Marianne Thamm struggled to come to terms with her father’s Nazi history, writes Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times
Hitler, Verwoerd, Mandela and Me
Marianne Thamm (Tafelberg)
Marianne Thamm subtitles this book “A memoir of sorts” but it is less a memoir than an exorcism of some vexing ghosts. “I see it as a ritual slaughtering of a beast to my ancestors,” she laughs. “All of us require at some stage to go back and excavate a bit – to try and see who we are with the politics, the religion, the culture and everything else sloughed off, to try and find an essential self.”
Thamm is a towering figure on the intellectual landscape of the country, a ranging, incisive commentator with a quick wit and a gutsy mien. As the ghostwriter of such books as the bestselling I Have Life: Alison’s Journey she’s proved to be a fluent and sympathetic voice for harrowing stories. As a hard news reporter on the Cape Times in the ’80s she calmly covered appalling violence. She’s a one-woman fight club swinging at the bullies, the brainless, the venal.
It’s fascinating, then, to learn what forged this mettle. Thamm was born in the UK to parents who found refuge there after World War II. Her mother, Barbara, was a near-illiterate Portuguese woman who had fled the septic regime of the dictator Salazar to work “in service” in England. Her father, Georg, was a full-blown Nazi, first a member of the Hitler Youth, then a pilot in the Luftwaffe, who had been captured and interned in a POW camp in England. When the war ended he chose to stay in England, and met the gorgeous Barbara at a social club for immigrants and refugees. He proposed to her using a Portuguese-German dictionary. Like many who had walked out of the ruins of the war, they were eager to start a family, to live a “normal” life.
Her father’s past dogged Thamm from an early age, especially after watching The World At War series on TV. They argued about it constantly. She would ask him what his response had been to Kristallnacht. “I vas just a boy on a bicycle,” he replied. “I was very hard on him,” she says, “because for me he embodied Nazism. I was horrified that he was of me and I was of him.” But, she adds, “I see in retrospect that by casting him as the negative, the dark side, I could exonerate myself from exploring my own dark side, as a white South African.”
She could never understand why they chose to move to South Africa, and ultimately learned to her horror that he had been recruited by the Department of Defence in Pretoria to work on a “classified” project. Georg, a toolmaker, made the trigger for the first R1 rifle. Worse, he handed the first one to Verwoerd himself on the factory floor.
Thamm rages at this karma. “Not only six degrees of separation between me and Adolf Hitler. Now Hendrik Verwoerd had entered the orbit.”
Growing up in the depressing suburbs north of Pretoria, Thamm was wild, feral, running with a pack of children from the rough neighbourhood. “I became a tomboy because of the freedom boys had,” she says. “To move through the world without being harassed I figured I had to pass as a boy.” Not that it stopped the casual predation of adult men: when a neighbour felt her up her father refused to believe her. When a cafe owner did the same, she told her mother who accosted him furiously. Thamm would threaten men with a smashed bottle if they tried anything. “I abhor violence but you need to stand up for yourself at times.”
Barbara was an enigma to her daughter. She lived for Marianne and her brother Albert and was protective of them, but Thamm knew very little about her upbringing in Portugal. She had a stroke when Thamm was 21 and lived, speechless, for the next 14 years. “I lost all source of benevolent love and light. It’s interesting in terms of metaphor that when she could speak she was silent, and then she became silent.”
It was only when Thamm became a parent herself that she came to truly appreciate her mother. As a gay woman, she had never considered motherhood. “I didn’t long for it. It was something that I never thought I would be.” Settled in a long-term relationship, though, she and her partner adopted two black daughters. “It has profoundly shifted me. They’ve made me real, like the Velveteen Rabbit.” Like her mother, she protects them fiercely, especially against the racism and sexism that “comes at them” constantly.
She’s preoccupied with the question, “How do we learn to become decent, fair and just?”
We are shaped, she says, by historical forces, the personal is the political. Hence the title of the book. “Leaders bring out the best and the worst in us. Hitler and Verwoerd brought out the absolute worst in the people they led. But Mandela – while there’s much to fault about his first government – made people feel better about themselves at a very crucial time. He had moral authority.”
She’s come to terms with her father’s life and legacy. “We’d spoken through everything by the time he died. It was a blessed position to be in, to make peace with a parent. And I resolved that I was just going to try and be happy.”
Listen to Marianne Thamm’s interview on the Magwood on Books Podcast:
Follow Michele Magwood on Twitter @michelemagwood