Contemporary Berlin is nicely summed up in an impending real estate deal, centred on the iconic Tacheles building in one of the city’s historic Jewish neighbourhoods.
Though its Yiddish name suggests a substantial Jewish lineage, the building was associated with major tenants before World War II, including the General Electric Company, that had little to do with the history that destroyed Berlin’s Jews.
When Berlin was a divided city, the Tacheles building fell into disrepair, but was taken over by a generation of alternative artists for studio, performance and gathering space.
In this way, the shadow of Nazi Berlin — during the war the Third Reich used the building to hold French prisoners — hangs over a structure that is more directly evocative of the kulturkampf that divided Germany in the postwar era: the student and art culture of east Berlin with its leftist ideals versus the mainstream powers based in Bonn, which, for the 1960s generation, represented amnesia and suppression of wartime guilt.
Bernhard Schlink’s recent collection of personal essays, Guilt About the Past, is built around ironic anecdotes of the postwar German predicament.
Born in 1944, Schlink’s biography is evocative of the postwar divide between his parents’ generation and his own over the choices of remembering and forgetting, condemning and forgiving.
A lawyer by training, Schlink is interested in the role of the legal system during the war and after in dealing with the burden of “the past of the Third Reich and the Holocaust.” This terminology is a notable shift in writing about the war in that it defines a difference, though an intimate relationship, between those who experienced the war under the first as opposed to the second more familiarly used term.
Schlink is evocative and sensitive about the rights of the victims, but he is also intensely interested in the experiences of Germans and the shifting relationship between Germans and Jews. He writes at some length about the importance of the passing of generations and the impact this has on our experience today of the past. In an examination of the notion of “collective guilt,” he acknowledges that “the children of perpetrators, inciters and accessories to the crimes and, to a lesser extent, children of parents who, despite being able to, failed to offer any resistance or opposition, often experience feelings of guilt.
“Moreover, they experience the challenge of confronting their parents about their guilt and either coming to terms with it or withdrawing.”
The “past,” in the back half of Schlink’s book, is more directly connected with a late-1960s shift in Germany, which brought about a dynamic student movement, terrorist activities led by the Baader-Meinhof gang, and a new willingness to link contemporary political and moral questions to the years of the Third Reich. This is a strictly German story — that of children against parents and students against professors — and Schlink tells it in an uncommonly even tone.
His most salient argument has to do with his sense that the incomplete break with the crimes of the Third Reich affected the generational and political struggles of the 1970s in ways that the protagonists from those years were not necessarily aware of themselves.
In a long set piece regarding the effort to reject a candidate for a legal professorship based on his youthful leftist activities, Schlink conveys how important such unfinished business remained into the 1990s.
In the final essay in his book, entitled Stories about the Past, he applies these concerns to a discussion of recent fiction and film. He looks at his own fictional success, The Reader, Jonathan Littell’s blockbuster book, The Kindly Ones and such internationally acclaimed films as Life is Beautiful and The Lives of Others. In this discussion he is trenchant and provocative.
He asks whether authors ought to be “allowed to craft fairy tales, satires or comedies about anything at all…Even about the Holocaust?” He recognizes that the urge to “tell a thrilling story can easily tempt one into tolerating someone else’s hurt too easily.” But, he warns too against what he calls “a precious image of events,” one that precludes the atypical or the kind of narrative that challenges accepted ways of understanding the past. Though sections of Guilt About the Past are a touch professorial, freighted with the careful digressions of a detailed legal brief, Schlink’s essays provide a thankfully atypical view of the burden left by the years that included “the Third Reich and the Holocaust.” A specific German view comes clear, a writerly philosophy is offered and the era’s influence on contemporary life comes into focus.
Norman Ravvin is chair of the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies. His books include A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity and Memory and the story collection Sex, Skyscrapers and Standard Yiddish.