Extract from Michael Mitchell's translation

Katrin Himmler's The Himmler Brothers

Prologue: The Old Stories

When I was fifteen, one of my classmates suddenly asked during a history lesson whether I was related to ‘the Himmler’. I managed to stammer a ‘Yes’. There was a deathly hush in the classroom. Everyone was tense and on the alert. However, the teacher lost her nerve and went on as if nothing had happened. She missed the opportunity of getting us to see what connection, if any, there still was between us, the later generation, and those ‘old stories’.

It was a question I avoided myself for a long time. I knew about Heinrich Himmler, my great uncle. I knew about the ‘greatest murderer of the century’, who was responsible for the extermination of the European Jews and the murder of millions of other people. My parents had provided me with books about the Nazi period from an early age. Shaken and tearful, I had read about the failed uprising of the people in the Warsaw ghetto, about the experiences of refugees and the survival attempts of children who were kept hidden. I identified with the victims, felt ashamed of my name and, in some inexplicable yet distressing way, often felt guilty. Later, when I studied political science, the German past was a key topic for me.

But I always shied away from looking at the history of my own family. The impetus to do so only came later and more by chance. My father asked me to search the Federal Archives in Berlin for files concerning his father. Until then my grandfather, whom I had never known, had for me simply been the younger brother of Heinrich Himmler, a technologist, an engineer, Chief Engineer of the Reich Broadcasting Company in Berlin — a fairly unpolitical person, from everything that was said. Until then there had been nothing about him to arouse my curiosity.

At my very first perusal of the material I made the unsettling discovery that most of the stories I'd heard about him at home did not correspond to what was in the thin files.