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The Story of a German Family

By Wibke Bruhns

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Translated by Shaun Whiteside

Bond Street, 361 pages, $35

Wibke Bruhns's very personal account of her family's fate across two centuries of turbulent German history has been a huge success in her homeland. Published there in hardcover in 2004, it is presently in its eighth paperback printing. Lavished with praise for its heartrending honesty and literary power, it has also been criticized for exploiting rather than enlightening the past.

The author is a public personality well known to most Germans. Born in 1938, she became in 1971 the first female television news anchor in Germany. Subsequently she worked as a print correspondent in Israel and Washington before returning to television.

It was in 1979, while on a visit home from assignment in the Middle East, that she chanced upon a film documentary about the 1944 July plot against Hitler. To her amazement, there on the screen was her father, Hans Georg Klamroth, emaciated, hollow-eyed, attired in a baggy suit, on trial for treason in the People's Court of the notorious Nazi hangman Roland Freisler. Her father had then been executed, brutally and slowly, in Berlin's Plötzensee prison.

Since HG, as she calls him in her book, was a military man serving during the war first in Denmark, then on the Eastern Front, and finally in counterintelligence in Berlin, she had hardly ever seen him, even in her early years. After his death, he was enveloped in a carapace of reverence. No one in the family of five children spoke about him, least of all his wife.

In Germany as a whole, the July plotters represented the only moral succour Germans could draw from their recent past. After that chance sighting of her father in grainy footage, Wibke Bruhns, the investigative journalist, felt compelled to go in search. What she found in the astoundingly rich family archive of diaries, letters, pictures and other memorabilia was for her more disturbing than heartening. Instead of the heroism and moral rectitude associated hitherto with her father, she discovered that this family rooted in Halberstadt in the Harz region, involved since 1790 in the agricultural-supply business, represented many of the stereotypical attributes assigned to the German bourgeoisie: intense industry, meticulous method, arrogant nationalism and zealous militarism.

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The upshot was that Hitler and his movement, while vilified in the family as a manifestation of the mob before 1933, came to be celebrated and promoted once in power. Her father, veteran of the Great War, merchant and municipal councillor, enlisted in the SS within months of Hitler's accession to office; her mother joined the local leadership of the National Socialist Women's League. Nazi songs and slogans resounded in the grand Klamroth villa, built in 1911 for Wibke's grandfather by Hermann Muthesius, one of the most distinguished architects of the day.

Wibke Bruhns finds all of this excruciating. Everywhere, she finds seeds of later iniquity. It was her grandfather who developed a passion for genealogical research; the family archive was largely his doing. Her response: "I find it hard to see this dotty research as entirely innocent," and she draws a straight line to the family's Aryan pronouncements about itself after 1933. Aside from private protest by her mother about the bestiality of Kristallnacht, she finds no other overt expressions of sympathy for the plight of the Jews. Rather than applauding her mother, the daughter is upset by the inaction.

Alas, in this account and its accompanying judgments, one is reminded of the tunnel vision of an earlier Anglo-American historiography that saw the roots of Nazism in Luther, Hegel, Nietzsche and even Arminius, who defeated the mighty Roman army in the Teutoburg Forest. Yet, even if one is prepared to view Nazism as more than a dire response to the deepest and darkest crisis a modern society has ever faced - a calamitous lost war and back-to-back economic disasters of nightmarish proportions - why should these discoveries about her family be so surprising for Bruhns?

She is, after all, a veteran of her own lesser wars, especially those of the 1960s, when she espoused, as she admits, an innocent Marxism. In that tumultuous decade and its aftermath, under a mix of idealism and hardnosed "extraparliamentary opposition," a whole German generation repudiated the values of its elders because they were so badly compromised. Youth despised its progenitors for their silence after 1945 and, according to a famous catchphrase, their "inability to mourn." Did Bruhns later really expect that her parents had been so terribly different? "The effect of the yapping gnome [Hitler]is a mystery to me," she says at one point. With that admission of incomprehension, how can she then pretend to judge her parents and their contemporaries? She seems more interested in testing her forebears by her own standards than in understanding their anxieties and motivations.

What adds to her pain immeasurably is the discovery that her parents' marriage had been less than happy. Her father had been an incorrigible philanderer, bedding even the young Danish au pairs who worked in his home. Moreover, not only was he unrepentant, he had left, in his diary and correspondence, plenty of boastful evidence of his conquests, as if he, like Don Giovanni, wanted his prowess to become legendary. Wibke's mother was hardly a saint, but the prodigious profligacy of her husband was in the end unbearable.

This then is the context of the wrenching dénouement. For 1944 and the July plot, the evidence, perhaps appropriately, dries up. HG is arrested, tried and executed. He was at best on the edge of the conspiracy. What had he really done, what did he know and, above all, what had he felt in his last days and hours?

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In a profoundly moving conclusion, Wibke Bruhns wants so desperately to be there at the end with her most human father, to hug and console. "I have learned from you," she writes at the end of her anguished paean of love, "what I must guard against. That's what a father is there for, isn't it? I thank you."

Modris Eksteins teaches history at the University of Toronto. His reflections on history and memory were published as Walking Since Daybreak.

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