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In the Shadow of the Reich.

In the Shadow of the Reich. Niklas Frank, translated by Arthur S. Wensinger with Carole Clew-Hoey. Knopf, $23. As a teenager in West Germany during the fifties, Niklas Frank was a great hitchhiker. "There really were advantages to growing up in the Federal Republic as the son of a major Nazi war criminal," he writes with blunt irony in this book. "All I had to say after a couple of kilometers was, Do you happen to realize that I am the son of the Minister of the Reich without Portfolio and Governor General of Poland, executed at Nuremberg as a major war criminal?"'

That spiel almost always got him warm sympathy, antisemitic tirades, and a free lunch someplace along the Autobahn. During Frank's years of hitchhiking, just one German driver stopped, opened the passenger door, and silently let him out on the shoulder of the road.

Nevertheless, Niklas was embarrassed of his father, Hans Frank. During the next 40 years, his embarrassment became a burning, obsessive hatred. Searching out minute details of his father's life and death, Niklas made visits to old Nazis, to his family's wartime servants, and even (in Albany, New York) to Father Sixtus O'Connor, the priest who had heard Hans Frank say his last words: "Jesus, have mercy." Still, Niklas wanted to know whether the hangman's rope felt rough through the black cloth hood and exactly what sort of snapping sound his father's neck made as it broke.

The entire book is written as a scathing letter to this dead and omnipresent father, addressed in alternating sarcastic and brutal tones. It is a plea to understand coupled with a hatred that precludes the author's understanding. But not necessarily ours.

Despite Frank's great efforts to portray his father as an unnatural monster, he comes across as merely pompous, plump, cowardly, and mediocre. According to this book he became a war criminal not because he craved killing Jews and Poles but because he wanted a chauffeured car, a fat paycheck, and a long title to precede his bombastic speeches. In years of poring over Hans Frank's diaries, Niklas found only a handful of quotes that were brutal and even fewer that show hatred of Jews. Most of them are long streams of self-important foolishness that could have been written by politicians anywhere-although the German language lends itself easily to convolutions like, Unfortunately, in this most violent struggle in the world's history, something arises every now and again, something that surely cannot be reconciled with the glorious German concept of morals, and may I here articulate just what that something is, speaking with full assurance, in a very clear and forthright way." (When he got around to saying so, Frank was referring to corruption, at which he himself was expert.)

This is what makes In the Shadow of the Reich different from Eichmann in Jerusalem and scores of other books on Nazis. They describe great crimes; this mostly describes foibles. We learn of Hans Frank's childhood sweetheart, his obsession with eggs, his tight-fitting jodhpurs, his enormous bathtub, his excellent Chopin, and his taste for chocolates. Indeed, the only time Hans Frank talked specifically about what was happening to the Jews in his territory, as far as the book recounts, was when he was trying to persuade his wife to divorce him so that he could marry his mistress.

It is a most human, most ordinary portrait, yet throughout the long, ranting book, Niklas Frank does not permit himself even a flicker of affection or a moment of sadness for his father. When he feels a twinge of pity coming on, he stops himself by thinking of photographs from the concentration camps.

Perhaps the conscious, concerted withdrawal of empathy was the only way to learn to hate his father. But in reaching that pureness of feeling, the writer has been unable to deal with a second enemy-himself. Young Niklas enjoyed butter, eggs, and sausages in luxurious abundance while his father was setting rations below starvation levels for Polish slave laborers. He specifically enjoyed an outing to a place where a jolly man would persuade skinny people to get on the back of a donkey that would buck, throwing the skinny people to the ground. Niklas would stand there and laugh uproariously as the skinny people struggled to get to their feet. He was in a concentration camp.

Niklas Frank never describes how he changed from the teenager who used his father's title to get rides into an adult consumed by shame and hatred. One wonders what forced the metamorphosis, especially since most young Germans today resent being blamed for the sins of their fathers. While those youths are probably justified in their resentment, Frank sees a dark side to their righteousness: "Once again, a choking, suffocating, putrid mantle of political self-glorification has settled down over Germany."

"Because of people like you," he writes to his father, "your Eternal Germany is threatened once more from within rather than from without, and its conscience is like yours-which is to say, it does not exist."

Many people familiar with Germany disagree with that assessment, although Frank, now a journalist covering German politics, is what they call a well-placed observer. His is a powerful recounting of the past. May he be wrong about the future.

-Susan Benesch
COPYRIGHT 1991 Washington Monthly Company
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Benesch, Susan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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