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Hitler’s Children


Their family names alone evoke horror: Himmler, Goering, Hess.
Hitler’s Children is a film about the descendants of the most powerful figures in the Nazi regime: men and women who were left a legacy that permanently associates them with one of the greatest crimes in history. What is it like for them to have grown up with a name that immediately raises images of murder and genocide? How do they cope with the fact that they are the children of Nazis… literally, not just metaphorically.


  • The Times- Hitler's Children; BBC Two, The Times- Review
    This remarkable documentary showed that the myth of bad blood, which held the Nazis in thrall, is hard to kill.

    Most of us carry around brief family histories in our heads and, if we are lucky, they offer some sustenance: stories of honest poverty, perhaps, or public service, maybe, even, heroism. But what if those tales had, as Heinrich Himmler’s great niece put it in the remarkable documentary Hitler’s Children, the capacity to kill you?

    This was not hyperbole. Chanoch Ze’evi’s superb film — following the not-so-distant descendents of Himmler; Hans Frank, governor general of occupied Poland; Hermann Goering, founder of the Gestapo; Amon Goeth, commandant of Plaszow concentration camp; and Rudolf Hoess of Auschwitz — recorded a suicide, early death, social isolation and, in the case of Bettina Goering, whose great uncle was Hitler’s second-in-command, sterilisation. Her brother, having done the same, announced he had “cut the line”. The myth of bad blood, which held the Nazis in thrall, is hard to kill.

    The best thing to do with family histories such as these turned out to be to explore them to death, publish books, give lectures. The process may tear apart your family, reduce you to monomania and reanimate rather than exorcise those six million ghosts in your head, but they build, said the daughter of the author Niklas Frank, son of Hans, a fortification against the horror for the generations to come.

    The most extraordinary part of the extraordinary film was Rainer Hoess’s visit to Auschwitz. He had been haunted by photographs of his father growing up in some kind of idyllic childhood in the private ground attached to the death camp, driving toy cars, beautifully made by the inmates. A simple iron garden gate led to the camp. Rainer went through the gateway of his nightmares. Afterwards he met a party of Israeli children. One of whom, who had lost her family at his grandfather’s hands, broke down in tears. What would he do if he met him? “I would kill him myself,” he said. A survivor of the camp stood up and hugged him. For Rainer it was a moment of inner joy, but he did not cry, for crying was a sin in the family in which he grew up. Viewers will not have so easily contained themselves.
    Andrew Billen
  • The Guardian Review
    Hitler's Children was full of guilt and shame – and yet it managed a happy ending
    I never seem to tire of documentaries about the second world war, no matter how often I see the same grainy, black and white footage. It's not that I expect to learn a lot: I suspect I already know about as much about everything from the blitzkrieg to the Holocaust and Hiroshima as I am ever likely to need. Rather, it's the further away it all gets, the more personal it increasingly becomes. My father, who died a while ago, was in the navy throughout the war; my mother, now 88, was a Wren. These events were/are not history to them; they were/are the formative events that shaped and scarred their lives. And therefore indirectly mine. To understand their experience is to make sense of my own and keep us close.
    In Germany that process is infinitely more fraught; especially if your parents or grandparents were Nazi war criminals. Hitler's Children (BBC2) told the story of five of them – Bettina Goering, Niklas Frank, Rainer Hoess, Monika Goeth and Katrin Himmler – in a quite exceptional hour of film-making that kept delivering emotional impact to the very end. How do you live with the knowledge that your own flesh and blood were responsible for some of the worst war crimes of the 20th century? Our five did so with a lot of guilt and shame; but quite remarkable dignity and a total absence of self-pity.
    For Bettina, the solution has been to hide away in the New Mexico desert for the past 35 years, and for she and her brother to have themselves sterilised. "It's right that the bloodline should end with us," she said. Rainer was fixated by photographs of his father playing as a child in the idyllic walled garden next to Auschwitz, where his grandfather was commandant of the death camp. It was the wrought-iron gate that disturbed him most: "What had my father seen through it?" he wondered. Monika had spent years thinking about just how many people her father had killed. Katrin's desire to publicly acknowledge her feelings of guilt had cost her the intimacy of her surviving relatives, who wanted to forget about the war.
    But it was Niklas who stayed longest in my mind. For years he has made a life out of exposing his parents' guilt by writing books and giving talks in schools and there were times when I found myself thinking: "You don't have to go on punishing yourself, Niklas. You've done nothing wrong." And then he revealed the devastating reason he continued with his research: "I want to find one good thing about them, one redeeming factor that could allow me to love them. I've looked and I've looked. But I can't find anything."
    Hitler's Children was a film that had almost everything. It informed, it surprised, it made me think. Is killing just one or two people more acceptable than killing seven or eight? Where are the boundaries of love and forgiveness? Are there any, even? Remarkably, the film even had a happy ending. In the final scene we met Niklas's own daughter. He asked her if she felt the shame of her grandfather's past. "No," she said, "you've defeated him for me. You are my fortress." I'd call that redemption of a sort.
    John Crace
  • Hitler's Children, The Telegraph Review
    Bernadette McNulty reviews Hitler's Children, BBC Two's look at what it's like to be a descendant of some of the most powerful and vicious figures in Nazi Germany.

