A New Look at Anne Frank, Her Father, and WWI Through Literature and History
By David Gillham and Peter de Bourgraaf
The Diary of Anne Frank has always been known as a story of the Holocaust and of WWII. But it is also, in part, a story about WWI. This week at WWrite, New York Times bestselling writer of City of Women, David Gillham, discusses a little-known yet important event his newly released book, Annelies, a novel that imagines a scenario in which Anne Frank survives the Holocaust: the Nazi officer, a veteran of WWI, who arrested the Frank family decided to be dignified with them because he discovered that Otto Frank, Anne's father, had also served in WWI. As a historical complement to Gillham, Dutch historian Peter de Bourgraaf, who worked for the Anne Frank Foundation in Amsterdam, talks about his research on the shortcomings of the Versailles Treaty, shortcomings be believes were the cause of WWII. Read this dual literary-historical new perspective of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, one of the world's most important accounts of the Holocaust.
LITERARY WRITER PERSPECTIVE
Otto Frank and the Sergeant
David R. Gillham
During the First World War, Anne Frank’s father, Otto Frank, served in the Kaiser’s army as did over 100,000 German Jews. His maternal family had roots in his native Frankfurt that stretched by centuries. Otto himself studied at the University of Heidelberg, and eventually, he went to work in the family-owned bank. He was assimilated and thought of himself as German as much as Jewish. During the war, he enlisted and was assigned to the Imperial Field Artillery as a “Kanonier. In 1916 he survived the carnage of the Somme unscathed, and likely witnessed the introduction of armored warfare onto the battlefield when Mark I tanks of the British Machinegun Corp Heavy Branch lumbered into history at the Battle of Flers–Courcelette. During that same year he was promoted to the rank of Feldwebel, sergeant-major, and in the next year was awarded a field commission as a junior lieutenant, a Leutnant, for his courage during a dangerous reconnaissance of enemy artillery. He ended the war as an officer, Lieutenant of Reserves Otto Heinrich Frank, recipient of the Iron Cross, 2nd Class.
Twenty-seven years later, he would be hunted as a “criminal” Jew by the German occupiers of the Netherlands, hiding out with his family and friends in the rear annex of his office building on Amsterdam’s Prinsengracht. And, his rank as a young officer in the Great War would have a small but ironic impact on the final day of their time in hiding – the day of their betrayal and arrest.
On the 4th of August 1944, Karl Josef Silberbauer of the SS security service, the Sicherheitsdienst or “SD” -- also known as the “Grüne Polizei” because of the color of their uniforms -- was dispatched to a building in Amsterdam’s Canal Ring where he arrested the eight Jews found in hiding there. How did this come about? It’s been recently proposed that the purpose of the raid was actually to investigate suspected black market activities and that the SD men had simply stumbled onto the Frank family and their friends. But the more generally accepted version of events is as follows: Silberbauer received orders from his superior, an SD officer named Julius Dettmann, based on a telephone tip that there were Jews at Prinsengracht 263. Who called in this tip? If indeed a call was placed? There are many theories but none of them proven. An SD chief, Willy Langes, maintained after the war that procedure would have dictated the steps taken after any such tip. That any such telephone tip would have by necessity come from a known and reliable informer in order for action to have been ordered on that same day. Julius Dettmann committed suicide after the liberation, so if he did receive a call, and if he did, in fact, recognize the caller as a reliable informant, he then took this information with him to his grave. Karl Silberbauer had not bothered to ask about details. It was sufficient that he had been given an order, so he followed it without further question.
Silberbauer himself was Viennese by birth. He had been a soldier too in the last war, and then a police officer. In 1938 Austria was formally annexed into the German Reich during the Anschluss, after which Silberbauer joined the Gestapo in Vienna. In 1943 he transferred to the occupied Netherlands as a member of the SD – the SS Security Service or Sicherheitsdienst. There he was assigned to Sektion IV B4 – the so-called “Jewish Desk.” His rank in the SS was equivalent to that of a sergeant. When he arrived at the Prinsengracht 263 that morning in August, he was the only member of his squad in uniform, accompanied by a cohort of Dutch plainclothes men, collaborators employed by the security police for just this sort of work.
He was an unremarkable man. Years later Ernst Schnabel interviewed Miep Gies, Otto’s office secretary and one of the primary Dutch helpers providing care for the Franks and their friends while in hiding. She characterized Silberbuaer as a man who, “looked as though he might come around tomorrow and read your gas meter or punch your streetcar ticket.” And certainly, the raid on Prinsengracht 263 was routine for Silberbauer. He had arrested many Jews in hiding by now. The inhabitants of what was to come to be known as Het Achterhuis – “the House Behind” – were given five minutes to pack up their belongings. Standard procedure.
