Response to Antje Bednarek’s Being German.
By Karla Poewe
Antje Bednarek, a friend and colleague of a younger generation, wrote some thoughts about how she, having grown up in the former GDR, feels about being German. In her words, “solitude and silence are chronic conditions for me whenever I am faced with the German past and the Second World War.” When she wants to enter that past and Germany’s guilt directly rather than through countless publications, she does so by way of her grandmother’s stories. During her puzzles about that past (read Holocaust) and guilt (read collective guilt), she mentions Schlink’s work “The Reader.”
I want to talk about Schlink in a moment, but before I do so, I must make potential readers aware of a book that, although written by a British historian, has already moved beyond the German Schlink. The book’s title is “After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation” (2007). It is by the historian Giles MacDonogh. The book is a factual account of the past only now including the first postwar years and most interesting, it includes a full chapter on the history of Guilt. The reader is shown how it was formulated, made collective, imposed upon and rejected by very thoughtful Germans of the time. When MacDonogh titles a subsection “Fringsen,” I still hear my Grandmother’s consolation when I told her, filled with guilt and remorse, that I had stolen coal from a moving train. “Ach was Kindchen,” she said, that is only “fringsen.” Read what MacDonogh has to say about it on pp. 368-369.
Here are my thoughts about Schlink’s thoughtful novel, “The Reader.” In my view, the main point made by Schlink is that there is no escape from the Holocaust, even when according to Pascal Bruckner’s “Der Schuld Komplex” (2008), French students, for example, have lost interest in the topic.
But according to Schlink there is no escape from that past. How does he convince his readers of it?
First, the story does not allow any escape from that horrible history through, for example, Christian faith. Faith is silent, almost shockingly so.
Second, the story does not allow an escape from that historical past through love. The love of the reader for Hanna is dead. His use of smell is symbolic here. Love of the main character for other women did not work either.
Third, there is no escape from the history of horror through philosophy. His father's blatant failure to give wise advice is telling here.
Fourth, there is no escape from the history of horror through the law either. Look at the sections describing the trial.
Fifth, there is no physical escape. The monuments to the horror do not enlighten nor free the narrator—or the viewer looking at them.
In other words, the post-war generation is trapped in the history that the war-generation created, hence the sense of general numbness that overcomes readers of the novel.
Finally, Schlink raises the question, what are we of the post-war generation to do? Is the answer nothing? Can it just be nothing?
To find an answer, we have to step outside of the book and look at the author. Schlink did do something. He wrote a book about it. That perhaps is the only hope, that and what one of my students said, namely, that there is a relationship between the book and millions of readers who are thinking about horrors committed by one generation with which future generations have to cope.
There is, however, another way as my friend, the late Frank Eyck, astutely observed, and it lies with the first point that Schlink rejected. The whole of Western history from the time of Christ, and before him the Hebrew prophets, was a rejection of collective guilt in favour of personal, that is individual, guilt.
Thus while there can be no forgetting of the past there can be forgiveness and the recognition that not all Germans participated in, or were even aware of, the Holocaust. As a child, I certainly was not. What I knew was bombing, hunger, acts of violence, and being a witness to death and rape. To impose guilt upon a generation that was too young to have participated in the horrors of the Nazi regime is to indulge in the psychological torture of people who were tortured physically years before. At least the Russians recognized this.
They took their revenge brutally and immediately. But, then they sought reconciliation by forgiving Germans who were either too young to have been Nazis, or who had valiantly resisted the Nazis. Is it not ironic that an officially atheistic state (the former Soviet Union) took a Christian approach to the issue of guilt while the “Christian” West continues to seek pagan revenge on Germans? In the process, we are ignoring the fact that we are repeating history. After all, National Socialism grew out of a pagan milieu that sought revenge on their “perceived” enemies. To personify, revenge simply never gets it right.