This week we look at the influence of those who went before us …
In the Shadow of Our Forebears
Every living person feels a connection to their ancestors. This sometimes awkward, sometimes reinforcing emotion (if one can call it that) shapes our lives, moulds our personalities and has a major influence, in turn, on the way in which society as a whole perceives us. Rightly or wrongly, we are judged, to a large extent, by our family background. But what if your family tree was rooted in pure evil?
This question was brought sharply into focus this week by an excellent
BBC documentary, Hitler’s
Children, in which the lives of the living descendants of some of the Nazi
regime’s most heinous figures were scrutinised. It was a thought-provoking
exercise in family and social dynamics, as the relatives of Hermann Goering, Heinrich
Himmler, Hans Frank, Rudolf Hoess and Amon Goeth laid bare their innermost
thoughts (still available on the BBCiPlayer until 30th May).
Quite apart from the high drama and mixed emotions of the men and women who were subject to the programme’s probings, the whole idea of the carrying forward of responsibility and guilt from one generation to the next provided a fascinating philosophical quandary. Such private feelings are, perhaps, understandable, but what of the judgement and opinions of others? Is it fair for society to judge individuals on the reputation of their ancestors?
Conversely, why are we so proud of our ancestors when we discover that they have been especially good, proved themselves to be an asset to society, or simply triumphed over adversity? OK, then, pride, I suppose, is fine; but so often we bask in their achievements - their glory, even – in a manner in which we have no right to. No right at all.
The five German descendants talked of ‘carrying guilt’, being ‘ashamed of who they are’, and even of not being to ‘trust’ the German people – and this from a German! One man, the grandson of
Auschwitz commandant, Rudolf
Hoess, squirmed uncomfortably in front of a roomful of Jewish students in the
grounds of the present-day ‘museum’. In what amounted to a cathartic release
for the poor chap, the viewer was left to ask, simply: why? He even stated that
he often thought that the meaning of his very existence was to carry the burden
of guilt on his grandfather’s behalf. It was all very strange.
Throughout history, the individual has always been judged on the reputation of their forebears. The feudal system, the class system, one’s ‘breeding’ – men and women (and children) have always suffered, or benefited, from the actions, reputation and standing of former kin. These days, we usually manage to get over it, of course, but we shouldn’t have to.
So don’t be ashamed of your ancestral heritage, nor too proud. It has nothing to do with you.
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