The Netflix documentary, What Our Fathers Did: The Nazi Legacy, follows EU administrator Philippe Sands on a strange odyssey as he persuades Niklas Frank and Horst von Wachter–both sons of high-ranking Nazi officers–to join him in revisiting the past. Frank eagerly embraces a wholesale condemnation of his father as a vicious animal. The son indeed seems to have much axe-grinding to do against his father for deserting the family and chasing sycophantically after Hitler’s will and whimsy. It’s not a great leap to suppose that at least some of Niklas’s righteous indignation at his father’s active participation in the Holocaust is a Freudian resentment. He admits to a tinge of sympathy when sitting in the cell from which his father was led to be hanged after the Nuremberg Trials; yet even here, he inclines more to believe that Hans (a.k.a. “The Butcher of Poland”) was staging a religious conversion in his final reported words rather than preparing to meet his maker. That’s a pretty hard verdict to pass on any man, but especially for a son to dish out upon his father.
Sands is the agent provocateur of guilt and resentment throughout the doc, rather like a tormenting angel of vengeance who demands that facts be recognized in their bare truth. Perhaps he has a right to that role, up to a point: his family was virtually exterminated in the Warsaw ghetto. He and Franks grow progressively peeved with Horst for seeking to whitewash the memory of his father Otto. I find these sequences of the film particularly difficult to watch at times. I want to shout at the screen, “Okay, so Horst wants to believe the best about his father! Otto von Wachter really did regret much of what he was doing, in all probability, yet really did tell himself that he should continue doing it rather than be replaced by a more ruthless executioner. And you two are right that such equivocation really is a pretty weak moral defense for the man. In a way, it’s an additional indictment; for having recognized the evil of rounding up Jews for slaughter, von Wachter is even more guilty than some of his psychopathic comrades. But why do you insist that the man’s son join you now in spitting on a long-gone father’s grave? What exactly is the son to gain from that–and what do you gain from it?”
Otto von Wachter, as a historical figure, raises some fascinating moral issues. He reminds me of Amphinomos, the one suitor of Penelope’s many in the Odyssey who seems to be a genuinely decent human being. Yet as his name (“split-minded”) suggests, Amphinomos can never quite motivate himself to leave the bad company he’s in, even though Odysseus himself–disguised as a beggar–pleads with him to do so shortly before taking a deadly vengeance. There’s a point in most of our lives when we have to stop trying to make lemonade out of lemons, and concede that the fruit is not only bitter but–in the case at hand–rotten. Even if von Wachter had supposed himself to be facing execution should he refuse to obey orders (and very few Nazi officers ever suffered consequences for such resistance, as Hannah Arendt has observed), he should nevertheless have accepted execution. He should have, that is, if he were a moral hero, or anything other than a moral coward. Passive surrender to unjust punishment can give very eloquent and influential testimony.
Sands and Frank didn’t appear to be much interested in introducing the younger von Wachter to this perspective, however. He needed to say the magic words, “My father is burning in Hell…” and he never did. I’m not sure on what authority the other two are trying to force him into the judgment seat.
And Horst does have a ghost of a point when he says that the circumstances were complex–that you had to be there. It remains a quibble in this case; but what about the surprising celebration he receives from Western Ukrainians near the film’s end when they find that he is von Wachter’s son? Decked out in Nazi uniforms themselves for a commemorative event, these men see the swastika as a symbol of their struggle against Stalinist domination. Today, right now, we’re supposed to be embracing their struggle against Putin’s efforts to revive the evil Soviet empire… and yet, the same voices in the pro-Ukrainian EU denounce anyone who criticizes their open-door immigration policy as a Nazi!
It doesn’t hurt to know some of the picky little details… or rather, it hurts a lot–but it’s good for the soul. Horst von Wachter needs to face facts about his father; but those who would deplore his “father fantasy” might consider plucking the beam from their own eye on occasion.