family histories reflections on the recent past that have moral weight in the present. Both grapple with the difficult question of whether it is possible to make peace with the past not by forgetting it but by remembering it personally—as, indeed, something that lives in one’s blood.
Bilger and Kinstler are Americans connected to Europe’s terrible twentieth century by their fascist grandfathers. Bilger grew up in Oklahoma, the son of German parents who had immigrated to the US in 1962. His mother’s father, Karl Gönner, was, from 1940 until 1944, the school headmaster and, from March 1942, Nazi Party chief of the occupied village of Bartenheim, in Alsace, a region of France long claimed by Germany. Kinstler’s parents emigrated from what was then Soviet Latvia in 1988. Her grandfather Boris Karlovics Kinstler had a much more lurid career. He was a member of the Arājs Kommando, a corps of Latvian volunteers under Nazi control who massacred much of the country’s Jewish population, mostly in the Riga ghetto and in nearby forests, where around 25,000 people were executed by firing squads over the course of a few weeks in late 1941.
Both grandfathers were educated men. Gönner was a graduate of a teacher training college near Karlsruhe, Germany. Kinstler’s induction into far-right politics came through the ultranationalist Lettonia student brotherhood at the University of Latvia, in which he met Viktors Arājs, soon to become the most enthusiastically murderous of Germany’s local collaborators. Gönner, though briefly imprisoned in France as a war criminal, survived long enough for Bilger to be able to remember him: “Tall and gaunt, with a shock of peppery blond hair, he had a glass eye that would swivel unnervingly out of line as he spoke.” Boris Kinstler, on the other hand, died, perhaps by suicide, in 1949, a long time before his granddaughter’s birth. These differences give the books contrasting textures, Bilger’s being much more personal in tone, Kinstler’s more explicitly concerned with how the Holocaust is remembered and forgotten in Latvia today.
At the core of Bilger’s quest is a strange encounter in the spring of 1983. His parents were driving across northern France on their way to visit relatives in Germany when his mother suddenly saw, “like a jump cut in an old film,” a road sign for Bartenheim, the village where her father had been the Nazi Ortsgruppenleiter, or local party boss. She asked her husband to turn off toward the village and, while he stayed in the car, she walked around the schoolhouse she had last seen as a child, forty years before, the place where Gönner had worked conscientiously to turn his French-speaking Alsatian pupils into good Germans. Across the courtyard she spotted an old man. She asked him if he remembered her father. “Well, of course!” he replied. “I saved his life, didn’t I?”
This is the mystery that Bilger has to penetrate. The old man, Georges Tschill, was one of the local inhabitants whose land had been brutally occupied by the Nazis. Why would he have saved the life of Gönner, one of the occupiers? Tschill told Bilger’s mother that when Bartenheim was liberated in November 1944, her father was among the Nazis rounded up and tied to a tree to await execution. But Tschill, who was the leader of the local Resistance, insisted that he be spared. The moment is a knot of complication that Bilger seeks to untie.
It is all the more complex because, although he was not executed that day, Gönner was charged with war crimes and specifically with having indirectly caused the murder a month earlier of a local farmer, Georges Baumann, who was beaten to death by the German military police. Why would Tschill have spoken up for such a man? And why, when Gönner was tried, did many of the villagers write letters to the court testifying to his benign rule? As the local priest put it, Gönner “had a good heart and was always ready to do good for the population.” He had prevented deportations, secured the release of prisoners, and attained benefits even for known anti-Nazis. In all, seventeen villagers testified on his behalf. He was exonerated and freed in 1947. He ended up as a headmaster back in Germany and was elected to the city council in Weil as a member of the Social Democrats.
