Few perpetrators seek out their victims, let alone write books about them. Melita Maschmann, a former Nazi, published just such a book…
In recent years, many victims of violence have written memoirs in which they seek out and confront the perpetrators who harmed them. The opposite is rare. Few perpetrators seek out their victims, let alone write books about them. But fifty years ago this month, Melita Maschmann, a former Nazi, published just such a book.
“Fazit,” which was translated as “Account Rendered” in 1964, is the memoir of a woman who, as a fifteen-year-old and against her family’s wishes, joined the Hitler Youth. Before and during the Second World War, Maschmann worked in the high echelons of press and propaganda of the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the girls’ section of the Nazi youth organization, and, later, she supervised the eviction of Polish farmers and the resettlement of ethnic Germans on their farms. Arrested in 1945 at the age of thirty-three, she completed a mandatory de-Nazification course and became a freelance journalist.
Soon after her release from internment in 1948, Maschmann wrote a letter to a Jewish former classmate with whom she had the kind of passionate friendship common among adolescent girls. She didn’t know if her friend had made it out of Berlin before the war, or if her mother (whose address she had obtained) would pass the letter on. “I don’t know if it reached you,” the author writes. “Since then I have often continued my conversation with you, awake and in dreams, but I have never tried to write any of it down. Now, today, I feel impelled to do so. I was prompted to this by a trivial incident. A woman spoke to me in the street and the way she held her head suddenly reminded me quite strikingly of you. But what is the real reason which made me sit down and write to you as soon as I came in? Perhaps in the intervening years I have, without being aware of it, prepared an account within me which must be presented.”
“Account Rendered” is written in the form of a second book-length letter. “With you as a witness,” the author writes, in a painful, exhaustive, seemingly scrupulous portrait of her younger self, “I should like to try once more to go over the result of my reflections on the past. You will compel me to be much more precise than I could be if left to myself.”
Maschmann is acutely aware that her friend might view her project as self-justifying, but writes, “Even the element of fate in a person’s life does not dispose of individual guilt, I know that. What I hope, dare to hope, is that you might be able to understand—not excuse—the wrong and even evil steps which I took and which I must report, and that such an understanding might form the basis for a lasting dialogue.”
Maschmann elaborated on her purpose to Hannah Arendt in 1963, in a letter that expressed her desire to help former Nazi colleagues reflect on their actions, and to help others “better understand” why people like her had been drawn to Hitler. (Their brief correspondence can be read online.)
A deft writer and practiced propagandist who understood the power of a vivid quote, detail, or anecdote, Maschmann portrayed herself as a girl who came of age in a culture imbued with the shame of Germany’s defeat in the First World War. “Before I understood the meaning of the word ‘Germany,’ I loved it as something mysteriously overshadowed with grief…,” she writes. Her wealthy parents, avid newspaper readers and members of the conservative German National Party, complained about “the chaotic squabbling of Parliament” and the millions of people out of work, but had a sign affixed to their door that read “No Hawkers or Beggars.” Melita sympathized with them, and with the maid, chauffeur, and house seamstress. The latter wore an embossed metal swastika under the lapel of her coat, spoke movingly of Hitler, and was instrumental in Melita’s resolve “to follow a different road from the conservative one prescribed for me by family tradition.” The book documents twelve years of following that road.
“Account Rendered” appeared at a time when Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil” was making its way into public conversation, and while the West German parliament was debating the statute of limitations on crimes committed by Nazis. Some critics found the text candid and forthright; others considered it defensive, prevaricating, and melodramatic. Some of Maschmann’s former colleagues, Nazis who were issued kerosene with which to burn their documents at the end of the war, viewed it as a betrayal, and never forgave her for writing it.
In Germany, the book went through eight editions (the last in 1987) and was added to high-school reading lists in some school districts. It became part of Germany’s private, public, and scholarly debates over its own history. Historians of the Nazi period—Daniel Goldhagen and Claudia Koonz, among others—used “Account Rendered” as a primary source. Women’s studies researchers tried to discover in it the mentality of a female perpetrator. Students of memoir used the text to showcase the vagaries of personal narrative; sociologists looked for a relation between the literary work and the cultural setting from which it arose. Some readers questioned Maschmann’s reliability as a narrator, her motivation, and whether or not she was representative of ordinary Germans. They theorized about the Jewish friend to whom the memoir is addressed: Was she a construct, a composite, or a reality?
No one could answer those questions, because soon after the book’s publication, its author effectively disappeared from public view. She had found a guru, Sri Anandamayi Ma, a woman venerated as a “living saint,” in India. Maschmann took a Hindu name, lived in Indian ashrams, and returned to Germany only on brief family visits every two or three years.
I had never heard of Melita Maschmann until a friend, the former editor Arthur Samuelson, described “Account Rendered” as one of the most interesting memoirs he had ever read. My husband and I republish classic non-fiction as e-books at Plunkett Lake Press, and we were intrigued. “I found in the memoir someone who had been overtaken by history,” Samuelson told me. “Someone who was struggling to make sense of what no longer made sense, and to understand why it had once done so. And someone whose best self had been attracted to Nazism.”
We read the book and began to research its history.
First, we located Maschmann’s remaining family in Germany and France. According to her sister-in-law, now in her nineties, Maschmann had trouble finding friends and establishing a postwar life. She travelled, took some university courses, and freelanced for newspapers. In 1962, she toured Afghanistan and India and, after publishing her memoir, decided to leave Germany.
Among the scholars who continue to be intrigued by Maschmann is Dagmar Reese, the author of “Growing Up Female in Nazi Germany.” She recalled that she had come across a footnote in an essay by the late Irmgard Klönne suggesting that Maschmann’s Jewish friend was not a literary construct but an actual person: Marianne Schweitzer, the daughter of the physician Ernst Schweitzer and Franziska Körte Schweitzer of Berlin. We located her at her home in La Jolla, California, and she almost hung up when we called, thinking we were telemarketers.