Family History - Inge & Frederik
My great-grandmother, Inge, whom I affectionally called “Urli”, is probably my most beloved relative next to my grandmother, Hilde. Growing up, I remembered her as the kindest, sweetest, most loving person in my life. She had many friends and, moreover, seemed to garner the greatest respect and deference from all those around her. Everyone always seemed to have a kind word to say about Urli. She was also the matriarch of the family. She was seen as the protector of the family. Urli died at 96 in 2002.
My great-grandfather, Frederik, was of aristocratic origin. His family founded a town in the southern province of Carinthia and are to this day buried there with the highest Austrian honor – “Ehrenbürger”. His family owned a lot of land and had a villa on a lake in Carinthia. He was an obstetrician who delivered my mother. I never met Frederik, for he died of a heart attack five years after my mother was born. All I know is that he took his aristocracy very seriously (as all Austrians do) and that he was a no-nonsense type of guy.
The annexation of Austria happened on 12 March 1938. By all accounts Urli was one of those ecstatic Austrians you see on the old newsreels found on YouTube. To say that the annexation of Austria was an invasion would be a stretch. While there were many who disapproved of it and others who outright rejected it, even those that feared what was to come were overpowered by the exuberance of those who embraced it. Urli embraced it and Frederik disdained the movement.
Being an aristocrat and of blue blood, Frederik looked down in disgust at the Nazis and their ideology. He thought of them as “brutish barbarians” who simply did not have the sensibility or sensitivity required to understand the fine-tuned workings of a true government. Frederik’s view of the Nazis, in my opinion, is very much akin to how old-school conservatives view Trumpism. Trumpism is met by such old stalwarts with disdain, exasperation and disgust. Yet, just like those old-school conservatives, Frederik impotently watched his country become hijacked by this insane ideology.
Rather than resist, he acquiesced to Urli’s (very determined) will. She embraced the Nazi ideology whole-heartedly. Shortly after the Nazis came to power, they installed overseers for each district in Vienna. Each district had a male and female overseer for their respective sexes. Urli applied and was awarded the position of female overseer for the district in which she and her family lived. She was given a pin with the Nazi swastika on it which she wore with great pride. She took her duties seriously, ensuring that everyone was properly registered, organizing community gatherings for party causes, handling complaints and denouncements, and more.
Complaints and denouncements ranged from people who were convinced that their neighbors were communist spies to those who just wanted to make trouble for a disfavored family member or former friend. As Urli put it, all of a sudden, just like in Salem, every old mother-in-law became a witch. At first, she dutifully passed on any such complaints or denouncements to the appropriate person/department. As the volume increased (and according to Urli it increased almost exponentially after the annexation), she was asked to undertake the additional task of having to determine whether or not the complaint or denouncement actually had “any basis whatsoever other than personal animosity.”
Urli dutifully performed her job as overseer of her district. She greatly enjoyed the planning of community gatherings, which she always took great pains to stress to me was her primary function. But she also dutifully passed on those complaints and denouncements without really pondering what that could mean for the people who were the subject of them. While reveling in what she enjoyed (promoting the party cause through community gatherings) she eschewed the darker side of her position (passing on complaints and denouncements) as a dutiful party member just “doing her job”.
When her 10-year-old son, my grandfather Fritz, declared that he was going to join the German Youngsters of the Hitler Youth (he was not yet old enough to join the Hitler Youth) she swelled with pride. Rather than be like her obstinate husband, Frederik, whom she could not seem to get to join or embrace the cause, her son was shaping up to be an exemplary party citizen, one that would make any mother proud.
And then came 1940. Urli started to have misgivings. People, neighbors, friends, families, were vanishing. At first, she chalked them up to non-loyalists who decided to flee the country. That was okay, the party didn’t need them anyway and it was probably better for everyone that they moved to America or Australia or wherever. She had always known about the concentration camps. Well maybe, “known” is too strong a word. She was generally aware of their existence and that, vaguely, they were used to incarcerate dissenters, subversives, and enemies of the state.
As time progressed from March 1938 to the Fall of 1940 the stories (from the fortunate people who actually returned from those camps) and rumors (from friends and families of the incarcerated) of brutality started to become more and more troubling. Then there was the Ostfront (the Eastern Front). While she cheered snooty France’s demise, she began to hear about this war of annihilation. Frederik railed against it daily. In true Austrian fatalistic form, he would ominously declare that, if this regime was going to wage a war of annihilation, it had better fucking win that war.
Although Urli bought into the propaganda of the Untermensch, she though that they should be treated with decency. Her attitude was perfectly encapsulated by Himmler’s chilling quote: “We shall never be rough and heartless when it is not necessary, that is clear. We Germans, who are the only people in the world who have a decent attitude towards animals, will also assume a decent attitude towards these human animals.” But more and more she was being confronted with the rumors that this was far from true. In fact, maybe her husband had been right all along, maybe the dark side she had pushed away over the past years was so much more evil than she had ever anticipated.
So, in the Fall of 1940, Urli resigned from her position as overseer of her district. She took off her swastika pin and she receded into the private civilian life of being a dutiful housewife. But as much as Urli wanted to escape back into normal life and disavow that she had ever been associated with, much less embraced, what she now considered a sordid ideology, she had one very stark reminder of the consequences of her actions: her son, my grandfather, Fritz.