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"The Broken House by Horst Krüger review – the book that broke the silence"

The rediscovery of Krüger’s fearless memoir, first published in 1966, reveals painful truths about the Nazis’ rise to power. By Anthony Quinn

Members of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial commission enter the former Nazi concentration camp, December 1964. Photograph: AP

How do you come to terms with the guilt of what your countrymen have done? In the case of Germany between 1933 and 1945 the crimes were so unspeakable and annihilating it was hard to know where expiation could begin. But the unspeakable will only remain so until someone dares to break silence, which is Horst Krüger’s painful achievement in his memoir,

The Broken House. First published in Germany in 1966, it fell out of print for decades and no wonder: the truths in it were probably too scalding for a traumatised nation to digest. Now reissued in a translation by Shaun Whiteside, the writing glowers from the page, sorrowful, disbelieving, chastened and yet not without hope.

Krüger (1919-99) grew up in the modest Berlin suburb of Eichkamp, which he revisits as a journalist in middle age after 20 years away. He seeks to understand “what it was really like” back then, poised on the edge of the abyss. He is hunting amid ghosts - a Catholic mother and a Protestant father wounded at Verdun in 1916, neither of them interested in politics. In this, they were of a piece with their Eichkamp neighbours - hard working, respectable, petty minded – and not a Nazi in sight. So when Hitler’s Reich descended on these unsuspecting people they were not only bewildered, they were delighted to be swept along by the surge of national improvement – new jobs, new motorways, new assembly halls. Even concerns about broken Jewish shop windows and looted Jewish homes were lost in the triumphal thunder of the Fatherland reborn.

Up to this point, Krüger’s story feels familiar, perhaps less compelling than other accounts of Germany’s sleepwalk into disaster, such as Sebastian Haffner’s unforgettable Defying Hitler (2002). But then a private tragedy blindsides the family and turns the narrative inside out. In March 1938, just after the Anschluss, Krüger’s sister, Ursula, is found one morning in bed, stiff and white, black blood leaking from her mouth. It transpires she has swallowed sublimate, a concentrated mercury, the two large death’s heads on the bottle grimly echoing the insignia on an SS cap. She dies 21 days later, though not before Krüger’s mother has transformed the hospital room into a Catholic shrine, a rosary wrapped around her helpless daughter’s clasped hands “like a tender manacle”. The subsequent invasion of the house by relatives becomes a “dance of death”, climaxing in a grotesque set piece worthy of Fassbinder. The family’s despair, briefly smothered by the odour of sanctimony and funeral-baked meats, breaks out when Krüger surprises the assembled guests by vomiting over the tablecloth.

The German public regarded the Holocaust with indifference… before they learned what actually happened

The subtle accretion of detail here – the skull on the poison bottle, the SS cap, the timing of the Nazi annexation of Austria – dovetails so ominously with the domestic mood that one feels unsure if Ursula’s self-destruction was an act of protest or escape. “There was so much fear in you and you were always alone,” her brother writes, trying to make sense of it. Her death is the mysterious spell under which the rest of The Broken House plays out, gradually encompassing another, slower demise – the death of illusions. Krüger recalls a friend of his youth, Wanja, half-Russian, half-Jewish, an outsider whose unruly life force bewitched him as a student. Twenty-two years later, the author discovers by chance that Wanja is still alive and arranges a reunion in East Berlin. It’s a mistake.

His old friend is now a communist, a true believer, all his idiosyncratic edges knocked off. They have both been mugged by the times: “We were sired by beaten, clueless fathers and our mothers were awkward and loveless.”

Krüger’s youthful idealism suffers another death blow when he is arrested for distributing letters critical of the regime. Interrogated and imprisoned for months on a charge of high treason, he awaits the end. By a mere whim of the Nazi judiciary he’s eventually released. His next escape, in the ruins of Germany in 1945, will prove even more miraculous.

Horst Krüger, who died in 1999.

One hopes for an ending to match its chronicle of lost illusions and the book magnificently delivers. In February 1964, Krüger attended the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt, at a time when the German public regarded the Holocaust with indifference bordering on irritation. But that was before they learned what actually happened at Auschwitz. Twenty-two defendants sit in the courtroom, while the author listens to the evidence unfold in a trance of horror. When a witness mentions the word “Sanka” he is brought up short.

Sanka was the ambulance van Krüger drove as a 22-year-old conscript in Smolensk, carrying the wounded to hospital. But what if he’d been detailed to Auschwitz instead, where Sankas were used as vans of murder? He admits that in the frenzy of killing he would have been like everyone else - “closed my eyes and pretended for a while that I didn’t notice anything”.

When a journalist friend points out a white-haired, immaculately suited man at ease during a courtroom adjournment, it’s a shock to the author (and to us) that this businessman from Hamburg was formerly adjutant to the camp commandant, Rudolf Höss, accused of securing Zyklon-B and overseeing transports to the gas chambers. How can such “harmless-looking” men be mass murderers? In the face of the indecipherable one might shrug in despair, retreat into bewildered silence. Or one might, like Horst Krüger, bear brave witness and warn one’s countrymen to be vigilant against the “darkness” within: “That Hitler, I think, he’s going to be staying with us – for our whole lives.”

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