Unreflected Limitations of Engaging with History?

Belonging. A German Reckons with History and Home reviewed by Kees Ribbens

Struggling with the past is a phenomenon that is not only reserved for states and politicians. On a personal level, too, it regularly illustrates how 20th century world history has left behind deep traces; traces that force us to reflect on this legacy and on how we relate to the past, making it meaningful in our contemporary existence. Nora Krug’s Belonging, the visual account of her migration from Germany to the US and, above all, of her subsequent engagement with her identity as a German, is an attractive autobiographical book you don’t want to put down.

For Nora Krug, a successful German illustrator, the struggle with her German heritage in general and her family history in particular, began after her migration to the US in the early 2000s and continued during more recent family visits to Germany. Belonging, the visual account of her transatlantic struggle with the past is an attractive book you don’t want to put down. Her 280-page graphic memoir traces the author’s odyssey in which she finds her place as a German, as an individual with the burden of German history on her shoulders, in American society. But above all, it reflects her search for the ways in which the history of the NS-Zeit – the Hitler era before and during the Second World War – affected her own family.

The nuanced and personal approach to this appealing topic with universal traits ensures that the reader of this page-turner keeps following the author closely. The fact that, next to the original edition in the US and UK, translations appeared immediately in Germany, France and the Netherlands is telling. That the book was praised in prominent media, from the New York Times to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, not only shows that graphic novels are now taken very seriously as a medium, but also that the author has touched a sensitive chord with the convincing way in which she exposes her family history – and her own position in it – in both image and text. Krug’s parents belonged to the first post-war generation, which, through education and politics, was strongly aware of the reprehensible Nazi past that weighed on German identity as a collective blame, in particular in former West Germany. Their daughter goes a step further in this creative mix of graphic novel and family scrapbook.

The author was raised in the German city Karlsruhe and emigrated to the US as a young adult in 2002. Belonging starts with the memory of one of her very first encounters in New York City. She meets an elderly woman who, when speaking about Krug’s country of origin, turns out to be a Holocaust survivor, and who tells her about the concentration camp she survived because a female guard had saved her several times from being sent to the gas chamber. The unease that characterized this unexpected conversation raised the question that actually underlies this book: »How do you react, as a German, standing across from a human being who reveals this memory to you?« Krug’s feelings of shame and guilt haven’t disappeared after twelve years of living in the US. While still experiencing »a nagging sense of unease« she continues to ask herself from a distance: »What does it mean to be German?«

Fig. 1: Referencing Romanticist painter Casper David Friedrich, Krug explores the connection between place and identity.

Her quest takes her from her New York home, where she lives with her Jewish-American husband, back to Germany to get a better understanding of how her ancestors lived through the Nazi era. Back in the Heimat, (also the title of the UK edition) she searches for documents among family papers as well as in archives and flea markets to make a sensitive era visible. The eclectic results – documents, drawings and photographs – are mixed with handwritten text and illustrations into an impressive memoir that brings the reader close to the past. In addition, Krug has collected the memories of her family members, who, despite complex mutual relationships, are often accommodating but also appear somewhat optimistic and mitigating. By comparing the existing family narratives to archival documents, she has tested the narratives’ veracity, bringing the book beyond a mere visualization of oral history. In this way, Krug investigates the inheritance of National Socialism in her maternal and paternal families, constantly asking herself, as their descendant, what impact the historical facts and assumptions have on her responsibility as a young German living in Germany and the US.

A flash-back early in the book shows a conversation between Krug, returning home from elementary school, and her mother about her unfamiliarity with Jews. The reader sees how Krug learned about the Holocaust at school where she saw the first images of it. She describes the screening of a documentary and the subsequent visits to concentration camp museums in France, Germany and Poland: »Here was the evidence of our collective guilt.« Implicitly, the focus moves to the persecution of the Jews. The author’s choice for this approach is not surprising, but it results in an unreflected narrowing of the memoir’s perspective – resulting in a moving narrative yet somewhat unsatisfactory regarding the wider dramatic scope of National Socialism.

