This is a remarkable story of Holocaust-era documents that remained hidden inside the cushion of a chair for some 70 years after WWII before being discovered. These documents provided insights into the life of an “ordinary” SS officer. Much of the credit for this amazing story belongs to the historian/author, Dr. Daniel Lee, who devoted several years of his life to research the story and bring it to life.
The story began in 2011 when a Dutch upholsterer found a batch of documents that had been sewn into the cushion of a chair she was repairing. Ironically, the chair had been in her family for many years. Her mother had purchased it in Prague in 1968. She had habitually sat in the chair as a child and young woman while reading or doing schoolwork without any inkling of what was hidden within.
The woman contacted Dr. Daniel Lee who was a renowned Senior Lecturer in modern history at Queen Mary University of London. Dr. Lee is a recognized expert in WWII-era French history with a specialty in the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust. He has published various books on that particular subject matter. However, it is his second book, The SS Officer’s Armchair, that is the subject of this blog. He was intrigued by the discovery and was determined to unravel the mystery of the documents.
The documents were emblazoned with swastikas, which clearly identified them as WWII-era Nazi documents. Initially, Dr. Lee was able to ascertain that the documents, which consisted primarily of personal items such as passports, diplomas, and stock certificates, belonged to Robert Griesinger, a minor SS official, who had been based in Prague and other places during WWII. After further research, however, he discovered that Griesinger was a lawyer and a member of the Nazi party who had been assigned for a time to the Protectorate of Bohemia and Slovenia. He had died in 1945 at the age of 38 during the Prague Uprising. Little else was known about him, even among his surviving family members. It appeared that he was not famous. His name did not have the cache of the more notorious Nazis such as Rudolf Hess, Adolph Eichmann, or Josef Mengele, for example. He was a small cog who, for the most part, had lived his life under the radar, so to speak.
Dr. Lee was intrigued and was determined to find out more about this seemingly “nondescript” and “ordinary” functionary, “one of the masses of administrators without whom the Third Reich could not have functioned.” Next to nothing is known about these people, how they lived from day to day, both personally and professionally. There is virtually no trace of them in the history books or even the internet. It’s as if they never existed, but we know they did. Somebody had to have kept the Nazi administrative machine running.
Dr. Lee wrote, “I was hooked when I saw for the first time his name and SS number on the SS officer[s’] list. This guy was obviously committed to the Nazi project. That’s when I decided I had to find out more about him.” As a historian, Dr. Lee viewed G as a mystery and a challenge he was determined to solve. He spent the better part of five years doing so.
Eventually, Dr. Lee determined that G was a prime example of how ordinary people could be and were “poisoned by a combination of ideology and professional opportunism.” Even though Dr. Lee does not present any evidence that G personally tortured and murdered any Jews directly as so many other Nazis did, he points out that nevertheless, he was often in the vicinity when such atrocities occurred, and he “did horrible things, destroying families from behind his desk” like many other “functionaries.”
At first, Dr. Lee was reluctant to contact G’s surviving family members fearing that they would be uncooperative, at best, and possibly downright defensive or hostile. But, to his pleasant surprise that was not the case. It turned out that they knew little about their infamous ancestor and were eager to hear what Dr. Lee had discovered about him.
G was born in 1906. Surprisingly, he was not a pure-bred German. His father was an American, born in New Orleans. Dr. Lee was able to trace G’s paternal ancestors back to 1720s Louisiana. As one might expect being Southerners, the family had owned slaves back in the day. G grew up in a conservative, nationalist, military family with strong anti-Semitic leanings. Not surprisingly, like many Germans, G’s family blamed the Jews for having started WW1.
G was part of the so-called War Youth Generation, that is, born too late to fight during WW1, yet old enough to have witnessed firsthand the post-war destruction and humiliation of its aftermath. Students of history know that the seeds of the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party were sown during this period, which was characterized by runaway inflation, unemployment, suffocating war reparations, loss of territory, a feeling of despair, hopelessness and anger, and an intense desire for revenge. Much like others of his generation, G was extremely fearful of communism, resentful of the ineffectual Weimar Republic, and ripe to be influenced by a radical, nationalistic group such as the Nazis.
Originally, the SS was formed as an elite group whose function was to serve as bodyguards for Hitler and other senior party officials. Upper and middle class Germans were attracted to it by its prestige and rigorous selection process and training. The SS wanted well-educated persons of good backgrounds who would be capable of administering the affairs of the captured territories as opposed to the uneducated rabble that was to comprise much of the regular army. The SS’s membership grew exponentially. G was one of thousands who joined up. By the early 1930s it boasted over 40,000 members. G joined up during this period.
Dr. Lee debunks a common stereotype of the SS. Thanks to Hollywood, which normally distorts history for the sake of its movies, most people have the impression that the SS consisted entirely of armed sadistic, psychopathic brutes who enjoyed torturing, intimidating, beating up and murdering Jews and others. There are many examples of this type of character, such as Christoph Waltz’s character in Inglorious Basterds and Ralph Fiennes’ character in Schindler’s List. In reality, says Dr. Lee, the SS was not a homogeneous group. There were some Waffen SS, as these men were called, who exhibited the above characteristics, but about 90% of the SS served in the Allgemeine, or non-military SS. The Waffen SS were employed as concentration camp guards and members of the death squads, for example. On the other hand, the Allgemeine were responsible for the security of the Nazi party leaders and various administrative tasks.
According to Dr. Lee some 90% of the SS were part of this latter group, including G. For many of them, the SS was a part-time job. Their primary jobs might be as a lawyer, accountant, teacher or some other professional. Remember, most of them were highly educated. Moreover, they did not wear the dreaded SS uniform every day, just when attending official functions. They also spent time training, marching and participating in athletic contests against other SS units. As I said, this is contrary to the impression most of us have of them. In Dr. Lee’s opinion, G viewed his membership as one of enhanced prestige and a means to career advancement.
That said, there is evidence that G, like most Allgemeine, could and at times did, switch from a kind and gentle husband, friend and co-worker to a ruthless, murderous monster. As I said, in his book Dr. Lee does denote that G was present and likely an active participant in terrorizing Jews and other prisoners in the Ukraine, Prague and, perhaps, in other places as well.
In the course of his research Dr. Lee discovered the strong possibility that while in Ukraine in 1941 G may have passed through the same town in which Dr. Lee’s ancestors lived. Although Dr. Lee found no evidence that they had some interaction, it’s certainly possible, if not likely that they did. Dr. Lee’s reaction upon that discovery? “Oh my God, this is much closer to home than I could have imagined.” Indeed.
My guess is that the book would make fascinating reading.