    The opening line of Philip Larkin’s poem This Be the Verse has become the damning verdict over the past 40 years for what many a disgruntled child thinks “your mum and dad” do to you. Larkin’s ultimate conclusion - that people should stop having children, something he adhered to himself - seems so bleak as to be impossible, and most of us continue to procreate and bring up kids in a perpetual state of hope, anxiety and fretfulness, fingers crossed that every exasperated admonishment, wrong decision or even dodgy gene won’t warp their lives forever.
    Larkin had his own issues, not least with his father’s Nazi sympathies, and his warning that “Man hands on misery to man/It deepens like a coastal shelf” could have been the prologue to the documentary Hitler’s Children on BBC Two. Israeli director Chanoch Zeevi’s subjects grew up in the aftermath of the horror of the Second World War. While Hitler himself didn’t have children, the majority of his administration did and Zeevi gathered together surviving generations – two children, two great nieces and a grandson of senior Nazi commanders – to examine how this legacy had affected them.
    To begin with, they all seemed deceptively well adjusted – ashamed of their relatives’ crimes but calm and articulate in their condemnations. Bettina Goering, great niece of Hermann Goering even joked, in a sonorous voice that sounded like Velvet Undergound singer Nico, about how much she looked like Hitler’s infamous second in command. Those clichéd German traits of logic, mental rigour and a dry sense of humour seemed to have seeded over the dangerous beliefs of their forebears.
    But by carefully intercutting his subjects’ different stories Ze'evi allowed them to slowly reveal the extent of their pain and confusion and the way that it had poisoned their lives. All of them had had to confront the silence and denial of their relatives, forcing them into inter-generational conflict and isolation.
    Monika Goeth, daughter of the monstrous camp commander Amon, portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List, recounted falling in love with a bar owner only to see a concentration camp tattoo on his wrist one evening and to discover he had been imprisoned in her father’s camp. Guilt and shame continued to torment all of them. Katrin Himmler, great niece of Heinrich Himmler, said her generation learnt languages with dedication so that they could go abroad without being recognised as Germans. Bettina Goering lived in exile in New Mexico and shockingly described how she and her brother had reached the same conclusion as Larkin and had been sterilised. “I cut the line,” she said.
    It all seemed desperately hopeless and sad but hope came in the battle waged by those who stayed and continued to bravely confront the crimes of their forefathers head on. Rainer Hoess travelled back to Auschwitz to meet survivors of his grandfather’s camp. Niklas Frank has written books and travels around schools to talk to teenagers about his Nazi father. Barely looking over his glasses he told the blank faces in front of him how he knew they were bored of hearing this stuff but that if he didn’t go on “executing” his parents every day like this the evil could easily return. He could have been talking to TV viewers, numb to another Nazi documentary, but this one was devastating in how powerfully it reached into the living heart of our dark past.
    Bernadette McNulty
  • The Independent Review
    "Many people tell me I look like my father," said Monika in Hitler's Children, "but I'm not Amon... I have nothing in common with him either." Well, nothing but a big chunk of DNA, without which, one assumes, Monika would have found Schindler's List a far less troubling experience than she did.
    It's not an easy film for any member of the audience, but just imagine you're the daughter of the character Ralph Fiennes plays, the very personification of arbitrary Nazi cruelty. And imagine too that your mother has concealed the worst of his crimes. The scene in which he's shown shooting Jews for sport from the balcony of his villa is going to pose questions about your identity that nobody would want to ask themselves.
    Chanoch Ze'evi's remarkable film interviewed the descendents of several signal Nazi war criminals, including the son of Hans Frank, who was the Governor-General of Occupied Poland, and the grandson of Rudolf Höss, the first commandant of Auschwitz. They were, in one respect, an unrepresentative group... inheritors of a national and familial guilt who had not retreated into denial (as some of their siblings had) and who regarded it as their duty to talk. But they shared something too. It wasn't that the responsibility for the crimes weighed heavily upon them – as in some Old Testament cascade of blood guilt – but that they felt the responsibility for repudiating those crimes with a particular intensity.