But then something happened. In a post-war interview, Silberbauer claims that Otto Frank introduced himself as a veteran of the First War. According to Otto, however, it was his old footlocker that caught the SD man’s attention. The gray ironbound chest was from Otto’s time in the service bore his name and rank. Lieutenant of Reserves Otto Frank. According to Otto’s postwar conversation with the author Ernst Schnabel, when Silberbauer spotted the object, his entire demeanor altered. He “stared down at the chest that stood between bed and window, and exclaimed ‘Where did you get this chest?’ ‘It was my own,’” Otto had replied, and then added, “‘I was an officer in the First War.’” Silberbauer was astonished. “The man became increasingly confused,” Otto told Schnabel. Somewhere inside him, this sergeant must have snapped to attention in the presence of a superior officer. He didn’t understand why Otto had not simply registered himself with the Nazi-run Jewish office as a veteran and former officer. The SD man insisted vehemently that Otto and his family would have treated “decently.” That they would have been sent to Theresienstadt in Bohemia -- one of the so-called “paradise camps.” (The Nazis had even produced a ludicrously staged film of busy, well-fed camp inmates populating the Theresienstadt camp for use as propaganda, all in an attempt camouflage the truth about what was death machine in operation in such places as Sobibor and Auschwitz-Birkenau.) Otto’s response to Silberbauer was silence “‘I said nothing,’” he told Schnabel. “’Apparently [Silberbauer] thought Theresienstadt a rest camp, so I said nothing. I merely looked at him. But he suddenly evaded my eyes, and all at once the perception came to me: Now he is standing at attention; if he dared, he might very well raise his hand to his cap in salute.”
The discovery of Otto’s former rank left the SD sergeant flummoxed. So, he allowed them extra time to pack. “Take your time!” he called out several times. “He shouted these same words to us and to his agents,” Otto recalled. This was Silberbauer’s single concession. Meanwhile, the man had already made himself busy stealing what meager valuables were to be had. To carry his booty Silberbauer had confiscated Otto’s briefcase, in the process simply dumping its contents onto the floor. The contents included Anne Frank’s diary, her notebooks, and her collection of loose-leaf pages, all left behind in the wake of the arrest. It was Miep Gies who collected the books and page and kept them safe in a desk drawer waiting for the day of Anne’s return. The day which never came.
After the war, Karl Silberbauer served fourteen months in prison, not for arresting Jews and sending them to their deaths, but for having assaulted some Austrian Communist Party members. Afterward, he returned to the Viennese police force and was recruited by West German intelligence as an informant. It wasn’t until 1963 that the camp survivor and Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, tracked him down and exposed Inspektor Silberbauer as the man who had arrested Anne Frank and her family. He was suspended without pay pending a judicial investigation and a disciplinary hearing. But, ironically, Otto Frank played a part in determining Silberbauer’s fate. Anne Frank’s diary had already become an international phenomenon by this point. According to Wiesenthal’s biographer, Joseph Wechsberg, Otto’s maintained that Silberbauer may have been condescending, but otherwise had, "only done his duty and behaved correctly.” Instead, Otto placed blame on the unknown person who had betrayed them to the SD. Owing much to Otto’s statements on the matter, Silberbauer was exonerated. The judicial investigation dissolved and the internal disciplinary hearing concluded with his suspension lifted. He returned to the police force, assigned to a desk job indexing criminal records. After his retirement, he was provided with a government pension. Benefits which, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, were accruing in part “from his work for the Gestapo and SD.” He died in1972, age 61.
But before his death, he accepted an interview from a journalist, Jules Huff, who was reporting for a Dutch newspaper in The Hague. According to Carol Ann Lee’s biography of Anne Frank, during the course of the interview, the former SD sergeant was quoted as saying; “I bought the little book last week, to see if I am in it. But I am not.” He also insisted that not only was the entire investigation of his past designed to “butter up the Jews,” but that Otto had himself had brought fate down upon his family by going into hiding in the first place. Maintaining till the end that it was the victim’s fault, not the fault of the perpetrators. And of course, he pleaded ignorance. “We never knew what was happening to the Jews. I’ve no idea how Anne Frank came to write in her diary that Jews were being gassed.” (The BBC was advertising this fact as early as June of 1942. Anne writes of it her diary in October of that same year.) Of Otto, he said, “If Frank hadn’t gone into hiding, nothing would have happened to him. For me, the whole thing was dealt with in an hour. The eight were put on a transport and I never bothered about them again.”
