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

Robert Griesinger and family in Prague, 1943, photo: archive of Jochen and Irmela Griesinger, Penguin Random House UK

British historian Daniel Lee is a specialist in the history of Jews in France and North Africa during the Holocaust. His latest book, The SS Officer’s Armchair: Uncovering the hidden life of a Nazi, is the story of a German lawyer named Robert Griesinger who joined the Gestapo, served in the Wehrmacht, and then in occupied Prague. In the first part of this interview, we learned how a cache of Griesinger’s documents, found hidden in an armchair, compelled Daniel Lee to research the life of this “ordinary Nazi”, to better understand the inner workings of the Third Reich.

The very ordinariness of Robert Griesinger, a man who existed in only a handful of bureaucratic documents, and lost to history made him all the more intriguing for Daniel Lee, a historian of the Second World War. He writes:

‘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?’

Daniel Lee’s search for Robert Griesinger was to last five years. On a list of German Public Employees in Prague, he 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.

He would learn that the SS officer’s father, Adolf, had been born in New Orleans, Louisiana, into a German-American family that owned enslaved people; he would also come to know Griesinger’s two daughters, Jutta and Barbara, living in Germany and Switzerland; and a nephew with a trove of writing kept by Griesinger’s mother.

Robert Griesinger’s Corps portrait,  c. 1925,  photo: archive of Jochen and Irmela Griesinger,  Penguin Random House UK

“Robert Griesinger emerges from the voices of others, very often. I wasn’t able to find his diary, if he had ever kept one. But fortunately – and it’s so rare for a historian to have – eventually, I was able to track down the family living in Stuttgart, living in the same house where he had grown up – this beautiful enormous house that didn’t look like any others in the area because it turned out that his father was American, from New Orleans, and wanted his house to serve as a reminder to his Southern heritage. The blueprint shows that it was meant to resemble a southern planation.

“So, having access was fantastic. After several visits, the family trusted me, and I was able to rummage around and look for things, and the one day I found tons of his mother’s correspondence and diaries and all kinds of things she had kept – she kept a diary of her son from the day he was born until the day he went to university.

“And she’s also writing about the First World War. He was born in 1906 and so was a part of this generation who didn’t fight but was shaped by the devastating experience. The end of the war in 1918 was the collapse of everything – we’re talking about an entire generation that was shaped by this devastating experience of the First World War and the national humiliation that followed.

“So, his mother’s diary obviously gave an awful lot of insight into his personality, and then later I could interview his daughters and had access to his official correspondence, when working for the Gestapo in the 1930s and in Nazi-occupied Prague in the 1940s at the Ministry of Economics and Labour – I was able to get his voice through the official, bureaucratic documents.”

A page from Robert Griesinger’s ‘Child Book’,  kept by his mother,  c. 1910,  photo: archive of Jochen and Irmela Griesinger,  Penguin Random House UK

With that diary as a roadmap, Daniel Lee tracked Griesinger’s trajectory from an unremarkable, pampered schoolboy during the First World War to an ambitious, politically engaged teenager and later law student at Tübingen University, then Germany’s most reactionary seat of learning, full of students and professors alike yearning for a resurgent fatherland under Hitler.

“In 1925, at Tübingen University, he had joined a student fraternity, one of these very right-wing fencing associations, which was how he got the scar on his cheek. And a lot of these men from Tübingen ended up in Prague during the war – it was thanks to this university connection that he was able to transfer there, something a lot of specialists hadn’t really considered – these links between Stuttgart and Prague during the Second World War. These connections he made as a young man were very important to him and came in very handy for him as he was trying to climb the ladder through the Nazi years.”

His daughters [Jutta and Barbara], who were in their seventies when you spoke to them, were very forthcoming and eager to learn, as you learned – because he was such a blank for them. You write that the more documents you got your hands on, the more complicit you realised he was – that he was a ‘desk murderer’, as you put it. Could you tell me a bit about his work in Prague?

“So, in the 1930s he was in the Gestapo in Stuttgart as a lawyer – he was always working basically with legal questions throughout his career as a civil servant. He fought in the Second World War with the Wehrmacht, first in France and then in Russia, and got wounded there. After recovering in Stuttgart through 1942, he got posted to Prague – thanks to his brilliant connections formed at university.

The ‘Hotel Silber’ in Stuttgart,  the Gestapo headquarters where Robert Griesinger worked as a lawyer,  photo: Public Domain

“He was working at the Ministry of Economics and Labour, a really, really important ministry in Nazi-occupied Prague. Much of the purpose of the Protectorate was to transform it to make it work for the German war effort. So, a lot of factories suddenly came under German control. A lot of people were sent to do forced labour, either in different parts of the Protectorate or in Nazi Germany and Austria.

“So it was very, very important that these businesses were functioning properly and from the legal point of view, that’s what Griesinger was in charge of – making sure everything was going to plan. For example, on one occasion he was very cross with Bulgaria because the Protectorate was producing a lot of glass at that time [including beer bottles] that had to be sent back in order to be recycled – there was a massive glass shortage.

“I remember one point in the archive laughing because he’d written such a strongly worded report talking about Bulgaria ‘just not doing their recycling!’ It’s not the kind of language that I was expecting a Nazi from the 1940s to be using. So these were the kinds of things he would be doing, he’d be making sure Czech-owned businesses were being closed or working entirely for the war effort, and that people would be rounded up whenever possible and sent away to do forced labour – and in under just terrible conditions in Germany. The factories were close to the railway lines and so when the Allied bombs were being dropped, the Czech workers sent there were often among the first to fall victim. And, of course, he has a responsibility in all of this.”

