Martin Davidson’s demand for moral meaning

The Perfect Nazi book cover

It’s always helpful when you are told a story, just at the moment that you needed to hear it.

I attended a lecture last night at Hay-on-Wye, delivered  by Martin Davidson.

Davidson, the commissioning editor for History at the BBC, turned his academic prowess on his own family’s shadowy past. Beginning with an admission from his mother and leading to a paper trail in Berlin, he learned that his grandfather was an active member of the Nazi SS.

His discoveries are chronicled in the book The Perfect Nazi, which promises to ‘unmask’ his grandfather and deliver a ‘fascinating and extraordinary journey into the heart of Nazism.”

Although genuinely interested in the actual story, I was of course also fascinated by someone suddenly spurred to unravel a grandparent’s story, particularly as he is a professional historian with a deep toolkit (Davidson is responsible for the popular television show Who do you think you are?, which explores the family trees of celebrity participants).

He writes in his prologue (xx):

“In a period where family history has burgeoned on television and in books and magazines, I realize that I belong to a generation who see themselves as custodians of their grandparents’ lives. We are voluable and emotional about their experiences, where they have been modest and reticent. Usually, the result is a retrospective pride, a greater recognition of achievements than they received during their lifetime. There can be no self satisfaction here: only the sobering realization that barely fifty-four years separate our respective dates of birth, though, thankfully, our worlds could not be more different…[t]his then, is as much of his archetypal Nazi career-and the path of a generation of Germans born in the early years of the last century- as I have been able to piece back together again. Some, at leas of Bruno’s story is now out in the open, where it should be.”

The emotion of this generation, trying to fill in the words for the story of our grandparents, was the first thing that struck me. Grandpa’s unwillingness (or inability) to say anything resonates perfectly with this sentiment. The question about why we take on the role of  ‘custodians’ is more complex and I’ll come back to that.

There were three things in particular that the lecture added to the written narrative:

He was speaking about his mother, who was only 7 years old at the end of the war. He asked her whether she knew what her father did, which of course she didn’t. What 7 year old would understand the details of their father’s job? (his rank? where he worked? his boss?). But Davidson made the point that children are very good at understanding their parents’ place in the world, so when he asked her the question ‘Was your father important?’, she was able to answer immediately. She knew her father was very important because she can remember a motorcycle rider coming to the house every day to bring him dispatches. This is a good reminder that learning a history is sometimes about asking the right questions.

Secondly, his lecture was a reminder that propaganda has far-reaching roots that can be difficult to untwine from fact. His mother, who has lived in Scotland since the late 50s and doesn’t, in Davidson’s words, have a racist bone in her body, made a shocking statement. She said to him that although she knew what happened was awful and wrong, she said that she could see where many Germans were coming from in their unhappiness, because Germany’s Jewish community did not fight in the First World War. Davidson corrected her: 100, 000 Jewish Germans fought in the Great War. All these years, the quiet ‘fact’ that had been laid in her mind by her father had lodged itself as a terrible untruth.  This is a warning that a fictitious fact repeated so many times, risks an evolution into received wisdom.

Finally, I like his explanation of the reason behind his work. He emphasised that a personal history without an understanding of culture is meaningless. He likened his exploration of this grandfather’s past to the use of barium in an x-ray: it acts like an illuminated tracer, developing the complete picture of the bigger system. This seems to be a sensible justification for sharing his very personal journey so widely.

But this only seems to explain how he turned the story into a book, which a publisher was glad to print. Does it explain why he asked the question in the first place?

One of the audience members asked him “What punishment do you think your grandfather should have had? Should he have been tried as a war criminal? Should he have been hung?”

I can’t quite recall Davidson’s response, but I don’t think it was an answer.

After the lecture, a wild-haired, antsy sort of chap turned to me and said “Well, I just wonder what he was looking for. There was a lot of anger there wasn’t there?”

I didn’t see it as anger, but I did agree with him that after all that searching, whatever the original question was, it may still be unanswered (i.e. yes, you figured out your grandfather’s past, but why were you asking in the first place?)

This is why it so marvellous that I have a clever and academic sister, who posted up a series of comments that (by coincidence) relate to this question so perfectly.

Dr. Scott notes:

“Historical narration without analysis is trivial, historical analysis without narration is incomplete.”
Peter Gay

“demand for closure in the historical story is a demand … for moral meaning”.
Hayden White 


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