    Rainer Höss's experience was particularly dramatic. He'd inherited a chest given to his grandfather by Heinrich Himmler, an object shown being opened here as if it was Pandora's box itself. Inside were mementoes that would have been unremarkable in any other family, including snapshots of Rainer's father as a small child, playing with his sisters. But these sunlit photographs were taken in the commandant's garden and just the other side of the wall, through an ornamental gate, lay the camp and the gas chambers. The toy aeroplane with the swastika on the tail had been made by prisoners. The gate is still there, a metaphor for Rainer of a barrier he had to step through. In an extraordinary scene, he addressed a group of young Israeli students visiting the camp, and was, eventually, embraced by a survivor in an acknowledgement of his sorrow.
    Some of the reactions of these relatives had a dark irony to them. Bettina Göring and her brother had both had themselves sterilized – the descendants of obsessive eugenicists opting for a eugenic solution to what they saw as a corrupted bloodline. Others had decided to break the chain in a different way, by talking and writing about what their fathers and grandparents had done, a penitential duty that would at least allow their children an easier life. Movingly, Niklas Frank's daughter acknowledged that his near obsession with personal reparation had insulated her from the agony that had been his inheritance. You saw him finally playing happily with his grandchildren, doing his duty in building memories that wouldn't be tainted by murder and notoriety.
    Tom Sutcliffe
  • New York Times: When Dad’s a Nazi Monster, How Do You Cope?
    When Dad’s a Nazi Monster, How Do You Cope?
    ‘Hitler’s Children,’ a Documentary About Guilt by Blood
    NYT Critics' Pick This movie has been designated a Critics' Pick by the film reviewers of The New York Times.
    Quiet, simple and soaked in sorrow, “Hitler’s Children” takes a stripped-down approach to an emotionally sophisticated subject.
    Tracking down five descendants of some of Hitler’s closest accomplices, the director, Chanoch Ze’evi, encourages them to talk about how their lineage has affected their lives. The coping mechanisms vary, but the shame and nagging guilt are shared. Monika Hertwig recalls the panic attack she suffered when a viewing of “Schindler’s List” revealed the full monstrosity of her father, Amon Goeth. For Bettina Goering, the great-niece of Hermann Goering, a kind of peace has been achieved by living off the grid in New Mexico and undergoing sterilization. “I cut the line,” she says with pained finality.
    Others, like Niklas Frank, try to take the burdens of bloodline in new and therapeutic directions. Tirelessly educating young Germans about the crimes of his Nazi father, Hans Frank, a driven Mr. Frank expunges his loathing for the parents who raised him in “a sea of blood.”
    Though relying mainly on first-person confessionals Mr. Ze’evi is alert to the unexpected. So when the grandson of Rudolf Hoess, travels to Auschwitz and experiences an impromptu moment of healing among a group of visiting Jews, the Israeli journalist Eldad Beck looks on, troubled. “It was too quick,” he says, and we know exactly what he means.
    A version of this review appeared in print on November 16, 2012, on page C12 of the New York edition with the headline: Hitler's Children.
    Film Reviewers of the New York Times
  • Hitler's Children in Mari Claire
    Felicity Robinson and Di Webster
  • Video Librarian
    An often powerful and sad documentary about the terrible legacy of the sins of the fathers of the Third Reich, this is recommended. 

Festival Participation

  • Idfa, Amsterdam – The official selection - 2011
  • Documentary Edge NZ - 2012
  • One World, Prague - The official selection - 2012
  • Munich DOK-Film Festival - The official selection - 2012
  • Thessaloniki International Film Festival - 2012
  • Moscow International Film Festival - The official selection - 2012
  • North West region Royal Television Society awards - 2012
    Best single documentary at the
  • - 2012
    Prix Europa - The best European TV production of the year - Short List
  • Vilnius Documentary film festival, Lithuania - 2012
  • Warsaw International Film Festival - The official selection - 2012
  • Jewish International Film Festival, Australia - 2012
  • The Boston Jewish Film Festival, USA - 2012
    Audience Award
  • Sevastopol Film Festival, Ukraine - 2012
  • Jewish Motifs International Film Festival - 2013
    Best Documentary Film
  • Vancouver International Film Festival - 2013

Additional Materials

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