You managed to identify and find the daughter of one of the [German-speaking] Czech maids who worked for the family and a lot of tangential people in his life, but for the most part, understandably, many were very reluctant to speak to you, to have any connection made in print to their homes and where this particular Nazi lived.

Robert Griesinger in Wehrmacht uniform c. 1939,  photo: Penguin Random House UK

“I found that to be the case in the Czech Republic. I didn’t find that anywhere else, to be honest. I don’t think I answered your question properly before about his daughters, with whom I managed to strike up a relationship and who were more than cordial – they were extremely open, they wanted me to pursue this story about their father as much as I could. They were fully on board from the start.

“So, of course I would be invited to their homes and interview them time and time again to find out as much as I could from them about their father. But often we would have a role reversal at a certain point and they would start to ask me lots of questions about their father, which again is quite unusual for a historian.

“But for example, I tried to gain access to the house he and his wife had lived for a couple of years during the Second World War, and of course Prague would have been this dream posting for any German official – you know, the best German theatre, cinema, music et cetera was in Prague. Allied bombers could rarely even reach Prague. So, he was able to lead a wonderful life – his daughters could go to the most wonderful German schools.”

You write about some of the papers you found relating to holidays they took, visiting relatives in Lichtenstein, that kind of thing. Were you also struck by just how normal their family life seemed to be, at least on the surface, in occupied Prague and during the height of the war?

“That was definitely something that struck me a lot – the kinds of things he and his wife and children would be doing; how life really did seem to go on. As I said, they were in this privileged position as being Germans. They had all the extra rations and other materials the local Czech population obviously could not have.

“Life was very, very good for this family – for most German families, the parents went to lots of parties, socialising. The children have very fond memories of that time with their parents in occupied Prague. They really thought, of course, that Germany would win the war – even for months and months after D-Day. People thought Hitler was somehow going to turn things around.

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

“I found a document in the armchair that showed the entire family had gone on holiday in July 1944, so weeks after D-Day. They went to Lichtenstein, where Griesinger’s wife’s family were living. I remember being with one of his daughters, Barbara, and she just couldn’t get over the fact that they returned to Prague. Her life would have been completely different. But he obviously felt this loyalty to his employer, his boss at the Ministry – and this belief that Germany was somehow going to win the war. And let’s not forget: the alternative would have been terrible – the ‘communist menace’, which for someone like Griesinger would have been unthinkable.

“Anyway, they lived in Bubeneč and I tried to visit the house they had lived in. I got the address, rang the bell a couple of times, left a note. Eventually, the current owner wrote to me saying they didn’t want to get caught up in a story about the Nazis. And I totally understand that. It’s a shame, because it would have been wonderful to get a special sense of that house in Prague, not least to take some pictures to show his daughters to see what kind of memories that might provoke.

“But I did manage to track down his maid, which took me ages to figure out – of all the maids in Nazi-occupied Prague, how on earth was I going to find the one who had happened to live in his house. But I managed to do it.”

A passport issued in Prague to Robert Griesinger in June 1944, found in the ‘SS officer’s armchair’, valid for one year, was likely hidden during the Liberation of May 1945, a time when, after six years of the Occupation, sections of the Czechoslovak population took part in sporadic killings. Griesinger, too old for regular military service, had joined the Volkssturm, a civilian militia founded in late 1944. Was he captured? Did he surrender?

There are still quite a few mysteries connected to this particular Nazi. In the beginning, it seems he had been shot either by Czechs or Soviet soldiers, and then you found that in all likelihood he died in hospital from disease. What are some of the burning, unanswered questions?

“That was of course one question – how did he die? His nephew in Stuttgart, a man in his eighties, was totally convinced that his uncle had been shot in Prague during the Liberation. Robert Griesinger’s mother was desperate to find out what happened and had a Czech neighbour who she paid and sent to Prague in 1946 to find out exactly what had happened.

“After several weeks, this neighbour returned to Stuttgart with earth from a cemetery in Prague, where she told the family that Robert Griesinger had been murdered in a hospital and his body thrown into a mass grave. Now, we know that things like this were happening in the spring of 1945 all across the Czech lands, there were reprisals against the Germans after six years of the Occupation.

“A lot of Czechs unleashed some vengeance and took their revenge and there were other atrocities – a drop in the ocean when we compare what the Czech people had suffered during the occupation, the amount of physical and mental anguish at the hands of Heydrich – especially following his assassination.

“So, it was up to me to discover whether he had been killed or, like it said in his official death certificate, which I found in Prague, whether he had died in hospital Speaking to experts and visiting archives, it was very clear that a lot of people were killed in hospitals – but it never said ‘killed in a hospital’ on the death certificate; it would list some kind of horrid illness – diphtheria, dysentery, whooping cough, something like that was recorded as the cause of death.

“I heard time and time again stories of Germans being led to the top floor of a hospital roof and then thrown off the roof, either by the Red Army or Czech partisans, while other partisans at the bottom, with their guns pointing upwards, and it would be a sort of competition to see whether the German would be killed by bullet or hit the ground first.

“So, I tried my best to try to answer this question, but I knew it would be very hard and complex area to get any certainty on. Eventually, ended up at Dablice cemetery in Prague, which according to lots of sources, indicates that that is his final resting place. And he died, or was killed, in September 1945.”

Daniel Lee, author of The SS Officer’s Armchair: Uncovering the hidden life of a Nazi, is a senior lecturer in modern history at Queen Mary, University of London. A specialist in the history of Jews in France and North Africa during the Second World War, he completed his doctorate at the University of Oxford, and is also the author of Pétain's Jewish Children.

Author: Brian Kenety
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