This is the first book which I’ve read by Bernhard Schlink and I don’t know if ‘enjoy’ is the word which I would use to describe my reaction to it, but as Judith, Reader in the Wilderness said, it gave me plenty to think about too. I warn you, maybe you should make yourself a cup of tea or coffee first and IF you reach the end of this meander – you might just need a drop of the hard stuff in it.
To begin with I was quite disappointed that the storyline follows that of The Odyssey because it seems quite a hackneyed one, in English anyway. There has even been a film starring George Clooney called O Brother Where Art Thou which borrows from it. That’s a personal moan though.
Peter Debauer has grown up in post war Germany with very little information from his mother about who his father was but she does send him to Switzerland to live with his paternal grandparents during the school holidays. Whilst reading one of the books which they publish he realises that the end of the story is missing and as an adult he’s still looking for the ending, it’s his quest.
In fact it’s a bit of an obsession and through it he does actually meet up with the man whom he believes is his father. He’s a man who has spent his life bending like a willow in the wind, a determined survivor who had written for both the Nazis and Communists.
I’m presuming that this book was written to try to explain how things like the Third Reich can come into being, because there is an experiment towards the end of the book which isolates people and puts them in a position where they are bullied and do things which they would not normally do.
These experiments are conducted fairly regularly in universities but they’ve always struck me as being unreal situations which have generally used young people (students) as the guinea pigs. The trouble is – I just don’t accept that everybody behaves like that. Some people might, a lot of people might, and after all the McCarthy era in the USA was a similar situation where peoeple were bullied and intimidated into denouncing friends and colleagues. For me this smacks too much of being a ‘don’t blame us – you would have done the same thing too’ situation, regarding the Nazis. I can assure you we wouldn’t, in fact we didn’t.
By coincidence I’ve been reading some travel books recently, which involved journeys by people who happened to be in Germany around 1930. One is Patrick Leigh Fermor‘s A Time of Gifts a well known book, amongst other things he writes about how people in Austria thought Hitler was something to laugh at, he just wasn’t taken seriously. The other book is Modern Germanies as seen by an Englishwoman Cicely Hamilton, published in 1931. Chapter 13 is titled Jew-Baiting. This is the opening paragraph:
The traveller for pleasure in Central Europe who confines himself to the taking of tickets, the paying of hotel bills and the sights and excursions advised by Herr Baedeker may meander through his holiday and return to his home without suspicion of a Jewish problem. But let him once get out away from his tourist beat into private houses and private lives; let him make personal acquaintance even of the slightest; and the chances are that it will not be long before it is made plain to him that here is a Jewish problem and that Anti-Semitism, in Central Europe, is a force both widespread and dangerous.
The whole problem was that Jews were despised in Germany in a way which they hadn’t been in Britain for centuries. Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was written between 1596 and 1598 and it is about Jews being the same as Christians, in Scotland we would say: We’re all Jock Thampson’s bairns.
In 1930s Britain, the British Fascists led by Oswald Mosley, with close links to Hitler went around marching and trying to stir up trouble, especially in the East End of London where there was a large Jewish population. The upshot was that the barricades went up and they couldn’t march, there were running fights in the streets but in the end Oswald Mosley the fascist leader spent World War II in prison at His Majesty’s Pleasure, as did his wife. If you want to know a wee bit about the anti-fascists in London’s East End have a look here.
Anyway, back to the book. It’s about missing information, people not having the knowledge which they should have, things being hidden, and that is something which has always worried me about Germany. I have to tell you that I’ve had a German pen-pal since I was about 10 years old and I was 12 when I went to Bavaria for the first time. I went on my own (!!!) but I was well warned by my parents not to mention the war, just think John Cleese in Fawlty Towers – as if I would! So it was something of a shock to me to see the Nazi war medals and various other things proudly displayed in the living-room. My parents were the generation who went off to war, as did all of their siblings, and my husband’s relatives too, and for that matter the parents of everyone I was at school with and not once in any house did I ever see anything war related in the way of medals. In fact we didn’t find my father-in-law’s medals until after he died, they were in a cardboard box, they’re still in it but we have it now. My own father was in the Merchant Navy during the war (North Atlantic convoys, regularly being torpedoed) and at the end of it all they had to apply to get their medals and he didn’t bother doing it! In fact he hardly mentioned the war until he was on his death-bed, in common with most men who had a particularly bad time during the war. So, I thought the swastikas were weird, but thought no more about it.
