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Alexander Wolff

Alexander Wolff’s father, Nikolaus (second from right), cleaning his pistol, with his German army unit during World War II

The collaboration between Germany’s industrial magnates and the Third Reich was a story of mutual exploitation and moral abdication. The electrical parts manufacturer Siemens employed thousands of slave laborers from countries occupied by the Nazis during World War II, including female prisoners who were worked to death assembling V-1 and V-2 rocket components at factories inside the Ravensbrück concentration camp. The insurance giant Allianz earned millions of reichsmarks providing coverage against war damage to the SS-owned firms that ran Auschwitz and other camps, while IG Farben, the parent company of Bayer, manufactured Zyklon B, the poison gas used to murder millions of Jews. Many firms benefited from the “Aryanization program,” which allowed them to buy expropriated Jewish businesses and properties at bargain prices.

Then there was Merck, the pharmaceuticals conglomerate whose association with the Nazis may have been the most lurid of them all. Founded by an apothecary named Friedrich Jacob Merck in the central German city of Darmstadt in 1668, the company began its expansion a century and a half later: in 1826 Merck’s descendant Emanuel Merck isolated the active ingredient in poppy seeds, and his lab began to produce several drugs from it. He advertised these as a “Cabinet of Pharmaceutical and Chemical Innovations.” By the twentieth century, the company had cornered the global market for cocaine and was mass-producing a euphoria-inducing opioid it called Eukodal, an early brand name for oxycodone—later sold by Purdue as OxyContin. (An American division, Merck & Co., was set up in New York in 1891.) After the Nazis came to power in 1933, members of the Merck family supported Adolf Hitler and the party, some of them enthusiastically. Like many other firms under the Third Reich, they ran their factories with slave labor, and some of them joined the SS and helped to purge the company ranks of Jewish employees.

The close relationship between Merck and the Nazis extended to the battlefield and the bunker as well. According to Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich (2017) by the German historian Norman Ohler, Nazi officers provided millions of troops with “wonder drugs,” including cocaine and Eukodal, to keep them euphoric and energized as they stormed across Western Europe and Russia.* Hitler himself began receiving daily doses of Eukodal in 1943 from his personal physician, Dr. Theodor Morell, who called him “Patient A.”

After an assassination attempt in July 1944 left the Führer in pain from a perforated eardrum and other injuries, an ear, nose, and throat specialist named Erwin Giesing kept his spirits up with a daily cocaine swab on his nasal and throat linings, while Morell continued to administer Eukodal. The drug cocktail, writes Ohler, was “the classic speedball: the sedating effect of the opioid balancing the stimulating effect of the cocaine.” The treatments continued every day for months and may have amplified Hitler’s megalomania and self-delusion as the Allied armies advanced on Germany and tens of millions of soldiers and civilians perished. An air attack in September 1944 destroyed the Merck factory in Darmstadt, killed hundreds of slave laborers who had been denied access to the company’s bomb shelters, and forced the Führer to go cold turkey during the last days of the war.

The American writer Alexander Wolff had a vague awareness of his family’s connections to Hitler’s favorite drug supplier. His paternal grandmother, Elisabeth Merck, was the great-granddaughter of Emanuel Merck, his great-uncles served on the company board, and his father held a small financial stake in the company that helped pay for Alexander’s summer camps and university education. But it wasn’t until four years ago, when Wolff began to track down German relatives, pore through company archives, and read Ohler’s best-selling book, that the full dimensions of his family’s involvement with Merck and the Nazis came into focus.

He learned of his distant cousin Mathilde Merck, known as “Tante Tilla,” a fanatical party member who wrote admiring letters to Heinrich Himmler and patronized an SS institute dedicated to racial “science.” His great-uncle and company director Wilhelm Merck joined the SS in 1933 and rose to the rank of Hauptsturmführer, or captain, urging employees to “trust in our Führer” and in Germany’s “undefeatable army.” The company made secret deals with the Third Reich to repurpose hydrogen peroxide for use as fuel for rockets, torpedoes, and planes. Then there were the Wehrmacht-energizing wonder drugs that rolled off the company’s production lines, the main source of the Merck clan’s fortune. “To hear Ohler tell it,” Wolff wryly observes in Endpapers: A Family Story of Books, War, Escape, and Home, his revelatory, riveting, and deeply moving account of his family’s involvement in Germany’s recent history, “my ancestors not only contributed to Hitler’s descent into that psychological bunker of madness and delusion. They also profited from it. Some truly awful shit indeed.”

