In 2011, historian Daniel Lee met “Veronika,” a young woman who had spent the past several decades sitting on what would become the subject of his new book, “The SS Officer’s Armchair: Uncovering the Hidden Life of a Nazi.”
Shortly after arriving in Florence, Italy, to pursue a research project, Lee was asked by Veronika to help her solve a mystery. Lee, a senior lecturer in modern history at Queen Mary, University of London, and a specialist in the history of Jews in France and North Africa during World War II, readily accepted.
She told Lee that an upholsterer in Amsterdam had discovered a cache of swastika-stamped papers inside a chair she had regularly sat upon as she did her homework while growing up. Her mother, “Jana,” who brought the chair for repair, had purchased it in Prague in 1968.
The family had no idea the Third Reich documents were inside its seat cushion — nor who would have stashed them there.
All Lee, 36, could initially determine was that the papers — passports, diplomas, stock certificates, and other personal documents — belonged to someone named Robert Griesinger who appeared to be a German living in Prague toward the end of the war. But Lee spent years following Griesinger’s trail, eventually discerning that he was a member of the Nazi party and an SS officer.
Lee’s determined and thorough research proved that Griesinger was a Nazi lawyer posted to the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Even Griesinger’s own children knew extremely little about him, including the details of how he died at age 38 in the chaotic aftermath of the Prague Uprising in 1945.
In focusing on Griesinger, Lee shifts the spotlight from Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and his inner circle to the masses of administrators without whom the Third Reich could not have functioned. By singling out this attorney and his family and making them more than stock figures, Lee portrays how seemingly ordinary individuals can be poisoned by a combination of ideology and professional opportunism.
“What I have tried to do here is return some texture and agency to one guy who is able to stand in for those thousands of anonymous ordinary Nazis,” Lee told The Times of Israel in a recent phone interview from the south of France, where he is sheltering in place during the coronavirus pandemic.
Lee proves that Griesinger, an attorney specializing in agricultural and economic law, knowingly did horrible things, destroying families from behind his desk, as did other similar functionaries.
To begin his research, Lee made inquiries at shops in Prague’s Old Town to learn more about the armchair. Local furniture sellers and chair makers were divided on whether it was an original model made by the fashionable furniture company owned by Czech designer Emil Gerstel, or just a knockoff. Gerstel’s company was appropriated by the Nazis in 1940s.
However, the historian soon became far more interested in Griesinger than the chair once he began visiting Prague archives.
“I was hooked when I saw for the first time his name and SS number on the SS officer list. This guy was obviously committed to the Nazi project. That’s when I decided I had to find out more about him,” Lee said.
He was initially reticent about tracking down and approaching Griesinger’s now-elderly daughters and other relatives for interviews, thinking that they — like many descendants of Nazi perpetrators — would be uncooperative. To Lee’s delight, Griesinger’s daughters Jutta and Barbara were eager to learn from what he had gleaned from his research about their father.
“We had this unspoken agreement that I could be able to ask my questions, and once they had answered them to the best of their ability, they could then ask me questions about some of the stuff I had learned from the archives about their father,” Lee said.
The a-typical, typical Nazi
By combing through archives, conducting interviews, and following Griesinger’s physical trail through a number of European countries, Lee artfully recreates the life of this German who was shaped by his upbringing in southwest Germany in a nationalist, military family. Griesinger was a member of the War Youth Generation, Germans born between 1900 and 1910 who were far too young to fight in World War I, but who were devastated by their country’s loss in the conflict. Fearful of communist influences and lacking confidence in the Weimar Republic, they were ripe for Nazism.
A major surprise for Lee was that Griesinger did not have German roots on the paternal side of his family.
“I thought I was going to write a jolly nice story about a ‘typical’ Nazi whose grandparents worked the land and were part of this historic German community. And then lo and behold, I discovered in the archives that his father was born in New Orleans. I started tracing back his family tree and discovered that it goes all the way back to the 1720s in Louisiana,” Lee said.
The historian could not ignore this finding. Exploring it further, he looked at how Griesinger’s family’s history as slave owners could have affected his own way of thinking of race and relationships with minorities generations later.
Perhaps the most jarring part of the project for Lee was discovering that Griesinger, who served in the Wehrmacht in Ukraine in 1941, passed through the town from which the Jewish Lee’s family originated (the author’s family’s surname was originally Lieberman).
“That is when I sat up and said, ‘Oh my God, this is much closer to home that I could have imagined,'” Lee said.
Griesinger may not have personally served in one of the Nazi killing squads that wiped out parts of the Jewish population in the area, but Lee proves that he and others in his regiment were aware of what was taking place.
Popular history for the ages
Lee found balancing historical research of the highest professional level with writing a book that reads like a fast-paced detective novel tricky.
“This is not something you learn in graduate school when you’re doing a doctorate,” he said.
“The SS Officer’s Armchair” is such a compelling read because Lee leaves no stone unturned in trying to figure out who Griesinger was and how his swastika-stamped papers ended up sewn into a seat cushion.
The book is replete with fascinating descriptions of the homes the Nazi lived in (the one he grew up in Stuttgart is the only house in the city with portico pillars like those of an American plantation house), and the neighbors he had — including a Jewish couple, Helene and Fritz Rothschild, who survived the war in Paris by using skills and connections essential to the Nazi war effort.
Lee goes into detail about the racial science-driven labyrinthine bureaucracy SS member Griesinger had to navigate to marry his wife Gisela, and the grueling and dangerous six-month journey she endured with their children to reach safety in Switzerland toward the war’s end.
Lee even researches the life of the family’s maid at the Griesingers’ Prague home in an effort to determine what role she might have played in concealing the SS officer’s documents.
Robert Griesinger is long dead and there are still hidden aspects to his story. However, Lee has demonstrated that what this Nazi bureaucrat did in the 1930s and 1940s still reverberates today for his descendants, and for the families of untold numbers of Jews and others affected by the decisions he made serving the Third Reich.