The Question About Nazi Crimes That German Literature Has Failed to Answer

What was the nature of the society that was able to perpetrate the heinous deeds of the Nazi period? German literature is still struggling to find an answer.

"I, one of a generation to whom tears were forbidden - boys don't cry - I weep as if I had to shed all my mother's, my father's, my brother's suppressed tears, the tears of those who didn't know, who didn't want to know what they could have known, should have known ... They did not know because they would not see, they looked away."

- from Uwe Timm, "In My Brother's Shadow: A Life and Death in the SS" (translated by Anthea Bell; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005 )

The family is a German one from Hamburg: a mother, father and brother who did not know and did not want to know, and another brother, the younger child of old age who, perhaps only because his luck was to have been born later, wanted and still wants, now in the new millennium, to ask and to study, to discover and to know. And he discovers his family members in their individual shame, and sheds the tears they apparently did not shed, weeps for them and also for himself, flesh of their flesh.

This brother is German author Uwe Timm, who was born in 1940. He spent his childhood under the specter of his parents' mourning for and stories about his big brother, Karl-Heinz Timm, who was born in 1924 and died in 1943, from wounds suffered during his service in one of the cruelest and most fanatical units of the Waffen SS. Karl-Heinz volunteered to serve in that unit, and his younger brother wants to know why he chose it in particular. He does not, however, find the answer in the meager reports Karl-Heinz wrote in the "front diary" he left behind or in letters to their parents, who speak about him as the son worthy of serving as a model for his younger brother: "My brother was the boy who told no lies, who was always upright, shed no tears, was brave and a fine example."

The older brother's diaries and letters make no mention of the barbaric acts that were committed - that perhaps he himself committed - in the territories where the German army fought. Nor is there any mention in them of feelings or of any uncertainties, evidence of which the living brother so wanted to find in his dead sibling. As for the parents, there is nothing they want to know except whether there might have been a way to save their son's life. After the war, when everyone had to acknowledge the German crimes in the territories that were occupied, they take care to make the distinction: According to them, the SS was a regular combat unit, the criminals were the other ones, the SD, the Einsatzgruppen, and the biggest criminals were the ones at the top, the leaders who took advantage of the youngsters' idealism.

Uwe Timm tries to penetrate this gaping vacuum of willed ignorance, silence and self-righteousness in a book he published in 2004 called "Am Beispiel meines Bruders" (which was translated into English by Anthea Bell in 2005 as "In My Brother's Shadow: A Life and Death in the SS" ). Along the way, he finds himself drawing a portrait of his family, a restrained portrait, but full of meaning and bleak conclusions - of a secure petit bourgeois family, not especially political and certainly not especially active or extremist which, consciously or not, contributed its share to its country's crimes in the period of the Nazi regime.

Though the father held rightist, nationalist and militarist views, he was mainly a friendly man with a sense of humor, courteous and polite to women, and he played the piano. He was not a member of the National Socialist Party even though they courted him and offered him jobs. In his view, as in that of many of his conformist countrymen, the Nazis were too "wild."

The mother was a nice woman, gentle and considerate, modest and loyal to her family. Both parents were people who mostly adapted to situations. That is all, it seems. They taught their little boy to greet people with a straight-arm salute and a click of his heels to the words "Heil Hitler," and when the Americans came they demanded that he drop this habit immediately - to his surprise.

Christa Wolf (1929-2011 ), the famous East German writer, was a girl of 16 when Nazi Germany was defeated. In her autobiographical story, "Blickwechsel" (1970, translated into English as "Exchanging Glances" in the collection "What Remains and Other Stories"; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993 ), she describes her escape westward from the advancing Soviet army with her family during the last days of the war. The family makes its way along the roads with a wretched group of other families as American planes bomb from above and the refugees have to seek shelter time after time. The girl does not comprehend how such a terrible disaster has befallen them (in an unofficial translation ): "secure people with a permanent home, in a two-story house next to a poplar tree ... After all, none of us had ever wanted to be emperor, or the pope, and certainly not God in heaven - one sold flour, ersatz butter, sour pickles and malt coffee in the shop below, the other taught English words on a table covered in black oilcloth and from time to time would look out the window at the town and the river as they lay in their appointed place in perfect quiet ..."

Later, one of the refugees is killed - a father of four children - and the girl sees her mother hugging the widow and saying: "Villains. Those villainous criminals." The villainous criminals were not, of course, the Nazis and certainly not the German refugees themselves, who had lived quietly all those years in their two-story house. Even years later, relates Wolf in her book "Patterns of Childhood" (1976 ), it never occurred to her parents that they had even the slightest trace of responsibility for what was happening at the time, when the town and the river lay in perfect quiet.

