The S.S. Officer’s Armchair by Daniel Lee offers insight into life in Nazi Germany.
The S.S. Officer’s Armchair
This book is the story of Robert Griesinger. Griesinger was born in 1906, in Stuttgart, which was then part of the Kingdom of Württemberg. He entered the author’s life accidentally. Daniel Lee is a World War II scholar. His primary focus is the history of Jews in France and North Africa during the war.
Like many scholars, when strangers learn what they do, the stranger regales the scholar with tales they think are related to their area of study. In Lee’s case, World War II stories became second- and third-hand tales by the 2010s. The story of The S.S. Officer’s Armchair began in this offhand way.
The book pursues two tracks. One is the story of Robert Griesinger, his family history, early years, education, and how he became a Nazi. A second, and equally fascinating track, details Lee’s unraveling of the story. Griesinger died in 1945. Jutta and Barbara, his daughters, were in their seventies when Lee began his research. A chance encounter with a woman whose mother owned Griesinger’s armchair, leading to a portrait of a mid-level Nazi officer, offers insight into the Third Reich beyond the leaders and the horrors they perpetrated.
Lee discovers the armchair by accident. Instead of just a story, this time, he gains access to documents belonging to an S.S. officer. Not just an oral account of someone’s activities during the war, but primary sources. It’s no surprise he took this seriously. The armchair from the Griesinger household in Prague made its way to a woman in Amsterdam. Documents sewed into the chair were discovered when it was taken to be reupholstered.
It’s interesting to compare the attitude of the Dutch furniture upholsterer with those of the Czechs Lee encountered in Prague. While the Dutch craftsman didn’t want anything to do with people he thought were related to Nazis, the Czechs were less concerned. Czechoslovakia strained under the control of the Soviet Union for long enough that Nazi occupation was a blip on their timeline. The documents enabled Lee to learn about their owner. They provided insight into the daily life of a Nazi bureaucrat.
Lee’s initial encounter with Griesinger happened at a dinner party. A guest told him the story of how her mother discovered the papers. He verified the story, and the guest’s mother offered to send the papers to him. Things started to click when his guest’s mother explained that she was not Dutch, even though she lived in Amsterdam. She was Czech. Lee’s journey to unravel The S.S. Officer’s Armchair begins.
The New Orleans Connection
Where to begin? Lee had a name and some documents that didn’t tell anywhere near a story. Beginning with Stuttgart, he cold-calls folks with the last name Griesinger, and comes up with one of Robert’s nephews. He learns from Jochen Griesinger that, Adolf, Robert’s father, was born in New Orleans. Robert Griesinger, Sr., Robert’s grandfather (and Jochen’s great-grandfather), came to New Orleans from Germany in 1867, in the aftermath of the Southern Rebellion. Robert Sr. met Lina Johns there. Lina was the daughter of the musician Paul Emile Johns, a contemporary of Frédéric Chopin. Lina and Robert married in 1870, and Adolf was born in 1871. Robert Sr., and Lina returned to Stuttgart in the early 1880s. Adolf was groomed to be part of the military infrastructure of Prussia.
The author speculates much about Robert Jr.’s connections to New Orleans. Lina’s family owned enslaved Africans prior to the rebellion. They were friends with the author Kate Chopin (no relation to Frédéric), and her husband, Oscar, who was a member of the White League. Did growing up in a racist environment such as post-bellum New Orleans influence Adolf? Did those New Orleans attitudes travel back to Germany with him? How did they contribute to the formation of his son’s beliefs? Lee is unable to make a direct correlation between the enslavement culture of the American South and Robert Jr.’s growth as a Nazi, but the parallels are stark.
Adolf Griesinger became a loyal officer in the cavalry of the King of Württemberg. That loyalty never wavered, even after the defeat of the German Empire in World War I and the hardships of the 1920s. Robert was born into a life of middle-class/military-class privilege. He was educated at a quality Gymnasium (high school), and attended the University of Tübingen. The author guides his readers through the very-masculine culture of Prussian universities and how this had an impact on Griesinger’s relationship with his doting, over-protective mother. Robert’s membership in Corps Suevia Tübingen, a collegiate dueling fraternity, offered life-long connections and networking to Robert. This was similar to membership in a Final Club at Harvard or a social fraternity at other American universities.
