Identity on the Line
Identity on the Line

“Keep it quiet! Family secrets in the aftermath of WWII”

Long-term consequences of WWII in Norway and its repercussions within some families. 

By Kathrin Pabst

The project background and starting point

German army soldiers marching in Kristiansand, 1940-1945, Norway. Photo courtesy of Endre Wrånes.

Between 1940 and 1945, some 500,000 German soldiers were temporarily deployed to Norway to occupy a country whose population numbered three million. This implies that in this period, one in six of the population could be German, and in certain parts of the country, the percentage was even higher. Throughout the five years of occupation, the German troops approached Norwegian society in a number of different ways. They recruited political sympathisers, and they punished their adversaries brutally. They hired Norwegians to build military installations or roads, they fell in love with Norwegian girls, married them and got them pregnant. In 1945, when the occupation was over, the Germans departed. But they left their traces, and more than 75 years later there are still many who struggle with the long-term consequences of what happened during the war.

The condemnation of those who had collaborated with the Germans was extreme, both from the Norwegian authorities and from the local society. Many women who had an affair with a German soldier had their hair cut off publicly and were rejected by their families and the people around them. Many of the children whose father was a German soldier were branded as “German bastards”, and some were even hidden away in earmarked institutions. At the same time, other kinds of relations between Norwegians and the occupiers were suppressed in the public debate, such as the large number of profiteering companies and individuals who worked for the Germans and supplied them with the goods and materials they needed. 

Incidents that took place during or after the war often had long-term consequences, regardless of which side one was on. Many of those who fought against the Germans found that life in the aftermath was hard to handle, and even though many members of the resistance were decorated and honoured, there were some who had risked their lives for Norway without feeling that their contribution and sacrifice was properly acknowledged and appreciated. 

Even today the history of the Second World War contributes to forming a people’s self-image, their family history and identity. In some families, two to three generations later, it is still challenging to talk about what happened. This is particularly so if family members were on the “wrong side” during the war – those who supported the occupier or fraternised with the foreign troops in a way that could be considered improper or even treacherous. But even some of those who were on the “right side” had to cope with severe long-term effects of the war, for example after imprisonment and torture. This is what constitutes the core of Vest-Agder Museum’s documentation and exhibition project, “Untold Stories. Family Secrets after the War”: Different personal attempts to handle what happened during the temporary migration of nearly 500,000 German soldiers from 1940 to 1945.[1]The occupation of Norway has some characteristics which make it possible to use the term “migration” in a wider sense of the word, see D. Stratigakos, Hitler’s Northern Utopia. Building the New … Continue reading

About the work process and contact with the informants[2]A Norwegian article containing more information about the project and its results is published here: Pabst, K. (2021). “Det snakker vi ikke om! Familiehemmeligheter etter krigen”: Et blikk på … Continue reading

The project was launched in January 2020 with an announcement and advertisement in newspapers and social media. In the advertisement we asked: Are you a descendant of a German or of someone who worked for the Germans? What kind of marks has the war left on you and your family? And: Which stories are told – and which are suppressed?  Our premise was that possible family secrets must have been kept secret for some reason, and that it would therefore not be legitimate to ask people directly to share their personal stories. Research from other countries and disciplines indicated that trauma could be involved in many cases, and that this made it particularly challenging to talk about what happened. This was the main reason why we decided to wait and see who contacted us, instead of being more active in finding the informants ourselves. On only one occasion, towards the end of the project, did we approach an informant, knowing that he had gone public with his story before. 

After the public advertisement we received several calls and e-mails from people who wanted to talk to us and become informants. Each of these informants was followed up by a member of the museum’s project group, for a one-to-three-hour interview, face-to-face or through the digital platform Zoom. Afterwards, a summary of the interview was written and sent to the informants for comment, correction and finally approval by means of a detailed declaration of consent. Two of our informants chose to write their stories themselves. 