Over the years though I’ve been gobsmacked by the occasional barbs at the hands of the wartime German generation, who were obviously more than miffed that they didn’t win it. Like when we happened to be walking past a Bavarian village church – Your RAF bombed our church – it apparently had suffered a tiny bit of damage from a stray bomb. Did I say – Your Luftwaffe killed my great-grandmother? No of course not, I’m too polite – don’t ever mention the war! I sometimes really wish I wasn’t so well-mannered. Then there was: why is your country the only one which calls itself ‘great’- what’s so great about Britain? I had to explain that it doesn’t mean great in that sense. If you only say Britain then it means the main island whereas Great Britain includes all the many inhabited islands which form the country too, from the Channel Islands halfway to France to the Shetlands halfway to Norway. Great means larger, not better than.
Coupled with that is the Germans that I’m related to by marriage, who bring out an enormous life-time sized photograph album, but you aren’t allowed to look at most of it, the photos that we can see are all post-war. Oh how I want to see the Third Reich photographs.
So I’m more than a bit perplexed by Bernhard Schlink’s idea of the war as a burden for Germans, it isn’t to the war generation Germans that I know and what is most worrying to me is that the younger generation, certainly the ones who are about my age (53) are fairly clueless about the whole thing. This is where the gaping whole is in modern German life and it always worried me – even as a child, that if people aren’t told about past mistakes, they can’t learn from them. History is more likely to be repeated and I couldn’t help looking at all those very strange looking guys who used to wander around in gangs in Stuttgart, dressed in leather, with large chains hanging all over them. This was pre-punk and they were in their 30s in the 1970s, maybe it’s still like that but it looked more than evil that the children of the Nazi generation were still dressing like – well Nazis.
Judges in the UK are well known for being rather outside normal society and clueless as to how the rest of us live, so I’m wondering if it’s the same in Germany. Bernhard Schlink was a judge in Germany and according to his interview in the Guardian he knows Germans who try to hide their nationality, perhaps it’s something only done by academics such as himself. The less cerebral ones don’t care. I see no reason why any German who wasn’t involved with the war as an adult should feel any burden for their parent’s mistakes. I’ve never met a German who tried to hide their nationality but I do know a chap from Texas who lives in Scotland and tells people that he is Canadian! Each to their own but I can’t imagine any situation in which I would not say I was a Scot, and woe betide anyone who calls me English – nothing against the English.
I’m glad to say that although my pen-pal of more than 40 years was brought up by strange parents who were obviously less than happy about the outcome of World War 2, she has none of their outlook. For obvious reasons Hitler doesn’t/didn’t feature on German TV, he’s never off some channels here and I think that Germans have to go out of their way to find out about that episode of their past. I used to collect ‘peace’ mugs/cups – which were sold in the UK to celebrate the end of the Great War but I also have one very small German cup which I hoped was from the first war but wasn’t sure. Yes, it’s the 14-18 war my friend said because it is so strongly patriotic!! Honestly, you have to laugh because they weren’t exactly less patriotic in the second war. It does make you wonder though, especially when she says that her father had a terrible time at the hands of the French as a prisoner of war. Not for long surely.
She’s gone a bit off her trolley I hear you say – but, neo-fascists have been rearing their ugly heads in Europe for quite some time now, and you can’t afford to ignore them! Austerity such as we are experiencing now is likely to be used by extremists to whip up support for despicable political parties. Today there were strikes and demonstrations in 25 European countries, that’s all very understandable, we just don’t want any modern day Mussolinis, Francos, Greek colonels or Hitlers taking advantage of the situation.
Well, did you get here? Yes, well then – whisky, vodka, beer or I have some lovely pear cider? Oh all right then, lets have a bit of poor Basil who has concussion and can’t stop mentioning the war.