THE GOOD GOERING

For a few years before we were married, my wife owned a small apartment in the old western sector of Berlin. Just down the road, in the  comfortable middle class suburb of Friedenau, was an unassuming red brick house which I was astonished to learn was the childhood home of one of the monsters of the Third Reich, Hitler’s deputy, Hermann Goering.

Goering, of course, was the strutting, corpulent Reichsmarschall whose fanatical Nazi zeal was fuelled by an addiction to morphine prescibed as a painkiller for gunshot wounds he sustained in the abortive Beer Hall putsch of 1923. As one of Hitler’s most trusted early deputies, he headed the SA ‘Brownshirts’ and the feared Gestapo secret police before masterminding Germany’s re-armament drive in the 1930s and taking over command of the Luftwaffe as it swept all before it in the invasions of Poland, France and the Low Countries.

Could the man who led the German air force in the Battle of Britain and who helped organise the Holocaust really have been raised in such a dull, normal place in the area where I went shopping?

For the first time it struck me that the Goerings - and other Nazi leaders - were for many Germans just the people next door, the ones you went to school with or met in the pub.

But the more I was to learn about the Goerings - particularly the contrast between the bull-like Hermann and his bohemian, Nazi-hating younger brother Albert who, astonishing as it may seem, used his brother’s position to free Jews and other political prisoners from concentration camps including the infamous Dachau, the more extraordinary their story became.

While Hermann was condemning millions to death in the name of National Socialism, his brother, almost entirely unknown to the rest of the world, secured the release of 34 prominent Jews and other political prisoners from the concentration camps and rescued many more from certain death by pretending they were to be used as forced labour in his factories - and then allowing them to escape.

Now, as Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of The Holocaust considers the remarkable step of awarding Albert Goering its highest honour by naming him alongside Oscar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, for his efforts in saving scores of Jews from his brother’s gas chambers, I have investigated the brothers’ contrasting and intertwined life stories for a new Radio 4 documentary.

Hermann Goering, born in 1895, and his brother Albert two years younger, were the sons of Heinrich and Fanny Goering who, on the surface, appeared rather like the house in Friedenau - stolidly middle class, a little dull. Heinrich worked for the German diplomatic service as governor general of the German protectorate in what is now Namibia and the consul in Haiti.

But while he was away, the boys’ mother took a lover, a wealthy doctor and businessman called Hermann von Epenstein who owned the Friedenau house and acted as guardian for Hermann and Albert while Heinrich was abroad.

By the 1920s, the brothers were already on widely divergent paths. Hermann was loud, overbearing and ready for action - a highly decorated First World War fighter ace who had commanded the famous squadron created by the Red Baron, Manfred von Richtofen.

The Munich beer halls of the post armistice years were magnet for disaffected German nationalists. And it was in Munich that Hermann heard a rousing speech by the charismatic  failed artist and political activist, Adolf Hitler, joined his embryonic Nazi party and rose to the very top.

Albert, meanwhile, had spent the war in the mud of the trenches as an unglamorous signal engineer and after the war the kind of life portrayed in the musical Cabaret - artist and music hall friends, plenty of wine, good food, parties and women. He was already on his second marriage when he moved to racy, multicultural Vienna to work with a film company, part-owned by two Jewish brothers who became his friends, Oskar and Kurt Pilzer.

Perhaps it is no surprise that, given their wildly different lifestyles, the brothers had very little contact for a decade until, in 1938, Albert’s bohemian life came to an end - thanks, in part, to his brother.

  It was then that Hitler mooted the annexation of Austria and dispatched his most trusted lieutenant. Hermann Goering as the key player in imposing Nazi order, bullying Austria’s politicians by telephone, demanding Nazis be given government positions, and finally insisting that German troops should invade.

The Nazi nightmare of arrests, Gestapo swoops and political opponents being led off to the Dachau concentration camp, had begun. The Pilzer brothers were among those arrested. And this is where the story of the two brothers takes its first extraordinary twist.

   Seven years later, in 1945, Hermann Goering was held in the interrogation rooms at Nuremberg, awaiting trial and his inevitable execution. Albert Goering was also held by interrogators who felt sure he was not just a witness to his brother’s crimes, but probably a war criminal too.

  Then Albert astonished the Allies by writing out by hand a list of 34 people he claimed to have helped escape the Nazis. The Pilzers were at number 24. Dr Kurt Schuschnigg, the former Chancellor of Austria was also on the list. So was the Archduke Joseph Ferdinand of the royal Habsburg dynasty.

Albert claimed that his brother Hermann was so triumphant after the annexation of Austria he "allowed everyone a wish. My sister and I asked for the immediate release of the old Archduke." Hermann ‘was very embarrassed’ but the next day ‘the arrested Habsburger was free again.’

