By Kevin Anthony Stoda, Germany

Recently, I finished an earlier novel by Bernhard Schlink, who is both a famous German author and former professor of law and philosophy at some of Germany’s more famous universities.  One of his other novels was THE READER (DER VORLESER in German), which was recently made into a film that was up for five Oscars earlier this year.

THE READER supposedly holds an attraction for all living German readers concerning how we all go through phases in our lives—as individuals and societies (or cultures)–in dealing with the sins and memories of the fathers, the mothers, the grandfathers, the great-grand mothers, and so-on.   THE READER was well-received in Israel and in the USA.  However, it was originally published in Switzerland rather than in Germany.  Perhaps, Schlink had felt German audiences were not quite ready for the book.

However, THE READERS publication in the late 1990s was at a time in history when Germans were once again busily debating the memories and burdens of 1933-1945 through the traveling WEHRMACHT exhibition:  This was the first nationwide exhibition to question head-on some of the founding myths of post-WWII society concerning the crimes of the German military (non-SS/non-Nazis).

Therefore, since its arrival in the literary world, students and classes in Germany have been going over Schlink’s THE READER, and discussing what Schlink is trying to bring out, i.e.  about how to deal with some of the horrid historical memories which still guide various peoples and nation state actions in this very 3rd millennia.  We are referring to those memories of both victims and perpetrators as related to do  the death camps and the entire era of the Holocaust/Shoah in Europe.

I personally had been disappointed with THE READER at the time I read it (nearly a decade ago) because I felt that rather than talking about the issues from a perspective from which all German generations in the wake of the Holocaust Crimes of the Century, can attack evenhandedly. However, I felt that this German author, Bernhard Schlink, was specifically only dealing with his own and his parents generations.  In other words, it barely touched the world which any German historian would have witnessed in the 1980s, 1990s, and the first decade of this 21st Century.

Schlink had been born a child of persecuted religious (German) family who had opposed what national socialism was up to and had lost their church assignment in Heidelberg during the Nazi era.  In short, the first person narrator in the READER was about the age of Schlink himself.

In short, as I read the reader, I felt Schlink was neglecting many peoples who are now in their forties (my generation)  and much younger–by cutting off the narration basically in the late 70s or early 80s when the author and main character part.  The only way one can get around this short-fall is to know that there is an endless cycle of finger pointing going on in Germany between and through the generations—even to today.  Moreover, this finger pointing manifests itself in new forms each generation. (We are now approaching the 4th and 5th generations of the Holocaust and the Third Reich.)

Each Germany generation has looked at the previous generation and pointed a hurting—sometimes a vindictive finger at other times simply one of anger or shame–at the parents generation and said, “You are guilty.”  For example, in the immediate post-Nazi era, those people who (like Schlink’s parents) had opposed the Nazi-led insanities and crimes of German perpetrators had often been seen by the more blood-stained-handed Germans as “traitors” to their people.

In turn, the children of these same opponents to the Nazi regime (and to Germany’s pro-war path to European dominance) had pointed their finger in the 1960s at their own parents generation and had said basically, “J’accuse… you are guilty for not doing enough to stop Hitler, etc.  You are accomplices and at best passive helpers of the 3rd Reich.”

Some of these later generations of Germans did, in fact, write many autobiographies about what it was like to grow up in the shadows of a war criminal.   Meanwhile, others of the third and fourth generations would look at the superficial ways that the past had been recognized in post-1945 Germany. They then ridiculed their parents and their shallowness (and overall lack of courage) in not taking in or working through the sins of their fathers more fully.

By the third generation, it was the 1980s, i.e.  when I showed up in Germany and witnessed the great debates about German memories marching across the national pages of newspapers from years on end.  Here are some examples:

–There was Reagan’s visit to Bitburg.  There were more than just protests on the German side of the Atlantic that time.

–There was the speech by the son of a perpetrator who had become the Bundespresident, i.e. Richard von Weizaecker,  of West Germany about how to deal with his father’s generation and its memories.

–There were many Parliamentary discussions and some political heads actually rolled for failing to see their follies.

(Until that decade, wealthy families in Germany who had felt unfairly treated in books about the Nazi-era could still sue in Germany to have their names censored out of books.  I remember looking at many black out pages in such a recently published work.  By the 1990s this was no longer possible.)

In the midst of that transforming 1980 decade, Bernhard Schlink and Walter Popp, published a novel called SELBS JUSTIZ (1987, Self Justice in English).  In that book, during the post-WWII era  or German economic miracle, certain Germans of that generation had continued to find themselves being manipulated by the same national economic and business elites who had supported Hitler’s Germany and who had come back together later to help create the Wirtshafts Wunder of 1950s & 1960s Germany).   In short, even in the 1980s, this was still a core plot in Cold War Germany. In the end, the question for the remaining generation–made up both of small-time perpetrators and victims—was what to do about the continuing legacy: “How do we really move on after Auschwitz and the 3rd Reich?”

Would moving on mean to get revenge for oneself or for others? Does one need to bring the aging criminals to a court of law? or simply do it (through) the newspapers using the court of public opinion? What are the alternatives to dealing with the remnants of the Nazi regime in our midst and memories?