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The Merck story, however, is only a sideshow to Wolff’s central narrative in Endpapers, which focuses on the dramatically divergent paths taken by his paternal grandfather and father during the Nazi years. Elisabeth Merck’s first husband, the author’s grandfather Kurt Wolff, became the country’s most illustrious publisher during the Weimar era. But as a descendant of Jews on his mother’s side and a supporter of “degenerate” writers such as Franz Kafka, Heinrich Mann, and Joseph Roth (some of whom were Jewish), he faced mortal danger when Hitler came to power.

In early 1933 Kurt fled with his second wife into exile, first in Italy, then France, then the United States, where he founded Pantheon Books in New York City, notably publishing Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and a memoir by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. He left behind in Germany a teenage son and daughter from his marriage to Elisabeth, who were one generation further removed from their Jewish ancestry and thus able to pass the bloodline test established by the 1935 Nuremberg Laws. Nikolaus Wolff, Alexander’s father—known to everyone as Niko—joined the Hitler Youth, served in the Luftwaffe on the eastern front, surrendered to US troops in 1945, and became a prisoner of war. Three years later, the twenty-four-year-old boarded a ship and joined his father in America.

Kurt resettled in Switzerland in the 1950s, homesick for European culture, disillusioned by the publishing world’s internecine politics, and never comfortable in American society; he died when Wolff was six years old. Niko, a research chemist at DuPont, Xerox, and RCA, kept largely mum about his years in Hitler’s army, and his son was reluctant to broach the subject. Wolff grew up in suburban Rochester, graduated from Princeton (we were in the same class but barely knew each other), became a star writer for Sports Illustrated, wrote books about basketball and other sports-related subjects, and settled with his wife and two children in a farmhouse in Vermont. But the past kept nagging at him, he writes in the introduction to Endpapers:

I wanted a better sense of the European chapters in the lives of my forefathers and the bloody period in which they unfolded. I was moved more than anything by a nagging sense of oversight—a feeling that I had failed somehow in not investigating my family’s past. Germans of my generation grilled their elders about National Socialism, asking parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, what they had known and what they had done…. A broadly held willingness to take up and work through questions of guilt, shame, and responsibility, known as Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, or “working off the past,” has since become a marker of modern Germany.

His sixtieth birthday presented Wolff with an occasion to embrace that long-delayed investigation. In 2017 he took a buyout from his employer of thirty-six years, left the house in Vermont, and moved with his family for a year to Kreuzberg, a vibrant, multicultural neighborhood in central Berlin. Wolff was plunging into German society at a critical moment: two years earlier, Chancellor Angela Merkel had opened Germany to what would become a wave of 1.2 million refugees from Syria and other war-torn and economically blighted countries in the Middle East and Africa, and the country was trying to integrate them just as President Donald Trump was slamming shut America’s doors on immigrants. All around Wolff, Germans were engaged in an unprecedented social experiment; at the same time, a backlash from right-wing nationalists such as the Alternative für Deutschland party, which gained its first seats in the Bundestag that year, threatened to bring down Merkel and undo her controversial initiative.

Wolff cast his eye on both contemporary Germany and his family’s turbulent road through the twentieth century, from the vantage point of a city that stands on the fault lines of Germany’s recent past. “In good and in evil, Berlin is the trustee of German history,” the late Federal Republic president Richard von Weizsäcker said in 1983, “which has left its scars here as nowhere else.” The year that Wolff spent in Germany served as a kind of reckoning: an exploration of his family’s bargains with the Nazis, a reflection on inherited guilt and its imperatives, and a contemplation of the ways that postwar Germans have attempted to expiate the horrific deeds and moral blindness of their elders.

