Saturday 26 May 2012

Something for the Weekend 10

This week we look at the influence of those who went before us …

In the Shadow of Our Forebears

Every living person feels a connection to their ancestors. This sometimes awkward, sometimes reinforcing emotion (if one can call it that) shapes our lives, moulds our personalities and has a major influence, in turn, on the way in which society as a whole perceives us. Rightly or wrongly, we are judged, to a large extent, by our family background. But what if your family tree was rooted in pure evil?

This question was brought sharply into focus this week by an excellent BBC documentary, Hitler’s Children, in which the lives of the living descendants of some of the Nazi regime’s most heinous figures were scrutinised. It was a thought-provoking exercise in family and social dynamics, as the relatives of Hermann Goering, Heinrich Himmler, Hans Frank, Rudolf Hoess and Amon Goeth laid bare their innermost thoughts (still available on the BBCiPlayer until 30th May). 

Quite apart from the high drama and mixed emotions of the men and women who were subject to the programme’s probings, the whole idea of the carrying forward of responsibility and guilt from one generation to the next provided a fascinating philosophical quandary. Such private feelings are, perhaps, understandable, but what of the judgement and opinions of others? Is it fair for society to judge individuals on the reputation of their ancestors?

Conversely, why are we so proud of our ancestors when we discover that they have been especially good, proved themselves to be an asset to society, or simply triumphed over adversity? OK, then, pride, I suppose, is fine; but so often we bask in their achievements - their glory, even – in a manner in which we have no right to. No right at all.

The five German descendants talked of ‘carrying guilt’, being ‘ashamed of who they are’, and even of not being to ‘trust’ the German people – and this from a German! One man, the grandson of Auschwitz commandant, Rudolf Hoess, squirmed uncomfortably in front of a roomful of Jewish students in the grounds of the present-day ‘museum’. In what amounted to a cathartic release for the poor chap, the viewer was left to ask, simply: why? He even stated that he often thought that the meaning of his very existence was to carry the burden of guilt on his grandfather’s behalf. It was all very strange.

Throughout history, the individual has always been judged on the reputation of their forebears. The feudal system, the class system, one’s ‘breeding’ – men and women (and children) have always suffered, or benefited, from the actions, reputation and standing of former kin. These days, we usually manage to get over it, of course, but we shouldn’t have to.

So don’t be ashamed of your ancestral heritage, nor too proud. It has nothing to do with you.

Mick Southwick

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1 comment:

  1. Hi Mick

    You raise a very interesting and thought-provoking question. I didn't see the programme, but it certainly looked interesting. Most of us

    So many of us like to think we hold some of the characteristics and skills of our ancestors - but in this type of case, perhaps the guilt is mixed with some fear that they might have some of that person in them. Personally, I think that the 'evil' men do is not a true character trait that can be carried through to the next generation naturally. All the same, I think I would find it difficult to stomach if I found a mass-murderer in my tree.

    Difficult to explain what I mean in this space - but you've certainly got me thinking. I feel a future blog post coming on myself....