It all began with recurring nightmares when he was in his mid-20s. Sebastian Heinzel, a German filmmaker born in 1979, would dream of war, of fighting in battles and riding on tanks, of scenes from World War II in Russia. He had no explanation for his dreams, movies were as close as he had ever gotten to war, and he had no first-hand experience with any kind of violence. The nightmares stressed him, so, seeking answers, he began to look into his family history.
All he knew was that both his grandfathers had been in the war. That was the starting point for what became years of research — and he found out that he was not alone with his concerns.
Germany’s Federal Archives, which among other things store the files of the armed forces in Nazi Germany, receive tens of thousands of inquiries every year from people searching for their family history.
“Our ancestors shape us more than we think,” Sebastian Heinzel says. His search lasted six years, and culminated in the documentary film The War in Me. Where did the war take his grandfather, long deceased, and what did he do? Why did he never talk about it?
It took the West Germans years before they started to deal with their history under the Nazis. Nazi rule lasted for 12 years; the war Nazi Germany instigated with the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 cost the lives of about 60 million people; and about six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust by the Nazis and their allies. But after Germany’s capitulation in 1945, many people suppressed and denied what had happened — until the 1960s.
The youth protests that peaked in 1968 fueled the reappraisal. Today, the international community praises the German culture of remembrance. In an interview, US philosopher Susan Neiman recently said the way the Germans came to terms with their history was a “masterly achievement.” This does not mean that racism or anti-Semitism no longer exist in Germany.
Today, coming to terms with German history has a firm place in school curricula and educational institutions. Every child in Germany has to study the Nazi period in detail beginning in the 8th or 9th grade, at about the age of 14, be it in their German, history or social sciences classes.
So Sebastian Heinzel knew the shocking facts about the Nazis and the Holocaust. But he felt no personal connection to it, he says. “At some point, as a student, I couldn’t stand hearing it any more — I asked myself: ‘What has any of this got to do with me?'”
That question comes as a surprise — after all, at least one of his grandfathers fought in the war, and was a part of it. But like in many other families in Germany, Heinzel’s family rarely discussed the war. The issue was too touchy, and perhaps people felt shame over the question of guilt. “Neither my father nor his sister knew what my grandfather did in the war or where he was,” Heinzel says.
Families need to come to terms with emotions
Iris Wangermann, born in 1975, is a German psychologist who gives workshops for so-called “war grandchildren,” a term coined in the 1990s that refers to people whose parents were significantly influenced by the war when they were children.
There is an “emotional fog” in many families, a kind of “speechlessness,” Wangermann says, adding that is not really surprising in view of the horrors of war. “If you want to deal with these feelings, you have to be able to regulate and endure them,” the psychologist says, arguing that takes inner stability. “But the generation of war children was often not able to develop such stability which is why they may simply bottle things up as a kind of unconscious protective reaction.”
The power of nature inspires Iris Wangermann in her work
The problem is that unprocessed experiences or traumas have an impact on daily life and can be passed on to the next generation. If parents are not able to open up emotionally due to perhaps drastic experiences, they cannot pass on this ability to their children. That gets passed on through the generations.
‘A task for our generation’
The good news is that this process can be halted by coming to terms with one’s own (family) history — be it alone, with friends, in courses or in therapy. Iris Wangermann says people looking for orientation often attend the “war grandchild” courses she offers outdoors, in nature. “Many have no idea who they really are,” she says. Parents traumatized by the war would usually not give their children much feedback about their positive character traits. “These children were supposed to behave in a way that the parents could endure, but they could not be themselves.” That’s a key issue, she says — they are not seen for who they really are.
Wangermann also studied her family history for many years. You find out a lot about the war that way, she says. But the true answer to the question of what impact that has on you two generations later lies within you, she says. It doesn’t take heroes and heroines, but “people who set out to explore their souls, who dare to face their own demons.”
Many stories untold
That is what Sebastian Heinzel set out to do. He went in search of his grandfather and found himself. He found out that his grandfather was a non-commissioned Wehrmacht officer stationed in Belarus, and he located where he was finally wounded. But he was not able to find out what exactly his grandfather did, nor why he, like so many of the men of his time, never spoke about his experiences.
When Sebastian Heinzel thinks of his grandfather, he remembers an “incredibly hard-working man,” he says — and he sees himself, too. His grandfather was part of the generation that rebuilt Germany after the war. As time went by, the grandson noticed that there was a kind of pressure in his family to be achievers. “It’s not enough that I am just the way I am, I have to do something to be recognized and to acknowledge myself,” he says. Both his grandfather and his father were to a certain degree workaholics. Was it a kind of unconscious compensation for the guilt from World War II? Sebastian Heinzel can’t say for sure, but he can’t rule it out either.
“I think there are many things that have not been worked through and many stories that have not been told,” Heinzel says. He adds that within his family, it seems to have fallen to him to deal with the emotional fallout. “I think that’s part of the job for our generation.”
Over the past years, at least, he has had fewer nightmares.