Reviewed by: Roger Moorhouse Author: Martin Davidson Publisher: Viking Price (RRP): £20
The current vogue for genealogical research has doubtless fascinated and informed many of its practitioners, but it carries with it a caveat: you never know what you will find, and there is no guarantee that you will like it when you do.
Martin Davidson was under few illusions when he began unearthing the story of his grandfather, Bruno Langbehn (after the latter’s death in the early 1990s) that the place and date of his birth – Prussia and 1906 – meant that he could scarcely have escaped the maelstrom of Nazism. Yet, even with that assumption, Davidson was barely prepared for what he discovered.
Bruno Langbehn – whom Davidson had known as a garrulous if rather severe retired dentist – had not only been a captain in the SS, he had also been the recipient of the SS Death’s Head Ring and the prestigious Gold Party Badge, reserved for the Nazi Party’s earliest and most valued supporters. More than that, he had served in the SS security arm – the Sicherheitsdienst – had known Adolf Eichmann, and had ended the war in occupied Prague, where he had narrowly escaped execution as the Nazi Reich crumbled.
Armed with the rather fragmentary information of his grandfather’s SS career, Davidson sets out in this book to try to make sense of the man and to place him back within the context of the times in which he lived.
He traces the story of the rise of Nazism and of his “perfect Nazi” grandfather within it; from the boot-boys of the SA (a paramilitary group) in the Berlin street-fights of the 1920s to the grim denouement of 1945 and beyond. Throughout, he deftly combines the micro and the macro, skilfully intertwining his subject’s life with the wider narrative.
Davidson is a thoughtful, sympathetic guide through this peculiar genealogical Hades. He writes well and seeks generally to explain and understand rather than condemn. Though the journey has clearly been an intensely personal one, he never allows his historian’s objectivity to be clouded by the subjectivity of the grandson.
Only when discussing his grandfather’s postwar evasions, name changes and forced peregrinations, does one sense a rising tide of anger. Indeed, the comparative ease with which Langbehn seems to have evaded detection, and avoided any form of denazification or penance, is astonishing.
The ‘perfect Nazi’, it seems, morphed seamlessly into the model West German and, in time, would become the genial grandfather Davidson remembers.
This is an engaging book, which is part popular history and part Who Do You Think You Are?, and should appeal to fans of both genres. The only minor complaint is the comparative paucity of the genealogical material with which Davidson has to work, which, as a result, is occasionally stretched a little thin. Nonetheless, this is an illuminating story, well told.
Roger Moorhouse is the author of Berlin at War (The Bodley Head, 2010)