A killing 40 years ago that still echoes though a family
RADIO:A documentary on the kidnapping of Thomas Niedermayer shows the tragic legacy left behind
It ran counter to the cathartic mood engendered by the week’s emotional apologies for the sins of the past, but the most remarkable radio of the past seven days was Documentary on One: A Knock on the Door (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday). Ciaran Cassidy’s documentary was a sombre reminder that for those affected by horrific wrongs, history can be the proverbial nightmare from which it is impossible to awake.
Narrated by Joe Duffy, the programme looked at the fatally botched IRA kidnapping of the German industrialist Thomas Niedermayer through the prism of his bereft family. Duffy recounted how, having mentioned the abduction on air, he received a letter urging him to search out Niedermayer’s surviving relatives. In tracking down Thomas’s granddaughters Tanya and Rachel, Duffy learned how “a crime like that can reverberate for generations”.
Over Christmas 1973, with his wife, Ingeborg, sick in hospital, Niedermayer was at his Belfast home with his teenage daughters Gabriella and Renate when they heard the eponymous rap on the door. Outside were two men who coaxed him from the house and forced him into a car.
What happened next remains murky – the ransom demands were never revealed but were rejected, and Niedermayer may have been pistol-whipped to death unintentionally – which meant his family did not know his fate until his body was discovered in an illegal dump, seven years later. At the time, Ingeborg, who had remained in Belfast, placed a newspaper ad stating the hope that “the past is behind us”.
It was not to be. Though never told the circumstances of their grandfather’s death, the two granddaughters had to live with the catastrophic impact of what Rachel described as “the blame and repercussions and guilt that fractured the whole family”.
Having eventually moved back to Germany, Ingeborg returned to Ireland in 1990, booked into a hotel in Bray, Co Wicklow, and walked into the sea.
Renate, who lived alone in South Africa, killed herself soon after, though her relatives did not know the details, including the date of death. In 1994, Gabriella, “a wonderful but fragile” woman – “I think that came from her father being taken so cruelly,” said Tanya – also died by suicide.
Four years later, her depressed husband took his own life.
Considering this carnage, Niedermayer’s granddaughters were philosophical, even sanguine, their outlook buoyed by their own young daughters. “I don’t think people know the ripple effect that tragedy can have on others,” said Rachel, displaying a commendable gift for understatement.
Similarly, the documentary took a calmly expositional approach, with Duffy eschewing mawkishness or outrage as the dreadful facts of the story unfolded. Prefabricated poignancy was also rationed, making the archive recording of a teenage Gabriella wistfully lamenting that “we were a close family” all the more effective. Rarely have the far-reaching consequences of one shattering act been more devastatingly illustrated.