Upwardly Mobile Nazi
Upon graduation and receiving his credentials as a lawyer, Robert joined the Schutzstaffel, better known as the S.S. Lee explains the structure of the S.S. when Griesinger joins in 1933, and how it evolved into the dominant paramilitary organization prior to the war. Based on his mediocre performance as a student, Robert knew he needed to leverage personal contacts to advance himself. Lee describes the balance of Griesinger’s work and his involvement in the S.S. Given his father’s dislike for the Nazis (to the extent he forbade Robert from wearing S.S. uniform in his presence), his activity in the organization was a major statement of independence. He knew which way the wind was blowing.
Jews in The S. S. Officer’s Armchair
The author’s explanations of German anti-semitism in the wake of the Great War explains how the dislike for Jews among the German people was pervasive, enabling the Nazis to exploit the issue. Even though Lee establishes that Griesinger was not a “desk killer” while in the S.S., he certainly had the ability to become one. Robert was a “gentleman’s C” student, and that carried through in his early career.
Robert runs into obstacles with the S.S. when he desires to marry Gisela Nottebohm. The social aspects of their courtship, combined with the struggles involved with securing permission from the S.S., present the complexities of being a young officer in the Reich. His superiors in the S.S. frowned upon its members marrying divorcées. Aryan purity and ability to produce children suitable to the S.S. and the Reich were paramount. It would be nice to say Lee “humanizes” the process, but it’s hard to see that side of Griesinger.
Griesinger joined the Gestapo in 1935. Lee presents Robert’s duties and routine as part of the Political Police machinery in Stuttgart. Robert leveraged his university fraternity connections while in the Gestapo, forging strong personal bonds with his co-workers. This is one of the most interesting themes throughout the book. While Robert nurtures his social and political connections, he doesn’t work them to advance within either the S.S, or the Gestapo. His friends were much more aggressive, and they leave him behind. His desire to blend in, keep his head down, eventually comes back to haunt Robert. By the time war begins, his fraternal connections are unable to keep him out of harm’s way. He is forced into joining the Wehrmacht Heer (army) unit and is sent to the Russian Front. Robert is severely wounded. This provides him the opportunity to return to a civilian position.
The Griesingers come to Prague in March, 1943. While Robert was not a hero in the sense of performing acts of valor, his status as a decorated, wounded, veteran of front-line combat enabled him to secure a position at the Ministry of Economic and Labor. He put his experience with the Gestapo to good use, assisting and advising local law enforcement on how to improve production from local factories. Griesinger’s ruthlessness fit in well, as the Reich needed maximum exploitation of resources and labor to continue the war effort.
In the end, of course, it wasn’t enough, as the Allies pressed in on both sides. Robert gets Gisela and the girls out of Prague, but is himself caught up in the reprisals at the end of the war, and never leaves the city. The author takes us through his quest to find Robert’s burial site. It’s a small amount of closure at the end of a fascinating journey for Lee.
We will never know why Robert Griesinger, Jr., chose to hide his personal papers in the armchair, rather than simply destroying them. Perhaps he knew he would not escape from Prague, so he had no concerns with respect to self-incrimination. Maybe he thought they would be discovered somewhat earlier than 2011, and would have been passed on to his daughters. If preserving his memory was the goal, Robert succeeded, at least partially.
Jutta and Barbara, grew up with no knowledge of their father, beyond the little they remembered of him before they were put on a truck and evacuated from Prague. It’s clear that they had an interest in learning more about him, as Lee updated them on the progress of his project. Addressing the issues surrounding German attitudes post-war, post-Shoah, Lee reveals the spectrum of emotions involved. Germans are still, in many ways, in denial about the war, seventy-five years later. For all that the sisters want to know more about their father, and for all that Lee appreciates their assistance, there’s still a dissonance, a desire to look at it all from the outside.
The S.S. Officer’s Armchair fills in gaps in the knowledge base of the Third Reich. Students learn about death camps, but not as much about the policies and war crimes that didn’t involve the extermination of the Jews. Squeezing the Protectorate of all it had to provide goods of war to Germany required a mindset that mid-level managers like Griesinger developed in their youth. Reading more about how Robert grew up and lived demonstrates the complexity of simply labeling everyone a Nazi.
The process of telling Griesinger’s story is as interesting as his story itself. Even if Nazi Germany is not one of the reader’s interest areas, the story of Lee’s journey makes The S.S. Officer’s Armchair a solid read.
Stop by my Walgreens Book Signing!
Walgreens Book Signing 13-December
Stop by the Walgreens Drug Store, 900 Canal Street, on Friday, December 13th, and buy my books! I’ll be signing New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, and New Orleans Jazz, from 3pm-5pm. I’ll also gladly sign any of my other books the store has in stock, when you buy them.