Miep Gies, the helper who rescued the diary from the floor, died in 2010 in North Holland at the age of 100.
Otto Heinrich Frank died in Switzerland in 1980 at the age of 91.
Otto’s two daughters, Anne and Margot, had died of typhus thirty-five years earlier, between February and March of 1945 in a concentration camp called Bergen-Belsen.
Anne Frank’s diary, however, lives on.
HISTORY WRITER PERSPECTIVE: VICE VERSA VERSAILLES, The Reversed Story
by Peter de Bourgraaf
I live what you might call a trans-European life. I am a Dutchman who works and researches mostly in the German language as a freelance historian but also self publishes in English. My work with the Anne Frank Foundation inspired me to pursue further Central European history, which I had already done for twenty years, especially the neglected parts about the end of WWI and the ways in which WWII and the Holocaust were a result. The powerful words of Anne Frank’s famous diary motivated me to study the other world war that her father, Otto Frank, fought.
The conclusions from my research include a call for an international scholarly task force to deal with what I ascertain to be an untold, century-old story. I don't believe that WWI ended in 1918. In fact, it has, in my opinion, no clear end at all – it began in 1914 and ended in 1945 and amounts to what I would call a second 30-year war (a term coined by Winston Churchill among others referring to the 1618-1648 Thirty Year's War during which German towns and landscapes were devastated and populations decimated). I have tried to visualize the story of the early winter days in Paris, 1919, when the lives of the just-demobilized WWI comrades-in-arms like Otto Frank and Adolf Hitler grew apart. Austrian and German soldiers like Hitler and Frank stood shoulder-to-shoulder in horrendous warfare that took three years longer than the U.S. entry into the war against them in 1917.
These two soldiers’ mortally divergent post-WWI paths go back to the largely forgotten events of the Versailles conference’s opening. Two British delegations dictated many demands to both friend and foe, which is not usually what schoolbooks and history lessons across the world have taught us. These keep telling us how the world glorified the U.S. President Wilson, about his appealing issue of a League of Nations, or about the central importance of French Prime Minister, Clemenceau's impositions. For instance, Clemenceau made additional claims on German territory, which would have become like another "Alsace-Lorraine," the highly-disputed region in today’s northern France that has been tossed back and forth between Germany and France for centuries. This French claim for more German territory was blocked by the British because, as my research shows, they were interested in acquiring more conquered territory on foreign continents.
Yet, historically, the British did away with President Wilson's major input about the League of Nations in the Versailles conference as early as January-February 1919. Now, a century after the events of Versailles, it isn't a widely accepted view that the U.S. Senate saw this act as a crucial argument to cancel the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles in November 1919, a year after the end of hostilities on the western front? Ultimately, two months before the Treaty’s validation in January 1920, I would argue that the British got from the US what they had been aiming at: the expansion of their Empire, unchecked rule in the sense of a worldwide leadership without other powers except for their French Entente-partner. Wilson, the League of Nation’s founding father and his ideas were secretly liquidated. Though some of Wilson’s League of Nations were formally put into place, its negotiated Armistice-foundations crumbled months before the Treaty's official signing. This is why I think that it wasn’t just the rise of Nazism that frustrated the advancement of an international peace organization post-WWI.
And most illustrative of the Armistice’s crumbling and the failure of the peace is what happened in a ten-minute window when the “Secret Annex” (the Frank family's hiding place) in Amsterdam was raided on August 4, 1944. After two years, the Sicherheitspolizei had discovered the hiding place of the now-famous family of Anne Frank and four others. The deportation operation was led by Mr. Silberbauer. In this agonizing moment, this native from Austria spotted Mr. Frank’s army crate from WWI in the hiding place.
Not much has been written about these minutes during which Silberbauer instantly granted a former comrade-in-arms in hiding a neat departure. Frank and this Nazi stood together in the horrendous trench warfare some twenty-five years prior. If you visit the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam you might see, among the information you will get, that my lifelong research on the WWI Centennial shows that British imperialist Paris/Versailles dictates were what stood in the way of a normal and peaceful life for Jews and other people persecuted during WWII.
