Read an exclusive extract of The SS Officer's Armchair

Most residents of Stuttgart, capital of the German state of Württemberg, had ordinary plans for the weekend ahead as they set off for work on the morning of Friday 6 March 1936. There was a markedly different atmosphere in the city from the rush of energy and excitement of a few weeks earlier, during the Winter Olympics. The Games had been the Nazi leadership’s first opportunity to showcase their spectacular economic achievements to the world. They had also hoped to put an end to rumours about the repression of political opponents and Jews inside Hitler’s new Germany. After the closing ceremony, however, as visitors left, bunting was removed and anti-Jewish signs were swiftly restored to public spaces.

The five lawyers working at section IIIc of the Württemberg Police Department had little to look forward to, over the approaching dull and cloudy March weekend. As Friday drew to a close and the sound of typewriters and ringing telephones died down, Walter, Wilhelm, Kurt, Rudolf and Robert left their first- floor office in the Hotel Silber, an imposing neo-Renaissance structure close to the tenth-century Old Castle in the centre of the historical Swabian city. But the weekend would prove to be far from quiet. Over the course of it, Hitler spectacularly – and illegally – remilitarised the Rhineland, marking a significant rupture with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. As lawyers, the five men would have been concerned with future legal reprisals and the consequences of German reoccupation for multilateral diplomacy, so they would have had far more than usual to talk about when they returned to work on the Monday.

The five men formed a tight band, separate from the Hotel Silber’s 200 other employees. All in their late twenties or early thirties, three of them had studied law at the prestigious Tübingen University and, with the exception of Kurt Diebitsch, each had only joined section IIIc since the Nazis seized power a few years earlier. Outside the rigid confines of the Hotel Silber, the men and their families socialised together. The month before, they had celebrated the wedding of the tall, dark-haired and neatly dressed Robert Griesinger, the youngest and most junior of the five, who, after a drawn-out engagement, had finally married his sweetheart from Hamburg.

Since spring 1933 police section IIIc had played a distinctive role that allowed Nazism to take root and grow in Stuttgart. It was no ordinary police force. Rather, it was the headquarters of the Political Police for the state of Württemberg, known then and now by its more familiar name: the Gestapo. Under the Nazis, the Württemberg Political Police filled the Hotel Silber’s 120 rooms, spread out over six floors. The basement contained the Gestapo’s notorious torture cells. To this day, some of the elderly residents of Stuttgart continue to avoid Dorotheenstrasse because of the terrifying stories they heard as children about what took place in that basement. Walter Stahlecker was head of the Württemberg Political Police. A slender man with wire-rimmed glasses and shiny, thinning hair combed neatly back, he would go on to command Einsatzgruppe A, the mobile killing unit responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews in the Baltic during the war. His stocky blond deputy, Wilhelm Harster, would serve in the Netherlands as head of the Security Police and the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) – the security and intelligence service of the Schutzstaffel (SS) – where he was instrumental in the deportation of more than 100,000 of the coun- try’s Jews. As Stahlecker made his way across the Baltic, and Harster tracked down Jews in the Netherlands, Rudolf Bilfinger, who had been a junior secretary in the Stuttgart bureau, remained in Germany, where he worked at the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) as head of the Organisation and Law Group. An associate of Adolf Eichmann, Bilfinger was, in 1942, one of the legal masterminds of the Final Solution. Later he was head of the Security Police and the SD in Toulouse.

Yet while the names of these three men can be found in studies of the Second World War, the same cannot be said of Kurt Diebitsch, the fourth lawyer, who was killed during the invasion of the USSR in 1941; or of the newly-wed Robert Griesinger, the fifth man, who finished the war working as a legal expert at a government ministry in occupied Prague.

Nazism had a devastating impact on the world and continues to fascinate, more than three-quarters of a century later. But most of us know the names of only a handful of Nazis who formed part of Hitler’s inner circle. What about men like Diebitsch and Griesinger, who have so far escaped the attention of films, documentaries and history books? These low-ranking Nazis are doubly invisible: overlooked by historians, but also forgotten or deliberately suppressed in the memories of living relatives. The onerous task of first identifying and, later, understanding the experiences and feelings of some of the regime’s nominal characters is important for what it communicates about consent and conformity under the swastika. Recovering lost voices from the past enables us to ask new questions about responsibility, blame and manipulation. They offer previously neglected insights into the rise of Nazism and the inner workings of Nazi rule.