Walgreens, 900 Canal Street
Walgreens, 900 Canal Street (courtesy Frank Aymami III)
While it continues to be a target for “shop local” folks, they’re often unaware of how long this Walgreens has been on Canal Street. I have a photo of this store in the book, from 1939! The neon sign gave way to LEDs a few years ago. They’re more efficient. Frank’s talent really brings out the scene in the photo, above.
The Streetcar Book
New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line is my first book for Arcadia. I wrote it in 2004, when the Canal line returned to streetcar service. It’s a photo history of the street and the line, which dates back to 1861. There was a forty-year bus interlude, from 1964 to 2004. I rode those Canal buses so much in my high school and UNO days.
The Jazz Book
When HBO’s series, Treme, was still in production, I pitched a book on Faubourg Treme to Arcadia. The next day, I got an email back, asking if I’d be interested in writing a book with a broader scope. I was hesitant at first. Jazz is such an integral part of our DNA in New Orleans, and has been since the 1890s. I went for it and am very pleased at the reception New Orleans Jazz continues to receive.
Walgreens photo by Frank Aymami, III
If you’re not familiar with Frank’s work, you want to be. Check him out, and hire him if you need a great New Orleans photographer!
Author Websites – x-posted to www.ebranley.com
Jeff Parish Library Workshop, just before the meeting of the RWA chapter
Jeff Parish Library Workshop
I had the privilege of speaking at the Jefferson Parish Public Library (East Bank Regional Branch) this morning. This Jeff Parish Library workshop was titled, The Importance of Author Websites.
The top-level topics of the talk:
- What is your goal? – you need to have an idea of where you’re going with this.
- Domain names and hosting – get YourName dot com at a minimum.
- Content Management with WordPress – It’s the easiest way to do this.
- Design – logos, banners, book covers, images/art, specific fonts
- Content – write! fire up the blogging!
- eCommerce – It’s OK to punt sales to Amazon and your publisher. There are ways to sell your own stuff (books and book-related merchandise) from a WordPress site.
- Connections – Start everything from your blog. Syndicate your blog to Amazon Author’s page and your Goodreads author page. Push your blog posts out to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumblr
- Personal Networking – promote your friends who are writers, as well as local booksellers, podcasters, and others.
- Search Engines – spread the word about your blog.
- Have Fun!
We went a bit over the time Chris set for us, but the group had fun, and that’s what it’s all about.
You can download the PPT file of the presentation here. This was a good talk, so we’ll likely jump off into some specific blog posts about this stuff. If anyone wants to discuss something in detail, find me on Facebook, or email me.
We did the “live” thing again today. I’ve got it sorted out now. You can click through and watch the entire presentation on my Edward Branley’s Author Page on the Book of Zucker. I don’t know which of Facebook and YouTube is the “lesser evil,” but I’m good with using Facebook Live for now. Fewer crazies and such there. YouTube is such a sewer.
Several folks asked after the wallpaper on my computer. Here’s the story.
Be sure to check out NOLA History Guy Podcast!
Ghost Ads New Orleans from magazine article to a full book.
A. Shwartz ad, 800 block of Canal Street (Infrogmation photo)
Ghost Ads New Orleans
In October, I wrote an article for Preservation in Print, the member magazine for the Preservation Resource Center. The article features “ghost signs” – signs painted on the walls of buildings. These signs and ads fade over time. The original products disappear. The signs are now “ghosts”.
It was a great idea for an October/All Hallow’s Eve theme. It was also fun to research! The article came out wonderfully, mainly because PRC used professional photographers to shoot the ads. My writing was OK.
Magazine to Book
Jacob’s Candy ad in the Warehouse District (Infrogmation photo)
An editor for a publishing house approached me after the article dropped. They’ve published books on “fading ads” in several cities. The editor inquired about my interest in writing a book for New Orleans. While my immediate reaction was, YES!, the decision wasn’t that simple.
Turning a 1200-word article into a 30K+ word book requires more resources. It wasn’t hard to find a few ads for a fun piece. Finding 100 or so images for a book? A bit more work.
Research and Rabbit Holes
Trianon Theater Ad, 1917 (Mugnier photo)
Most photo archives don’t tag images as “ghost ads”. The ads appear in photos of buildings and streets. They appear as a streetcar passes by, and someone took a photo of the streetcar. It’s in the background of a selfie. A book project requires a universe of photos about three times the number to be published. So, for the Krauss book, I assembled about 400 images and published about 100. I’ll need a similar number for this book.
The process involves rabbit holes. Start with a neighborhood. Then, maybe a street. Look for buildings that are mismatched in height. For example, a four-story building next to a one- or two-story. That exposed wall offers a canvas for the sign painter. Now, look over 120+ years of photos. It’s fun, but time-consuming.
