Most will be familiar with the BBC’s “Who do you think you are?” which takes various well-known people down the long lanes of their ancestry. As I have recently done this exercise for myself, I can attest to the surprises that await you if you do track down information about your ancestors. Having traced some of them back to the time of Henry VIII, I can say with feeling that it has been at times a moving experience.

Today the Daily Telegraph gave us this story about the German equivalent programme. I am frankly surprised that they made the programme at all. After the Second World War there were enormous numbers of Germans who had been at the very heart of what the Judges at Nuremburg were to condemn as a criminal organisation, namely the Nazi Party. These people simply vanished back into the woodwork and created a version of events for their life between 1933 and 1945 that distanced themselves completely from their Nazi past. Thus the question “what did you do in the war, Daddy?” was now met with “I was sorting uniforms at a depot in Hamburg” rather than the more truthful “I was rounding up and shooting Jewish men, women and children in Poland.”

It must have occurred to the producers of the programme that probing at the doings of any ancestor born in Germany between, say, 1890 and 1930, stood a very good chance of unearthing skeletons, not to say putrid corpses, in the participant’s cupboards.

Plenty of Germans did nothing personally of which they should be ashamed, of course, save voting in the Nazis in the first place. But plenty of them did take part or in some way aided and abetted the Nazi crimes. It is those who are now surfacing to the considerable embarrassment of all.

But on the bright side one or two good news stories have been found of those previously unsung heroes who resisted, however modestly, the Nazis. Their example can be held up as being on the credit side. Sadly, far too many Germans have a past which they would rather not have known because it is, at best, discreditable and, at worst, positively repellent.

One such is Nobel laureate Günter Grass was born in Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland) on October 16, 1927. Drafted into the Luftwaffe (ground crew), Grass spent most of his service in an American POW camp, from which he was released in 1946—or so he spun the tale until recently. Shortly before the publication of his memoir Peeling Onions/Beim Häuten der Zwiebel in August 2006, Grass confessed that he actually had been a soldier in the notorious Waffen-SS, the combat arm of the SS when he was just 17 years old. The ensuing stir was surprisingly more about the fact that Grass had kept this fact a secret than his actual military service. Grass has always presented himself as a moralist, often reprimanding his fellow Germans for not truly facing up to their World War II guilt. Let us, at least, in his case call a spade a spade: Günter Grass is a mendacious hypocrite.

We shall never know the truth about this particular ex-Nazi, but we will keep on finding uncomfortable truths about some of them.

I have little sympathy for them. Nowadays if you meet a German of a certain age, their families always voted Social Democrat before 1933, they themselves always served on the Western Front (if their interlocutor is Russian or Polish) or the Eastern Front (if you are British or American) and they always surrendered as soon as they could and they never, ever knew about the Holocaust.

The truth: they all cheered Hitler to the echo when he came back in triumph from beating France. They cheered at the news of The Blitz. They cheered as their submarines began to make life difficult for Britain. They cheered as the Einsatzkommandos spread across conquered Russia and began exterminating its inhabitants. They grew fat on the food looted from the conquered territories (a consistent comment of those who fought in Germany in late 1944 and 1945 was their surprise at how well fed the Hausfraus all were and how well stocked their larders). They never asked, though they must have suspected, where all the Jews had gone. They only stopped cheering and smiling when von Paulus’ Sixth Army was captured at Stalingrad in February 1943 von Arnim’s Army Group Afrika was captured in Tunisia in May 1943 and The RAF and USAAF began to lay waste their cities.

Then for sure they stopped cheering and smiling.

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