And yet, there is no reason to believe that Gönner was ever anything other than a loyal Nazi. He joined the party in 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power, but already in the fall of 1932 he had declared his “open commitment to National Socialism.” He attended two of the Nuremberg rallies. He signed his official letters “Heil Hitler!” He ran the Hitler Youth in his own village before he was posted to Alsace, where, he wrote, “the lads are introduced to the principles of National Socialism in weekly study sessions.” He swore in one letter to “promote the National Socialist worldview with all my strength.” Although Bilger could not find any antisemitic comments in his grandfather’s letters, he did find a report of a speech he gave in 1940 in which he blamed Germany’s economic crisis after World War I on the machinations of “Jewish-plutocratic high finance.”
This was standard Nazi rhetoric, but it does point to the probable origins of Gönner’s commitment to reactionary politics. Among the most powerful episodes in Bilger’s book is his search through the landscapes and archives of Champagne for traces of his grandfather’s experiences as a German soldier in the Great War in France. Gönner was caught up in the German army’s retreat in late 1918, his battalion “flu-ridden, half starved, cut off from supplies.” He acquired the glass eye that unnerved his grandson decades later because of an injury suffered when he was cradling in his arms a comrade who had become hysterical during an enemy attack. They were hit by an explosion. His friend died instantly. Gönner later recalled how the dead man haunted him: “For a long time after the war, in both my waking life and my dreams, I was homesick for a hole in the ground somewhere in France. Did his soul take me there?” For many young German soldiers, convinced that they had been betrayed and abandoned, a hole in the ground in France was the moral abyss into which they fell after the war.
One of Gönner’s wartime pupils in Alsace, tracked down by Bilger, calls him “a Nazi, but a reasonable one.” This is, obviously, a contradiction in terms—Nazism was the antithesis of reason. And in some respects, Gönner’s personal reasonableness makes him not better but worse. It is clear from Bilger’s reconstruction of his life and personality that he was an equable, thoughtful, learned man who read his Schiller, listened to his Schubert, and treated people with courtesy and even kindness. It is also clear—contrary to the popular image of absolute obedience within the party—that he could in fact exercise a great deal of discretion in carrying out his orders. When a friend and fellow teacher was transferred for alleged disloyalty, Gönner protested to the National Socialist Teachers League that this was a “monstrosity.” How could a man who found a minor injustice against a friend so monstrous not be revolted by the vast crimes in which he was knowingly implicated? Though Bilger does not quite say so, his grandfather emerges as a case study in the capacity for compartmentalization that is arguably more destructive of morality than outright malignity. What lies inside the safe that Bilger cracks open in his eloquent storytelling is the very ordinary evil of carefully circumscribed compassion.
By contrast, Kinstler’s search for her grandfather Boris is something of a dead end. She does not know exactly what he did in the Riga massacres but writes that it is “safer to assume the worst.” The worst began in July 1941 with an armed assault by the Arājs gang (of which Boris was almost certainly a founding member) on the Great Choral Synagogue on Gogol Street, where the group incinerated those gathered inside and shot any who tried to escape the flames. It continued with the herding of about 30,000 Jews into the Riga ghetto and then, in late November and early December, with the killing of most of them in the nearby forests, where they were shot efficiently in groups of ten, poised over the pits into which their bodies fell.
In her superb book, Kinstler contemplates a standard item from a family record: a formal wedding photograph, taken in Riga the following April. In reproduction, it looks like any carefully posed picture of a grand familial occasion, the men in their dark suits and fancy ties, with flowers in their lapels, the women’s shoulders draped in embroidered shawls. Her grandfather stands directly behind the happy couple, his thick hair combed back, his pocket square nicely set. She notes that his distinctive features—a high forehead and a narrow nose and mouth—are imprinted on her own face. She also notes, laconically, that “the murders were still ongoing in nearby streets and forests as my grandfather and his relatives gathered to celebrate the newlyweds.” The most mundane materials of genealogy (her great-grandparents are also in the photo) dissolve into a ghostly terror. They do not reveal but conceal, placing a thin cover of ordinary family life over the vastly darker history that is unfolding in their time and place.