Secondary school, as Krug illustrates, paid extensive attention to Hitler and National Socialism, to shocking historical events such as Reichskristallnacht and to the way Nazis used the German language. According to the general consensus in postwar society, words like victory and pride were to be avoided, while topics like the suffering of German civilians during wartime bombings should be ignored. Jewish life seemed to be something that solely had existed in the Nazi era. Only in retrospect did Krug realize the limitations of the image of the world presented to her. »We never learned what happened in our hometown. [...] We struggled to understand the meaning of Heimat«. What could she identify with? Her father also seemed to wrestle with a similar issue. That became apparent during a family holiday in Italy, when they visited the grave of her father's elder brother, Franz-Karl Krug, who was killed in action during the Second World War.

This uncle was »a complete stranger« to her, something that did not apply to her maternal grandfather who died in 1988. Willi Rock was supposed to have been a chauffeur in the interwar years, driving a Jewish linen salesman who would have made it financially possible for Willi to set up his own driving school. During the war he was recruited as driving teacher for soldiers at the home front and was thus spared from duty at the front line. Yet, according to family stories, he had also been stationed in West Flanders, Belgium, where he would have been made prisoner of war at the end of the war. Krug felt reassured by this story. »The fact that he had been punished for having been a German soldier was particularly comforting«.

Later on, his Soldbuch (›pay book‹, an identification booklet recording the personal information and promotions of each soldier) tells her it was very unlikely that Willi had been a prisoner of war abroad. Having been declared »unfit for field service« in November 1942, he had served as a driver afterwards. Eventually, Krug finds Willi's personal file compiled by the US military authorities in 1946. It unexpectedly reveals his membership of the NSDAP, the Nazi party, between 1933 and 1940 – something his relatives were unaware of. He described himself as Mitläufer, a follower, and stated he had joined the party under economic pressure. His presumed innocence was affirmed by a handful of testimonials, including those a communist friend who had been sent to a concentration camp in the 1930s, and from another friend – Albert W. – who was married to a Jewish woman. She tracks down Albert's son in Florida, Walter, with whom she has a long phone conversation. Sympathetically, he shows himself understanding towards Krug. He can’t remember her grandfather but knows that his parents had helpful friends who were opposed to the regime. She then realizes that her historical knowledge will have limits, »that I’ll never know exactly what Willi thought, what he saw or heard, what he decided to do or not to do, what he could have done and failed to do, and why.« Yet, by having joined the NSDAP »Willi had inevitably contributed to furthering the cause of a murderous regime.«

Fig. 2: Nora Krug interviews her aunt Annemarie about her grandfather, Alois Krug.

But elsewhere Krug seems less vigorous in how she researches and evaluates history. Another written source Krug tracked down consists of letters by Willi’s younger brother Edwin. He wrote these to his wife Elsa when summoned for military service in 1943 and sent to the Soviet Union, where he was killed in 1944. His letters from »the East« show, according to Krug, »his gradual emotional disintegration«. In October 1944 he writes: »what lies behind me isn’t easy, and even if I return home, I’ll never forget it,« concluding: »What the war expects of us goes far beyond the superhuman in all respects.« No sign of life was heard from him after fierce combat on the peninsula of Sworbe, Estonia, in mid-November 1944. What Edwin exactly did in the East, whether the enemy in his perspective was limited to the Red Army, or also included communists, partisans and civilians, remains undiscussed. Likewise, nothing is mentioned regarding the question whether his war experiences solely consisted of combat actions that did not violate the law of war.

Krug's paternal grandfather, Alois Krug, as it appears at the end of the book, was also deployed in the East, being stationed in Poland between 1939 and 1940 as Obergefreiter. Krug admits being relieved that it was »not a very high rank.« He came back home with two Polish soldiers’ caps. Unsuccessfully, she asks about the circumstances under which these were captured but doesn’t dive into it. She pays more attention to the local history of her father's hometown Külsheim during the Nazi era. Once again, her questions focus exclusively on the former Jewish population, leaving the harsh consequences of Nazi rule for other groups largely underexposed.

