'Memoryless' pawns: A writer reckons with her Nazi collaborating grandparents

The winner of the European Book Prize, Geraldine Schwarz spoke to DW about how France and Germany have strugged to reconcile a difficult past and why, as a grandchild of Nazi collaborators, she wrote "The Memoryless."

"A collaborator of the Nazis here, a Vichy-gendarme there," writes Geraldine Schwarz at the beginning of her book, The Memoryless. The "collaborator" mentioned is her German grandfather, who "aryanized" a Jewish company in Mannheim in 1938 after expropriating it. The "Vichy gendarme," a reference to the authoritarian regime that was installed during the German occupation from July 1940 to August 1944 in France, is the author's French grandfather.

Born in Strasbourg in 1974, the daughter of a German father and a French mother, the journalist wrote about this difficult legacy in her book, The Memoryless

Published in France in 2017 and in 2018 in Germany, the book, which was just awarded the European Book Prize, is being translated into seven languages. In an exclusive interview with DW, Schwarz explains how both France and Germany have dealt with their difficult past — and why writing this book was so important to her.

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DW:  What does the term "follower" mean to you? Does it suggest a certain passivity?

Geraldine Schwarz: After the war, there were certain definitions to classify the Nazis in the American sector. My German grandfather was deemed a "collaborator," because he was in the Nazi Party. I think these definitions are actually too narrow. For me, someone like my grandfather might have been a follower, but he was not a convinced Nazi. He acted out of opportunism. My grandmother, on the other hand, was a convinced National Socialist, even though she was not a party member.

I think being a collaborator is more of an attitude. You just go along with it, whether it be from opportunism, or out of fear or a desire to conform. It is this accumulation of small compromises and small delusions that make up the attitude of the follower. And that is by no means a uniquely German phenomenon.

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Could you also apply this typology of the follower to those in Vichy France? Particularly on your mother's side?

From my French family, I tried to understand if my grandfather, as a gendarme under the Vichy regime, might have known what the consequences of his actions were. The problem is, I do not know what he did. He came from a very poor farming family and fought to become a government official because that was really the best you could hope for. And he got the job. And, eventually, he had a pregnant wife. Then you have to ask yourself the question of whether you would quit your job in that situation.

My grandfather was already an official before Vichy. As a junior gendarme, he supervised the demarcation line that ran across France between the German-occupied northern zone and the so-called free zone, which was ruled by the Vichy regime. I don’t know if he arrested Jews and resistance fighters, but I can imagine that he did. Then he would have been a collaborator: One of those pawns on the chessboard, who made it possible for crimes to be committed in the end.

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What point did you come to in the end?

By the book's conclusion, I've allowed myself a judgment as far as my German grandparents are concerned. Because although after the war they condemned the Hitler regime and its crimes, they never wanted to view the Third Reich as an illegitimate state.

Ausländische Juden im Mai 1941 vor ihrer Deportation nach Auschwitz auf dem Bahnsteig von Pithiviers südlich von Paris

Jewish people being deported from Paris in 1941

Where we are after the war: The second part of the book is dedicated to the history of the processing of the period up to 1944/45.

Actually, it's a book about coming to terms with the past. Of course, I describe the attitude of my grandparents during the war, but the purpose of the book was to show how Germany made this transition from a dictatorship and a follower mentality to a successful democracy. I wanted to trace that alongside my family history.

How would you describe dealing with the past on both sides of the Rhine  what are the key differences?

The biggest difference is that a societal reflection on that era in France began to take place much later — in the 1970s.  It was only in 1995 that President Jacques Chirac recognized the responsibility of the state for the crimes of Vichy.

In Germany, it has been recognized that a large majority of society bears responsibility. And that has led to the question, of course: How can almost a whole society turn to crime? Or towards supporting a criminal state?

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Deutschland Frankreich Jaques Chirac Gerhard Schröder

Germany's former chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, with France's former President Jacques Chirac in 2005

Your book is called "The Memoryless." Who are the memoryless people referred to here?

There are always people in history without memory. After the First World War almost all European countries founded myths. In France, Italy and the Netherlands, it was the myth that the majority of the population actively resisted.

In Germany, it was even more fascinating, which I also read in the letters from my grandfather to the former owner of the Aryanized company: German society rejected any responsibility, any guilt. On the contrary, they have assumed the role of the victim and pitied themselves — without any sense of guilt or empathy for the real victims, the Jews.

In the past few years, I have developed the impression that we are plunging into amnesia again. That we do not remember anymore. One sign of this is the growing skepticism about democracy and the growing success of right-wing populism. And that's probably the main reason why I wrote this book.

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