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In the Shadow of Krupp: Dealing with a Troubled Family Legacy

Posted on the 19 September 2011 by Periscope @periscopepost
In the shadow of Krupp: Dealing with a troubled family legacy

My grandfather’s funeral, Villa Hügel in Essen, 1940.

‘Are you a Nazi?’

It is 1986. I am nine years old, standing underneath the big conker tree outside the dayboy locker room, and talking to Colgate. Colgate is in the year above; more importantly, he is captain of the Under-11 rugby team.

I don’t know what a Nazi is.

‘Are you a tube of toothpaste?’ I reply. As soon as the words have passed my lips, I regret them. The response sounded much wittier in my mind than it does now, suspended in the autumn sunlight between us.

Colgate raises a quizzical eyebrow but gallantly lets the remark pass.

‘My father says all Germans are Nazis, that’s all.’


That evening, when my mother comes to say goodnight, I ask her, ‘Mummy, what is a Nazi?’

She looks horrified. ‘Where did you hear that word?’

‘Colgate asked me if I was a Nazi.’

My mother purses her lips.

‘Promise me that if anyone ever asks you that, you’ll tell me straight away. I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again. Do you promise?’

‘Yes, mummy.’

Ha! She must think I’m an idiot. I can recognize a one-way ticket to Snitchville when I see one.

My mother kisses me goodnight. After she has left, as I am lying in bed, I resolve not to be German.


Throughout the rest of my school career, I downplay my German origins. I do not feel particularly dishonest doing this. I never spent any time in Germany, and although my father’s family came from the industrial Ruhr, my father himself was born and grew up in Austria. I spend every winter in Switzerland, where my father is the instructor on the Cresta Run. So, when my long German name leads people to ask where I am from, I say I am Austrian-Swiss.

It is easy for me to distance myself from my German background. I sound English, I have an English sense of humour, and I enjoy sports. With those qualities, pretty much anyone can survive in an English public school, whatever their origins. Of course, I am aware of an underlying anti-German sentiment, bolstered by the Commando magazines which schoolboys devour during chapel. However, I do not feel threatened by taunts of ‘Ze Germans are coming! Die English pig-dog!’ Even when the World Cup comes around, and chants of ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’ echo down the corridors of my boys’ boarding house, I feel secure in my Austrian-Swiss identity.

Occasionally, an academically inclined peer will ask me about my relationship with the Krupp family and their armaments and steel industry, but usually they know more about it than I do. It is only post-adolescence that I gain the self-confidence which allows me to investigate my German roots. I learn that my great-grandmother was Bertha Krupp, after whom the Big Bertha cannon was named. I find out that my great uncle, Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, was indicted at Nuremberg and sentenced to twelve years’ imprisonment for his use of slave labour (although he was pardoned after 3 years). And I realise, somewhat to my surprise, that the history of my family is intimately bound up with the history of Germany. For the first time, I come across the saying: Wenn Krupp blüht, blüht Deutschland. When Krupp prospers, Germany prospers.

I recall fragments of my own experience. I remember going to visit Alfried’s son and my father’s cousin, Arndt von Bohlen und Halbach, a famously flamboyant homosexual who lived in a castle in the Austrian Alps. I only met him once, when I was six years old. I remember sitting in the entrance hall, surrounded by replica toy cannons cast in bronze. Arndt swept into the room. I remember thinking that he was the strangest man I had ever seen. I now realize that he was wearing a lot of makeup.

Arndt died two years later, during my second year at prep school, at around the same time that Colgate was asking me whether I was a Nazi. I did not attend Arndt’s funeral, though I later discovered that he had left very precise instructions for my role. I was to walk behind his sarcophagus bearing a red cushion with a jewel-encrusted dagger. The dagger was designed so that it would shatter in three places upon impact. As his sarcophagus was being lowered into the earth, I was to hurl the dagger onto it. In his fertile imagination, this was intended to symbolise some bizarre form of dynastic renewal.

My parents decided that Arndt’s fantasy would be too emotionally scarring for me, so I never got to shatter the dagger. Years later, his wife – a witty Austrian Princess who had her own reasons for marrying a notorious homosexual – presented me with a brooch depicting the letter ‘A’ in precious stones. Apparently Arndt had had a number of these made; he used to confer them ceremoniously upon those people who had served him with particular distinction.

In the 1960s, Arndt decided that he wanted to turn his Austrian castle, and the estate attached to it, into an independent principality. He set the legal wheels in motion, though to no one’s surprise but his own, nothing came of it. Somewhat precipitously, he had a coronation portrait painted of himself wielding a scepter and bauble, which still hangs beside the huge fireplace in the castle. That is the lighter, more colourful side of my family history.

There is also Krupp’s use of slave labour during the war, their massive production of armaments, and their complicity with the Third Reich. How do I feel about that? I think it would be wrong to feel ashamed about something that happened half a century before my birth, and that I had nothing to do with. Nevertheless, there is one question I have found myself asking again and again: what would I have done if I had been born in that place, at that time? I think that is a question everyone should ask themselves, though possibly Germans feel a greater obligation to do so than most. Personally, I have explored these ideas through writing To Greet the Sun.

A few years ago, a three-part television docudrama about the Krupp family came out in Germany. It was screened over Christmas and was watched by seven million viewers. The film explored the symbiotic relationship between Krupp and Germany. It showed the company’s legendary concern for their (German) workers and their provision of free health care and social security long before that was a legal requirement. It also showed Krupp’s complicity with the Third Reich. After the film was screened, I received an email from a former Krupp employee – a Kruppianer – thanking me for the role my family had played in his and his family’s life. For a moment I felt a flush of pride – but only for a moment. One should only feel pride for the good if one is prepared to feel shame for the bad.

I was also contacted by a producer who asked whether I would be interested in presenting a documentary about my family. The offer forced me to reflect on how I now see myself in relation to Krupp and its complex history. In the end I declined the offer. I do not wish to deny or hide from any aspect of my family’s past; indeed, I think it is important to recognise the influence that it has had on me. But at the same time I do not want my background to define me. I will be content if I am able to strike that balance.

To Greet the Sun by Claus von Bohlen is published by Old Street Publishing, £12.99

Claus von Bohlen’s website is here.

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