I don’t remember much about my father. There is one moment I recall when I sat on his knee, cutting out soldiers and coloring them in.
Hans-Alexander von Voss was a lieutenant colonel in the German army during the Second World War. In a small town north east of Berlin, in November 1944, my father took his own life. I was five.
My father was one of a group of soldiers who intended to kill Hitler in 1944 in what was known as the July 20 plot. The effort was the culmination of resistance attempts to end the war. The soldiers involved hoped that by killing Hitler, they could make peace with the allies and hasten the end of the war.
But the assassination attempt went wrong. In the months afterwards, the Gestapo rounded up and executed thousands of people suspected of involvement.
The terror got closer, and my father received a warning call from a friend. He knew the danger he was in and he did what he had always resolved to do. “I cannot be certain that under torture, I would not reveal my friends’ thoughts and actions,” he had told my mother.
And so on November 8, 1944, my father went down to the Heinersdorfer Lake to buy fish as a present for my grandparents. My mother was back in our house with me, my older sister Ellen and my younger brother Hubertus. Mother was getting us ready for the trip to Berlin.
My father bought the fish. The fisherman’s son would later tell us that my father was actually rather calm and exchanged some small talk with his father.
Father did not come home. Instead he turned left into the park near our house, where the forest begins and stood on a sandy area under the protection of the tall trees.
You could hear the shot back in our house. He died in our mother’s arms.
Afterwards, as the Russian army advanced, my family fled from Berlin. We went to live with relatives. Once the war was over, I was sent to a boarding school, which was housed in what was formerly one of Himmler’s prison camps. There I was beaten by the son of Rudolf Hess and his gang. I was never allowed to forget that my father had betrayed his position. But there were many children who grew up without a father.
We were ostracized in the years after the war. People saw my family as traitors. Outside our home, society focused on the question of whether the soldiers involved in the plot had betrayed their position and their country.
My mother struggled to collect her pension as a widow and had to give explanations and justifications for her husband’s actions. She was isolated and she never recovered from her loss. Many resistance fighters died, still bitter that their struggles went unrecognized. In the decades following the war, the past became a zone of silence.
W.S. Sebald investigated this culture of silence in his novels. He and other writers have reflected upon the violence under dictatorship, people’s sense of responsibility and their actual guilt.
These writers describe what seems to have developed as a collective dementia. Their investigation is in no way finished. Their reflections are relevant today in considering discrimination and the abuse of human rights.
Günter Grass, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, describes a “self-censorship.” People say “I didn’t know,” or “I was forced to do it,” which he calls a schizoid reaction.
This way of thinking enables people to avoid truly engaging with the history of the Nazi period. Ultimately, it banishes the victims and opponents of National Socialism to a different world.