The life of Kurt Wolff exemplified Germany’s cultural flowering between the world wars, as well as the dark currents that pulled the country toward barbarism. He was born and grew up in Bonn, the son of Leonhard Wolff, a conductor and organist at the city’s largest Lutheran church, and Maria Marx, the daughter of two baptized Jews who, Wolff writes, “could trace their Jewish roots as far back as records were kept.” The Wolffs were prominent members of the Bildungsbürgertum, Germany’s haute bourgeoisie, dedicated to “lifelong learning and a cultural patrimony of art, music, and books.” As a teenager, Kurt was sent to São Paulo to learn banking, the trade practiced by many of his ancestors, but he returned after six months to throw himself into his true calling: book publishing.

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After a brief stint at a small publishing house, he founded the Kurt Wolff Verlag in Dresden in 1913 and rapidly established himself at the forefront of Germany’s literary avant-garde. (He was also a prolific and brilliant writer himself, as the many excerpts from his diaries and letters that Wolff includes here attest.) He championed Kafka, published translations of the Nobel Prize–winning Indian novelist Rabindranath Tagore, and, following the Great War—in which he served, with enthusiasm at first but then with growing horror and disillusionment—popularized pacifist authors such as Heinrich Mann.

Yet looming behind the publisher’s rapid rise was the shadow of German anti-Semitism. Wolff extricates a story, unknown to his grandfather, about Kurt’s maternal great-uncle Moritz von Haber, a Jew from Baden who converted to Catholicism and in the early 1800s attained prominence as the banker to King Charles X of France. Haber’s discarding of his Jewish identity offered scant protection against mobs roused to violence by a pair of duels in which he and his second mortally wounded their Christian opponents. Chanting “down with the Jews,” a crowd set fire to von Haber’s mansion, and he was hounded, imprisoned, and ultimately expelled from his hometown. “Kurt and Moritz shared one thing,” Wolff writes, foreshadowing the cataclysm that would uproot von Haber’s great-grandnephew. “Both believed they enjoyed all the rights of a citizen of a constitutional state, only to discover that they didn’t.”

Kurt thrived during the early years of the Weimar Republic. But the hyperinflation of the early 1920s left him in a financially precarious state, forcing him to sell his collection of first editions to stay solvent. In the spirit of the times, he was a rake and a philanderer, fathered an illegitimate child, and divorced his wife to marry his secretary, Helen Mosel, who would remain his loyal companion and copublisher until the end of his life. Then came the rise of the Nazis, which Kurt watched with alarm, and the couple’s desperate flight from Germany two days after the burning of the Reichstag in February 1933. “These are madmen. Pack!” he told his wife after listening to Hermann Göring ranting on the radio that night. (Two months later, students on Berlin’s Bebelplatz, egged on by Hitler’s Brownshirts, publicly burned thousands of books, including many from the Kurt Wolff Verlag.) “How had Kurt known to flee?” Wolff wonders:

How would anyone know when to take such an irrevocable step, so shot full of capitulation and foreclosure? “Deciding whether to get out today or whether you’ve still got until tomorrow,” Bertolt Brecht would write, “requires the sort of intelligence with which you could have created an immortal masterpiece a few decades ago.” Whatever it was—self-preservationist genius or some primal survival instinct—Kurt, now with Helen, would call on that intuition again and again.

Wolff Estate/Bavarian State Portrait Gallery, Munich/© 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome

Kurt Wolff and his first wife, Elisabeth Merck; paintings by Felice Casorati, 1925

For six years Kurt and Helen lived in a comfortable limbo in France (where their son, Christian, was born) and Italy. All that changed suddenly, however, when the Nazis invaded Poland. Declared enemy aliens, the couple was interned in a camp in southern France, and when the Nazis broke through the Maginot Line in June 1940, they became fugitives under the Vichy puppet regime. Wolff has pieced together this period in remarkable detail, capturing the fear, desperation, and helplessness of a literary titan who found himself reduced to a victim, dependent on the goodwill of a few heroic people. Chief among them was Varian Fry, a young Harvard graduate who, as the representative in Marseille of the New York–based Emergency Rescue Committee, worked tirelessly to obtain exit papers and US entry visas for prominent Jews and other Nazi targets, including Hannah Arendt and Max Planck. Wolff retraces his grandfather’s escape with cinematic tension, culminating in a trek across the Pyrenees and a transatlantic journey from Lisbon in the fall of 1941. It was a voyage, Wolff notes, that would determine his own American destiny:

Of all the advantages to cascade my way—white, male, goy, firstborn, only son, birthright American, upper-middle-class childhood, Ivy League legatee—few served me better than the grace from which so many good things followed: that, seventeen years before my birth, my grandfather found a place on Varian Fry’s list.