This book tells two intertwined stories. One is the life of that young lawyer, Robert Griesinger. The other is the uncovering of that life, through a series of coincidences, research, cold calls, family lore, genuine or wilful forgetting and dead ends, and the ways in which the disturbing revelations reverberated in the lives of Griesinger’s descendants. The first interests me for the insight it brings into the mundane workings of Nazi Germany. I am implicated personally in the second, for my pursuit of Griesinger led me to (among other people) his two surviving daughters, Jutta and Barbara, born in 1937 and 1939 respectively, who shared their memories and, in turn, came to regard me as a source of information about the father who died during their childhood, and whose absence overshadowed the rest of their lives. For Griesinger’s daughters, the second generation of Nazi perpetrators, their father was then – and remains today – anything but nominal. Spending so much time with Jutta and Barbara blurred the traditional boundaries between historian and subject. They were eager for any details I could provide, to help them build up a picture of a father they barely knew or remembered. As a Jewish historian of the Second World War, whose family was deeply marked by the disasters and atrocities of that conflict, I felt the keen ambivalence of the role.

For me, establishing facts was an act of justice. I wanted to know more about Griesinger, this seemingly peripheral figure, in order to find out if he was guilty of anything. Jutta and Barbara became, in my mind, representatives of the father they had lost; they should, or so I thought, make amends for his actions by bearing witness, by acknowledging the weight of the evidence that I placed before them. Faced with questions about his involvement in Nazi rule, they remembered little and had been told less. Their most vivid stories had the dreamlike quality of childhood recollections: a miniature porcelain toilet that sat on Griesinger’s office desk; his light linen jacket soaked in blood as he carried the family’s injured dog to the vet; the green cloaks the sisters wore as they and their mother fled from Prague at the end of the war. Throughout my interviews with Jutta and Barbara, questions hovered in my mind like accusations: How could you not know? Why are you shielding him? Yet when I approached them as a total stranger, decades after their father’s death, they were kind, hospitable and willing to talk. As far as I could see them as people in their own right, I liked them. And one aspect of their experience strangely mirrored my own. For both our families, the traumas of the war were wrapped in an oppressive silence that became habitual over the course of generations. Secrets took on a palpable, looming presence, even if their existence was never acknowledged.

We still know far too little about how low-ranking officials experienced the 1930s and 1940s, and Griesinger’s life helps us understand why Nazi rule was possible. The famous fanatics and murderers could not have existed without the countless enablers who kept the government running, filed the paperwork and lived side-by-side with potential victims of the regime in whom they instilled fear and the threat of violence. Griesinger also reveals the difficulty of trying to fit individuals into the categories usually applied to German people’s experience under Nazism. The young lawyer was neither a high- ranking Nazi nor one of the subordinates charged with overseeing the process of the Final Solution – those whose notoriety continues to ensure their remembrance. Nevertheless, his service at the Gestapo also excludes him from the category of ‘ordinary Germans’, which often lumps together everyone who, if not a political opponent, Jewish, Roma, disabled, black or homosexual, was therefore eligible to participate in the Thousand Year Reich. After all, to continue to go to work every day at the Hotel Silber as late as spring 1936 implies at the very least some support for the Nazi programme. The narrative I trace will show how low-ranking officials might have existed in between two disconnected worlds; the first filled with the regime’s well-known high functionaries, and the second that comprised the ordinary German population. As many bureaucrats developed an intimate knowledge of the shape and scale of the new regime, even coming into contact with some of the Third Reich’s key protagonists, they also shared the same spaces and interacted daily with the bulk of the population at whom the new legislation was aimed. Griesinger was not an ordinary German: he was an ordinary Nazi. As agents of the state, he and tens of thousands of lower-ranking men and women like him – Gestapo agents, SS and Sturmabteiling (SA) auxiliaries, party members, together with civil servants, judges, teachers and government officials – had the power to shape the lives of their neighbours and the wider community.

Griesinger’s life allows us to understand what the rise of Nazism would have felt like at an individual level. Turning the gaze away from the German people as an indiscrete mass, and focusing instead on a single life, reveals how densely interconnected personal relationships and professional networks proved critical in allowing a new means of social organisation to take root and flourish in Württemberg, a German state previously renowned for its liberal parliamentary tradition and its aversion to political extremism.

