Re:view: “Hitler, Verwoerd, Mandela and Me” by Marianne Thamm

I recently finished reading the Dutch translation of Hitler, Verwoerd, Mandela and Me (2016) by the South African journalist Marianne Thamm. The Dutch title doesn’t namedrop these famous figures; instead, it translates to “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being”, which, let’s be real, would make a really good English title as well. This refreshing autobiography not only takes in one of the most disgraceful periods in world history – apartheid – but is also one of the most intriguing accounts by a second-generation World War II survivor I have ever read. Thamm interweaves her childhood in segregated South Africa with her own coming of age as a lesbian woman, as well as the karmic legacy of her German father’s war history that she feels weighing heavily on her own shoulders.

Apartheid and the Holocaust
I must admit that I had never really thought about the similarities between the two regimes – Nazism in Germany and apartheid in South Africa – until a few weeks ago, when I came across an interview on the UNESCO website with Linda Hackner, who is a Senior Educator at the Capetown Holocaust and Genocide Centre. Together with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., UNESCO organizes the International Conference on Education and the Holocaust (ICEH). Hackner talks about the educational programme she and a colleague set up following this conference, which links the fundaments of apartheid directly to the ‘racial science’ perpetuated by the Nazis. Collaborating with an exhibition called ‘Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race‘ at the USHMM, the exhibition will travel to five South African cities this year and in 2019.

Hackner explains that the International Declaration of Human Rights, which was drafted in 1948 following the Holocaust, was ignored by the South African government, who had already made plans to formally legalize apartheid. This was to happen in 1950, when, with the Population Registration Act No. 30, people were registered from birth as member of one of four ‘racial groups’. At the University of Stellenbosch, artefacts belonging to a Nazi scientist used to measure and categorise South African people in the 1920s were recently discovered. The exhibition provides students with introductory knowledge of ‘race science’ and eugenics. By studying the rise and rule of the Nazis, Hackner says, students can access their own country’s dark past more easily, and become more aware of the dangers of prejudice and racial stereotyping. She says that many students have never heard of Nazi Germany before and some have never even set foot in a museum. They are often surprised to find that racism exists outside of South Africa, underlining the importance of establishing a link with the past. Adult students, too, grapple with the subject in many different ways; sometimes the focus lies on the laws used to institutionalize the Nazi regime’s racial ideology, or the ways in which nurses participated in the mistreatment of patients with disabilities. Hackner quotes a psychiatric nurse as saying: “I always thought wars were about guns, machines, and soldiers. I was not aware that professional, educated people could be used as part of a political government for propaganda and to eliminate innocent and vulnerable people.”


‘Wir haben es nicht gewusst’
Marianne Thamm’s story, though very personal, perfectly exemplifies this essential link between the two regimes. “Wir haben es nicht gewusst,” the familiar refrain of the regular German citizens, was repeated by many white South Africans after apartheid was abolished. Marianne finds it stale, not so much ignorant as simply callous. How can you not have known, Marianne wonders, when it was literally visible in South Africa’s geography, with so many black South Africans living in townships? Whether we can learn from the past is a contentious statement among historians – yet Marianne demonstrates how crucial it is to look back at the atrocities of the past to frame those of the present, as a way of building both individual and national identities. A lesbian feminist, she grew up with a Portuguese mother and a German father who used to be a Luftwaffe-pilot. She writes that three totalitarian regimes meet within her: the authoritarian regime of Salazar her mother lived under, the Nazi Germany that fostered her father, and the South African apartheid that she grew up with. She writes that the ‘unbendable’ nationalist rulers of South Africa have shaped her inner structure. Being an immigrant, uprooted and without a precedent to live by, robs you of any idea of what the future will be like, Marianne notes – as does living under totalitarian regimes, which discourage their subjects from imagining a personal future cut off from the political one. (230)

Nelson Mandela’s arrival on the political stage felt like a unique chance for her and her country to reinvent itself: a new beginning for both European immigrants and South African citizens after years of political oppression. And most importantly: the vision of a bright future, in which people wouldn’t be exhausted from the constant resistance to external forces. With Mandela came a new constitution, based on the declaration of human rights, which proclaimed acceptance and equality. Marianne notes how, within the space of her father’s generation and her own, a world of glaring inequality and bloodthirst has transformed into one of acceptance and shared humanity. The constitution gave her and her partner the opportunity to adopt a child, which would have been unthinkable before, and made her former-Nazi father grandfather to two black children.