While Kurt struggled to build a new life and career in New York, his son Niko was coming of age in Nazi Germany. Elisabeth Merck’s second husband, Hans Albrecht, a prominent obstetrician and Nazi Party member, helped him obtain a document known as a Nachweis, covering up his Mischling—part-Jewish—identity and attesting falsely to his pure Aryan ancestry. In 1940, drafted into the Reich Labor Service, a supporting force for the Wehrmacht, he joined the German troops who invaded Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia in Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa and were responsible for the deaths of innumerable Jews:

At the time of the Germans’ invasion of the Soviet Union, my father was a grunt, barely twenty-one. He drove a truck, delivering maps and photographs, as he told me and his letters home attest. He was in some oblivious limbo, I’d long wanted to reassure myself, neither directly involved in atrocities in the east nor party to the dawning awareness of them back home. But he had been in Ukraine, an occupying soldier taking and following orders. What those orders might have included, I now knew.

Wolff approaches this period with clear-eyed rigor, sifting through the evidence, neither ruling anything out nor jumping to conclusions. Implicit in his inquiry lies the question: Could his father, through Nazi indoctrination, a momentary impulse, pressure from fellow soldiers and commanders, or some combination of the three, have committed war crimes? Initially Wolff accepts the standard view of Operation Barbarossa, according to which it was exclusively the SS that carried out Hitler’s extermination campaign, but later he comes to the painful recognition that ordinary troops were involved in the mass killings as well:

In those letters home, one of the few gruesome things Niko shared is a scene in Kharkov from mid-November 1941: the corpses of ten or so locals killed by the Germans, dangling from the balcony of a building, each hung with a sign in Cyrillic lettering listing their crimes. “There were more as we drove on,” he wrote. “There are still many partisans in this city who blow up buildings, kill soldiers, or engage in other sabotage. Thus these drastic measures of discouragement.”… But my father surely saw other things that he chose not to tell a mother he knew struggled to adapt to the real world. Family letters and conversations with relatives lead me to believe he had secrets to keep.

Wolff never does learn what atrocities, if any, his father committed during the war. Niko sailed to the US aboard the SS Ernie Pyle in August 1948. His decision to emigrate lay partly in an opportunity waiting for him across the Atlantic: his father had pulled strings and gotten him enrolled in the Ph.D. program in chemistry at Princeton. But it also rested on the determination of this veteran to distance himself from the moral reckonings of postwar Germany.

The question of German guilt, both individual and collective, continues to haunt Alexander Wolff as he dives deeper into his family history. Some of the strongest passages of Endpapers capture the emotional arguments between Kurt and his daughter Maria, Niko’s sister. Living in the flattened university city of Freiburg with her toddler son in 1946, Maria describes in a letter to Kurt in America the terror of cowering in a bomb shelter in Munich during an Allied air raid:

The tinkling of glass. The smell of rubble and fire. Then quiet. After a few seconds it begins all over again. In between, the heavy-caliber weaponry, howling. You crouch there like a target with an arrow trained at it, an arrow that bores into your heart.

She argues forcefully that the suffering of German civilians in the last years of the conflict has made them victims of Hitler as well. Her father, however, is not so willing to let her or his countrymen off the hook:

The Germans unleashed the dogs of hell upon the world—hatred, wickedness, evil, cruelty—so that all of Europe is infected and sick, and another boomerang lands back whence this plague came….