Boris himself disappears into oblivion. He seems to have been, because of his fluency in German, the liaison officer between the Nazis and their Latvian henchmen. KGB records include the testimony of a fellow member of the Arājs Kommando who recalled seeing the massacres in the forests and that “he usually drove Kinslers [sic] there.” By 1942 he had the rank of lieutenant in the Nazi-controlled Latvian Security Police. Immediately after the Soviets reoccupied Latvia, he himself became a KGB agent, possibly being used to identify and help locate his former comrades in the Kommando. In 1949, shortly after he married Kinstler’s grandmother, he left Riga on what he said was a business trip. The last his wife heard of him was an official letter informing her that he had committed suicide in a city in Estonia that was closed to normal travel because it was near uranium mines. He had taken “nearly every photograph of himself, every document of his life, with him when he left.”
Her grandfather, then, remains an impenetrable mystery. Bizarrely, though, he reemerges in a popular thriller that Kinstler picked up in a bookshop in Riga in 2016. It is called You Will Never Kill Him. It is set in 1965. Boris is still alive and active in the KGB. Crucially, he has in fact been in the KGB since 1941, and hence at the time of the Riga massacres he was working for the Soviets. One of his missions was to destroy the good name of a Latvian hero, the famous aviator Herberts Cukurs. As Kinstler summarizes the plot:
Boris had falsified testimonies, embellishing the accounts of Jewish survivors. He had doctored interrogation records of Arājs Kommando members to underscore Cukurs’s cruelty, depicting him as someone who took ruthless pleasure in destroying human lives.
In this fictional resurrection, Kinstler’s grandfather is used to spin a story in which Cukurs is an innocent victim of Soviet black propaganda—and to hint that the Arājs Kommando itself may have been the creation of a Russian-controlled agent provocateur rather than a genuine expression of Latvian fascism.
This startling contemporary repurposing of her grandfather’s hazy career takes Kinstler back to a sensational event in Montevideo, Uruguay, in February 1965: the assassination of Cukurs. The German bureaus of AP and Reuters received telegrams announcing that Cukurs’s body could be found at a specified address in the suburbs and that he had been executed by “Those Who Will Never Forget” for “his personal responsibility in the murder of 30,000 men, women and children.” Cukurs had been targeted by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad in its only known assassination of a former Nazi—a mission headed by the same agent who had orchestrated the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires five years earlier.
Mossad’s singling out of Cukurs for assassination is itself somewhat mysterious. He was no Eichmann. Cukurs was certainly a member of the Arājs Kommando, but accounts of his seniority vary. In postwar court documents he is referred to as Arājs’s adjutant. Arājs himself called him his “weapons officer.” In other accounts, he seems to have been responsible for organizing the gang’s transport, maintaining its vehicles, and shuttling its members from its headquarters to the ghetto and the killing zones. He was undoubtedly a knowing party to the massacres, but it is not at all clear that he participated directly in them, still less that he was their primary instigator. It seems to have been his pre-war fame as “the Latvian Lindbergh,” a celebrity flier who shared Lindbergh’s right-wing politics, that led survivors to remember him as the “Butcher” or “Hangman” of Riga, the embodiment of the Holocaust in the Baltic. That fame and infamy got him killed by Mossad—and the assassination in turn made him famous all over again.
In the revisionism that followed Latvia’s independence in 1991 after the breakup of the Soviet Union, there emerged the notion that if Cukurs, as the best-known Nazi collaborator, could be exonerated, then so, by extension, could Latvia itself. Hence the strange afterlife of Kinstler’s grandfather as the putative villain of the piece, the forger who worked for the KGB to make poor Cukurs look bad. It is a crazy twist of historical memory: the past can be reforged by imagining its real documentary traces as forgeries.
