Crime and Punishment | The Nation


Crime and Punishment

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Uwe Timm's recent memoir, In My Brother's Shadow: A Life and Death in the SS, provides a much more probing look into Hitler's war on the Eastern front, and also provides a striking example of how closely the new politics of German memory trace the generational fault lines of the late 1960s. Timm, one of Germany's pre-eminent novelists, joined the German Communist Party in the 1960s and participated in the student rebellion. His memoir reveals the deep personal origins of this revolt--the ambivalence toward his nationalist and militarist father, as well as the jealousy toward his older brother, who became a member of the Waffen SS at 18, died from battle wounds suffered on the Russian front and was then idolized by his parents. Born in 1940 in Hamburg (where, at the age of 3, he survived the Allied bombing described by Nossack in The End), Timm has only a few hazy memories of his brother on home leave, but he grew up after the war with his father's constant reminders of the gap between him, the "afterthought," and his heroic fallen brother.

About the Author

Mark M. Anderson
Mark M. Anderson, a professor of German at Columbia University, translated Thomas Bernhard's The Loser under the...

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It was only after the death of both his parents and his older sister that Timm felt free enough to investigate what his brother did during the war, thus exorcising this family specter by assembling a more complete, if still fragmentary, portrait based on family stories, photographs, letters and the spare war diary his brother kept from February to August 1943. Each laconic entry raises disturbing questions for Timm's moral conscience. A casual reference to a "big louse hunt" prompts the worry that his brother was not just delousing his uniform but doing "something very different"--that is, getting rid of the Russians and Jews described by Nazi propaganda as "lice" and "vermin." In another entry the brother describes a Russian soldier smoking cigarettes, just 250 feet away, as "fodder" for his machine gun--a remark that initially forced Timm to lay the diary aside.

Ultimately, it is the very ordinariness and lack of specific information that prove most unsettling. "I close my diary here," his brother writes in the final entry, "because I don't see any point in recording the cruel things that sometimes happen." What are these cruel things? Timm wonders. Do they refer to the victims of Nazi aggression or only to the Germans themselves? Unlike many letters posted from the front, the brother's diary includes no anti-Semitic remarks or stereotypical phrases about the Russian or Jewish civilians. On the other hand, it never questions the SS's systematic murder of the Russian and Jewish civilians who initially welcomed them: "It seems the people in these parts haven't had anything to do with the SS before. They were all glad to see us, waved, brought us fruit etc., so far there's only been Wehrmacht quartered here." This gap in narration points to a human "ordinariness" that is "terrifying": "[My brother's] notes show neither a killer by conviction nor incipient resistance. What they seem to express--and this I find terrifying--is partial blindness: only what is ordinary is recorded."

This is the point where one senses the personal stake in Timm's memoir: the fear (without the certainty) that his own brother committed atrocities, perhaps even the fear that he might not have behaved differently in his brother's shoes. Equally mesmerizing are the pages in which Timm delves into the fascination he still feels for his father, the bogeyman of his youthful rebellion. For before he became the emblem of everything that was wrong with Nazi Germany, his father was a resourceful and successful businessman, an elegant raconteur who could charm his female customers and his drinking buddies (and, of course, his young son). Finally, Timm's Oedipal journey takes us back into the raw memories of earliest childhood, when he was a "mama's boy," raised by his mother and sister while his father was in the army and a POW camp. This father is an uncanny, unwelcome intruder; Timm's first memory of him is of a "strange man in uniform" lying in his mother's bed, a pistol on the bedside table, and the "smell" of his leather holster and tall, shiny boots: "I saw him lying there with his mouth open, snoring. He was on leave. If I sniff my watchband I can once again catch that smell of sweaty leather, and he, my father, is closer to me than in any of my pictorial memories."

These are the tactile memories of childhood, more Kafkaesque than Proustian, that lie beneath the generational conflict that has etched itself so forcefully into postwar German history. It has taken a long time for the "good Germans" of 1968 to recover them, and to acknowledge the depth of their own familial connection to the horrors of the war. The fact that German memory is now focused on the dead of Dresden and Hamburg, and the raped women of Berlin, won't neutralize Holocaust memory. That lesson is too deeply ingrained in the German psyche, and the millions of tourists who now flock to Berlin every year to visit the "Holocaust Mile"--stretching from the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, past Peter Eisenman's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe to Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum--will make sure that it stays there. The real question is whether the victors of World War II will be willing to examine the historical simplifications that have long provided a consensus about the "good war." If the recent resurgence of war memories in the new Berlin Republic has anything to tell us, surely a crucial element is the importance of individual historical experience that resists the either/or logic of victimhood. In a sense, arguing over whose victims can be counted is another way of continuing the war--a war that may truly be over only when we stop feeling the need to deny the Germans their stories of suffering and loss.

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