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The reluctant German

The reluctant German

“At last,” says Mary Ann Sieghart, “my family story of fear, exile and misery has come good”

My father had an implacable hatred of Germans. “Bloody Huns!” he would shout – deliberately within their earshot – if a German family walked past. We children would be mortified. But we also understood. The Germans, after all, had gouged him out of a comfortable childhood in Vienna, murdered some of his family, threatened to kill him and his mother, forced him into exile, and left him psychologically ravaged for the rest of his life. 

And now here I was, 80 years later, at the German embassy in Belgrave Square, London, heaving a pile of documents onto the counter. “I’m terribly sorry,” I said to the gleamingly Aryan young man behind the Perspex screen, “but I’m afraid I have 16 applications for German citizenship.” 

“Wonderful!” he replied, beaming, as he took the paperwork for me, my siblings, our children, and my sister’s grandchildren, along with the birth, marriage and death certificates of my father and his parents, and the evidence that they had been persecuted and forced to flee. Wonderful? Really? And what would my father have thought?

Like most British children of my generation, my siblings and I had been brought up on war comics – Donner und Blitzen! Ach, du Schweinhund! – and movies in which German officers had more dashing uniforms, but the British were more heroic. We relished the escapes from Colditz and the escapades of The Guns of Navarone. Not so many children, though, in the schools to which we went in the 1960s and 1970s, had grown up with family experience of persecution and murder. We had the added dimension of seeing Germans not just as the baddies in the war, but as those who gassed my father’s relations in concentration camps, and very nearly killed him and his mother too.

My father, Paul Sieghart, had grown up as the only child of Marguerite Sieghart, among the first women to study law at Vienna University. Her father was Rudolf Sieghart, one of the most powerful men in the AustroHungarian empire, described by his contemporaries as “Austria’s evil genius”. He was Emperor Franz Joseph’s closest adviser, liaising between the emperor and seven successive prime ministers. 

Theirs was a gilded life, living in Empress Maria Theresa’s former hunting lodge, and mingling with the intellectual, the artistic, the powerful and the privileged. They felt almost totally integrated into the upper echelons of the Austrian establishment. 

My great-grandfather Rudolf, né Singer, had changed his name when he changed his religion. In 1895, two years before Gustav Mahler converted from Judaism to Catholicism to become director of the Vienna Court Opera, Rudolf also realised that he could rise no further in his civil service career unless and until he was baptised. He chose the name Sieghart because it began with the same two letters as Singer, and to Austrians, it sounded utterly Aryan. (Fifty years later, to his British descendants, people would say, “Ah, German name, must be Jewish!” I picture a Jewish God up there somewhere, saying, “You can run, but you can’t hide …”.) 

(main picture) The author’s grandmother, Marguerite Sieghart, studied law at Vienna University
(above) Great-grandfather Rudolf Singer

So my father grew up in what he saw as a Catholic family. He was an altar boy at Mass and went to Catholic schools. His father, a German lawyer called Ernst Alexander, was also a baptised former Jew, but the marriage fell apart when my father was two and Ernst returned to Berlin. 

‘Rudolf Sieghart, described as
“Austria’s evil genius” was Emperor
Franz Joseph’s closest adviser’

It wasn’t until 1938 that Paul even discovered that he had Jewish origins. He was walking home from school with his nanny, a staunch Catholic woman from the mountains, when they came across an elderly Jewish shopkeeper being dragged over the shattered glass of his shop window by two Nazi thugs. “Why are they doing that?” Paul asked her. “Aber natürlich, he’s Jewish,” she replied, unquestioningly. 

Back at home, my father asked his mother what was going on. “Well, there’s something I need to tell you,” she said – and for the first time explained his family history. According to Nazi laws, under which people needed four Christian grandparents to qualify as Aryan, both he and she were soon to be deemed Jewish too.

Initially, she was not worried. She believed she was well-enough assimilated and connected to escape any institutional anti-Semitism. Blinded by privilege, she didn’t believe the government would come for people like her. Until 12 March 1938, that is, when Nazi Germany took over Austria in the Anschluss. My father remembered the Viennese lining the streets to cheer the German troops. “The Austrians always made the best Nazis,” he used to tell us. 

On that day, my grandmother realised that she and my father would have to flee. But while they were packing, the telephone rang. It was a friend of hers who was high up in the Ministry of the Interior. “I’m just calling to say that if you’re thinking of going on holiday, I wouldn’t recommend it,” he warned. “The weather isn’t very good abroad.” She took the hint and stayed. It turned out that the border guards had a list of families who should be instantly arrested and sent off to the concentration camps if they tried to leave the country. The Siegharts were on it.

A year later, she and my father finally made it to Switzerland. History doesn’t relate exactly what combination of bribery and string-pulling allowed it to happen. We do know, though, that Rudolf’s sumptuous house on the Prinz-Eugen Strasse was handed over to become the headquarters of the SA, the Nazi stormtroopers. (Sadly, it was bombed in the war and is now a boring block of flats.) 

Marguerite, left, and her sister Mizzi

The Swiss told my family that they could stay for only six months. By then – in 1939 – most other countries, including Britain, had closed their borders to refugees from the Nazis. Again, my grandmother had to fall back on Rudolf’s connections to help. She was given introductions to senior political figures in both Britain and France and wrote to them, begging for sponsorship for a visa. Both she and my father hoped to go to France, as they spoke fluent French but not English. But they were determined to go to whichever accepted them first. Luckily, it was the UK, or they would have been rounded up by the French in 1942 instead. 

