I was sent an Advanced Reader Copy of the book, Architects of Death. The Family Who Engineered the Death Camps, by Karen Bartlett. The book is due to be released in August 2018.
Overall the book was very interesting. Being an empath and medium, I did set a barrier around my house and myself before I began reading it and honestly, read most of it outside where the energy could ground into the earth. This is not an easy book to read, although it does NOT get graphic in the description of what happened to the victims of the death camps/concentration camps, except in a couple instances. For that I was grateful. I just finished reading a book about Japanese POWs and their treatment so a reprieve from such graphic descriptions was good.
For families homeschooling their children, this book would be appropriate for junior or senior level students and give you a lot to discuss.
The book focused more on the history of the Topf family, their often unstable personalities, their business, and what led them to work with the SS to create the ovens and other “necessary” items for the cremation and gassing systems of many camps. Throughout the book the Topf family and others high up in the company who were responsible for these items wrote their documents in such a way, even during interrogations later, about their innocence in it all and how it was just standard operating procedure to supply the necessary items to dispose of so many remains which died of disease. All the while knowing what they were doing and why. The author did give enough background to each of the main characters for readers to understand what might have led them to the choices they made. This included the description of many who served in World War I and after that saw no value in human life. Their struggle to survive in whatever fashion that meant and reach their goals was all that was important.
By 3/4 of the way through the book I was a bit tired of it. The author presented a lot of snippets of documents and statistics throughout the whole book, which at first were fine, but by later in the book I started skimming so I could get to the end where the descendant explained his interest in the Topf family business and the Memorial they created to acknowledge the role the family played and the impact it had. The descendant made it clear that he still struggles with the sins of the fathers and how he views his father and other family members.
The author did end the book prior to her Conclusion chapter, with a question. How would we act today?
Did you notice that didn’t say, What would I have done? Which is usually the question people ask and then we go into judgment of everything and everyone without knowing what led them to make those choices.
The book brought up a lot of questions for me and a lot of themes I feel family and military historians should look at when we explore our own family’s role in World War II or any war.
1. How would we act today?
2. The shock one may go into when discovering a family member or a family business was responsible for some horrible event in history (define that as you need to.)
3. The questions that rise when we discover said act(s) or choices and no one is left to ask. Then what do we do? In this case, Hartmut Topf set out to learn the history of his family’s involvement in the creation of the ovens and all that was attached to that. Then to create a Memorial in Erfurt, Germany to remind people of what happened there and give them pause to think on the effects so this doesn’t happen again.
Having traveled through parts of western Germany and western Europe, it did not go unnoticed that the Germans do not memorialize what took place for WWI or WWII as is done in the rest of Europe. From what I observed and was told, memorials to soldiers are attached to churches for the most part. Or sometimes I have seen them as a small almost “invisible” monument somewhere in town. It is known that most every country rewrites their history so the bad parts are wiped away. This is documented. We know what was and was not taught in schools after World War II and we see how even in our own country today, parts of history are being wiped away. The Topf business histories even ignore their role in the war or leave those years out altogether. How are we serving the past, present, and future by ignoring what happened? What would change if we understood and could not stand in judgment of it all?
4. Traveling as much as I do, this book brought up another question – how much of the past do we never know about as we travel because there are no memorials or reminders? The thoughts in #3 above speak to this somewhat, but as I read this book and thought – ok a friend was just in these cities mentioned and said nothing about knowing the history of the war there. These aren’t things tourism sites or cities usually advertise on their websites or travel brochures. So how do we discover these deeper and darker parts of history, whether WWII or some other war? I think it requires us to look into the histories of the places we choose to visit. Again, as an empath and medium, sometimes I feel things or am aware of things but can’t always put my finger on exactly what/when/where/who it was – I had not considered until I read this book that there are pieces of history that are never discussed.
5. Believing what took place. One Topf family descendant, Udo, saw photographs of the camps, the corpses, the ovens. Read the history. Even visited the camps, yet still could not wrap his mind around the fact his family participated in the creation of it all. Udo had a long career with the company after the war and being loyal to family (whatever that specifically meant to him), he had trouble seeing his family was culpable in this. He talked of blame and what the family should or should not have done.
This is where we get into those grey areas of judgment, conclusion, questioning what we would have done. We weren’t there so in my point of view that question isn’t possible to answer. My point of view is to learn, observe, ask questions about what happened, who was involved, and try to understand the 100 other experiences and choices that led to them saying YES to whatever they chose that had a tremendous impact on the world, the lives of millions, and history. This is also where we have to ask – is it my responsibility to carry the sins of my fathers and the past? What responsibility, if any, do I have here?
Hartmut Topf chose responsibility as his decision to create a memorial and educate people about the dark past.
This book had many more questions and themes that apply to family and military historians. It also illustrates the path taken by one business family in the creation of a killing machine during the war. In my point of view, learning about these people, their personal histories, the company history, that of the political and social situation in Germany from prior to World War I to today, gives us all a new perspective on the war and what took place. Using what we learn through the book and all the questions raised, I think we can create change in the world that allows us to stop hurting each other. If we choose that path.
I’m not finished with my thoughts on this book. I’ll be releasing a new project in the coming months with books as the focal point. Stay tuned to learn more and how this may affect how you perceive, judge, research, write, and heal your family’s history.
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© 2018 World War II Research and Writing Center
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