The banality of Nazi evil, concealed in an old chair

The author has assiduously researched this low-ranking Nazi bureaucrat – even locating his daughters who had only sketchy recollections of their long-dead father.

Actors in Prague dressed as resistance fighters reenact the uprising in May 1945. (photo credit: DAVID W. CERNY / REUTERS)
Actors in Prague dressed as resistance fighters reenact the uprising in May 1945.
(photo credit: DAVID W. CERNY / REUTERS)
It all began at a dinner party in Florence. A guest related how a collection of documents, bearing the Nazi insignia, had fallen out of an old chair that her mother had taken to an upholsterer in Amsterdam. The proprietor was furious with the owner and categorically refused to even touch the chair. Yet the woman was not an old Nazi, but a Czech – and the chair had been bought in Prague long ago. The next day, another guest at the meal, Daniel Lee, a Jewish academic in London, called the chair’s owner in Holland – and so began an almost possessed attempt to reconstruct the life and times of SS Obersturmführer Robert Arnold Greisinger, a Stuttgart lawyer and Nazi functionary, in The SS Officer’s Armchair: Uncovering the Hidden Life of a Nazi (Hachette 2020).
The author, Daniel Lee, elegantly takes the reader through the momentous changes in the 1920s that transformed Griesinger from “a gentle schoolboy interested in stamps and Renaissance art into a political agitator.” Someone who came of age in a country, led by a ranting demagogue who wanted to make Germany great again after the defeat and humiliation of World War I. Weimar became “the Jewish Republic” and conservative voters were transformed into Nazi ones.
In June 1933, Greisinger scraped through his law exams and a few months later found employment in the Württemberg Ministry of the Interior. On the same day, he joined the SS Gruppe “West.”
Greisinger’s desire for career advancement reflected how ordinary people realized that times had changed and that the Nazi bandwagon was rolling – regardless of how many were crushed in its path. Indeed when Hitler had visited Stuttgart in December 1925, the SS could muster only nine recruits.
While Lee surmises that Greisinger was not involved in interrogation, torture and beatings, he would have been only too aware of what was going on. In April 1933, nearly 2,000 political opponents in Württemberg were incarcerated in Heuberg, one of the first concentration camps. Following the Nuremberg Laws, the 8,000 Jews in Stuttgart were surveilled even more closely and Greisinger sent out a report, decrying sexual relations between Jewish guests and Aryan employees at Jewish-owned hotels, sanitoria and pensions – Greisinger demanded that the police investigate.
The author has assiduously researched this low-ranking Nazi bureaucrat – even locating his daughters who had only sketchy recollections of their long-dead father. “The past lay like a thick blanket over most post-war children and teenagers.” After 1945, they knew not to ask questions.
Greisinger was characterized as the black sheep of the family. His father had been born in New Orleans and was an old school monarchist who hated the Nazis. He forbade his son to wear his SS uniform at any time in his presence. Lee traced the American side of the family and even discovered that this ardent Nazi had black relatives.
Greisinger and his young family enjoyed the good life under Hitler. His neighbor, Fritz and Helene Rothschild did not. The proud citizens of Stuttgart looked the other way during Kristallnacht – the firefighters helped to set fire to the local synagogue. A pastor in nearby Oberlennigen, Julius von Jan, was an exception – so local Nazis paid him back for his defiance, beat him up and put him in prison. The Rothschilds fled to Paris shortly afterwards only to end up in Auschwitz in May 1944 on one of the last transports from France. Helene did survive, emigrated to London and died in Wembley in 1983.
Greisinger was conscripted into the Wehrmacht on the outbreak of war. He fought in France and was stationed in Bourges in preparation for the Nazi invasion of the British Isles in 1940. A year later, he was one of the three million Germans who took part in the invasion of the Soviet Union. Daniel Lee points out that the Wehrmacht were no innocents who left the dirty work to others, but were accessories to mass murder such as at Babi Yar. Greisinger’s unit killed 150 Jews on the road to Kiev as a reprisal for the killing of a German officer. For all this, Robert Greisinger received the Iron Cross for bravery in combat.
In March 1943, Greisinger landed a cushy job as a Nazi functionary in Prague in an expanding new German empire. He played his part in transporting tens of thousands of Czechs to work in the Reich and was involved in deploying Jewish forced labour right up until the spring of 1945.
On 5 May 1945, Germans like Greisinger turned up for work in Prague – as normal. Hitler was dead and the Reich was on the point of extinction. No matter, they were duty bound servants who carried out orders diligently.
The Czechs, however, chose their moment and rose in fury. 6,000 Germans were killed, 5,000 committed suicide and 50,000 were injured. Greisinger either died in a Prague hospital or was killed by Czech partisans in September 1945 – he was in his late thirties.
Daniel Lee has carried out some painstaking detective work. At times obsessive, at others revelatory, he has succeeded in recreating the journey of a young man who paralleled Hitler’s mad odyssey. It reminds us of how easy it is for ordinary people to get sucked into illusions and delusions and to blur the border between right and wrong. Above all, Greisinger comes over – in Hannah Arendt’s phrase – as the banality of evil.
Daniel Lee’s remarkable book will give its readers food for thought of what has been and what could be.
The SS Officer’s Armchair by Daniel Lee Hachette Books 320 pages; $16

The writer is an emeritus professor at SOAS, University of London.