It is to these people, "ordinary citizens," like the members of the Timm family and the Wolf family, that Gunter Grass (born in 1927 ) dedicates his trilogy of three excellent books, "The Tin Drum" (1959 ), "Cat and Mouse" (1961 ) and "Dog Years" (1963 ). In these books he burrows into - and gets his readers to burrow into - the narrow world of the German petite bourgeoisie in his birthplace, Danzig (Gdansk ), where most of the inhabitants were ethnic Germans. All the main characters in the books of the trilogy spend their childhood and youth in the shadow of the Nazis' rise to power and the war, on the first day of which, September 1, 1939, their city was annexed to the Third Reich.

However, in the neighborhoods where these people live, life goes on, and they go about their business under the Nazi leadership of the city; they don't see the big events, the "wheels of history" that Germany is spinning, the crimes and the horrors. From there they see their neighbors, windows, the grocery store, the greengrocer and the bakery ("The Tin Drum" ), the schoolyard, with its gymnasium and its classrooms ("Cat and Mouse" ) and the carpenter's workshop and his doghouse ("Dog Years" ).

To this testifies first of all Oskar, the unforgettable boy from "The Tin Drum," a dwarf boy who doesn't grow and eventually becomes a resident in a sanatorium for mental patients: "How limited the world to which this young man was reduced for his education! A grocery store, a bakery, and a vegetable shop circumscribed the field in which he was obliged to piece together his equipment for adult life ... Oskar gathered his first, all-important impressions in very musty petit-bourgeois surroundings" ("The Tin Drum," English translation by Ralph Manheim; Pantheon, 1999 ).

In this world, the grocer and the greengrocer and the baker sell their goods and make a scanty or munificent living according to the times, the children run around in the yards playing tricks and looking for adventures, the carpenter saws and sands and planes and brushes his dog and the brown shirts multiply in the streets, their wearers hold demonstrations and also rampage, Hitler comes into power, in a belligerent move restores Danzig "back home to the Reich," Germany invades Poland, the war spreads over all of Europe and the grocer still tries to find merchandise to sell, as do the greengrocer, the baker and the carpenter.

Indeed, there are a few changes: The grocer, for example, joins the Nazi Party; the inebriated trumpet player from the garret dons an SS uniform and no longer gets drunk - this too is a way of returning to the straight and narrow, to the bosom of "normative" society; and the students hastily acquire wartime diplomas and are recruited into the army. A few of them are killed, one of the schoolteachers is sent to a concentration camp and doesn't return, mysterious smoke rises ceaselessly from chimneys, a heap of bones piles up nearby and a smell of death rises from everything here.

There are changes. But Life, after all, must go on, and life does go on for those who aren't dead. The one lives in the bosom of his family, the other all alone, each within his own four walls, each with his own private joys and sorrows.

In the apartment buildings in Danzig they don't talk about politics - that's the business of the leaders - they know and they do: The Fuhrer will do everything right, says one of the tenants, because he can be trusted, because he knows more than everyone else and he also knows how to paint.

Now they must see

But in the war, the Fuhrer and his army were defeated, to the astonishment of most of the civilians, and many of them, despite themselves, suddenly see and hear things that are not at all easy for them to deal with. Now they must see and hear. Thus, for example, the group of refugees fleeing in Wolf's story, who encounter along the way a group of concentration camp survivors - the "katzetniks." The encounter with them is apparently no less alarming than the encounter with the enemy (in an unofficial translation ): "And then we saw the concentration camp refugees. The noise they made, trudging up behind us, pursued us like a ghost. The suspicion that we were fleeing from them as well never occurred to us in those days ... They looked different from all the people I had seen until then and I wasn't surprised that we recoiled from them. And nevertheless this recoiling also betrayed us, it revealed our guilt. We knew. All of us - wretches like us who had been robbed of all our possessions, who had been uprooted from our farms and our estates, from our shops and our stuffy bedrooms and the polished parlors with a picture of the Fuhrer hanging on the wall - we knew. Those over there, who had been declared to be animals and now were gradually getting closer to us in order to take revenge - we turned our backs on them. And now those people dressed in rags will come and put on our clothes, will stick their bleeding feet into our shoes. And those starved people will forcibly take away our butter, our flour and our sausage that we'd only just now looted. And I felt horror: It was justice, and for the fraction of a second I knew we were guilty. And then I forgot that." A short while later comes the face-to-face encounter with the survivors; sometimes they even sit around the same campfire with them, but there is no desire to speak with them. The trouble is that the survivors in fact do talk.

