In Search of a Hidden Life
A historical detective story and a gripping account of one historian’s hunt for answers as he delves into the surprising life of an ordinary Nazi officer.
It began with an armchair. It began with the surprise discovery of a stash of personal documents covered in swastikas that had been sewn into its cushion. The SS Officer’s Armchair is the story of what happened next, as historian Daniel Lee follows the trail of cold calls, documents, coincidences and family secrets, to uncover the life of one Dr Robert Griesinger from Stuttgart. Who was he? What had his life been – and how had it ended?
Lee reveals the strange life of a man whose ambition propelled him to become part of the Nazi machinery of terror. He discovers unexpected ancestors in New Orleans, untold stories of SS life and family fragmentation. As Lee delves deeper, Griesinger’s responsibility as an active participant in Nazi crimes becomes clearer.
Dr Robert Griesinger’s name is not infamous. But to understand the inner workings of the Third Reich, we need to know not just its leaders, but the ordinary Nazis who made up its ranks. Revealing how Griesinger’s choices reverberate into present-day Germany, and among descendants of perpetrators, Lee raises potent questions about blame, manipulation and responsibility.
A historical detective story and a gripping account of one historian’s hunt for answers, The SS Officer’s Armchair is at once a unique addition to our understanding of Nazi Germany and a chilling reminder of how such regimes are made not by monsters, but by ordinary people.
“This is a little gem of a book. It is beautifully written and reads as grippingly as a detective story. The story of the quest is fascinating in itself but the result is also a work of serious historical scholarship. Its reconstitution of the life and career of an ‘ordinary Nazi’ throws revealing light on the workings of the Nazi regime.”
“Beautiful and gripping, it unfolds like a detective story as an obscured past emerges into the light.”
Hadley Freeman, author of House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family
“A fascinating true-life detective story, as the author engagingly chronicles his searches in archives and interviews with elderly survivors… An illuminating biography and more evidence for the “banality of evil”.”
“Daniel Lee's The SS Officer's Armchair is a fascinating combination of social history, family drama, and ingenious detective work. This story of an utterly obscure and "ordinary" SS officer, recovered through extraordinary research, is embedded in the illuminating context of upper-middle-class German society and family life in the first half of the 20th century.”
Christopher R. Browning, Frank Porter Graham Professor of History Emeritus, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
“In this richly detailed and eloquent account...Lee’s granular focus reveals the mechanisms by which ordinary Germans were drawn into horrific crimes. Even those well-versed in the history of the Holocaust will learn something new.”
“Beginning with his discovery of a cache of papers sewed, inexplicably, into an old armchair, Daniel Lee traces the life of an ordinary though far from insignificant Nazi bureaucrat, showing, as his story slides into horror, that there is no such thing as an armchair Nazi. His interviews with the surviving children and grandchildren add a poignant postscript to this powerful investigation of the war between memory and oblivion.”
Alice Kaplan, Sterling Professor of French at Yale University and author of Looking for the Stranger
“Many of the most horrific acts against humanity during the Holocaust were carried out by the untold thousands of low-level, virtually-unknown civil servants, who facilitated the worst deeds of the Nazi enterprise without ever getting their own hands dirty. In this brilliantly researched story of one such 'ordinary Nazi,' Daniel Lee illuminates the whole.”
Martha Weinman Lear, author of Heartsounds and Where Did I Leave My Glasses?
“The S.S. Officer’s Armchair is an extraordinary book that lingers in the memory long after you've read the final page. I became totally engrossed in Daniel Lee's investigations to discover the story behind long hidden Nazi documents. In uncovering the life of an disconcertingly outwardly ordinary man who became an SS Officer, the atrocity of the Holocaust – and those who supported, facilitated, or chose to ignore what was happening all around them – becomes even more shocking.”
The Rt Hon. the Baroness Smith of Basildon