Absurd as this story is, it functioned as part of a right-wing nationalist campaign to rehabilitate Cukurs. In 2005 the prosecutor general in Riga opened a criminal investigation into Cukurs. It culminated in 2016 with an extraordinary finding that “there is no evidence that Mr Cukurs wanted to or did carry out acts that qualify as genocide—that he had taken any actions to destroy, in whole or in part, Jewish civilians.” The ruling effectively dismissed all of the eyewitness testimony that had been gathered by a Soviet-era inquiry and by the Wiesenthal Foundation and relied instead on a document written by Cukurs himself in 1960, in which he insisted that he had not “murdered a single Jew.” While accepting that Cukurs was present during one of the forest massacres and that he drove Arājs to the site, the prosecutor also, amazingly, in Kinstler’s words, “chose to believe that all through the night and into the early hours of the morning he had simply sat safely in his car.”
This verdict is clearly perverse, but the underlying reality is that the closer one gets to such atrocities, the more blurred the detail becomes. The wide shot is starkly distinct, but in extreme close-up everything goes out of focus. The great advantage of revisionist campaigns of exoneration is that proving to a legal standard the direct involvement of a specific individual in a specific murder committed decades before is extremely difficult. Even when Arājs himself was finally arrested and tried in Germany in 1977, he was found guilty of only 13,000 of the 36,000 murders with which he was charged. The court could not definitively determine his personal participation in the Riga ghetto killings or in some of the massacres in the forests—even though he was the undisputed leader of the gang that carried out the slaughter. The essence of Kinstler’s book lies in the gap between the 36,000 and the 13,000: “There is a chasm between these numbers, a great and terrible void.”
Bilger, too, is trying to occupy the void between history and memory. What is so striking, and so worrying, in his search for his grandfather is the sheer fragility and obscurity of even the official records. Bilger is a brilliant and tenacious journalist with a fluent command of German, but his discovery of the archives that allow him to tell his grandfather’s story owes a great deal to luck. Local records were often obliterated by bombing or destroyed by retreating German armies or culled by people seeking to hide their Nazi pasts or seized by the various victorious allies and scattered somewhere between Moscow and Washington. The village of Aulfingen, where Gönner’s career as a Nazi and a schoolteacher unfolded in the pre-war years, had no catalog of its archives from the 1930s, and no one seemed to know or care where they were.
It is almost by accident that Bilger finds, on the second floor of the local Rathaus (town hall), an armoire full of papers “coated in a fine, viscous dust and stacked in rough chronological order”—among them the correspondence of the mayor, the village council, the school board, and the local Nazi leadership in the years of Gönner’s residency. Similar episodes of happenstance—the chance discovery of “brittle, yellowed documents” or of folders misplaced at the bottom of boxes from other periods—shape Bilger’s story. Behind the excitement of discovery, there is that terrible void again: all the records that have vanished or that, even more tantalizingly, are crumbling away in dank basements.
How, in Kinstler’s formulation, is it possible to “turn fragments of evidence into unyielding facts”? It is a question that hangs over both her book and Bilger’s, and indeed over the whole enterprise of exploring history through genealogy. Like old documents, ancestors are filmed with dust and frayed into flimsiness. However skillfully they are characterized, men like Gönner and Kinstler—and a more famous figure like Cukurs—are fragments of a receding past. Even the firsthand accounts gathered from eyewitnesses and survivors are mere splinters from the great wreckage of humanity in the Europe of the 1940s. These microscopic scrutinies of Nazism seem like attempts to reconstruct a monstrous creature from a fossilized foot bone or a huge mosaic of mythic horrors from a few scattered tesserae.
And yet what else is there to do? As the light of memory recedes, we are left with big, complex, sweeping, and scrupulous histories that can create intellectual conviction—and with the human details that alone can move us toward emotional engagement. There is a danger in having the second without the first, but also perhaps in having it the other way around. We are at a point in history where we need a genealogy of fascism itself, one that does feel personal, particular, and urgently relevant to our contemporary polities. Its murderousness still looms there in the family tree of the modern world.