This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.

The other day I was browsing the German political journal Der Spiegel and found my attention arrested by an article the like of which I have not seen before. It was written by Niklas Frank, son of Hitler’s notorious General Governor of Poland Hans Frank. His father, a politician and lawyer, was executed as a war criminal at Nürnberg in October 1946.

The thrust of the article is that at the age of 80, having thought his father’s legacy had gone from the earth, he now discovers echoes of the same rhetoric in the mouths of some extreme right-wing politicians in Germany. And he is a very worried man.

The poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht ended his play ‘The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui’ with the warning that the end of Nazism did not mean that its ideology died in a Berlin bunker. And here is Niklas Frank’s concern: that the same old ideas find their way back into our discourse while we are not looking, and sound reasonable in the midst of current uncertainties, crises and fears.

One of the things I began to learn many years ago is that my children might well have to forgive me for the wrong things I have said or done to them or others. Parents always make it up as they go along, seeking advice and trying their best. But, I doubt if any of us looks back with smug satisfaction at having got everything right. But, that is a far cry from having to live with the knowledge of a father’s crimes against humanity and the legacy this left for the whole world for ever.

When Shakespeare wrote in the Merchant of Venice that “the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children,” he was echoing the Hebrew Scriptures when they describe – rather than prescribe – reality. We inherit and cannot escape from the consequences of the sins of the fathers and mothers, and maturity involves coming to terms with this and living with or despite it.

For Niklas Frank, however, the matter cannot be left there. His inheritance, he believes, imposes on him a moral obligation to see through his father’s eyes the language and rhetoric that would have been as familiar as it was effective. So, when political language betrays a view of human beings that dehumanises them or dismisses their dignity, Frank sees the urgent need to identify where this thinking led in the past – his own family’s past.

I guess he would sympathise with WH Auden who once wrote: “All I have is a voice to undo the folded lie”. This tells me that I don’t have to have had a murderous father before listening for the language that turns people into numbers or objects, converts their inconvenience into disposability, or elevates my own self-righteousness above the dignity of those who have less power.

This probably marks me down as a little bit miserable, but so far this year I have read three books and the one I am about to finish is not exactly a comedy. The excellent Germania (Simon Winder) was followed by a collection of poems by WH Auden. Then I got into a book my mum and dad gave me in November: On the Other Side: Letters to my Children from Germany 1940-46 (Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg).

These are letters written from Hamburg to Wolff-Mönckeberg's adult children living abroad with their own families. Unable to tell the truth about what was going on in Germany – they wouldn't have got through the censors – she wrote letters which she left for her children to read after the war. They weren't discovered until 1974 during a house clearance. Which means they were never read by the children to whom they were addressed.

The letters are harrowing. They relate the experience of a wife and mother who tries to live and love and survive through the destruction of her city by Allied bombing, helpless in the face of the violence, powerless to change the madness into which Germany had been plunged by megalomaniacs in Berlin. Her son dies in South America, her home is burned by repeated incendiary attacks, friends and neighbours endure and die. This is no history book, but the very human recollection of a very human woman who puts flesh and blood and tears onto the experiences of loss, grief, fear and courage that are the real stuff of civilians caught up in a war being fought by others.

I was conscious throughout the book of the sermons of Helmut Thielicke, the German Protestant theologian and pastor who had to pastor and preach his way through the same horrors in this same Hamburg during these same years. They merit re-reading, but only if the reader can imaginatively place himself or herself in the context of the time. Preaching about Christmas on the edge of a crater that used to be your church – containing the remains of some of those who used to be your congregation – removes any hint of mere religious piety. This is where such piety or religious illusion dies in the rubble and dust of destruction and violence.

My reason for citing this now is simply that (a) this is the sort of stuff that relativises some of the stuff that characterises current 'crises', and (b) gives an insight into those who appear as faces or figures on our front pages in reports about conflict in the Central African Republic, South Sudan or Syria.

When all is stripped away, what is left? When all 'normality' explodes and disappears, tearing our life apart, what of value is left to motivate us? What ultimately matters?

I constantly need a point of reference such as this in order to keep me focusing on reality. I guess I am not the only one.

(The next book on my list is a funny one…)