Book Review Number 43

The SS officer’s Armchair: Uncovering the Hidden Life of a Nazi – Daniel Lee

 

Most histories of the Third Reich focus on its senior leadership. This book, on the other hand, is the story of one of the tens of thousands of lower level mostly anonymous SS officers; they were the ones who actually directed and oversaw the implementation of the policies of anti-Semitism, slave labor, property confiscation, torture, and executions in the Third Reich. This officer’s story would likely never have been known except for an accidental discovery 70 plus years later.

I first learned about this case and the imminent publication of Daniel Lee’s book from an op-ed in the Times of Israel. His book is factual and contains history, mystery, and human interest, in more or less equal parts. I won’t provide much detail here. The story is much too complex to do it justice. I will just present the central theme and leave the details to those who choose to read the book:

In 2011 a lady in the Netherlands (not related to the officer in any way) sent a chair that had been in her family for many years to an upholstery shop to be recovered. In the recovering process multiple Nazi documents belonging to an SS officer by the name of Robert Griesinger were found hidden in the seat cushion. That discovery started the author on a multi-year research and investigative mission to discover who Griesinger was and try to understand his story.

Griesinger was a lawyer by training and mostly served as a “desk perpetrator” of the crimes the Nazis carried out against humanity. That means this particular officer for the most part did not kill or commit other atrocities himself; he administered the laws, managed the process, and issued the orders for the inhuman abuses that others carried out. In his day job he used his position to confiscate property, requisition slave labor, and round-up people for torture or execution; then he went home to his wife and children as any normal office worker might.

The last couple of years of the war Griesinger, with his family, was stationed in Prague, Czechoslovakia where he practiced his criminal Nazi duties and eventually met his end. As the war ended his wife and children became refugees trying to walk through the Alps to Liechtenstein.

Much of the value of this book is the insights we get into the character and internal workings of the feared SS/Gestapo organization as well as the typical life of a lower level SS officer. The author, with almost heroic effort, uncovered much of Griesinger’s life as well as how he fit into the broader Nazi regime. He also provides short glimpses of the anti-Semitic attitudes of the German population during the war, their belief in ultimate victory even toward the end, and a bit of insight into their plight afterwards.

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