Albert went on to say that he was saved from the Gestapo and SS by Hermann Goering himself. There were no fewer than four warrants out for Albert's immediate arrest as an enemy of the Reich, but the Gestapo overreached themselves. Albert Goering's own secretary was a Gestapo informer and the Gestapo claimed that the secretary confirmed Albert was planning to attack Hermann Goering himself - a claim so outrageous Hermann was able to discredit some of the true charges against his brother. 

‘As far as he could, (Hermann) helped me in those things,’ Albert claimed, adding that Hitler’s deputy ‘had a warm heart’.

Albert’s claims were immediately dismissed by his Allied interrogators as far-fetched. One interpreter, Richard Sonnenfeldt, commented that Albert was ‘a hand-wringing type of witness who would talk too much.’ An interrogation report said Albert was guilty of ‘as clever a piece of rationalization and white wash’ as the interrogators had ever seen. It concluded: ‘Albert Goering’s lack of subtlety is matched only by the bulk of his obese brother.’ 

But two further extraordinary developments helped change their minds. Kurt Pilzer, who had escaped to the United States, wrote to the Nuremberg prosecutors, pleading Albert’s case. Then a new interrogator arrived, an American, Victor Parker. Fluent German speakers were much in demand, and Parker fitted the bill. He was a Jewish refugee to the United States and his family had Anglicised their surname to Parker from their real name,  Paschkis. His aunt Sophie had converted to Catholicism when she married the Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehar, best known for writing The Merry Widow. Lehar was detained by the Nazis as a result of this marriage to someone born Jewish, even though his music was appreciated by even Hitler himself, and his propaganda minister Josef Goebbels. 

Franz Lehar was number 15 on Albert Goering’s list. The interrogator, Victor Parker, spoke to his aunt Sophie about Albert’s assistance in enabling her and Franz to leave Austria, and thanks to this most unlikely twist of fate, Albert’s fantastical stories were validated by one of the men sent to help convict him at Nuremberg.

Yet Albert’s troubles were not over. He had worked as the export manager at the Czech car firm Skoda, which had been converted to Nazi war production and the post-war authorities in Prague wanted him on charges of Nazi collaboration. This time members of the Czech resistance who worked in the Skoda factory came forward and testified that Albert Goering had helped them undermine the Nazi occupiers, passing on information to the resistance and encouraging minor acts of sabotage. Albert, it emerged, had not only lobbied his brother to release individual prisoners from Dachau, but also forged Hermann’s signature on documents that allowed anti-Nazi activists and Jews to escape Hitler’s henchmen. He took company trucks and drove away inmates claiming they were needed as forced labourers before parking up in secluded areas and allowing them to escape.

Un the days of reckoning after the war Hermann Goering was convicted of war crimes by the Nuremberg tribunal and cheated the gallows by taking cyanide on the eve of his execution in April 1946. The following year Albert was finally cleared by a Czech court, but his life was in ruins.

The Goering name didn’t help him find a job in post-war Germany. He had a total of four broken marriages, and he continued to drink prodigiously, dying in obscurity in 1966, his deeds publicly unrecognised.

But now, fifty years after his death, that has begun to change, and historians talk of a “Good Goering.”  One historian, William Hastings Burke, has made a case at Yad Vashem in Israel for Albert to receive Israel’s highest honour for a non Jewish person and be recognised like Oskar Schindler Albert as the “Righteous Among The Nations.” The Righteous are those non-Jews who ‘risked their life, freedom and safety’ to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.

Irena Steinfeldt of the Department of the Righteous told me the request is being seriously considered, although the standards of proof are very high and personal testimony from survivors extremely difficult to obtain. But a “Good Goering” recognised by Israel, she agreed, would remind the world that evil is not something we are born with. It is something we choose. Hermann Goering chose that path. Brother Albert chose a different way.

And here there is one final twist - perhaps the most remarkable in the whole story. Historians have often debated Albert Goering’s paternity, without coming to any firm conclusions. Now Albert’s only daughter, Elizabeth Goering Klasa, who escaped after the war to Peru, has revealed a family secret. She says her father Albert confided in her mother that he was not Hermann Goering’s brother, but his half brother. Albert Goering was, by his own account, fathered by his mother’s lover Hermann von Epenstein.  Albert, the brother of one of Nazi Germany’s leading monsters, would have been considered Jewish under Nazi law. Von Epsenstein had converted to Catholicism, but was born a Jew.

So the mundane, suburban, red-brick house down the road from my wife’s Berlin apartment housed two remarkable Germans: one became an egomaniacal Nazi monster while his brother -- or half brother -- was to risk his own life and defy the Nazis as the Good Goering.      

 

My account of The Good Goering was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday 27 January. It's available on iPlayer. The account above was first published by the Mail on Sunday. Another version of this story is on the BBC website.