Wolf relates: "I certainly had no desire to converse with the concentration camp survivor who sat with us in the evenings around the campfire ... and least of all did I want to be aware of the sadness and incredulity in his voice when he asked: Where were you all those years?"

Where were you all those years? For many years, no one in Germany asked this question. Then they did ask it, and in an especially probing and precise way they asked it in literature. The 1970s and 1980s saw the publication of a series of books written by Germans "of the second generation," who wanted to know where their parents had been all those years, their father and their mother to whom they were still connected and whom they loved. After all, they were parents and many of them were good and decent people, to whom the Nazi ideology was alien, and they certainly had no part in the abuse, the killing and the murder of individuals, initially, and of masses later. For example, Ruth Rehmann, born in 1922, wrote "The Man in the Pulpit" about her father, Pastor Reinhold Rehmann, on the basis of her childhood memories and research, and he comes across as a pleasant man.

Pastor Rehmann was not a Nazi, neither in his world view nor in his leanings. He was very conservative and dominated by prejudices - xenophobia, for example - but was decent and benevolent within his immediate environment. Many years after his death, members of his congregation were still able to tell his daughter what a wonderful pastor her father was: how he cared for the needy, brought people in and spread an atmosphere of warmth and security. However, not only did the pastor not protest against the Nazi regime, he also disagreed with his fellow clergymen who tried initially to organize a protest within the Evangelical church. He charged that they were splitting the church, arousing the authorities' wrath and endangering its existence. Rehmann was a peace-loving man who hated rebellions and rebels. He loved the little people, his daughter testifies, mainly if they are simple, open, patient and faithful. The rebels, the daring ones, he loves less, she adds.

In this spirit, Pastor Rehmann was vehemently opposed to disobeying the authorities. Laws, the arrangements of the government and the regime - even if they were not just and not correct - were part of the order of the world that had to be accepted with patience and humility, as opposed to the difficulties of everyday life; those included concerns about earning a living, for which a solution had to be sought.

Eventually, when the pastor was told about the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis, he simply refused to believe. To a friend who uttered to him the words "concentration camp," he apparently replied: "Have you too fallen victim to those filthy words ... Those people never stop casting aspersions on our miserable homeland. Until I see a - what did you call it? - concentration camp with my own eyes, I will never believe even a single word of this."

Pastor Rehmann could not believe in such deeds; his entire world would have collapsed around him had he been called upon to deal with good and evil beyond the ordinary, usual relationships between people.

However, when the war broke out and the situation became too obvious for a person like him to be able to ignore, his world did collapse. He resigned from his pulpit and for the first time in his life experienced isolation and existential fears. His love of life left him; he succumbed to an illness and died in 1940.

Distant from politics

With all the differences among the families described in these books, the similarities among them - sometimes even down to the smallest details - come together into an instructive aggregate of specific behavior patterns. Most of them have in common the distance and the reservations about political involvement and the focus on their private affairs (a behavior pattern markedly manifested in the books by Gunter Grass, whose insights on this plane were a real breakthrough ). Politics is a concern that does not touch upon them directly, and it is also an occupation too inferior and dirty for honest and unsullied people like themselves. Therefore their responsibility for what is happening around them is not at all clear to them.

There is no doubt they would find it very hard to fully understand what German author Manfred Franke (born in 1930 ) wrote in his book "Cases of Murder" about the events of Kristallnacht in his birthplace - a small German town that to the best of his mother's recollection was a town of good and decent people: "Even doing nothing is doing a deed."

On the night between the 9th and 10th of November, 1938, they didn't, of course, tell the 8-year-old Manfred what the explosions and the smashing noises he heard from his bed were. Nor did they explain the scenes of destruction he saw the next day in the streets and the homes of Jewish neighbors. They only forbade him to touch the desirable, colorful marbles lying on the ground among other merchandise of a shop that was destroyed: "Something has happened. It is forbidden to take anything." And his mother said: "You'll get other ones. Those are a Jew's." And there is no knowing if it was decency that forbade the boy from taking something that belonged to a Jew - or because the shopowner was a Jew.

Only decades later doesFranke clarify, research and document in precise detail the individual and the nonviolent public who looked the other way in his own apartment building and his town. The book, a masterpiece of memoir and documentation, was published in 1973 and its subtitle was "9./10. XI. 1938: A Protocol of Fear, Maltreatment and Death, of Finding the Traces and their Rediscovery."