As a theoretical starting point for our work we mainly used the German philosopher Axel Honneth’s approach to recognition. In his well-known book Kampf um Anerkennung from 1992, Honneth establishes a social theory based on the premise that people have a fundamental need to be respected and recognised on three different levels: as a loveable person by the members of his inner circle, as a citizen with well-defined rights from the state, and as an equal member of a group where his unique skills and experiences are held in high esteem.[3]Axel Honneth, Behovet for anerkendelse: En tekstsamling, København: Hans Reitzel 2003; A. Honneth & Holm-Hansen, Kamp for Anerkendelse: Om de sosiale konfliktenes moralske grammatikk, Oslo: Pax … Continue reading The museum wanted to work on all three levels. We wanted genuine and authentic contact with the informant during and after the interview. It was self-evident and imperative to us that all the legal rights and demands an informant has in his encounter with a public museum would be followed.[4]Axel Honneth & B. Rössler, eds, Von Person zu Person: Zur Moralität persönlicher Beziehungen, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag 2008, 10, 142. See also K. Pabst, Mange hensyn å ta – mange … Continue reading. And we wanted to use the exhibition as a dissemination channel in order to reach a public which could be moved by and made attentive to what the informant had experienced.[5]Pabst, 2016

Our advertisement in local newspapers and on the museum’s Facebook- and webpage prompted 31 people to contact us. Among them were women who had relationships with German soldiers, their children and grandchildren, descendants of members of the Norwegian Nazi Party and descendants of German soldiers. Several stories bear witness to traumatic incidents during and after the war which made a lasting impression on the families. 21 gave us permission to recount their stories,[6]Among the ten informants whom we do not introduce, four withdrew after having spoken with us. One informant experienced his own story as too powerful after having seen it in print and needed time to … Continue reading most of them under a vow of anonymity.[7]Only two employees knew the informants’ identity: the interviewer and the writer of this document, i.e. the project leader. When ethical challenges popped up in the process and were discussed in … Continue reading

Examples from some of the stories we collected

At twelve, the informant was ashamed when he learned by coincidence that his father had been a soldier for the Germans in the war. 1954, Norway. Photo: private collection

Our informants are men (11) and women (10) from all over the country, aged between 32 and 94. All three generations are represented, with a large majority of members from the second generation. One informant is a first generation representative, which implies that she was an adult who made her own independent choices during the war. Fifteen informants are from the second generation, that is to say they were children of people who were adults during the war, and five informants are third generation members, which means they are grandchildren of people from the first generation. In one case we have had the opportunity to interview three generations from one family. Only three informants came forward under their full name. Five others have authorised us to use their first name; all the rest want to remain anonymous.  

The stories we were invited to share have so many different angles and subtleties that it is hard to categorize them. Any attempt will necessarily have to be superficial in the sense that the categorisation will be based on the most prominent aspect of the story, without considering the many subsidiary aspects which make that story unique, and which might have prompted us to categorise in a different way. For the travelling exhibition here in Norway we selected extracts from many of the stories, whereas all the stories in their entirety can be found in a separate publication available at the museum. Here you will find eight of the 21 stories translated into English literally, and 13 stories in an abbreviated version.

The following are short examples of what we heard:

Grandchild, age 48, who discovered that her beloved grandfather had a dark past. In addition, she learned that he had seriously abused his own son, who, in turn, had abused her.

It was a terrible shock to me when his history from the war was revealed. Working my way through all this material has been an emotional roller coaster for me, an experience which I feel has had a lot of influence on my own life. All the suffering from the past gave my father a painful adolescence, which in turn gave me a painful adolescence, which has now taken me through several years of therapy in an attempt at coming to terms with it.”

Son, age 79, of a Norwegian who accepted an offer to enlist and serve with the German occupiers.

“When somebody started talking about the war I fell silent. Everybody could tell what their fathers had done, but not I. So I was a quiet child. Later this feeling of shame changed into restlessness and insecurity. Would anything new pop up? (…) My father was a soldier on the Eastern Front. He was part of the regime which staged the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. There are still things I will not talk about. I have a feeling that what I tell also reveals something about me.”

 Grandchild, age 32, descendant of members of the Nazi Party.

I see clear lines going from my grandmother to my mother and to me. My mother used to poke her finger into my back and say “straighten up!” – presumably to conquer her inward shame. My mother justified her action by saying that her mother used to do the same thing to her. To me that is a symbol of transferring the shame.”

Daughter, age 55, of a German soldier who served in Norway.

There was something that happened in Norway during the war, something terrible which was going to leave its mark on my father more than anything else. Something so strong that he was never willing to talk about it. Something which traumatised him so profoundly that it affected our entire family, even us four siblings who never experienced the war. In this way, the war somehow became part of our lives too. (…) People who have grown up with a father traumatised by war will know what it is all about, no matter which side of the war he was on.

Bjørn, age 77, son of a German soldier.

