“The S.S. Officer’s Armchair – Uncovering the Hidden Life of a Nazi”
By Daniel Lee Published 2020 Available on Amazon
Reviewed by BERNIE BELLAN
In 2011 a British historian by the name of Daniel Lee had just completed his PhD in history “that examined the experiences of Jews in Vichy France.”
Lee is Jewish – and, as he explains during the course of his fascinating new book, “The S.S. Officer’s Armchair”, his family, originally from Poland, lost several relatives during the Holocaust.
But, simply by accident, in 2011 he was introduced to a young woman at a dinner party he was hosting in Florence, which was where he was living at the time. That chance encounter led to Lee’s going down a rabbit hole that took him all over Europe – and to the Unites\d States as well, in search of answers to a mystery that was unveiled to him at that party.
What happened is the young woman, who had heard that Lee was a historian of the Second World War, asked him whether he might be interested in examining some documents that her mother, who was living in Amsterdam, had discovered had been hidden in the cushion of an armchair that she had owned for years – ever since she herself was a young student in Prague.
The documents evidently belonged to someone by the name of Robert Griesinger who, as evidenced by all the swastikas imprinted on the documents, must have been some sort of a functionary in the Nazi regime.
Naturally, Lee was fascinated by the story he heard. He proceeded to Amsterdam to interview the woman’s mother and to examine the documents for himself. That initial journey led to Lee’s dogged pursuit of one clue after another as to the background of Robert Griesinger – and the eventual discovery that Griesinger was a member of the SS (also the Gestapo), who was very likely involved in atrocities during the war.
But, what set Griesinger apart from other Nazis whose crimes have been the subjects of lengthy investigations, however, was that he was not at all a notable member of any of the organizations to which he belonged. He was actually a lawyer by training, but as Lee shows, he wasn’t a particularly good one; in fact, his entire life can
be said to be noteworthy not because of anything exceptional he did, rather because his achievements can be described fairly as having been so mediocre.
What compelled Lee to spend years tracing the life of such an unimportant figure? As he explains early on, “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.”
At the same time Lee’s comprehensive investigation of Griesinger’s life adds to the body of knowledge that other historians, especially Daniel Goldhagen, in his “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”, have developed in showing not just how thoroughly aware most Germans were of the atrocities that were being committed by the Nazis, they were, if not actively supporting the Nazis, complicit in not objecting to what was so clearly happening.
It was the active and willing participation of hundreds of thousands of low-level functionaries working for the Nazi state that allowed the machinery of the regime to function. As Lee also notes, “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.”
How Lee goes about his tireless pursuit of leads that begin to fill out the mystery of those documents in the armchair forms the basis of a first-rate mystery novel, let alone a non-fiction work that relies on detailed footnoting – as one would expect from a professional historian.
Many of the individuals to whom Lee turns for information are either initially reluctant to speak with him or simply turn him down outright, but in time he is able to interview sufficient members of Griesinger’s surviving family members to arrive at a thorough knowledge of Griesinger’s life, from birth almost to death. It would be impossible to know the exact circumstances of Griesinger’s death in 1945 in Prague, as Lee explains, since following the defeat of the Nazis at the hands of the Russians, aided by Czech rebels, the tables were quickly turned on whatever Germans were living in Prague at that time and they were subjected to much the same atrocities that Nazis had perpetrated on so many Czechs for years.
But, in true mystery style, Lee does uncover some quite fascinating information about Lee’s probable death from dysentery – again, from a most unlikely source.
In researching his book Lee decided to go back as far as he could in sourcing Griesinger’s familial roots. To his surprise, he learns that Griesinger’s father was actually born in New Orleans, which is to where Griesinger’s grandfather had emigrated in the 19th century.
The American connection proves highly important to understanding not only Griesinger’s racist attitudes, also the attitudes of many other Germans, it turns out. As Lee uncovers information about German immigration to the deep south of the U.S., he learns that many Germans were involved in the slave trade – and when many Germans returned to Germany (as was the case in the 1870s when the U.S. was in the grip of a severe economic depression), they brought back those racist ideas with them.
Griesinger came from an upper class background, moreover, in which anti-Semitic attitudes, in addition to racist attitudes toward Blacks, were also typically deeply engrained. Much has already been written about how could such a sophisticated culture as was Germany’s have produced such abhorrently racist ideas, but in “The SS Officer’s Armchair,” Lee is able to probe the thinking of specific individuals in Griesinger’s family to show how relatively easy it was for Hitler’s racism to be commonly accepted within the German upper and middle upper classes.
