In Ahnen, Anne Weber attempts to write a biography of her great-uncle, Florens Christian Rang, whom she renames “Sanderling” after the bird that follows the tidal line on French beaches. Her subject studied law and began a career in the civil service before becoming a Protestant pastor near Poznan in modern-day Poland, at that time part of Prussia. He then abandoned the church and wrote an angry “reckoning with God”. Rang was a friend and contemporary of several great early-twentieth-century thinkers, including Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Martin Buber and Walter Benjamin, and his papers are now in the Benjamin archive in Berlin. This does not, however, result in a straightforward biography.
As the subtitle suggests (“a time-travel journal”), one of Weber’s problems is that her forefather lived from 1864 to 1924, requiring a significant mental leap to understand his personality and motivations. From the beginning, it's clear that the main hurdle to be breached is German history since his death, summed up in a single word alluded to but not printed in the book until the very last pages: Auschwitz. Did Sanderling lay the ground for the Holocaust through his part in “Germanizing” Poland, however minor that role may have been? Or did his friendships with Jews make him a counterexample to those Germans who went along with the Nazis?
Significantly, Sanderling’s son – Anne Weber’s grandfather – was one of these opportunists during the “Third Reich”. As she continues her research, Weber tells her own story of a grandfather she never met, because he refused to acknowledge his son’s illegitimate daughter. While reluctant to conform to clichés – “Should I perhaps write the hundred thousandth Nazi grandfather or father story?” – she obtains his files and establishes that he was friendly with the SS and built a good career as a librarian, compiling political reports on books to be banned. Almost as importantly, he wrote poorly and smoothed over his father’s faults.
In Sanderling’s notes for his “reckoning with God”, Weber is shocked to come across a description of a visit to a mental institution, where her forefather asks aloud, “Why don’t you poison these people?” Conscious that any quote must be seen in its full context, she reproduces a long passage from the original. Despite all her attempts to understand the man, she cannot help but draw a direct line from this question to the Nazis’ campaign of murdering the mentally ill, and the question is repeated at various points in the book as it comes up in her mind. Weber visits memorial sites where the mentally ill were gassed, including the concentration camp in Poznan. Eventually, she concludes that there is a difference between asking a question and putting it into practice. Yet the existence of the question seems to show that history is a matter of continuity and that ideas do not come out of nowhere.
By the end of the book, Weber has moved from fascinated admiration for her unknown great-grandfather via horror at some of his ideas to a more realistic viewpoint based on wide reading and conversation with friends and relatives. While there is no room for hero-worship, she still admires his passion and lack of conformity. The final section consists of a long description of a research trip to Poland, visiting the village where Sanderling preached and once again adjusting her image of him. And then comes a beautifully written closing passage depicting All Saints’ Day in Warsaw; a magnificent and thoughtful climax.
The book is written in loose journal form, in the first person throughout. We follow Weber’s research chronologically but she frequently interjects references to literature and philosophy, from Nietzsche to Sebald to Susan Sontag and André Stasiuk. All of the book is very personal, detailing conversations with Polish, French and Jewish friends and with her father and reflecting on what it means to be German. And the final passage samples Weber’s outstanding descriptive skills to great advantage. I felt it was a very wise choice to close the book not with a summary or a personal statement, but with a beautiful evocation of people honouring their dead.
This is an extremely original and intelligent piece of writing, going far beyond the popular “Nazi grandfather story”. At times I was reminded of Lydia Davis and Lisa Appignanesi, perhaps by the very subjective and intelligent way of writing. I found it thought-provoking and revealing, and ultimately also very moving. And look, you can read a sample from the book, in my translation, courtesy of Fischer Verlage.