‘I’m sorry I was a Nazi’

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In our memoir-suffused culture, we can read about any experience under the sun. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a memoir about a Nazi trying to explain her choices in life — until now. Fifty years after its initial publication, “Account Rendered,” written by Melita Maschmann, is being re-published. Over at the New Yorker’s website, Helen Epstein, the  publisher of the new edition, provides the backstory:

Before and during the Second World War, Maschmann worked in the high echelons of press and propaganda of the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the girls’ section of the Nazi youth organization, and, later, she supervised the eviction of Polish farmers and the resettlement of ethnic Germans on their farms. Arrested in 1945 at the age of twenty-seven, she completed a mandatory de-Nazification course and became a freelance journalist.

This was, by all accounts, one of the first and most popular accounts of a former Nazi accounting for her past, and it was definitely the first by a woman. The book is written in the form of letters to a Jewish friend, which adds a layer to the complexity of the project. How do you apologize to a close Jewish friend for being a Nazi? Can it sound like anything but lame rationalizations?

Maschmann is acutely aware that her friend might view her project as self-justifying, but writes, ‘Even the element of fate in a person’s life does not dispose of individual guilt, I know that. What I hope, dare to hope, is that you might be able to understand—not excuse—the wrong and even evil steps which I took and which I must report, and that such an understanding might form the basis for a lasting dialogue.

If only it were that simple. For years after the book’s initial publication, it was unclear if Maschmann was actually writing to a real childhood friend, or if she was using a construct. Maschmann moved to India and adopted a Hindu name, so she could not be reached for comment. But it emerged over time that, indeed, Maschmann was attempting to reach out to a real friend, Marianne Schweitzer:

At ninety-five, Schweitzer is an impressively sharp, brisk, and busy woman, who attends a weekly yoga class and still volunteers at the San Diego Museum of Man. She told us that in the spring of 1933, when she had just turned fifteen and was failing Latin and math, her mother had her transferred to a new high school, where Melita became her best friend. They did their homework together, discussed literature and exchanged confidences.

They also spent much of their time discussing the politics of the day, but the relationship began to fray when Maschmann entered the Hitler Youth and tried to convert Schweitzer to Nazism. These letters of apology take on an even deeper personal quality. Maschmann, as she confesses in her memoir, actually spied on the Schweitzer family for the Gestapo, resulting in the arrest of both Schweitzer’s sister and mother.

So did any of this help repair and shattered relationship?

Not really. Though Maschmann continued to write to Schweitzer throughout her entire life, Schweitzer never felt comfortable responding. But on the eve of the book’s release, Maschmann was able to convince Schweitzer to read her book and discuss it. Schweitzer recalls that the conversation did not go well, but appreciated the bravery required to publish a book of this kind.

 

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