From my early childhood I was instructed not to tell anyone that I came from Germany. In the aftermath I understood that these cover stories were good for me. I’ve had friends who haven’t had such cover stories, and who have ended their lives as grown-ups, shooting themselves because they couldn’t cope with it anymore.

Jan Jørg Tomstad, age 67, son of a well-known resistance member.

My childhood was perhaps a little different from most, and I soon became aware of who my father was. “How lucky you are!” many said. They did not know how hard it was at home. (…) A member of our family once quoted my father as saying: ‘The price peace has cost us, is a price our descendants will have to pay in the form of fear and unrest passed on from one generation to another’. There is no doubt he was right in his observation.”

Daughter, age 79, of a man who helped the Germans during the war.

I was told that my father, after the war, was convicted as a traitor because he had worked as a spy for the Germans. This was the first time I heard that story. When I learned all this I had turned 50. It was horribly painful (…) As long as there is doubt about the truth, it becomes difficult to relate to, reconcile myself with and forgive. But can I really forgive?  Guilt, forgiveness and reconciliation, those are difficult ideas and concepts, but he was my father and he was a kind man.

Daughter, age 62, who at the age of 20 happened to learn that her mother had been married to a German soldier, a fact that had never been communicated at home.  

I may seem open and sociable, but at the bottom of my heart I have always been lonely. I was sort of never able to live out my feelings; everything was stifled and hushed up (at home). There was so much under the surface, but no-one dared to touch it; silence was total and all- pervading.”

Woman, 94, who was abandoned by her family and local society when she married a German soldier. 

I have thought a lot about the choices I have made over the years, and I know that I was never been a German whore. I was a Norwegian woman who fell in love with a German, and he loved me. There is nothing wrong in that, and we did not do anybody any harm. He was the love of my life.”

Most important findings

A first analysis of the collected material indicates that at least two aspects play an important role for the long-term consequences of the war for children and grandchildren. The consequences seem to be more severe: 

  1. a) if the first-hand witnesses have had painful experiences which they couldn’t or wouldn’t share, and  
  2. b) if local society acted as a punitive instrument. 

Overall, the stories show that silence and concealment have had a major impact on children and grandchildren. The descendants have often been able to perceive that something was withheld, either because the behaviour of their parents or grandparents indirectly revealed this, or because of the reactions they received from their local society. Research confirms how important it is for the development of one’s own identity that one knows who or what has had a formative influence on one´s life. If one is denied access to all the knowledge required for this process, one could be left feeling alone and not accepted as an autonomous individual.[8] M. Rzeszutek, et al., Knowledge about traumatic World War II experiences among ancestors and subjective well-being of young adults: A person-centred perspective 2020, PloS one, 15 (8), e0237859, … Continue reading

We also saw that the local society had a major influence on how individuals were able to cope with events during and after the war. The local environment could either accept and support, or punish and exclude. If everyone in the local community knew what had happened and accepted the chosen course of action as understandable, given the challenges the person was up against, the long-term consequences turned out to very limited. If, on the other hand, it was necessary to handle not only the incidents as such, but also punishment and to some extent social exclusion, the negative consequences, even for descendants, were more intense and to some extent multiplied. 

In addition, the material suggests that negative behaviour such as violence and anger, as well as negative feelings like shame, guilt and loneliness might be transferred to the succeeding generations. The less the descendants knew about the reasons for the negative behaviour or feelings of their parents or grandparents, the stronger the negative impact seemed to have been. Several circumstances are likely to play additional roles here, and further studies are required before making clear correlations. 

Intergenerational transfer

In general, our initial findings support research results within disciplines like psychology, epigenetics and neuroscience, which over recent decades have studied so-called inter– or transgenerational transfer. The concept refers to the transfer of “something” – most often in the form of memories of specific events or experiences – from one generation to another, either within one family or in society as a whole from members of one generation to members of the next. Memories that are transferred may change form and content with the passage of time, and both the memories themselves and the change that can be ascribed to the passage of time depend on a number of external factors, psychological as well as biological, which in turn are unique for each person and each situation.   

When traumatic or potentially traumatising experiences form the basis, that is to say incidents which were experienced as life-threatening or negative to such an extent that they have affected someone’s life over a long period of time, the transfer may be particularly noticeably.[9]In special fields like psychology, the focus has for a long time been directed at how traumatic incidents may influence people’s lives, also many decades after they actually happened, see e.g. A. … Continue reading. People – and their descendants [10]See e.g. S. Bode, Die vergessene Generation: Die Kriegskinder brechen ihr Schweigen, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta 2004; S. Bode, Kriegsenkel. Die Erben der vergessenen Generation, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta … Continue reading – who have been exposed to war, flight, genocide, forced migration or totalitarian regimes are among those who are especially exposed to this.