Archival sources relating to Griesinger are limited, in part because of the destruction (deliberate or incidental) of records during the war. Through documents alone, he remains a colourless figure, defined by his professional trajectory and the broad outlines of his domestic arrangements. I wanted to know how he spent his evenings, the films he watched, the food he liked, what he read to his daughters. Knowing these things, I felt, would tell me something fundamental about those who perpetrated Nazi violence – a violence that devastated my own family and countless others. Where hard evidence ran out, I cast the net wider, watching him emerge in glimpses through the other characters with whom he shares these pages, and wondering what he might have done or seen at a given place and time.

‘You look just like your father’ were my first words to Jutta when I met her. Jutta’s younger sister, Barbara, takes after their mother; and for decades the two have led separate lives, the final fragments of a family shattered by the traumas of war. Other links emerged along the way. Unexpected ancestors surfaced in New Orleans; and Griesinger’s nephew, Jochen, with his wife Irmela, occupies the historical family home in Stuttgart, complete with the furniture of Griesinger’s childhood. Both the daughter of the Czech woman who worked as Griesinger’s maid in Prague and the granddaughter of his Jewish neighbours in Stuttgart, who were sent to Auschwitz, spoke to me. From this perspective, the ‘ordinary Nazi’ is defined by association as much as by absence – an empty space in a picture thronging with the people connected to him.

Why Griesinger? He entered my life unexpectedly. In 2011 I completed a PhD in history that examined the experiences of Jews in Vichy France. Within weeks of finishing, I moved to Florence to conduct research at a local university. Shortly after arriving, I hosted a dinner party for friends and colleagues. The amateur video showing the final moments of Colonel Gaddafi’s life had just made the news and, as the evening was beginning to get under way, some guests huddled together on the sofa to stream the clip on a phone. It was here that I met Veronika. She arrived with a mutual friend, who had called earlier in the day to ask if there might be room for an extra guest who wanted to meet me. Veronika, a tall Dutch woman in her late twenties, was in the city to begin a PhD in law. ‘I’m so pleased to meet a historian of the Second World War,’ she said to me. ‘I would appreciate your advice on something that has just happened to my mother.’

When people find out I am a historian of the Second World War, they often share their family stories – about grandmothers in the French Resistance, uncles in hiding and relatives in concentration camps. I have heard hundreds of tales over the years, and no two are ever the same. My job gives people a chance to dig up like buried family heirlooms their stories, brush them down and show them off. On this occasion, however, something had only recently happened to Veronika’s mother. And Veronika’s opening gambit piqued my curiosity.

She began to recount the story of an armchair that her mother, Jana, in her early sixties, had recently taken for re-upholstering in Amsterdam.9 When Jana returned to collect it a few days later, the chair restorer told her in no uncertain terms that he did not do work for Nazis or their families. To Jana’s astonishment, the restorer presented her with a bundle of Nazi-era documents that he had found sewn inside the cushion of the chair. The man had assumed he was standing face-to-face with the daughter of a Nazi called Robert Griesinger – the name that appeared on every document. This Griesinger, as far as the restorer was concerned, had probably made the lives of the local Dutch population, including possibly his own relatives, a misery during the war. He did not believe Jana when she told him she did not recognise the name Griesinger or the documents and had no idea how his papers had ended up inside her chair.

From what Veronika told me, it was not obvious that Griesinger was a Nazi. After all, everyone at that time – even Jews – had swastikas stamped all over their official papers. Veronika explained that the armchair had been in her bedroom since she was a little girl and that, growing up, she had sat on it every day to do her homework. ‘I just can’t get out of my head that all that time I was literally sitting on Nazi papers, without even knowing it. I need to know who this man was, and how his documents ended up in my mother’s chair.’

Veronika left me her mother’s phone number and, the next day, I rang Jana in Amsterdam to find out more. Jana told me what little she could about the hidden papers and agreed to post the documents to Florence. It turned out that the chair was not an inherited family heirloom. ‘The upholsterer who accused me of coming from a Nazi family didn’t know what he was talking about,’ she said. ‘Neither my armchair nor the German man was in the Netherlands during the war. You see, I am not Dutch, and neither is my chair. I am Czech.’