Whereas, in THE READER, in the character of Hanna (the war-criminal who was illiterate and not likely to get a better job than working as a guard at a prison under the Nazi system or state), we feel a bit sorry for the perpetrator once the perpetrator has a loving female face.  In contrast, the main economic criminal (Read former Nazi industrial leader), in SELBS JUSTICE ,who had run a factory of slaves during WWII in Lugwigshafen, Germany and continued to manipulate people unashamedly would not be let off that easily by the author, Schlink.  That former Nazi and  “mover and shaker of modern Germany” finally gets his just deserves—as in any Hollywood film where the good guys win and true frontier justice reigns on the landscape.

Schlink himself has since the publication of both books has noted, “I was often criticized 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 don’t easily talk about people looking beautiful and being awful, looking warm and being cold, looking cultured and being amoral.”

On the other hand, Schlink points out, “But the world is full of this tension. Not seeing its 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.”

Schlink recalls, “I remember the nights that I worked in a factory as a student in the 1960s. My impressions of my fellow workers, who had all fought in the war, were of nice, decent, helpful people. But between 2am and 5am they sometimes talked about the war and in what capacity they had been involved. They didn’t talk in detail, but it was clear that some had been involved in evil things that they could neither forget nor repress. And I remember the professor whose class I attended at law school and through whom I came to understand that studying law is more than studying articles and paragraphs; that it includes history and philosophy and is a rich intellectual universe.”

Finally, Schlink reveals his own coming of age in post-war Germany in he 1960s, “After my exam I started reading the legal literature from the Third Reich that, during my years of study, had been locked away in the so-called poison closet and had become available only as a concession to the rebellious students of 1968. And there they were, his [my old professor’s] writings on the totalitarian state and its necessary homogeneity and exclusion of the other, the Jew, the enemy.”

For me, Schlink has become a bit more confused as the years go by.  He focuses more on the fact that humans become ever more confusing the more that you perceive each from a different perspective.  Moreover, hyper-focusing on some facts over others changes our picture and understanding of the whole context.  Finally, each person as an individual in one generation are not necessarily typical to the generation in which they live.  Yet, in focusing on many details and atypical characters, Schlink discolors the view we have of earlier generations, which he himself could have judged in the courtroom based on the facts as presented at that time. However, when Schlink now writes he does so with a genre of literature and narration whereby everything verges on or merges in grays.

Should my children and grandchildren simply forget the mistakes and crimes of my generation because they perceive the world in grey colors rather then in rose colored glasses?

The protagonist, Selbs ( a word play in German on the word for “self” which is pronounced the same way as “Selbs” is pronounced), was a small time war criminal who decided not to serve in a court of law after he was finally released by those in charge of the entnazification process in Germany in the late 1940s.   Instead of returning to the courtroom as a judge or lawyer, Selbs, for the rest of his life becomes a detective, a man looking for facts and not emotion to mislead him–as he had been misled in becoming a Nazi follower in his youth.

In short, Selbs was one of those who represent the groups of those alienated in the post-WWII economic miracle of Germany.  They could not quite fit in and thus decided to pursue their own road of making peace with the crimes of their Nazi or military past by searching for the truth and sharing it with others.   Some of these men, like Schlink, became authors of renown—both Guenther Grasse and Heinrich Boell come to mind.

Now, Schlink is continuing to follow in their footsteps.

Schlink would likely reply to the critique he has faced from readers like me, “I understand the impulse. Yet I don’t believe in avoiding or suppressing the tension that reality holds for us. Germans were perpetrators and victims, the people in the occupied countries were suppressed and also collaborated, Jews suffered and were also involved. Since the tension is already there, an image free of tension couldn’t be upheld in the long run even if it served a noble cause. What can and should be upheld and strived for is not a reduced but a complete image where the involvement of the Judenrate is not suppressed but explained, where the fact that Germans were victims is not meant to insinuate any excuse, and where collaboration is shown as a companion to each and every occupation – as is, in one form or other, resistance.”

Actually, I just wish that we could see the old “Selbs” (self) more in Schlink’s work these days.  Bring us further into the narration of German post-WWII history.  Explain exactly how one advances from becoming a war criminal and then on to finally becoming transformed into something else—if you can.

Don’t just make a claim like this one, Mr. Schlink (which you made in a recent book of yours on memory), and leave us without a novel to back up your claim and narrative of the events and process of change over time:

For example, in your newest book, you (Schlink) claimed, ”But there are as many insides of evil as there are evil people and there isn’t that much to find out about them. Once an SS officer or soldier has crossed the line from being a fighter to being a murderer every additional murder is just an additional number. And they crossed the line for all kinds of reasons. The psychological predispositions that enabled them to enjoy crossing the line or to want to obey orders or not to care were as manifold as the reasons for doing so. To create the typical evil-doer is as simplistic and misleading as creating any other stereotype.”

Ok, if you don’t have much to say, “Write a short story, OK?”

Is that too much to ask?


Popp, Walter & Schlink, Bernhard, SELBS JUSTIZ, Zuerich, Switzerland: Diogenes Verlag, 1987.

Schlink, Bernhard, DER VORLESER, Zuerich, Switzerland: Diogenes Taschenbuch, 1997.

About eslkevin

I am a peace educator who has taken time to teach and work in countries such as the USA, Germany, Japan, Nicaragua, Mexico, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman over the past 4 decades.
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