Some thoughts upon the theme and the work process 

The slogan of Vest-Agder Museum is “We tell YOUR story”, and this includes difficult, sensitive and taboo narratives which so far have not been told. Such stories have been part of our working schedule over the last fifteen years, and we have gradually established routines for all contact with informants and visitors. Among other things, we organise workshops to prepare for challenging interview situations, always aiming at providing the best possible setting for the informant. In addition, in this particular project we were part of an international collaboration among museums, with partner institutions who were all working on similar themes and used similar methods.[11] The involved employees in the seven partner institutions in the international project Identity on the Line (see www.i-on.museum), cooperated to produce an interview-guide which was meant for use in … Continue reading We knew very well that both the interview situation and the exhibition could trigger emotions which in turn could provoke strong reactions.[12]K. Pabst, ‘Med fokus på de besøkendes følelser. Jo mer disponering, jo mer læring?’ Nytt Blikk. Årsskrift fra Stiftelsen Arkivet 2015, 60-73; K. Pabst, ‘The individual’s needs versus the … Continue reading The preparations we made were crucial and worked out more or less as we expected. Still, the work process gave us a considerable amount of new insight.   

Among other things, four informants withdrew their consent after we carried out the interviews and sent them the transcript of the story for approval. When we asked the reason for this, one of them said quite explicitly that it was not until he read his own story in black and white that he really understood the full extent of the impact the events of the war still have today. The strain and stress were so intense that he asked us to help him find a psychologist so that he could get back on his feet and move on with his life. Two of the others wanted to protect family members they thought would not want their stories to be exposed, not even in an anonymous version. And in the last case, we were told that we had not managed to account for the full complexity and all the repercussions of the war in a sufficiently precise manner. 

Even though we had taken a lot of precautions and tried to prepare ourselves as best we could for the interviews and the reproduction of the stories, we were surprised by learning how taboo the war still was within certain families, and to what extent the wall of silence had affected the lives of children and grandchildren in a negative way. That applied not only to the informants, but also to us museum employees involved in the project. The work was much more demanding than we had foreseen. We had dug deep into the subject, discussed different approaches and their possible consequences in plenary sessions and kept in touch with each other without interruption just to make sure we could handle the numerous ethical challenges that popped up during the process. Still, several of us reacted strongly to what we learned, particularly after the personal contact with the informants, where their feelings came to the surface in such an unambiguous way. Suddenly some of us understood that there were untold stories about the war in our own families, while others were astounded to see how easily the long-term effects of silence and concealment could be projected upon their own lives. As a direct consequence of the new things we learned, we changed our routines for future work. Among other things, we will always have an arrangement with a psychologist who will be able to provide help for the informants or us, if needed. 

The dissemination of the results

The results of the work were disseminated in several ways: a traveling exhibition, a comprehensive exhibition catalogue, several events and lectures digging deeper into a certain topic, and meetings with school classes and students.

Photo of the exhibition “Keep it secret! Family secrets in the aftermath of WW2” at the Vest-Agder Museum. 2022, Norway. Photo by Arve Lindvig.

Summing up

The Second World War was a historic catastrophe with complex consequences and repercussions on three different levels: for the development of personal identity for those who were directly exposed to the shock, for the inner life of families, and for the society which saw it happen. In this project we have been in touch with all three levels, even if our focus has been on levels one and two: the impact of the events of the war on children and grandchildren and its significance for family relations. 

A lot of research remains to be done in this field. In our view intergenerational transfer has not, up until now, been sufficiently clarified and integrated into the work of museums. Among other things, the importance and transfer of individual trauma within families and collective trauma within societies needs further exploration. Secrecy and concealment are important factors, as well as the role of the local societies. We do not yet know enough about the underlying mechanisms, but we can clearly see that they play an important role and have to be considered when interacting with informants and visitors. In order to understand the organic connections and fully exploit new knowledge, it is vital to side with and learn from disciplines like psychology and neuroscience, both of which have been studying these phenomena over a long period of time.