Sitting in my office in Florence, with Jana on loudspeaker, I scribbled down notes. The chair, I discovered, had been on a long journey before ending up in Veronika’s bedroom in Amsterdam. ‘It first entered my life in 1968, when I was beginning my degree at the Charles University in Prague,’ she said. Like generations of students before and since, Jana was on the lookout for cheap furniture for her student digs. One day she headed close to an area near the Old Town, full of artisan furniture shops. Jana recalled going into a number of such stores and not finding anything of interest. ‘I had almost given up when a small shop on the corner of Celetná and Králodvorská caught my eye.’ It was there that she found the armchair. ‘It was exactly what I had in mind, so I purchased it immediately.’ Jana did not recall the amount she paid, but was confident it could not have been terribly expensive. She told me the shop has since closed. She described the armchair as having a walnut veneer, a caned upper section and a cushioned seat. She said it was light and was suitable for the home, rather than for the office.

In the early 1980s Jana and her young family obtained permission to leave Communist Czechoslovakia to settle permanently in the Netherlands and were allowed to take with them on the train journey only a small number of objects. Even though they left so many things in Prague, Jana couldn’t bring herself to part with the chair. ‘It reminded me too much of my student days, when I had barely any furniture, and my early years of being a mother.’ She had kept the chair her whole adult life, owning it the longest of all her possessions, and it had relocated with her each time she moved house. In scores of family photos and home movies it’s there in the background. Jana spoke movingly as our conversation drew to a close: ‘Looking at these pictures with us smiling at the camera, it’s chilling to think that, unknown to us, we were centimetres away from this Nazi’s cache of swastika- covered papers.’

The discovery had unsettled Jana. It had never dawned on her that her cherished armchair had had a past life of its own, or that another person could have had an affinity with it in the same way she had. She almost felt betrayed. ‘It may sound silly, but every time I go near it, I keep imagining that Nazi sitting in it.’ Jana was desperate to know about Robert Griesinger, but the chair – her only witness – offered more questions than answers.

Jana’s chair haunted me in the years that followed. I wanted to unlock the secrets of its past, so I began to follow its history. As I did so, I gained greater insight into aspects of Griesinger’s personality, his life under Nazism and his ultimate fate. I was constantly amazed at how finding and pulling the right threads opened up new, unexpected avenues of research, which made me question what I thought I knew about our relationship with the past. The mystery of the hidden papers astounded archivists, experts and Griesinger’s relatives, and granted me privileged access to private documentation, photographs and stories, which would otherwise be beyond reach. On numerous occasions, however, my obsession with the chair – gatekeeper to so many of Griesinger’s secrets – gave way to feelings of annoyance. I was frustrated by the silences, the rabbit-holes and dead ends. What follows is not only the story of an ordinary Nazi. It is also a story of historical detection, with all the twists and turns, the frustrations and epiphanies that such an investigation entails.

A week after speaking to Jana on the phone, I received a package from the Netherlands. The assortment of documents inside came in different shapes, colours and sizes. Some were quite heavy, while others were mere scraps on yellowish paper that were crumbling at the edges. Several of the papers had the same-shaped hole, the size of a thumbprint, with similar, slightly jagged edges. Taking one of the documents, I circled the edge of the hole with my fingertip and thought about what might have caused it: perhaps these papers had been resting a bit too close to a metal spring in the chair, or perhaps a mouse had found its way into the bottom of the cushion and started to gnaw at the papers. One by one, I carefully arranged the fragile material chronologically across my desk. The first item was from 1933, while the last was from 1945. Dr Robert Arnold Griesinger’s name was on each document. The papers revealed that he was a lawyer, who was born in Stuttgart in 1906 and was sent to work as a senior civil servant in Nazi-occupied Prague in March 1943. There was no reference to party membership or of participation in other Nazi organisations.

I studied Griesinger’s photographs. In each one, he wore a light- coloured suit – civilian clothes. He was handsome, with slicked-back hair and a strong, distinctive face. I wondered how he had obtained the scar that ran across his left cheek. His hidden papers had obviously been chosen with care. There were wartime passports, certificates of war bonds, uncashed stocks and share receipts in cable companies, and a certificate showing that he passed the second stage of exams for the civil service in 1933, two years after completing his PhD in law. These were clearly his most valuable printed possessions: they were proof of an entire identity and existence, items that anyone would be lost without, especially in wartime. Yet what struck me was how little such papers actually reveal about anyone. I held Griesinger’s documents in my hand and they told me everything, and nothing.

