In the High Peaks

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Being German, Writing Fiction, and the Holocaust

Yes, it's November 17, and supposedly the final day of Bernhard Schlink Week. Please feel free to comment after November 17 or post links for me to add post hoc.

I would like to quote from Schlink's nonfiction book Guilt about the Past, particularly the chapter I appreciate most, "Stories about the Past."

"As an author, I was often criticised for depicting Hanna, the woman protagonist of my novel The Reader, a former concentration camp guard who committed monstrous crimes, with a human face.

I understand the desire for a world where those who commit monstrous crimes are always monsters. We all have the deeply-rooted expectations that a person's acts and character, outer and inner appearance, behaviour in one context and behaviour in another context should conform...Our language reveals this when we talk about someone looking beautiful but being awful, looking warm but being cold, looking cultured but being amoral...The world is full of this tension.

Not seeing its [the world's] multifaceted nature is simplistic and misleading. Maybe I insist on this point so strongly because my generation experienced again and again that someone whom we loved and respected turned out to have done something horrible during the Third Reich.

I remember my English and gym teacher, a wonderful teacher to whom I owe my early love for the English language and also an early insight into the relativity of justice...During training we students saw the tattoo on his arm that all SS officers and solders had that indicated the person's blood group. But it was the fifties, and we still believed that the Waffen SS was just an elite troop and that only the Concentration Camp SS was bad. Even if we had known better, we wouldn't have suspected his involvement in crimes of the Gestapo...that only came out after his retirement."

Schlink's generation? I suppose that is mine as well, though in a different, or not so different, society. The cruel internment of Japanese Americans, the bitter anti-Semitism, the brutality of the McCarthy era in the early 1950s, the US Army's deliberate and institutionalized starvation of German civilians, mostly children, women, and elderly men, in collusion with the British and French armies, in the immediate aftermath of war, 1945-1947.

War dehumanizes.

In more recent years, for many Americans, there comes the discovery that the Catholic priest we knew so well and who was such a kind contributor to members of the church community turned out to be, in the courts, a perpetrator of sex acts against young altar boys.

What about the kind, well-educated, respected businessman who, when he drank too much, brutally beat his wife and children into senselessness?

And, scroll way back to the 19th century, to the immediate aftermath of the Civil War:
What about the Radical Republicans who sheltered and cared for fugitive slaves on their pre-war journeys to safety in Canada, then after the war legislated the starvation of women, children, and old men of the South, white and black?

I could go on and on, as could you.

These ambiguities and these people who commit both good and evil deeds--they are everywhere, as they have always been.

I will continue with Schlink:
"I remember the nights I worked in a factory as a student in the 1960s...My impressions of my fellow workers, who had all fought in the Second World War, were always as nice, decent, and helpful people. But in the hours between two and five am they sometimes talked about the war and where, when, how and in what capacity they had been involved. They didn't talk in detail, but it was very clear that some had been involved in evil things that they could neither forget nor repress..."

The finishing piece I was too tired and too harried by dinner prep to write last evening:
So what is my point, you may well be asking?

My point is that this duality, this good and evil, which so often travels together, can exist in each country, each society, each group, each religion, and, yes, I may go so far as to say, in each person. And believe me, this is no apology for a country that commits genocide and/or inflicts a catastrophic war on the world. Far from it!  And from my reading of Schlink--his speeches, his interviews, his entire ouevre--he would be the first to declare this fact, and indeed he has, many times. He makes no apology for German atrocities, even though his experiences have shown him how multi-faceted and how intricately complex the conflicting moral issues can be--in one family, in an individual, in one group.

So what about good people? Good people struggle against the darkness within themselves, their society, and their country. They are not silent when they see injustice. They are not too busy to act when they see it. But how many of us are entirely good?

I now believe that one of the chief reasons why I feel a special kinship or resonance with Schlink's work is that my life as an American, as a white person, as an historian, and as a person who grew up in a family where this duality was everpresent, has made me seek out a writer who dissects and then scrutinizes these complexities.


  1. This is a beautiful and well-written post. I have been reading a lot of historical mysteries (and one non-fiction book so far) about the World War II period in Germany, hoping to understand how it all happened. You describe very well how much ambiguity and complexity there is in human behavior.

    1. Welcome, Tracy,
      Thank you so much for your kind words about this entry. There's nothing that makes the writer part of me happier than knowing something I've written has struck a chord with a reader.

      I'm off to visit your blog!

      Happy Reading in 2013!