One character in particular, Robert Griesinger’s mother, “Wally”, proves to be an invaluable source for Lee, as he comes across a detailed diary that Wally had kept from the time she was a young girl throughout her life and during the Second World War. The resentment that Wally exhibits towards those who “betrayed” Germany during the First World War, which was one of Hitler’s paramount themes in engendering support for his racist platform, helps put a clear understanding how Hitler was able to go from being a marginal figure eventually to the unquestioned ruler of the German Reich.
Griesinger’s family lived in Stuttgart, which is located in south-west Germany. Robert Griesinger’s home is now owned by Jochen Griesinger, a nephew of Robert’s who, it turns out, is not on speaking terms with either of Griesinger’s daughters, Barbara and Jutta. Jochen, however, was quite willing to talk to David Lee – and to show him around the house.
In the course of his investigation Lee discovers that two of Robert Griesinger’s next-door neighbours in Stuttgart, Helene and Fritz Rothschild, were Jewish. The Rothschilds were able to escape to Paris and survived the war. Almost all the other Jews in Stuggart were not so lucky.
Robert Griesinger was an unexceptional student. Given the German well-known propensity for record-keeping, Lee is able to find reports on Griesinger’s educational career from his earliest days at school throughout his period at Tubingen University. Remarkably Griesinger was able to obtain a doctorate in law but, disappointingly for him, the most he was able to do with that degree was teach agricultural law at a rural agricultural college.
There is no particular indication from anything that Lee is able to uncover that Griesinger was an early follower of National Socialism. But, as was the case with so many other of his peers, Griesinger saw the opportunity to career advancement by joining the party.
Eventually Griesinger became a member of both the Gestapo (secret police) and the SS (strike force). Although Lee is not able to produce any documentation to show that Griesinger was involved first hand in either the torture or murder of anyone, he is able to deduce from various records that, even if he wasn’t directly involved in any specific activities of that sort, he was at the scene where those activities took place.
In particular, while working for the Gestapo (as a lawyer), Griesinger’s place of work in Stuttgart was the Hotel Silber, which was used by the Gestapo to detain and torture individuals. Lee surmises that Griesinger, whose office was situated directly over the basement of the hotel, would have had to have heard the screams of the torture victims.
Later, during the actual war, Griesinger served for a time on the Eastern Front, in Ukraine, where he was eventually wounded and sent back to Stuttgart for rehabilitation. But, during Griesinger’s period of service in Ukraine, his Wehrmacht unit was stationed outside Kiev, and he was in service at the time 30,000 Jews were murdered at Babi Yar over a two-day period, which was the worst massacre of Jews to that date (later to be surpassed by other massacres in Odessa and Poland).
Griesinger had long wanted to be posted to Prague during the war, as Prague was seen as a haven of tranquility for Germans living there. In 1943 he got his wish and he was able to move his wife Gisela, his two daughters, and a stepson from a previous marriage of his wife, to Prague, where they were mostly spared the deprivations that ordinary Germans were suffering throughout Germany as the result of heavy Allied bombing.
While in Prague, Lee is able to piece together Griesinger’s duties, which involved the arrest and deportation of thousands of individuals, both Jews and non-Jews. His principal duty was to arrange for the shipment of Czechs to be used as slave labourers in German factories and mines. Griesinger was also responsible for the confiscation of Czech factories from their rightful owners – always done with the imprimatur of official Nazi regulations.
As Lee works his way through an ongoing series of visits to repositories of archives and interviews with anyone who might have some knowledge of Griesinger’s life, he is able to put together an amazingly detailed description of what life would have been like for Griesinger.
Considering that he was still conducting interviews as recently as 2018 the fact that he has produced such a compelling read is testament to his skill as not just a historian, but a very talented writer who was able to work quickly, as well.
Toward the end of his book Lee revisits his motivation in wanting to go to such extraordinary lengths to describe the life of a “faceless bureaucrat”: “This book shows that it is possible to trace the life of one of those ordinary Nazis whose role in war and genocide seems to have vanished from the historical record. Returning texture and agency to one such perpetrator affords Griesinger the opportunity to stand in for the thousands of anonymous ordinary Nazis whose widespread culpability wreaked havoc on so many lives and whose biographies have, until now, never seen the light of day.”
In looking at some of the reviews posted by readers on Amazon, there is a consistent theme of gratitude expressed to Lee for opening up a door to a part of history that has hitherto remained largely unknown – not because historians were disinterested in the subject; rather, they were stymied by the lack of evidence to paint the sort of detailed picture of just an “ordinary” Nazi bureaucrat that Lee has so brilliantly succeeded in doing. If it weren’t for that chance meeting at a Florence dinner party, however, this book would never have been written.