The German presence in the Czech lands lasted from 1939 to 1945, during which time the occupied territory was euphemistically called the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Searching through the assortment of papers, I tried to locate the particular ministry in which Griesinger worked, or a clue that revealed the nature of his work. The large number of central-European stamps inside his passport indicated that travel had been an integral part of his professional life, and I was particularly struck by one of the final stamps. In summer 1944, just weeks after the Normandy Landings and the Allied liberation of Rome, Griesinger went on holiday for three weeks to visit ‘relatives’ in Liechtenstein. Even at such an advanced stage of the war, Nazi officials like Griesinger continued to be granted holiday leave and would return from the tranquillity of a neutral country to their more dangerous postings. The trip was particularly perplexing because no relatives were mentioned in any of the other documents. In both of his wartime passports, someone had struck through in pen the section on ‘wife and children’, indicating that despite the Nazis’ emphasis on pro-natalism and Kinderreich (child-rich) families, Griesinger was single and childless. I would learn that this was a lie.

I assumed Griesinger himself had stashed his personal papers in the armchair. Why would he choose to do this? If he felt the existence of the documents might compromise his future, then why did he not destroy them? What did he have to hide? Why didn’t he ever return to retrieve his papers? I kept coming back to one of his passports, issued in Prague in June 1944 and valid for one year. Given what occurred in the city over the months that followed, it seemed likely that by the time the passport expired, it was already hidden inside the cushion. The documents were probably concealed during the Liberation of May 1945, a time when, after six years of gruelling Occupation, sections of the local population took part in sporadic killings against anyone who looked, or even sounded, German. Griesinger needed to mask his identity to get out of Prague alive. But would a senior civil servant with a doctorate in law have known what to do with a needle and thread? Perhaps he enlisted the services of a seamstress. Or perhaps he could rely on a trusted confidant, who could sew the papers in a way that was resilient enough to be left undisturbed for almost seventy years.

Griesinger’s papers shed no light on what happened to him after the war. Had he been killed during the liberation of Prague, or captured by the Soviets and made a prisoner of war? He might even have been put on trial. Once the disorder of the liberation of western Czechoslovakia had subsided, People’s Courts and local courts tried more than 150,000 Germans and their Czech collaborators. Did this composed, authoritative-looking figure end his days harried and haunted before a makeshift court, in which entire trials were known to last only a few minutes? From my desk in Florence, I could determine that Griesinger was not brought before the courts, nor was he formally executed, as his name did not appear on any of the post-war trial lists.10 Perhaps, then, he spent the Liberation in hiding, or he might have escaped Czechoslovakia in disguise? If he managed to survive, it is likely that he swiftly adapted to post-war life and, given his date of birth, probably died in the 1970s or 1980s. However, learning anything about Griesinger after 1945 proved impossible. There was no trace of him: he was not mentioned in any books on occupied Prague or anywhere online. His significance during the Third Reich seemed negligible.

The very ordinariness of this man, who existed in only a handful of bureaucratic documents, made him all the more intriguing to me. I was determined to pursue him. I wanted to see whether following the trajectory of an anonymous man could reveal anything new about the complexities of living under Nazi rule. Would putting a human face on a shrouded past help to unravel the characteristically Manichaean terms of good versus evil so often associated with Nazism, or would it leave those awkward dichotomies unaltered?

My search for Griesinger was to last five years. It would lead me to Prague, Berlin, Stuttgart, Zurich, New Orleans and any number of German provincial towns where he had studied and worked. Along the way, I developed a new way of doing history. Academic history usually follows a standard path. After sustained engagement with secondary literature, the historian develops a hypothesis about a subject and will then look for primary sources against which to test their hypothesis. In a way, my pursuit of Robert Griesinger followed the reverse path: it began with the sources. I needed to reassemble the historical and social context in which Griesinger operated in order to discover how his personal documents came to be hidden.

After spending so long looking into Griesinger’s case, what I eventually pieced together was the life of a good-natured boy from a wealthy family, a law student, later a bureaucrat within the Nazi regime, ambitious for promotion, fond of animals, aligned with racist ideology. I tracked the course of his army division across Europe during the war, looked at photo albums with his daughters and read his mother’s diary. At times Griesinger’s story also brought me startlingly close to my own family’