Fig. 3: The last photograph of Franz-Karl, taken in 1944, shortly before his death.

The attention in the book focusing on the fate of Franz-Karl Krug, her uncle who died in Italy in July 1944, is somewhat surprising. More or less casually, a copy of a letter included in the book, informing Krug’s grandparents of the death of their son, states that he served as Ober-Grenadier in the Waffen-SS. That affiliation is visualized at the end of the book, where a full page photo of Franz-Karl shows the SS runes clearly visible on his collar.

A fellow-villager of Franz-Karl, now in his 80’s, told Krug during an interview he remembered her uncle’s recruitment: »Many were drafted right into the SS and used as cannon fodder.« Krug has added a drawing of a selection officer who simply says »Put ‘SS’ here. Next!« Strangely enough, the reader does not hear anything about the political opinions of Franz-Karl at that time and whether these developed any further during his time in the Waffen-SS. This contrasts with an earlier statement by Krug when discovering how her uncle, as a 12-year-old schoolboy in an anti-Semitic essay, had compared Jews with poisonous mushrooms: »Too young to understand the power of Nazi propaganda. But old enough to understand that Jews are not like poisonous mushrooms« she observed.

Fig. 4: Theo remembers Franz-Karl's recruitment into the SS.

She also quotes some of his letters from 1944. At the beginning of May he described the locals with whom he now stayed as »very, very friendly«, adding with relief: »We are not in the land of the hypocritical dagos any longer.« What his previous experiences were that gave rise to this utterance remains unknown. Was it perhaps linked to hostilities with partisans? The SS-Panzer-Grenadier Divisíon ›Reichsführer SS‹, that was stationed near Fauglia in mid-July when Franz-Karl was killed there, became notorious in subsequent months for involvement in war crimes: large-scale massacres against civilians. Did the political climate of the retreating Nazi troops also impact the views and actions of Franz-Karl? That question is not brought up either.

Nora Krug has written and drawn a captivating memoir reflecting her search for her family’s involvement in the catastrophic German history of the mid-20th century. In a sincere effort to concretize the dark past of her Heimat, she deliberately and honestly confronts the choices made by individual family members and forces herself not to pity her relatives who have experienced the Nazi era. By doing so, she clearly illustrates how much collective guilt is a complex notion with various interpretations.

Her focus on the persecution of Jews – a community she has become more familiar with in the US - is strongly in line with the contemporary memory culture on both sides of the Atlantic. But at the same time, this approach inadvertently leads to a narrowing of the historical view - even though Krug has no intention whatsoever to condone her relatives. The German National Socialist past also includes the attitude towards other ethnic, political and social communities. Above that, it also relates to the actions of German soldiers, both Wehrmacht and SS, in occupied territory. How morally or legally acceptable the views and behavior of her male relatives were in Nazi-conquered areas in Eastern, Western and Southern Europe is an issue which is equally relevant in order to answer Krug’s question what her feelings of German guilt and shame are based upon – but that issue is hardly addressed.

Undeniably, an author has the right to choose a focus and being selective is a ›must‹. But a graphic memoir that appears to be a critical and investigative non-fiction publication, supplemented with some densely written pages with selected sources, deserves more transparent reflection on the applied perspective. Now that graphic novels are being taken seriously in highly respected media, while autobiographically inspired books play an increasingly important role in the way we remember and view history, it is crucial to reflect on the criteria by which we judge such valuable works. History will often remain a burden and exquisitely illustrated books like these can certainly help us to cope with it. But such fact-based publications should also use their narrative and visual potential to go beyond the dominant orientation in memory culture, and to explore their historiographical possibilities in a balanced and systematic way.


A German Reckons with History and Home
Nora Krug
New York, London et al.: Scribner, 2018
288 S., 20,00 Dollar
ISBN 978-1-4767-9662-8