Finding out grandfather was an SS officer

Mon Jul 18, 2011 3:37pm EDT
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By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Martin Davidson's German grandfather was a loud, gregarious and difficult man who exuded a coarse, but infectious, bonhomie. He also carried a sense of secret intrigue and forbidden knowledge that he appeared to enjoy.

It wasn't until after his death, though, that the UK-born Davidson finally learned the reason. His grandfather, the retired dentist, had also been an officer in the SS, the dreaded paramilitary unit that, under Heinrich Himmler, was responsible for numerous war crimes.

Armed with that knowledge, and his mother's assurance that her father, Bruno Langbehn, had nothing to do with the camps, Davidson -- by then a historian and documentary maker -- began a search for the man's hidden past, haunted by questions of how a blood relative could have been so seduced by Nazi ideology.

"The more I thought of him, the more I had a picture in my mind that he had been allowed to live for many, many years after the war with a kind of aura of unaccountability," Davidson said in a recent telephone interview.

"It was as if he'd thought he'd gotten away with it."

Davidson's quest, chronicled in "The Perfect Nazi, Uncovering My Grandfather's Secret Past," showed him how Bruno grew obsessed with the Nazi Party as a young man in economically struggling post-World War One Germany.

Joining as early as 1926, when still a teen-ager, Bruno tied his fortunes to the group more tightly with each step up through the hierarchy, drawn partly by the heady sense that he was "in the driving seat of history."

There was also, Davidson said, an almost surprisingly ordinary feeling that his grandfather had used the Nazis like any other major organization, the way an ambitious executive might view his company -- as a way to get ahead.   Continued...