Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Absence of Manhood and Justice

"Speak, Memory. Only from today's perspective do we see the chains of cause and effect ordering things, enabling us to understand them."
Uwe Timm wrote these words as he pieced together an incident from his childhood. Hamburg burned around him and his family as they searched for shelter from the falling bombs. The young Uwe did not comprehend what went on, and only fragments of the event, like the war itself, remained with him.

The German novelist reflected back on this event in his life as part of the process of recovering his brother, Karl-Heinz, in the memoire, In My Brother's Shadow: A Life and Death in the SS. Karl-Heinz was a vague figure in Timm's life, remembered only through a few brief encounters. His absence profoundly affected Timm's family life: memories of the brave son who fought and died in Russia.

Karl-Heinz is a vague, shadowy figure. Timm's knows him best from the diary and letters he left. The writing is frustratingly ordinary and terse. He seldom wrote about the war in any detail, just giving short, matter of fact entries on the tasks his unit performed. He gives no opinions about the war or its horror, or about the people whom they uprooted and displaced. There is little sense of war or atrocity in his writing. There is no mass murder, only routine.

This is in stark contrast to his reaction to the aerial bombings of German cities. Responding to a letter sent by his father, Karl-Heinz wrote,
"If only they'd stop that filthy business. It's not war, it's the murder of women and children--it's inhumane."
He could not recognize the innocence of the people whom he killed, only of German citizens. When he wrote,
"I close my diary here, because I don't see any point in recording the cruel things that sometimes happen,"
Timm is left wondering what Karl-Heinz could have seen that was so horrific, and why he had not written about it.

The best documents of his brother's absence are not his writings, but their parents. "The good son" was the model of courageous masculinity that their father admired. Timm suspects that their father used Karl-Heinz to make up for his own disappointments. He had been a member of the Freikorps that fought against Bolsheviks in Russia in the 1920s, and perhaps exaggerated the importance of masculinity. Karl-Heinz was everything the father admired: the picture of manliness. He refused to confront Karl-Heinz's guilt--his membership in the SS and its implications.

The Bonn Republic was the antithesis of that manliness. From the disorder of defeat came that seemed effeminate, given to introspection. His relationship with his daughter non-existent, their father treated Timm as the product of the feminized new world, the one who was sheltered by their mother from the falling bombs rather than confronting them.

Their mother became what the father detested. She distrusts everything that stinks of politics and militarism. She is overcome with regret and guilt, questioning herself about her silence: if she had spoken out, might Karl-Heinz have been spared? She was the epitome of the Bonn Republic, hating and suspecting that which came before it. The Nazis were criminals, but her son was their victim, not accomplice. Embracing the new Germany and condemning the past, she refused to look directly at Karl-Heinz's legacy.

"They slipped into the victim's role under false pretenses,"
Timm judges of Germans in the post- war era. Criminalizing Hitler, they dissociated themselves from the crime. Two parents--one who sees what he values shat upon, the other grieved by her loss--constructed an absence for their son, the SS officer. However, it was more than a refusal to confront the truth about Karl- Heinz. Each pulled at that negative space: the place where either manhood or justice ought to have been. Such was the state of memory in post-war Germany: the men confronted nothing, the women remembered their loss.

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