Imagine arriving at an English school with a German surname, a German accent and only rudimentary English, just as war breaks out with Germany. British schoolboys weren’t interested in the nuances that made Germans as much of an enemy to my father (indeed more) as they were to the British. In a matter of months, my father went from privileged to persecuted, first by the Nazis and then by the English boys who bullied him at school. It turned him into a human-rights campaigner in later life, but also something of a tyrant, determined never to be a victim again.

As children, we never felt fully accepted by the British either. In the 1970s, my siblings and I were looked upon with suspicion by our schoolmates. Our surname wasn’t remotely English. We were seen as either enemy aliens or Jews, and Britain was still casually anti-Semitic. Even protesting that we were Catholic didn’t help – they too were thought to be foreign and suspect. 

‘Imagine arriving at an English school
with a German surname and accent,
just as war breaks out with Germany’

Although our father never spoke German at home and had not a trace of an accent in English, our upbringing felt different from our English peers. We talked about emotions, politics and even sex around the dinner table, taboo to most Brits. Our parents were far more open and intellectual and interested in culture than most of our friends’. (Our mother, although British-born, had a second-generation German immigrant father, travelled widely and was an instinctive cosmopolitan.) 

The author’s father, Paul Sieghart

The Britain of those days was monocultural and almost entirely white. We had only one black girl in our year at school. So the hierarchy was established within the white girls, rather than between the white ones and the rest. I was near the bottom. Why, I often wondered, had our grandmother given her surname, Sieghart, to our father rather than our grandfather’s, which was Alexander? Had I been Mary Ann Alexander, I could have passed as English. Think of Stephen Fry, one of our national treasures, who is as Austrian as I am. But had his father, rather than his mother, been called Neumann, would Fry still have been seen as the quintessential Brit, perfectly cast for Jeeves?

Now, of course, Sieghart seems barely more exotic or foreign than Simpson. So many waves of immigration have arrived since my childhood that clicking “White British” on the ethnic monitoring form puts me right at the top of the oppression hierarchy. At the same time, the foreign birthright that had me ostracised as a child has now become a privilege. I’m the one, post-Brexit, who can apply for an extra EU passport for me and my children, while all those snobby English girls at my old school must put up with only a British one. 

‘Why had our grandmother given her
surname, Sieghart, to our father rather
than our grandfather’s, Alexander?’

Their children won’t be able to work or study in the EU. If they own a holiday home in France, Italy or Spain, they will only be able to visit it for 90 days a year. They will have to queue at European airports to have their passports scrutinised and stamped. They have become foreigners on their own continent. 

Paul Sieghart

At last, my family story of fear, exile and misery has come good. In fact, it has given me a choice of two extra nationalities: Austrian and German. With an Austrian grandmother and German grandfather, I could take my pick. 

This wasn’t the case, though, when I first applied for German citizenship four years ago. Ever since 1949, Germany has allowed people who were deprived of their citizenship in the Nazi era, and their descendants, to have their citizenship automatically restored. Only in 2020 did the Austrian parliament finally pass a similar law.

‘Although our father had not a trace
of an accent in English, our upbringing
felt different from our English peers’

Although I have always felt culturally more Austrian than German, I am aware that Austria has lagged way behind Germany in facing up to, and atoning for, its Nazi crimes. Austria had hidden behind two excuses: that after the Anschluss in 1938, the Austrian state ceased to exist, and that – as Winston Churchill unwisely said in 1942 – Austria was the first victim of Nazi aggression. This was why, as recently as 1986, the country was willing to elect a former Nazi, Kurt Waldheim, as its president. Not until the 1990s did an Austrian president finally apologise for what happened to Austria’s Jews.

I admire Germany’s determination to take responsibility for its past. I despise Austria’s reluctance to do the same. I don’t feel remotely German, and don’t believe that, even in taking up dual citizenship, I have any duty to feel loyalty to the country, speak the language or move there. A passport is the least Germany can give me, in restitution for all that it took away. Gaining citizenship has been a transactional deal for me, mainly to allow my children to live and work in the EU. One of my daughters has lived in Denmark for four years and this passport is a godsend to her. 

‘A passport is the least Germany
can give me, in restitution
for all that it took away’

That said, the young German man’s reaction to my 16 applications for citizenship was as warming as it was wonderful. I had never expected to be actively welcomed as a German citizen; only to be grudgingly and bureaucratically acknowledged. His smile moved me more than the passport that eventually arrived in the post. 

And when my brother went to the embassy to pick up his, he was met by a kindly middle-aged German woman, who told him: “I want to apologise to you on behalf of my country for what we did to your family, and I want to welcome you as my Landsmann [countryman].”

I don’t know what my father, who died 50 years after fleeing Austria, would have thought of that. But I know that it makes me tear up. 

Wonderful? Undoubtedly.

Mary Ann Sieghart is a journalist, broadcaster and author of The Authority Gap. She’s also a visiting professor at King’s College London and chair of the judges for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022.

Photographs courtesy Sieghart Family

This piece appeared in the latest edition of the Tortoise Quarterly, our short book of long stories. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, you can pick up a physical copy in our shop at a special member price.