With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

My Grandfather was a Nazi. Our Family's Story of Complicity Shows Where the Road to Extremism Leads

My grandfather was a Nazi. As others, like former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have also noted, the political events of today remind me of my family's past. My grandfather wasn't among the first to join the party. In fact, it took years to convince him. But Johann Bischoff eventually became a Nazi for the power and safety the party afforded him at the time, and was one of the last to leave when Hitler's forces fell. My family story is one of complicity — of how an educated, pious man became a cog in the machinery of Nazi hatred, only to have it destroy his family and homeland, with my mother and her sisters paying the most for their father's sins. Conservatives who think right-wing extremism in America is not a serious threat to them as well as to their political opponents should take heed of my family's story.

Last week, only ten Republicans in Congress saw fit to impeach a president accused of inciting a deadly insurrection at the United States Capitol. Images of the riot showed chaos, but there is also evidence of coordinated attacks on American democracy. Federal and local law enforcement are warning similar events are planned throughout the country.In a dangerous echo of Nazism, a mixture of prejudice, grievance and ambition fuels this vicious power grab. President Trump's whipped-up minions carry out the physical violence, while Republicans amplifying and acting on the election fraud lie provide a more philosophical assault on democracy.

Across America today, thousands of Republican elected officials — and untold millions of rank-and-file members — are making choices that remind me of the early, incremental choices my grandfather made. Maybe they supported President Trump out of fear for their political futures and safety for their families, or maybe they liked his tax cuts and Supreme Court justice appointments. The end of democracy was far from their minds. They don't believe terrors on the scale of Nazi Germany could happen again, or maybe they believe their privilege protects them.

They don't understand what the combination of hatred and authoritarianism, once unleashed, can destroy. My family is among those who do. 

On January 22, 1945, as the Soviet army neared their estate outside of Guttstadt, East Prussia, my German family prepared to flee. Like Liesl von Trapp in "The Sound of Music," my mother, Lieselotte Bischoff, was 16 going on 17. But while Captain von Trapp ripped apart a Nazi flag in protest, my grandfather, Johann Bischoff, cowardly buried his Nazi flag on the way out of town. He worried what the Russians might do to his farm if they discovered a Nazi lived there.    

My grandfather wasn't part of Adolf Hitler's political base. He was a large landowner and an active local official in the Catholic Zentrum Party until Hitler outlawed all other political parties. In 1937, he was detained and interrogated for publicly questioning why an elderly Jewish grain merchant, Moses Sass, was sweeping the street. 

But after six years of Hitler's Reich in 1938, Johann had become the Ortsbauernführer, the area's leader of the Nazi's nationalized agricultural agency, the Reichsnährstand. Its motto was blut und boden — blood and soil. The agency revived German agriculture after the dire depression, and my grandfather benefited from his position. After much pressure, Johann capitulated and joined the party as well.

Perhaps his land, livelihood, and life were at stake, along with the lives of his wife and eight children. Perhaps he was simply a politically shrewd Prussian. Regardless, he stood by as Hitler's plans unfolded. The Jews in Guttstadt had been his business partners, fellow city councilmen, and comrades in arms fighting for the Kaiser. But he sat by and watched as his Nazi Party imprisoned and murdered the same Jewish townspeople he once called friends, including Moses Sass. 

Read entire article at Salon