In no way am I arguing that the Germans were justified in creating WWII or implementing genocide. These horrors can never be mitigated. However, the Treaty of Versailles may have made for another war, which it did in my opinion; but what it evoked beyond doubt on a partially subconscious level, is an unprecedented feeling of injustice, a surge of radicalism, and a desire for the Treaty’s revision over the longer period concerned.
It finally came in a way that goes along with George Orwell’s paradigm: “an end with horror is better than a horror without end.” All of this on the part of the sole people incriminated, stigmatized and truly punished for WWI. In all aspects, Germany was made responsible for the collective east-west crisis of civilization that was, exactly five years after the murderous war's initializing casualty on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo, sustained by the Treaty beyond its powers.
Not before this intricate story will be translated and told over and over, we may be able to truly question mainstream history, which says that the Paris conference was about peace negotiations and a promising League of Nations was born. It also says that a vengeful France stood in the way of milder treatment proposed by the British and Wilson. It is not just the devastating warfare itself and the 1914-1918 catastrophe that developed into the mortally diverging paths of life of survivors such as Frank versus Hitler and Silberbauer. Instead, I argue that it had to do with what I call the 1914-1919 "Urkatastrophe" and the after effects of this great seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century, as George Kennan's term from the 1970s has been adopted by many European languages in its German translation.
Even though the November 11, Armistice Centennial was commemorated by the formerly Allied and Associated countries and the European Union House of European History, I would suggest that the commemorating has only just begun. What about having a real discussion about the great impact of the Treaty of Versailles and how it led to WWII, how the dictate provoked a dictatorship?
For example, can we talk about the fact that, on the very first day of the WWI peace conference’s opening in Paris, the British side took the other delegations by surprise by showing up with two delegations and virtually treated the US President as a junior? The conference's most charismatic participant threatened to leave the conference and Europe altogether. As David Lloyd George for England and "Slim Jannie" Smuts for the Empire were able to keep Wilson around by bringing in his proposal for an organization of nations, the last and most constructive point of his Fourteen-Points peace program. By antedating this issue one year before 1920, which was the originally proposed start date, it would no longer be possible to distinguish between a probably punitive treaty and this revolutionary concept of internationality, intended to end all wars.
The international task force that I am trying to organize will be trusted with the process of better understanding the Paris/Weimar/Versailles post-WWI outcomes. Following many decades of silence left intact by the national narratives to date and, on the part of Germany, a WWI silent taboo that overshadows the advanced process of coming to terms with the Second-World-War past, it's about time to transform and extend this process.
Does this appeal to writers like you, particularly to caretakers of peace, democracy, and sustainability?
The Centennial is running for many more months to come. The end of WWI-taboo in Germany is as great a void as the end of WWI’s story in United States history. For example, why is there, until now, the absence of a Great War monument in Washington DC, which would serve as a nationwide extension of the Kansas one? To every other conflict, national monuments were erected in the American capital. Why did it take so long to get this one built? I think it should be built as soon as possible because then it will be harder to ignore the central presence of WWI in subsequent world history. Can we finally talk about the fact that it was Germany and the USA with its idea of the League of Nations in 1918 who found a way for peace negotiations? Both the American giant and the newborn Weimar Republic were outcast from the non-negotiated Treaty. Whereas the former had no choice, the latter opted out after careful considerations. My fifteen-year-old connections to the Anne Frank House have persuaded me that the interwar period needs to be more closely reviewed to better understand the horrible event of genocide and how to prevent it.
David R. Gillham is the New York Times bestselling author of City of Women. He studied screenwriting at the University of Southern California before transitioning into fiction. After moving to New York City, Gillham spent more than a decade in the book business, and he now lives with his family in Western Massachusetts. In writing his new novel, Annelies, he has spent six years researching Anne Frank and her world, immersing himself in the available material and traveling to important landmarks of her life. (Bio photo credit: Michael Zide)
Peter de Bourgraaf (1969, the Netherlands) works as a freelance historian and a German-language teacher in Amsterdam and Berlin. Both his debut monograph in English and the present German-language debut “Hundert Jahre Urkatastrophe. Der Kolonialvertrag 1919” (Göttingen 2018) were published with foreign editors. He worked for the Amsterdam Anne Frank Foundation and stood as a candidate for the 2009 EP elections. In Utrecht and Vienna, the Dutchman set up an independent internet magazine about post-Soviet east-west relations by means of private funding. His registered expat-life stretched across four European countries. Linkedin shows the dates for his expanding series of lectures about “Paris/Versailles’s second century.” If you are interested in being part of his taskforce, send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org