How to Write About a Criminal Ancestor?

Reader Question: I have a family story that I want to include following the A Recipe for Writing Family History method. However, the story involves a person of questionable character. My relative received medical assistance from a General in General during World War II. Without that support, the relative would have died. Years later, the general was captured and executed for war crimes. How do I share the human side of a war criminal without offending people and making it sound like anything other than history?

Answer: Write the story as it happened. Your job is not to pass judgment on everyone in your writing. Your task is to present the facts you discover in as objective a fashion as possible. Then let your reader decide for themselves.

Many criminals in history did positive things. I remember visiting the Saratoga Battlefield in upstate New York. There is a monument of Benedict Arnold. It does not mention his name and is only of his boot to honor his heroic deeds during the battle that turned the tide of the war. Yet, Benedict Arnold is a traitor. If your ancestor interacted with Benedict Arnold, you would not hide the story, would you?

You would include Mr. Arnold in your story because the story is in the distant past and many of can accept that he was a complicated man.

Some websites talk about the most famous criminals throughout history that also did much good. Treat your ancestor’s interaction with the German General in a similar case. Yes, the man committed war crimes, which must have been egregious to have resulted in his execution. However, the man was not entirely evil.

In short, record the story your ancestor shared. At that moment, the General was a blessing in another man’s life. You can mention how the general’s life came to its end. However, don’t defend or accuse him. It is, what it was.

Moreover, what it was is a fascinating peek into Germany, and it is leaders. The question that will remain in your family’s mind is, “How could the man who helped Uncle _____, have been so cruel on a larger scale which ended his life?”

You will not have to discuss that question, but your inclusion will lead readers to it themselves. Moreover, if anyone is offended, that is their problem, not yours.

If you like these writing tips, pick up your copy of

A Recipe for Writing Family History, available through Amazon.

How did this question come to be? I teach writing workshops online and in person and receive some of the most FASCINATING questions. This Q&A is one such exchange. If you have questions, you’d like to see addressed with regards to your writing projects, leave a comment below or send me Tweet or email through my website.

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