A found letter, and a changed legacy

Writer: 
August 11, 2017

I never knew my Uropa (“great-grandpa”), but he has haunted me all my life. My mother tells me I inherited his hands, large and long-fingered. Growing up, I sometimes looked at my hands and thought of him signing orders, as he must have done, for the Third Reich in World War II, for Adolf Hitler.  Because Hans Ernst Posse, my great-grandfather, was a member of Hitler’s cabinet. 

Officially, Hans Posse was the state secretary of the economics ministry from 1928 to 1945.  The way my mother’s family tells the story, he was performing his duties ably as state secretary during the Weimar Republic, and when Hitler assumed power in 1933, he asked my great-grandfather to stay on in that role. The only other story the family tells is that my great-grandfather supposedly shed tears when he had to take the Nazi oath of allegiance. Other than that, they say nothing.  When I was old enough to ask questions about Hans Posse, I met a wall of silence as impenetrable—and just as fraught with danger—as the thick concrete wall that arose in 1961 to imprison the population of East Berlin.

Reticence and secrecy, I have since learned, are the legacy of many Germans who endured World War II.  Generations of Germans—not just my own family—refuse to talk about that time and their experiences, because they either cannot or will not remember. It is as if those memories have been carefully locked away in a mental Pandora’s box and will unleash unknown horrors if revisited. I wondered how much of my family’s silence about the war years stemmed from shame—the same sense of cultural guilt and remorse that I suspected all Germans experienced to one degree or another after the horrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald were revealed to the world.

But repression does not vanquish guilt. In the case of my family, their self-imposed ignorance about the truth of Hans Posse’s activities led me to suspect the worst. I spent decades believing that there was a kernel of darkness within me, fueled in no small part by the presumption that I carried the same genetic material as someone who participated in history’s greatest nightmare.

Then in 2012, I stumbled upon a sheaf of old letters in my aunt’s basement in Hamburg, Germany. The letters were dated 1947 and were addressed to the “Tribunal for De-Nazification.” From my own searches of the public records available from the Nuremberg trials, I knew that my great-grandfather had not been indicted with other high-ranking Nazi officials at Nuremberg. But I did not know, until I perused these papers, that he had been detained in late 1946 and sent to a prison in Hamburg, pursuant to an Allied de-Nazification program. These were the letters submitted by friends and colleagues eager to exonerate him.

Flipping through these letters, page by page, bit by bit, I learned about Hans Posse. He was, I read, a true Prussian, a dedicated, hard-working, law-abiding citizen. He refused to attend Nazi functions, and one correspondent said he shirked so many party duties that the SS kept a file on him thicker than a phone book. I learned that he aided families whose breadwinners were imprisoned, and he occasionally even intervened with Hermann Goering to try to reclaim people sent to Auschwitz. I read that Hans Posse was generous with his time and counsel to those who sought his ear, especially colleagues who asked him whether they should leave the country. One of those men, Leopold Trier, wrote that my great-grandfather urged him to leave Germany, that he apologized to Trier for having to face him as a Nazi, but that he had made the choice to remain in his post so he could help as many people as possible.

What still amazes me about these letters is that my family didn’t know they existed. They were buried in a pile of my great-grandmother’s papers, amidst old newspaper articles, grocery lists, and utility bills. My family’s fear of the reality about Hans Posse kept us in decades of darkness. In the end, the inquiries they so steadfastly suppressed finally revealed a truth that could make them proud. 

Werner 85 is an author and attorney who lives in Washington, D.C., with her family. Her novel The Good at Heart was published in February 2017.