Peter Fritzsche is W.D. and Sara E. Trowbridge Professor of History at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of Life and Death in the Third Reich and many other books. He translated, from German, the Kalshoven family letters that comprise Between Two Homelands and he also wrote the Preface to the book.
Q: How did you come to be associated with Hedda Kalshoven, who assembled her family’s letters for this book?
Peter Fritzsche: I had used the German edition of the letters for my two books on National Socialism, GERMANS INTO NAZIS (1998) and LIFE AND DEATH IN THE THIRD REICH (2008), which Hedda noticed. She then got into email contact with me, told me about the newly discovered diary, and we decided to try and sell the project to American university presses to reach an English-speaking audience. This is probably the most important primary source on the motives and notions of non-Jewish Germans who were sympathetic to the Nazis. It is especially important because of the large cast of characters, the internal tensions, and the long time period of correspondence.
Q: Briefly, who was Irmgard Gebensleben and what prompted her separation from her German relatives?
Fritzsche: Irmgard first went to Holland in 1920 as a teenager enrolled in a program by which impoverished and malnourished German children were taken into Dutch homes for a period over the summer. Irmgard loved the easy-going ways of the family and the children who were just a bit older than her. Irmgard remained in contact and her Dutch “father” helped support her with treats during the German inflation. Trips back and forth by both Irmgard and her Dutch “relatives” fastened the ties and within a decade she was engaged to one of the sons and moved to Holland. I think she loved the freer and more tolerant atmosphere of Holland and of her Dutch family.
Q: How did Irmgard’s move to generate more political commentary than is usual for family letters?
Fritzsche: Most letters assume that a great deal does not need to be said based on personal intimacy and knowledge. But in this case, the divide between Holland and Germany, a divide that was geographical as well as political, generated explanation and commentary. These were also heady times in Germany–politically very volatile. Irmgard’s German relatives wanted to keep her informed about events in Germany and about what they considered to be the national regeneration offered by the resurgent Right. Irmgard’s mother was also very political–so commentary generated itself. Irmgard was not only regarded as out of the loop of German events and thus was someone who needed to be informed but Irmgard was also considered–through her liberal husband–to be politically vulnerable and thus someone who needed to be politically upholstered, so to speak. Irmgard also asked with some astonishment about events in Germany after 1933–the violence, the anti-Semitism, questions which generated direct answers. Personal intimacy thus made it possible for her relatives to speak openly and from the heart, and geographical and political distance between the two families encouraged explanation and commentary.
Q: Give us some examples of how political opinions between Irmgard and her family and friends diverged over the course of the war.
Fritzsche: In Holland, Irmgard was open to new international influences, especially at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, while her mother, Elisabeth, constantly policed the border between things German and non-German, worrying, for example, about the dangerous effects of her son’s travels in France and Italy. While her husband, Irmgard was instinctively more liberal and tolerant and suspicious about the Nazis and their bluster; her mother was a big Nazi supporter and lived and breathed the “civil war” atmosphere of late Weimar. Irmgard was immediately sympathetic to the plight of German Jews and even participated in fund-raising events; her mother felt that a certain price had to be paid for Germany’s awakening and considered Jews different, if not alien. Irmgard stood by her adopted country when it was invaded; her brother, Eberhard, conjured up plans to integrate Holland into the Greater German Reich. In any case, Irmgard soaked up the liberal, anti-military mood of her adopted family in ways that her German relatives never could have done.
Q: In your preface, you mention how these letters indicate “how little people actually see” in regards to war and disaster. How were events such as the Holocaust marginalized in the letters exchanged between the Gebenslebens and the Bresters?
Fritzsche: We know that the Bresters housed a Jewish boy, Eddy, during parts of the German occupation, but Eddy is never mentioned in letters. Therefore, letters are simply not reliable and cannot be reliable about certain hugely important actions. We also don’t learn much about August’s active participation in the German resistance–letters were subject to censorship and therefore too dangerous. However, Eberhard in his postings in the East during the war, mentions unsettling events both vaguely (in Lemberg in 1941) and explicitly (Kiev and the 1941 murder of 30,000 Jews in 1943). He also worries about what the murder of Jews will mean for Germany’s future–so he understands the gravity of events. However, there is not much additional commentary. Why not? Perhaps self-censorship in the face of real if haphazard censorship and perhaps because he did not identify with Jews and as a soldier and an officer in a worsening conflict was absorbed in his own trials and tribulations. The Jewishness of the quarter-Jew he fell in love with, Herta, was never thematized as a way to become more empathetic, although I believe it did have that effect, but was always seen as an annoyance. This is in line with Herta’s own Christianization at the end of the war. Most Germans did not spend a lot of time writing about the Jews, but they certainly knew the outlines of what was happening. By 1943, with German cities being bombed, they also had their own troubles, even if the troubles of others was far worse. Many Germans thought they were victims, of the Allies, of the English, of the bombers, of the Communist threat.
Q: What insight does this collection give historians into how the rise of National Socialism was perceived by ordinary German citizens?
Fritzsche: There are several crucial insights. First, the Gebenslebens were involved in nationalist politics from the early 1920s on; they confirm that the politicization of Germans proceeded a pace long before the Nazis came on the scene. Second, the Gebenslebens did not think of the Nazis as an extreme, last-chance option, but as an authentic movement of German liberation–not from the margins, but from the depths. They also lived out the “civil war” atmosphere of the early 1930s, worrying about Communist influences, the possibly “red” background of maids to be hired, and the weakness of the central government. They deliberated, they chose, they mobilized. They were not passive or somehow whiplashed by economic events. The idea of deliberation is important: the letters reveal certain doubts and justifications, which confirm that the Nazis were the subjects of a great deal of conversation. The letters also show that Nazi loyalists knew about terror but explained it away. They felt part of an immense movement of national renewal–working on the new national body-politic was an integral part of everyday life in post-1933 Germany (as it had been before 1933). The evidence in the letters smudges any preconceived border between fanatical Nazis and passive citizens. I was also surprised not simply about how pro-German the Gebenslebens were during the war but how they perceived Germany to be the victim and on the defensive.