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Portrait of an Ordinary Nazi


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The American Interest

Daniel Lee’s new book about his surprise discovery of an SS officer’s hidden files gives us a rare look into the lives of the countless bureaucratic enablers who kept the Nazi machine running.

Malcolm Forbes

“History is not another name for the past,” wrote the historian A.J.P. Taylor. “It is the name for stories about the past.” To tell new stories about the past, historians have to actively seek them out, whether by exploring uncharted territory or traversing old ground through a different approach. On rare occasions they don’t need to go looking at all: The stories come to them, out of the blue, and in the form of a golden opportunity.

One such opportunity fell into the lap of British historian Daniel Lee. In 2011, within weeks of completing a PhD on the experiences of Jews in Vichy France, Lee swapped Oxford for Florence to begin a year of postdoctoral research. Shortly after arriving, he organized a dinner party for friends and colleagues. One of his guests introduced Lee to a young Dutch woman called Veronika who was keen to meet and pick the brains of a Second World War scholar. “I would appreciate your advice on something that has just happened to my mother,” Veronika told him.

Lee was used to people digging up, dusting down, and trying out on him hoary old war tales involving an aged relative. This story, however, turned out to be different. Veronika’s mother Jana had recently taken an armchair to be re-upholstered in Amsterdam. When she returned to pick it up, the chair restorer made it abundantly clear to her that he did not do work for Nazis or their families. To her amazement, he then handed her a pile of Swastika-covered papers he had discovered sewn inside the cushion. The man assumed Jana was the daughter of one Robert Griesinger, whose name appeared on each document. In actual fact Jana was Czech and had bought the armchair in a cheap furniture store in 1968 when she was a student in Prague. In the early 1980s she and her young family secured permission to leave Communist Czechoslovakia and settle in the Netherlands. Unable to part with a cherished memento from her student days, she brought the chair with her—containing, unbeknownst to her, Griesinger’s cache of official papers.

A week later, Lee was trawling through them. The first item was dated from 1933, the beginning of Hitler’s misrule, the last from its end in 1945. The documents were evidently important to Griesinger, for they consisted of wartime passports, certificates of war bonds, uncashed stocks and share receipts in cable companies, plus a certificate showing he passed the second stage of exams for the civil service in 1933, two years after completing his PhD in law. Lee established the bare-bones facts: Dr. Robert Arnold Griesinger was a lawyer; he was born in Stuttgart in 1906; he was sent to Nazi-occupied Prague to work as a senior civil servant in 1943.


This important book shows us how Griesinger and tens of thousands of other seemingly insignificant administrators wielded more than enough power to shape lives and destroy them. As Lee rightly claims, “The famous fanatics and murderers could not have existed without the countless enablers who kept the government running, filed the paperwork, and lived side-by-side with potential victims of the regime in whom they instilled fear and the threat of violence.” Griesinger embodied Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” He did as he was told and thought little of the consequences. After the war he fell into obscurity, remaining “a nameless and faceless bureaucrat.” Thanks to this skillful salvage operation, we can now see him for who he really was.


The S.S. Officer's Armchair: Uncovering the Hidden Life of a Nazip

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Who Would Be a Nazi? – Historian Explores What Drove One Seemingly Ordinary German Into the SS

Daniel Lee

16 June, 2020


By 1933, more than 40,000 Germans were members of the SS, the Nazi Party’s official security agency. Some enlistees to the elite organization, while animated by the same sorts of racial hatreds that drew so many to the swastika, joined the SS as ‘part-timers’ largely to advance their career prospects in the Third Reich. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)

PORTRAYALS IN popular culture of the infamous Schutzstaffel or SS generally paint a picture of sadistic and fanatical psychopaths who were ideologically committed to Nazism and obsessed with cruelty and violence. Consider Standartenführer Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds), Untersturmführer Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List) or even Sturmbannführer Max Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde in The Night Porter). Most popular histories of the SS have done little to alter this picture.

While such depictions are certainly supported by mountains of historical evidence, how much do we actually know about the rank-and-file individuals who made up the SS? Despite the enduring cinematic and literary interest in the Third Reich, most of us today can only name a handful of Nazis, and those are almost always high-ranking officials who formed part of Hitler’s inner circle.

While historians have studied in some depth the men at the top of the SS, such as those with the Reich Security Main Office and the Race and Settlement Main Office, we still know far too little about how low-level members navigated their day-to-day lives. No book has ever been written by a historian on a low-ranking, regular SS officer who was not a direct killer; such Nazis have seemingly vanished from the historical record.



Robert Griesinger, pictured here in a Wehrmacht uniform, volunteered for the SS prior to the Second World War. (Image source: Daniel Lee)


Charting the life of one low-ranking member exposes the SS as a highly complicated organism of the Nazi state, which cannot be reduced simply to a homogenous group. Returning texture and agency to one such perpetrator affords Griesinger the opportunity to stand in for the thousands of anonymous ordinary Nazis whose widespread culpability wreaked havoc on so many lives and whose biographies have, until now, never seen the light of day. Griesinger’s story offers a chilling reminder of how ordinary people, not monsters, made the Nazi regime and its heinous crimes. He, and countless others like him, effortlessly switched from warm, kind and gentle husbands, fathers and co-workers to accomplices of a ruthlessly murderous and cold-blooded regime. The ambition, drive and antisemitism of the SS made up only a single strand of Griesinger’s life. As I show in my book, his service at the Stuttgart Gestapo in the 1930s, his proximity to the murder of Jews and Communists in Ukraine in summer 1941 by members of his Wehrmacht unit and, later, his drafting of forced labour in Nazi-Occupied Prague, rendered him an active participant in Nazi terror.

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