References

References
1 The occupation of Norway has some characteristics which make it possible to use the term “migration” in a wider sense of the word, see D. Stratigakos, Hitler’s Northern Utopia. Building the New Order in Occupied Norway, Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press 2020.
2 A Norwegian article containing more information about the project and its results is published here: Pabst, K. (2021). “Det snakker vi ikke om! Familiehemmeligheter etter krigen”: Et blikk på krigens langtidskonsekvenser i et tre-generasjoners perspektiv. I T. Bjerkås, T. V. H. Hagen & G. Aaby (eds.), Tid for anerkjennelse. Andre verdenskrig i fortid og i nåtid (Kap. 4, s. 79–104). Cappelen Damm Akademisk. https://doi.org/10.23865/noasp.148.ch4 Lisens: CC-BY-NC 4.0. This paragraph represents, like some others, a shortened version of the respective parts of the mentioned article.
3 Axel Honneth, Behovet for anerkendelse: En tekstsamling, København: Hans Reitzel 2003; A. Honneth & Holm-Hansen, Kamp for Anerkendelse: Om de sosiale konfliktenes moralske grammatikk, Oslo: Pax 2008; J.-P. Dereanty, Beyond communication: A critical study of Axel Honneth’s social philosophy (Vol. 7), Leiden: Brill 2009; O. Lysaker, Sårbar kropp – verdig liv: Anerkjennelseskampers eksistensielle kosmopolitikk, Oslo: Universitetet i Oslo 2010.
4 Axel Honneth & B. Rössler, eds, Von Person zu Person: Zur Moralität persönlicher Beziehungen, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag 2008, 10, 142. See also K. Pabst, Mange hensyn å ta – mange behov å avveie. Arbeidet med følsomme tema på museum, Oslo: Museumsforlaget 2016, 196-198.
5 Pabst, 2016
6 Among the ten informants whom we do not introduce, four withdrew after having spoken with us. One informant experienced his own story as too powerful after having seen it in print and needed time to process it before it could be made public. He withdrew his story and asked the museum for assistance to bring in a psychologist. One informant stated that we had not approached the experiences in the expected manner, and two informants did not wish after all to relate something which they felt to be too personal and close.
7 Only two employees knew the informants’ identity: the interviewer and the writer of this document, i.e. the project leader. When ethical challenges popped up in the process and were discussed in the project group, it was always done in general terms which made it impossible to identify the informant
8  M. Rzeszutek, et al., Knowledge about traumatic World War II experiences among ancestors and subjective well-being of young adults: A person-centred perspective 2020, PloS one, 15 (8), e0237859, 9-13. https://doi.org/10.23734/mcs.2018.1.119.141
9 In special fields like psychology, the focus has for a long time been directed at how traumatic incidents may influence people’s lives, also many decades after they actually happened, see e.g. A. Shalev, et al., International Handbook of Human Response to Trauma, New York: Plenum Publishers 2000; Y. Danieli, ed., Intergenerational Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma, New York: Plenum Press 1998; B. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, New York: Penguin Books 2015; M. Wolynn, It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle, New York: Penguin Books 2017. See also R. Yehuda & A. Lehrner, ‘Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: Putative role of epigenetic mechanisms’, World psychiatry: Official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) 2018, 17 (3), 243-257. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20568
10 See e.g. S. Bode, Die vergessene Generation: Die Kriegskinder brechen ihr Schweigen, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta 2004; S. Bode, Kriegsenkel. Die Erben der vergessenen Generation, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta 2009; S. Aleksijevitsj, De siste vitnene, Oslo: Kagge Forlag AS 2016; M. Smith-Solbakken, & H.-J. Wallin-Weihe, ‘Post-traumatic stress reactions in a long-term and several generation perspectives’, Multicultural Studies 2018 (1), 119-141. https://doi.org/10.23734/mcs.2018.1.119.141
11  The involved employees in the seven partner institutions in the international project Identity on the Line (see www.i-on.museum), cooperated to produce an interview-guide which was meant for use in all sub-projects in the seven countries.
12 K. Pabst, ‘Med fokus på de besøkendes følelser. Jo mer disponering, jo mer læring?’ Nytt Blikk. Årsskrift fra Stiftelsen Arkivet 2015, 60-73; K. Pabst, ‘The individual’s needs versus the needs of a broader public. A short introduction to a central moral challenge that museum employees could face when working with contested, sensitive histories.’ Deutschland, ICOM (Hrsg.): Difficult Issues: Proceedings of the ICPM International conference 2017, Heidelberg: arthistoricum.net 2019 (Beiträge zur Museologie, Band 7), 2019