‘The SS Officer’s Armchair: Uncovering the hidden life of a Nazi’ stationed in occupied Prague, part I

Photo: Penguin Random House UK

Dr Robert Griesinger, a low-ranking Nazi official and SS Officer stationed in Prague in the final years of the Second World War, entered the life of British historian Daniel Lee quite unexpectedly. It began with an antique armchair, taken in for repair by a Czech émigré living in Amsterdam, unaware that sewn into the seat cushion was a stash of personal documents covered in swastikas. Lee’s new book The SS Officer’s Armchair tells two intertwined stories. One story is the life of Dr Griesinger, an ambitious young lawyer from Stuttgart who joined the Gestapo, served in the Wehrmacht, and became a Holocaust perpetrator – a ‘desk murder’ – in Prague. The other story is of the uncovering of the life of ‘an ordinary Nazi’, tracing how a historian accesses and uncovers new material, deals with ‘wilful forgetting’, and how disturbing revelations reverberate in the lives of generations to come.

Daniel Lee is a specialist in the history of Jews in France and North Africa during the Holocaust. When people learn he is a historian of the Second World War, he says, they are often compelled to share their own family stories – for which he is grateful, “as no two are ever the same”. His search for the Robert Griesinger started in 2011 and was to last five years, leading him to Prague, Berlin, Stuttgart, Zurich, New Orleans and German provincial towns where the SS Officer had studied and worked. It all began with a mysterious armchair.

“I’d finished my PhD in Britain and was in Italy for a year doing research in Florence. I was new to the city and had a small gathering at my place of other researchers and academics. And a young [Dutch] woman came up to me and so, ‘Oh, you’re a historian of the Second World War! The strangest thing just happened to my mother’ – which I already found extraordinary, because usually when people tell me something about the war, they tell me about a grandmother in the French Resistance or an uncle who had been deported – things haven’t ‘just happened’ when I hear these tales.

The armchair featured in Daniel Lee's book,  photo: Courtesy of 'Jana',  Penguin Random House UK

“She told me that her [Czech] mum, living in Amsterdam, had taken this old armchair to be reupholstered a few week earlier, and when she returned to collect it, the guy doing the repair work was really angry with her. He said, ‘What is this? I don’t work for Nazis – or their families!’ And her mum was completely dumbfounded – she had no idea what he was talking about. And he presented her with a stash, a whole bundle of documents all covered in swastikas. Everything belonged to one man, called Robert Griesinger.”

The Czech woman (called “Jana” in the book) had bought the armchair at a shop on Celetná Street in Prague’s Old Town back in the seminal year of 1968, when starting her studies at Charles University and on the lookout for cheap but tasteful furniture. The walnut veneer and plush cushioned seat of the armchair caught her eye. In the early 1980s, when Jana and her young family got permission to leave Communist Czechoslovakia to settle in the Netherlands, the armchair was among the few things she took with her, unaware of its likely provenance.

“She couldn’t bear to be separated from this armchair. So, that’s how it came into her life. And it was very obvious from the start that this chair had a Prague connection, and the documents had a Prague connection – that they had nothing to do with the Netherlands. There was document after document linked to the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia from 1939 to 1945.”

Daniel Lee,  photo: Jules Annan,  Penguin Random House UK

All the documents had Griesinger’s name on them – including wartime passports, war bonds, uncashed stocks and a certificate showing he passed civil service exam in 1933, two years after completing his PhD in law. They revealed only that he was born in Stuttgart in 1906 and dispatched to Nazi-occupied Prague in March 1943.

“And so the documents were given to me, and Jana basically asked me ‘Who was this guy? Who was this Robert Griesinger? And how on earth did his documents end up inside my armchair for seventy years?’

And, of course, at that time, you had no idea.

“No, none. I’m a historian of the Second World War, so of course I have hundreds of books on hand and I did the usual thing of looking up names in indexes and online – but there was nothing whatsoever about this guy. He was just totally forgotten by history. At first, I presumed that maybe he wasn’t even a Nazi – after all, even Jews had swastikas all over their official documentation.

“But very quickly I did a research trip to Prague – I was really interested in the chair itself, wanted to know all about it. I’d heard all these stories of furniture being shipped being shipped East during WWII from Jewish-owned homes in Western Europe, from Germany, France, the Netherlands. When the Jews were deported, it was very common for their furniture to be shipped either to help German families who had lost theirs in Allied bombings, or to furnish offices and homes in the newly conquered territories, such as Poland or the Protectorate.”