A Nazi’s daughter
In addition, Marianne, like many second-generation survivors of World War II, attempts to grapple with her parents’ war experiences. “I am six handshakes removed from Hitler,” she writes, which puts her into “karmic freefall”: she can never make up for the atrocities her father Georg committed, either knowingly or unknowingly. Georg was in the Hitlerjugend and the Luftwaffe, and came to South Africa as a much-sought after engineer to manufacture guns. “I calibrated the machine that made the trigger for the first R1-rifle,” he tells Marianne nonchalantly. “And I presented the very first R1 to Hendrik Verwoerd [a prominent Dutch-born architect of apartheid] himself.” Marianne is astounded that her father survived a war that created 55 million victims, came to a country that was in political dire straits, and participated in the making of guns on a large scale without considering who would benefit from that. She describes how, throughout her adolescence, she finds it increasingly difficult to separate her father as a person from the regime he grew up under. She expects to find a secret swastika tattoo, a hidden Nazi uniform, a cameo of him marching in the World War II documentaries she sees on television. But if Nazi Germany is in Georg, it is also in her, leading her to rebel against every aspect of the good German Hausfrau that her father hopes she will become. The atrocities the Nazis committed against gay people also makes it difficult for her to come out to her father as a lesbian.

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Students at the Berlin School for the Blind (ca. 1935) examining head models to learn about Mendelian genetics and racial characteristics. These students would have been pressured to get themselves sterilised to avoid having blind children. Source: Blinden-Museum an der Johann-August-Zeune-Schule fur Blinde, Berlin

As an adolescent, she continues to try and catch him out, asking him if he never saw any prisoners in striped uniforms or people queuing for trains marked ‘Auschwitz’. She remains vigilant for any signs of the evil ideology that must surely be in his DNA, but finds her father is neither particularly right- nor left-leaning when it comes to politics. When they are watching tv coverage of the genocide in Rwanda together, Georg comments, appalled, that they are slaughtering each other like savages. Marianne asks him whether it would be less savage if they numbered the victims, put them on a train and sent them to a concentration camp. “It’s not the same,” her father replies. “Why not? Because the people who give the orders and murder others don’t read Schiller, listen to Beethoven or play with their dog when they get home?” Marianne retorts, to which her father has no answer. (224) The biggest clue that he wasn’t actually ‘one of them’, she writes, was, of course, the cosmopolitan family he started after the war, with a Portuguese wife in a strange country, betraying all the notions of ‘fatherland’ and ‘racial mixing’ that the Nazis held dear (as did the Afrikaner nationalists). The only time she catches a glimpse of his internalized racism is at the end of the book when Marianne is in her forties, and Georg lovingly holds her adopted black daughter in his arms. When he says that he feels as though black people have gotten lighter since 1994, Marianne realizes that Georg has to make his granddaughters lighter in order to love them.

Marianne concludes that Georg’s denial of his participation in the war has resulted in a split personality: he denies, represses and refuses to talk about one part of his life, while going on living all the same. Later on, she frames him as a ‘perennial mourner’; somebody who has experienced something traumatic and who does not become depressed, but who becomes stuck in that mourning period and feels the need to constantly talk about the event, read about it, etcetera. Georg, Marianne writes, mourned the loss of the country that created him and his family, most of whom he lost in the war, but also the country that symbolized the most despicable of all human behaviours. The Holocaust thus also functions as a lens through which she can ultimately look at her own country and the apartheid-regime. It was not characterized by flag-waving and steel boots marching, but by a thousand invisible crimes, such as the censuring of radio stations and the banishment of black South Africans to separate townships. Even now, as the interview with Linda Hackner shows, some South Africans youths have little to no access to news sources where they might learn about Nazi Germany and its impact on their own country.


Hitler, Verwoerd, Mandela and Me is an honest and funny memoir that reminds us how totalitarian regimes can rise and fall. Though South Africa today still struggles to correct the inequalities that decades of apartheid have wrought, it is hard not to feel hopeful when finishing this book and believing in the power of the people in the fight against racism.

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