In contrast to the real, good and obedient boy Manfred Franke apparently was, the boy Oskar, Grass' fictional drummer, enters a toy store wrecked by rioters, looks at its dead owner and rescues his favorite objects from the pogrom: three tin drums. And perhaps the tragic and grotesque depiction of Kristallnacht in "The Tin Drum," and the entire character of Oskar, are a late symbolic rebellion by the author, who also was not born and raised to rebel but eventually came out in his brilliant, imaginative and ingenious writing with a sharp settling of accounts with his countrymen and the Nazis.

Indeed, it is with good reason that the story of this deed is spiced with the language of legends, to inform us that things like that don't usually happen: "There once was a grocer who closed his store one day in November, because something was happening in town; taking his son Oskar by the hand, he boarded a Number 5 bus and rode to the Langasser Gate, because there, as in Zoppot and Langfuhr, the synagogue was on fire ... There once was a toy store owner; his name was Sigismund Markus and among other things he sold drums lacquered red and white. Oskar, above-mentioned, was the principal taker of these drums because he was a drummer by profession and was neither able nor willing to live without a drum. For this reason he hurried away from the burning synagogue in the direction of Arsenal Passage, for there dwelt the keeper of his drums; but he found him in a state which forever after made it impossible for him to sell tin drums in this world ... There was once a drummer, his name was Oskar. When they took away his toy merchant and ransacked the shop, he suspected that hard times were in the offing for gnomelike drummers like himself. And so, in leaving the store, he picked out of the ruins a whole drum and two that were not so badly injured, hung them round his neck, and so left ... Outside, it was a November morning."

That day Oskar's father "took advantage of the opportunity to warm his fingers and his feelings" over the bonfire of books and ritual objects gathered from among the ruins of the synagogue, but that was as far as evil behavior went. Manfred Franke's shocked parents and neighbors almost certainly didn't even do such a thing, which was without a doubt a natural and innocent deed in the eyes of those who did it, in the autumn chill. However, quite possibly there were among them, for example, officials of the national railway company who, for instance, carried the deportees to the concentration camps to the destinations to which they were consigned.

One such civilian official was a witness (not a defendant ) at the famed "Auschwitz trials" in Frankfurt from December 1963 to August 1965 against Nazis from the death camps. At that time the official already held quite a senior position in the railroad company. Based on sections from the transcripts of those trials, the German Jewish writer and intellectual Peter Weiss (1916-1982 ) wrote his documentary play "The Investigation."

The nub of the play is not to reconstruct the trial or the horrendous acts described in it, but rather to draw the character of the social and human system that was able to give rise to such deeds. The witnesses - be they civilians or prisoners from the camps - do not appear under their names, but rather are designated by numbers: No. 1, No. 2 and so on. The defendants do have names, but the author writes in his stage directions: "... in the play it is not the bearers of the names who should once again be accused. They lend the author only their names, which here stand as symbols for a system which conferred guilt on those many others who never appeared before this court."

The defendant Stark, for example, says:

"Your Honor / I should like to explain for once / Every third word in our schooling / was concerned with those / who were guilty of everything / and who must be rooted out / It was hammered into us that this could only be / in the best interests of our own people/ In the officers' schools we learned / above all to maintain silence/ If anyone asked any further / he was told / Everything that is done / happens according to law / It matters little / that today the laws are different."

And the senior railway official, who during the war was the manager of a train station where prisoners arrived, was asked if he knew the "purpose of these shipments." "That was outside of my field ... We were told only / That it had to do with resettling people who were / under the protection / of the State."

And one of the defense attorneys objects: "We most urgently protest / against these attacks on our client / All-inclusive accusations / have no legal significance / We are only concerned with known cases / of dereliction and complicity / in connection with the history of the crime / Every possible doubt however slight /must be allowed to count in the favor / of the Defendants."

And another attorney says: "The fact that our clients / happened to be in the vicinity / of the proceedings described / in no way makes them accessories" (from "the Investigation," by Peter Weiss, translated by Alexander Gross; Marion Boyars Publishers, 1996 ).

Among the judges who presided at these trials and now represented the justice of a decent society, there were many who had served as judges during the days of the Third Reich - yet more evidence of the total absurdity of the criminal court proceeding that entirely missed the main point: If one Nazi or another goes to prison, or even is hanged, this will neither add to nor detract from the coping with a phenomenon like Nazism. Indeed, the sentencing of a number of people, which poses as a worthy answer to what happened - the revenge of a moral and humane society against its corrupters and destroyers - only helps distract attention from the complexity and real dimensions of this chapter in the history of the modern age, which by no means was the work of individuals, but rather of an entire society. But who could predict that 80 years ago?