The book is not about the United States; it deals with Vichy France and the Third Reich, where Schwarz’s middle-class grandparents played minor but unheroic roles. She is a French German journalist living in Berlin, and she’s as appalled as anyone by the rise of the far-right in Europe and the United States. Her answer to the cultural amnesia of the last five or 10 years has been this exacting and detailed memoir, a blend of personal and political history.
Karl Schwarz, her grandfather, committed the crimes of a regular businessman under Nazism, and the first part of her book investigates his levels of guilt and denial. Karl joined the Nazi Party in 1935, a bit late for a true believer, but not for a man with a desk job and family to raise:
[C]ertainly […] he was seduced by the advantages of such an affiliation. But it’s unlikely that he did it out of ideological conviction. For Opa was a hedonist, a pleasure seeker who had little interest in the sadomasochistic displays of power in which the National Socialists excelled. Nazism demanded a blind discipline that had nothing in common with his independent spirit and the freedoms it craved.
By 1938, his independent spirit had driven him toward entrepreneurship. The Nazi government was promoting a process of “Aryanization” — or forcing Jewish business owners out of German industry — and the combination of racist laws and antisemitic street violence was leading many Jewish families to write down their assets and leave the country. (After Kristallnacht, in November 1938, Aryanization would become a forced policy.) Karl Schwarz and his partner acquired the Jewish petroleum product business Löbmann & Co. for the cut rate of just over 10,000 Reichsmarks, then hired the owner, Julius Löbmann, as a consultant to introduce them to clients.
Schwarz was not a rabid antisemite, and he appeared to want to give Löbmann a fair shake, under the circumstances. Löbmann didn’t get one. In 1940, the Nazis raided his family apartments in Mannheim and ordered everyone to leave with a maximum of 100 Reichsmarks each (as well as a limit on luggage) — for France, which had already fallen to Hitler. The Löbmanns began to scatter. Several died in Auschwitz. Julius escaped a forced-labor shift in Vichy France and survived as a fugitive in Europe until the Allies arrived; then he moved to Chicago. In 1948, he hired a lawyer and tried to reclaim his business under the Rückerstattungsgesetz, or restitution law, which the Allies established after the war, in recognition of the theft of assets under Hitler.
But Karl Schwarz balked. He pled poverty; he argued in a series of letters that Löbmann & Co. wasn’t worth much in 1938. The purchase had occurred in “a most amicable manner,” he wrote, and, if anything, he’d saved the business. “In his five-year exchange with Julius Löbmann and his lawyers,” writes his granddaughter, “Karl Schwarz never departed from his tearful tone” — though it was true he was “drowning in debts” after the war. At last, Herr Schwarz took out a mortgage on an apartment building he owned in Mannheim, and returned the purchase price to Herr Löbmann, but “for years to come he would lament what he considered an injustice, as if the Jews, and not Hitler’s disastrous politics, were the origin of his troubles.”
Ms. Schwarz classifies her grandfather as a Mitläufer, a fellow traveler in the Nazi Party, rather than a “major offender” or “lesser offender,” as leaders were labeled by the Allies afterward. Her precise delineation of the gradations of Nazi guilt is a refreshing reminder of how totalitarianism works: it stains everyone but the resisters, and sometimes even them. Not everyone in the Third Reich was a Nazi. And not every Nazi Party member was an ideological killer — but since Hitler made no secret of his passions, some level of guilt for what happened was hard for everyday Germans to escape. After the war, they tried to argue that no one knew about the death camps or the final destinations of rounded-up Jews, but Ms. Schwarz wonders: “Those who bought valuables in this medieval atmosphere of redistributing the fruits of pillage — weren’t they sure that the owners would either never return, or would never be in a position to reclaim them?”
She grew up in France, where her classmates found it easy to demonize Germans but not to think much else about the war. Her maternal grandfather served as a police officer in the Vichy territory, the self-administered southern half of France during Nazi occupation. For decades afterward, French people tended to believe that capitulation to Hitler was the right move, that it saved France morally as well as physically. (French literature of the 1970s, when people began to learn otherwise, is therefore rich.) Ms. Schwarz is short on details about her grandfather, but she describes in vivid detail one of the largest French roundups of Jews, and she notes the antisemitism waiting just under the surface of everyday life. Vichy policemen like her grandfather were not just complicit in the roundup, but also enthusiastic: “The Jews must have been woefully surprised to receive such treatment from men they knew well. They had tailored their uniforms, given their wives advice in the hardware store, or dealt cards to them when they played together at the bistro.”
Antisemitism was like dry weeds for the burning of Europe during Hitler’s war. It just needed a firebrand. That’s the parallel Schwarz recognizes between the Third Reich and Trump’s America. She notes, correctly, that the US government was (and is) not a fascist dictatorship — but the cultivation of nasty passions from the top is a dangerous parallel, especially when you combine it with unexamined racist assumptions. “[I]n French society, like elsewhere in Europe, the dominant idea before the war was that a Jewish ‘question’ existed that needed to be solved,” she writes, “and this was well before the rise of the Third Reich.”
Schwarz’s book first came out in 2017, in France, as Les Amnésiques. Meanwhile, it has won prizes in German, Italian, and several other languages. This fresh translation by Laura Marris into English is overdue, but not because Schwarz’s family saga is so unique: it’s a typical story of opportunism and survival by a bourgeois family in 20th-century Europe, repeated from one end of the continent to another. It’s also a powerful primer in the self-ignorance that allowed so many Europeans to act the way they did when someone offered them the barest excuse. The stories are vital, and Schwarz is a meticulous, eloquent chronicler. Her epigraph, from André Gide, shows awareness as well as impatience: “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one is listening, everything must be said again.”
Michael Scott Moore spent 10 years in Berlin and is the author, most recently, of The Desert and the Sea. He’s working on a new novel.