When I first embarked on my quest to unravel the enigma of how Hitler became Hitler, I desperately tried to find one particular missing piece of that puzzle. The missing piece I wanted to find was that of Hitler’s commanding officer in World War I, who had been Jewish. I knew that the man, Hugo Gutmann, had immigrated to America and metamorphosed into Henry G. Grant. Yet all my detective work remained futile until the day of a chance encounter in a museum in Berlin between a friend of mine and the great-nephew of Gutmann, who was eager to find out more about the relationship between his great-uncle and the Nazi dictator.
Soon thereafter I was sitting in the living room of Gutmann’s wonderful daughter-in-law in Chicago. Over bagels, sweets and much laughter, she shared with me the story of her family and gave me access to all the papers she had just found amongst the belongings of her recently deceased husband. The story that emerged from those documents will form the backbone of a fictionalized TV adaption of my first book on Hitler. It is the story of a Jew who had perfectly normal interactions with Hitler during World War One, but who, under dramatic circumstances and aided by some of Hitler’s wartime peers, had to flee the country, and whose son returned to Germany with U.S. forces in 1945 to defeat his father’s former soldier.
To my great surprise it was not just Hugo Gutmann’s family who invited me into their home. Descendants of perpetrators and victims alike have opened their doors to me in researching both my books on Hitler. I started to ask myself why even families of perpetrators where so open to me. My research assistant finally asked them. Their response was simply to say that we had asked and that they got the sense that we wanted to understand them, not judge them. Yet I soon realized that another reason was crucial.
We are amidst the passing of the generation who experienced World War II, the Holocaust and the Third Reich as adults. That generation – irrespective of whether people were perpetrators or victims – in many cases found it extremely difficult and painful to speak to their families about the darkest chapters of their lives. For the same reason, they often held onto documentation from that part of their lives but felt unable to share it with their families, let alone researchers or journalists.
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With their passing, their…