Robert Griesinger's passport,  photo: Courtesy of Jutta Mangold,  Penguin Random House UK

Daniel Lee sent photos of Jana’s armchair to experts hoping they might shed light on its provenance. All agreed it was inspired by a German-born cabinetmaker named Michael Thonet, who had invented solid-wood bending in the 1840s. Lee trawled through hundreds of architectural and home-design magazines from 1930s Czechoslovakia at the library of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, looking for a match. The closest was from a collection by the Czech-Jewish designer Emil Gerstel, whose furniture company in Prague was taken over by the Germans in 1940.

“I took pictures with me and interviewed tons of chair-makers in Prague to find out what I could – I wanted to know everything I could about this chair. Was it Czech, was it German, had it been brought from somewhere else, who would it have appealed to? Obviously, I also went to the National Archives and several others in Prague, to try to dig out what I could about this guy Robert Griesinger, whose name didn’t appear anywhere. And that’s when I learned he had been in Prague from spring 1943 until the end of the war – and had been in the SS.”

One of the things that struck me early on in your book is that process you’ve described, of going to meet chair-makers, second-hand stores and upholsterers so on, and one guy saying, ‘I find hidden papers in furniture every day!’ And you thinking just how many countless stories have been lost in this way to history.

“Right – I was interviewing all these chair-makers and knocking on doors of ateliers and workshops and going to antique stores. I wanted them to take my questions seriously, not to think I was wasting their time, so of course I had to share why this particular chair was so interesting. So, I was like, ‘Inside this chair’ – and I’d pause for effect – there were Nazi documents!’ And nobody in Prague could give a… They didn’t care at all – unlike in Amsterdam, where the discovery was a big deal. One guy said to me, ‘This was Communist Czechoslovakia for God’s sake – I find stuff every day hidden in all kinds of things.’ It wasn’t a big deal for these guys.”

Robert Griesinger  (right) in Wehrmacht uniform with one of the horses from the 25th Infantry Division c. 1939,  photo: Courtesy of Jutta Mangold,  Penguin Random House UK

Academic history usually follows a standard path, Daniel Lee writes: ‘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.’ But his pursuit of Griesinger followed the reverse path: it began with the sources. His initial focus on the armchair stemmed from feeling he had to reassemble the historical and social context in which Griesinger had operated as best he could, in order to discover how those personal documents came to be hidden.

Do you remember the moment when you first thought, ‘This is a book – or I’m onto something here’?

“Yes… After going to the archives in Prague and getting a sense of what his work was like – as a historian, you obviously have to multiple visits and don’t always get the answers the first time; so there multiple trips to Prague, visiting collections, libraries and archives. But after my first trip, I went to Berlin to look at the SS archives because files in Prague had shown he was in the SS. Only a third of the SS files [on a million members] survived –the Nazis destroyed a lot, but they were also heavily bombed by the Allies at the end of the war.

“I found that Robert Griesinger’s file had not been destroyed and straight away saw there was a story here – about this young, handsome man with a [fencing] scar on his face, sort of coming into the world during the 1930s and thriving in the new society that Hitler was trying to create – and as I got more and more sources, it became more and more obvious it was a book I had to write.

“He wasn’t Hitler, Himmler or Heydrich – one of these infamous guys at the top that everybody has heard of. But to actually understand the inner workings of the Third Reich, we have to do a lot more than to understand its leaders. It was these ‘ordinary Nazis’, people like Robert Griesinger, who made up its ranks, and whose role in war, in genocide and everything else had vanished from the historical record. When I started finding out more about this lower-ranking Nazi, that’s when I realised I had to write this book. That there’s next to nothing about these people.”

On a list of German Public Employees in Prague, Daniel Lee came across Griesinger’s name and address, a brief description of his employment and title: SS Obersturmführer. In time, the limited paper trail would lead him to living relatives, including a nephew living in the original family home in Stuttgart and a diary Griesinger’s mother had kept from the day he was born until he left for university.

In the second part of our interview with British historian Daniel Lee on his new book The SS Officer’s Armchair, we delve into the surprising network of connections between Stuttgart and Nazi-occupied Prague, the nature of the work the ‘desk murderer’ Robert Griesinger did as a Gestapo lawyer and later civil servant in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and how the SS Officer – the grandson of German-American slave owners in Louisiana – likely met his death in liberated Czechoslovakia.