20 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 54

Dreadfully sorry about that

David Pryce-Jones

FATHER/LAND: A SEARCH FOR THE NEW GERMANY by Frederick Kempe Profile Books, £17.99, pp. 341 ALONG THE WALL AND WATCHTOWERS: A JOURNEY DOWN GERMANY'S DIVIDE by Oliver August HarperCollins, £1 7 99, pp. 237 Frederick Kempe is a distinguished American journalist who has long covered Germany, and perhaps the best feature of this peculiar reportage-cum-memoir is the sense he conveys of the guilt and self-pity which Germans feel because the rest of the world cannot help associating them with Hitler. Many of his friends and informants have fallen back on stratagems to launder their German identity, for instance marry- ing foreigners, learning other languages or living abroad. Of German origins, he goes out of his way to saddle himself with these same feelings of guilt and self-pity.

In 1930, his father, then a teenager, emi- grated to America, to Utah, through the unusual sponsorship of Mormon missionar- ies. A reticent man who spent his life as a baker in a supermarket, he married above himself — a descendant of the composer Schumann. Hitler's rise to power prevented the rest of the family from following. To the young Frederick, Germany was the old country and almost simultaneously the supreme enemy. After his father's death, he read family papers which made his her- itage seem all the more ambivalent.

For one thing, his Schumann grand- father, a Lutheran priest, had been sent to prison for beating his daughter, Frederick's mother. Far harder to bear, his father had evidently approved of Hitler. So a quest for truth began. First to give evidence about the family and its behaviour was Uncle Jared, who had also made his way to Utah in the end, but only after war service at Stalingrad. In San Diego, Cousin Manfred spoke about his father, Erich Kramer, an SA man, a friend of Horst Wessel and of Goebbels, captured on the eastern front and not returned by the Soviets until 1949, whereupon he was tried for war crimes. The best witness, he suggested, would be Franz Kramer, surviving son of the late Nazi Erich.

This Franz Kramer was in Lubeck, a printer who had gone straight after a career as a petty criminal. He authorised Kempe to read the official files on his father. The case was worse than anyone in the family had realised. As an SA man in the prewar years, the documents revealed, Erich Kramer had tortured with extreme sadism a number of innocent victims, some of whom died as a result. It is a reasonable supposition that he committed similar crimes in Poland and Russia, for which rea- son the Soviets had kept him imprisoned. On the kind of technicalities to which Ger- man courts so often resort as if by coinci- dence, he was acquitted at his trial.

The shock of discovering that his great- uncle by marriage was a Nazi thug and murderer appears to have set up a need in Kempe to apologise for himself and the whole of Germany. His story is broken up by lengthy passages which might well belong to a different book altogether. He visits a school, he talks to German soldiers in Bosnia, he spends time with the leader of an extreme Turkish Islamist group, he does the rounds with Ignaz Bubis, the somewhat creepy busybody who used to represent the Jewish community. And all this in the interest of establishing that Ger- mans are normal and democratic and new, adjectives which he repeats with the regu- larity of a mantra. Germany, he also likes to claim time and again, is called on to lead Europe, to reconcile Turkey with Europe, to be a European exemplar of America.

But who is doing all this calling, and how can he promise so faithfully that it will not end in going ape as before? Why does he fail to discuss the nationalist backlash, the East Germans unhappy with reunification, the disaffected and violent youths free- floating in large numbers between commu- nism and neo-Nazism? This book drains away in the special pleading so widespread in Germany, seeking to evade hard facts through personal melodrama. And come on, Kempe, bear up, the guy was only a great-uncle by marriage.

Oliver August is a young German who completed his education in England. 'The German nation finds it as hard as ever to love itself,' he self-flagellates like everyone else, but with a tinge of cheekiness and energy. In his mother's red car, he set off to drive the length of the old Iron Curtain, now a relic. Lots of places, lots of people, one of them being General Klaus-Dieter Baumgarten, former commander of the East German frontier guards, now serving a prison sentence for it, and still too smug a brute to have evolved to the next stage of guilt and self-pity.