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My Grandfather’s Knife: Nazi history told through five objects

Berlin-based historian Joseph Pearson has written a book which looks at the history of Nazism and World War Two through five objects, starting with his grandfather's knife

A Nazi knife, “liberated” during World War Two. Photo: Joseph Pearson

My Grandfather’s Knife starts with an investigation into your own family history. Can you explain how the discovery of a Nazi knife that your grandad, in the Canadian army, brought back from the war inspired this book?

When I moved into a new apartment in Kreuzberg, around the corner from Markthalle Neun, my family sent me my belongings from Canada. I opened up a box of books, and at the bottom of it was this gruesome piece of Nazi paraphernalia, a knife with a swastika on it. I thought to myself, “Holy shit, how did this thing get through customs?” I was also terrified, because it’s illegal to import a Nazi object into Germany, unless it’s for the purposes of “research, or enlightenment”. So I thought, okay, I’ll do some research and write an article about this object. Soon this turned into a whole book.

All I knew about it was that my grandfather had “liberated” the knife, whatever that meant, from a German, I presumed a soldier, as he was fighting in the Netherlands. I thought it may be an SS officer. I didn’t know anything else about it, except that the object itself had many marks engraved on it: numbers, letters and so forth. As I show in the book, I decided to follow this archaeological evidence towards hopefully finding out where my grand- father obtained the knife, from whom – and to discover the story of the knife, how it had been used and why it had been made.

As described in the book, this knife did more than spark your intellectual curiosity – it triggered a fear in you…

It is a terrifying looking object; with the eagle’s head and swastika on it. It’s ugly, and I was very afraid of it. I was afraid to have it in the house. I became very superstitious about it. You know that feeling when you wake up and you think someone’s in the apartment? It was an intruder. I was haunted by this thing.

How did you move on to investigating more objects?

My grandfather’s knife made me realise how much a single object can tell us about the past and how it can provide views into a subject that’s as overstudied as the Second World War. That led me to the other objects. Some of them came to me, like the diary written in Sütterlinschrift about a German deserter and his love story with a French woman. The story of the cotton pouch comes from my next door neighbour, who was a Holocaust survivor, which I never knew was the case. Then Joseph Goebbels’s cook I met by accident…

How did it feel being in such close contact with someone who spent the war cooking for Goebbels and his family, and who, as you write, was so unconcerned with what was going on beyond her own kitchen?

They really didn’t even think about the victims that were being hauled away from their orchestras, or where the food came from in the kitchen

One reviewer said that she found it distasteful that I would talk to someone like Goebbels’s cook. But my point is really that if you want to understand how it all happened, you have to understand how people would go on and work for people like this and still believe they were apolitical. That being said, every time I talked to her, I felt dispirited and sad by the political apathy of someone like her. Just as she was cooking for Goebbels, my neighbour, who is almost exactly the same age, was starving inside a concentration camp. When talking to the cook, my thoughts were: “You had the opportunity to poison this man! Why didn’t you?”

In many ways this is straight historical investigation – and you do have a PhD in history. But you don’t use the classic ‘history book writing style’. Although it’s nonfiction, it reads like detective stories, interwoven with your personal feelings and observations…

The idea was to write literary stories. But stories that were true and well researched about what happened during the Second World War. A someone who studied Contemporary European History, I always thought it was a shame that so much history was written in a language that was inaccessible to a large part of the public; that often history didn’t make the past come alive. I wanted to reach more people, but I also wanted to bring people into the past, the sense of the past. And one way to do this was by taking the reader by the hand through my investigation. By showing myself coming across documents, meeting people, talking to them. And in a way, I think that’s an honest way to write history – you expose yourself, saying, “Well, I didn’t know this. And now I discovered this, and I wondered about that”, to show the decision making happening behind the historical investigation and how wrong I sometimes was in my assumptions!

Joseph Pearson’s Grandfather in military uniform. Photo: Joseph Pearson

There’s obviously a lot of literature on World War II out there. What do you think your book adds to the existing canon?