A fresh start for the Germans is possible only by acknowledging our immense guilt. Thomas Mann is right: all of us are covered in blood and shame. We must acknowledge this fact, no ifs, ands, or buts, and accept it unreservedly. This is the task for the present and the future. God has kept us alive to address this problem, and only the prospect of its solution gives the next generation hope for a life worth living…. In this light children will grow up to be better, more responsible people.

The Germany that Wolff encounters in 2017 is still dealing with that moral burden. In his travels across Berlin, he comes face to face with both the public and private symbols of expiation. He visits his relative Marion Detjen and her husband, Stephan, a history professor and radio journalist, respectively, who live a short walk from the Olympic Stadium, a neoclassical colossus designed by Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer—and now the venue for Bundesliga soccer matches featuring rosters of dazzling ethnic diversity. The Detjens have turned their apartment into a way station for the dispossessed from the world’s most devastated countries—Syria, Yemen—helping them recover from the trauma of their forced flight and launch new lives in Merkel’s Germany. At Tempelhof Airport, another National Socialist–designed facility, Wolff’s wife, Vanessa, finds volunteer work in hangars that have been repurposed as temporary quarters for recently arrived refugees. “Those reinforced roofs designed to support ‘racially pure’ Germans now shelter several hundred mostly dark-skinned people,” Wolff notes, “housed here until they can find a proper home, every one of them a guest of the German government.”

And there are smaller, no less powerful symbols, such as the Stolpersteine: small concrete cubes embedded in the sidewalks in front of pre-war apartment buildings, each topped by a brass plate inscribed “in recitative simplicity” with the name of a Jew who lived there and the dates of his or her deportation and murder. Since the German artist Günter Demnig laid his first Stolperstein in Cologne in 1992, to commemorate Himmler’s Auschwitz deportation order fifty years earlier, more than 75,000 have been dedicated in Germany and half a dozen other countries. (In my own neighborhood, Wilmersdorf, the center of Berlin’s pre-war Jewish population, dozens of plaques glint from the sidewalks of almost every residential street.) “The power of the Stolpersteine,” Wolff notes, upon confronting one during a walk through his neighborhood of Kreuzberg, “lies in their subtle obtrusiveness”:

Whereas you must consciously make a destination of immured, monochromatic gravestones in a cemetery, stumbling stones glint up at you throughout the open city, nuggets in the creek bed. To read an inscription you bend at the waist in a kind of bow of respect. As memorials go, Stolpersteine derive an animating power from being a work in progress, as tens of thousands of Berliners are yet to be memorialized.

In the decades after he departed his shattered homeland, Alexander Wolff’s father did his best to assimilate into American life—proudly flying the flag on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, completing the New York Times crossword puzzle each morning, driving a late-model Ford Mustang and Ford Fairlane around suburban Rochester. Having been a cog in the Nazi war machine, he now seemed to bend over backwards to “stand up for democracy,” Wolff writes, and he responded with indignation and outrage to authoritarian-style abuses and other bad government behavior in his adopted country. After Richard Nixon carried out his Saturday Night Massacre during the Watergate scandal in 1973, Wolff recalls, his father angrily likened the move to a criminal action by the Gestapo. Yet his continued reticence about the war years persuaded his son that he was hiding a dark secret, and that when he died of cancer in 2007, he was still haunted by the land he had left behind.

The country from which Niko Wolff fled remains haunted as well, though in its unflinching acceptance of responsibility for the Nazis’ epic crimes, it has emerged as a model for the rest of the world. Wolff’s book draws to a close with an image of the Reichstag, in the former heart of the Third Reich, its glass dome rising “translucent and insurmountable” over the city, a vision of transparency and democracy. “A year in Berlin let me see up close modern Germany’s enshrinement of history in the public square; her civic vigilance and, yes, humility,” he writes. “For all this I returned to the United States with great respect for today’s version of Kurt and Niko’s native country, and believing that Americans can learn much from it.” Wolff lands back in America in July 2018, midway through the Trump years, amid a surge of homegrown nativism and bigotry. It is a reminder of the forces that his father and grandfather confronted in much darker times, and of the fragility of even the most stable and democratic societies. “To move beyond the brutal history of the twentieth century,” Wolff writes, “is work that citizens the world over are called to do.”

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