Send me your ads!
The thing about “fading ads” is that they’re, well, fading/faded. That means they’re easily overlooked. I need to find them! I’m going to be doing some contests. Submit an ad (photo or location), you get entered in a giveaway, maybe a book, maybe a gift card to PJ’s or Wakin Bakin. I’ll think it through this week.
Podcast: Play in new window | Download
Subscribe: Android |
Snippets of New Orleans by Emma Fick
Our Review this week: Snippets of New Orleans by Emma Fick
The back cover
We’ve got a book review for you this week, a fun title on New Orleans by artist, historian, and illustrator, Emma Fick. Snippets of New Orleans is a wonderful illustrated primer on New Orleans history and culture. Emma’s book covers a lot of ground. So, it’s a great book for local and visitor alike. I see it as a great book to give someone before they come to New Orleans for the first time. It will really build up excitement.
Emma’s map of New Orleans
Emma starts with the basics of navigating New Orleans. It’s important to understand uptown/downtown and lakebound/riverbound, since the cardinal compass points of North, South, East, and West have so little real meaning here. She leads with this, giving us some solid directions and explanations right as you open the book.
The French Quarter
French Quarter Street Signs
Lots of excellent detail here, as we wander around places, people, and things that strike the author. The “Spanish street signs” that explain how the street names were pronounced during the Spanish Colonial period are a particular favorite of mine when walking through the Quarter.
Common Themes Across Neighborhoods
Corner grocery stores were once ubiquitous across the city. You can usually tell a house or building that used to be a neighborhood grocery because the corner facing the street corner is “cut off” a bit. We will definitely be coming back to this topic in a future pod.
Buy the book!
You’ve got several options for buying Emma’s book. So, if you don’t mind, go buy it at a bookstore, like Blue Cypress Books (like I did), or Octavia Books! Support the Indies, they’re an important part of the community. If you’re not local, you can buy the book through Octavia’s website. While we encourage the locals, we know many prefer Amazon, of course #primeJunkies.
I’m proud to be included in Emma’s Network! We had a lot of fun exploring Faubourg St. John together, as she took notes for inspiration.
French Truck Coffee and Blue Dot Donuts at Wakin’ Bakin’ on Banks and Alexander in Mid-City
And let’s not forget Wakin’ Bakin’, my regular morning haunt. While you listen, you can hear New Orleans flowing by you as you listen to the pod,
Limmud Fest New Orleans 2018
Limmud Fest New Orleans 2018
We’re going to Limmud Fest New Orleans 2018! Mr. Hugo Kahn and I will discuss Krauss – The New Orleans Value Store. The presentation is on Sunday, March 18th, 10:20am, at the Jewish Community Center Uptown. We’ll gladly sign the copy of the book you buy from Octavia Books at the event.
What is Limmud Fest New Orleans 2018?
From the Limmud Fest website:
LimmudFest New Orleans is a weekend festival of Big Tent Jewish learning, arts, culture and spirituality — all planned by volunteers. It is part of a global movement inspired by the idea that when Jews from diverse backgrounds come together to celebrate and learn about everything Jewish, the entire community is enriched.
Krauss Department Store on Canal Street is steeped in New Orleans history. Since the Krauss Brothers, their brother-in-law, Leon Heymann, and his family, and Hugo Kahn, the top-level ownership and management of the store through the years, are all Jewish, the store is a cornerstone of Jewish retail history. It’s a great topic for a weekend of Jewish learning.
Hugo Kahn – President of Krauss, Incorporated.
Mr. Kahn is the reason the book has been so well received. When Hugo closed down the store for the Heymann family in 1997, instructed that all the stuff from the offices be boxed up and brought out to the Earl K. Long Library at the University of New Orleans. Those twelve linear feet of photos, documents, and memorabilia were essential to telling the Krauss story.
At talks and presentations I’ve done since the book dropped last September, Hugo will gladly join in. He answers questions from guests and shares his memories and thoughts on the store. For Limmud Fest New Orleans 2018, Hugo is the star, and I’m looking forward to him taking the mic. Hugo’s involvement with Krauss began in 1967, when the late Jimmy Heymann hired him as Controller. Hugo, working for Jimmy and later, his son, Jerry, ran the store, from Jimmy’s passing to the store’s closure.
Edward Branley, the NOLA History Guy
Yeah, I’ll be there, too.
Sunday, March 18th
Come out and hear Hugo tell the story! I’ll be along with photos and background on the origins of the store.