There are many books about Joseph Goebbels and his life. But none of the books I read had the stories that the cook told me. For someone that was so instrumental and so important for how propaganda worked in the country – which was a big part of the evil policies of the regime – he has a domestic life that is understudied. It’s important to understand, I think, his home life, and also to better understand the motivations for killing his children. Object history of the Second World War is relatively new. I think that historians are taking a long time to get around to talking about everyday things. This is something that has happened much earlier in anthropology and sociology and other fields, but historians are often late on looking at more creative ways to get into the space of war witnesses.

Can you be more specific: What can we learn from Goebbels through his eating habits and tastes?

I do think that we can learn a lot about the fanaticism of Goebbels through what he ate, down to the choice of the last thing he fed his children before he murdered them. Hot chocolate, a luxury. He denied all luxuries to his children until the last moment. I mean, that simple detail provides information unlikely to be found in a government document. What is the psychology of someone who would commit their lives to a project that exterminates so many people? What kinds of people do this? And what kinds of parents are they? What are their children like? Of course diplomatic and political history are fundamental to our understanding of the Third Reich, but we also need history that concerns itself with everyday things, as a way, for example, to understand the psychologies of leadership.

Did the process of your research change your own perspective on how you believe ordinary Germans lived their lives during the war?

Yes. I thought, going into the project, when people told me their stories and were telling me, “yes, but I had nothing to do with it. I was not a political person. What do I know about that? I was just playing my instrument, I was just cooking in the kitchen”, that they were hiding something from me, that there was some part of the story that they were not telling me. And that it was a survival technique, to lie to me or to bend the truth, to rehearse the story of non-collaboration.

It is a terrifying looking object; with the eagle’s head and swastika on it. It’s ugly

And what I realised was actually kind of worse: these people were so bred to live ordinary lives, disconnected from politics, not to see themselves as political people, simply to go along with things, that for a lot of the time, they really didn’t even think about the victims that were being hauled away from their orchestras, or where the food came from in the kitchen while Europe was starving. And this was actually a much worse conclusion for me, that they were apolitical and it didn’t even occur to them to ask the kinds of questions I was asking.

That explains a lot, doesn’t it? It helps explain not just how the Jews of this country could be exterminated, but also the Jews of an entire continent… while musicians went on playing their instruments in an orchestra run by the Nazis.

You could argue that it still happens today, this blindness to the evil around us, that’s what you’re alluding to in your conclusion…

Yes, one reviewer said they were confused by what I said in the conclusion, when I said that there was still a mentality of not seeing what’s going on. And I thought, ‘Hello, look at the climate.’ There’s continual war in Afghanistan, and do people really think about the wars in West Africa? I mean, there is a habit that most of us have of getting on with our daily lives, I think, and it’s something we’re still guilty of today, as things fall apart all over the planet in different ways. But I think what’s shocking about World War II is the way people went along with their daily lives, as their neighbours were taken away, as it was happening in their own cities.

When talking to the cook, my thoughts were: “You had the opportunity to poison this man! Why didn’t you?”

This book also talks about bravery, right?

Yes, there is a scene in the chapter about the Holocaust, where my neighbour, who was a Hungarian Jewish survivor that came to Canada, describes to me how she was put on a forced march from Budapest to the border. She and a friend were snatched out of the line of people, of Jews, marching from Budapest to the trains, and brought into the home of a woman with a young daughter.

Someone who didn’t know who they were, an absolute stranger, provided them shelter for the night and wanted to keep them and protect them. But they knew what consequences she would face if she was caught housing Jews at the time. And they left of their own accord to join the line again, to be sent to concentration camps. She says it was the bravest thing that anyone ever did for her. And 80 years later, she is still talking about the civil courage of this person who took a risk to help two young women in need.

Joseph Pearson. Photo: Gianmarco Bresadola

BIO Joseph Pearson is a Canadian writer and historian based in Berlin since 2008. In 2017, he published his first book Berlin, a portrait of the city spanning nine centuries. He is also the house essayist at the Schaubühne and teaches creative and arts writing at the Barenboim-Said Akademie.

In April 2022, Pearson published My Grandfather’s Knife, in which he explores the history of WWII through the stories behind 5 everyday objects.