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Bernhard Schlink interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel.

Bernhard Schlink's novel The Reader begins as a coming-of-age story, an education sentimentale.


BERNHARD SCHLINK: Being read to makes literature even more of a gift. A German radio station asked me to read my whole book for broadcast, and I enjoyed that very much. In German, we have a specific word for a person who is reading aloud, and that is the original title of my book, Der Vorleser. And after that, they had me read another book -- Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome. In reading another author's work, I found that what I was reading aloud became mine in a way that it would never have been if I had just read it by myself, silently. So reading to someone else is a way of making a piece of literature one's own.

Perhaps I should start with what I don't believe about reading and literature. Reading, education, culture -- they do not make us better people or make us moral people. Obviously that is wrong. We have seen plenty of examples; and as a German, I naturally think of the Third Reich, where very cultured, educated people were completely immoral. I do think that individual morality needs points of reference, needs institutions it can relate to -- like the family, the church; and for some people, these institutions have been the Communist Party, the nobility, or some other institution. I think individual morality left completely alone is overwhelmed by an immoral environment, and so I do believe that literature can serve as this kind of moral institution. In the legal profession, you come across convicts in prison who start recalling the music they once played or the poems they had to learn by heart. Part of this, of course, is just dealing with the boredom of prison, but I think that it often becomes a search for an institution of morality. They can find a refuge in such an institution and feel reassured by it; they can start to find again a sort of moral compass. And in that sense I would say literature has to do with morality.

In Hanna's case her illiteracy is a kind of metaphor for her moral illiteracy. You might say she really doesn't know the moral alphabet. Now, of course, that's not always the case; you can't say that illiterate people are less moral than literate people. But for Hanna, it can be understood as a metaphor related to what we know about her and her story and about what she has done.

Yes, especially in a case like this we see how literature is an opportunity to become more sensitive, to become aware of other perspectives, to understand what others are feeling -- or what they've experienced. But again, it's only a chance at understanding.

And what I feel strongly about is the connection between individual morality and these moral institutions. But when I say "moral" I mean something that acts as a moral reference, something we refer to when we have a moral dilemma. The nobility, the Communist Party, the church -- all of these have played this kind of role for millions of individuals. The institution may play a truly moral role, but it doesn't have to.

To me there was never any question that Hanna would be excused because she was illiterate. I think you have to remember that all such perpetrators have their individual stories, and sometimes these stories help us understand more about their psyche and why they did what they did. But that does not mean that such a personal history amounts to an excuse.

Yes, I think most often people in these situations are drawn into things that become more and more horrible, and that too is not an excuse. Have you every read the memoirs of Rudolf Hoess, the commandant at Auschwitz? He was taken prisoner by the Allies and put on trial by the Poles, and in prison they ordered him to write his memoirs. He writes about the complex task of running this extermination factory, and the problems of overcrowding and epidemics, and the difficulties involved in killing and cremating so many people. It reads like the mundane notes of any administrator running a large-scale factory. He managed completely to block out the moral or human dimension of what he was doing. And it is the absence of any understanding of the monstrosity of the act that is so horrifying. In the case of Hanna, she was always preoccupied that her illiteracy not be revealed; she was so obsessed by it that what she was helping to do to these other people just didn't filter into her brain, her soul, her heart.

It's a story of my generation and the experience of being under the guidance of these dedicated teachers, professors, and other authority figures -- learning from them, being impressed by them, and then finding out what they had done. This certainly has been the overwhelming experience of my generation -- feeling this dilemma of loving and respecting them, being grateful to them as our teachers and mentors, and at the same time feeling the urge to expel them from our reference system, push them out of our community solidarity.

I was born in northern Germany, where my father was a professor of theology. He lost his chair during the Third Reich, so he became a pastor with the Confessing Christians. The Nazis had established the German Christian Church, and the alternative was the Confessing Church, which attracted the anti-Nazis, or at least those who didn't believe the fuhrer was more important than Jesus Christ. After the war my father regained his professorship and taught at Heidelberg, and that is where I mainly grew up.

Not early on. This is also an experience of my generation, that even though immediately after the war one talked a lot about it, during the '50s one was concerned with rebuilding Germany. So for many of us, the Auschwitz trials of the late 1950s through the mid-1960s really were the formative experience where we first were fully confronted by what had happened.

Yes, this was the major trial that took place in Frankfurt, where Auschwitz camp guards had to account for their part in the Holocaust.

Yes, it all started in the late '50s with a trial surrounding a former officer who had fought so vigorously for his right to a pension that finally his war record came to light. And at this time, the public mood was such that the authorities were not really looking for such people, but this man insisted on his entitlement to a pension with such determination that finally he was put on trial, and that triggered a whole series of prosecutions and trials. The most important was the Auschwitz trial in '65, although there were a number of other trials related to the staff at the concentration camps. There were special prosecutors, special agencies to look into the old files, and this carried on into the '70s. But after that, most of them were considered too old to be tried. There have been these two strains in postwar German society and German politics -- the urge to prosecute, to purge, and the urge to forget. The '50s were rather quiet, and then these legal processes took hold in the '60s. Perhaps there's such a psychological drain immediately after a traumatic historical event, one that turns everything upside down, that people are simply too fired to deal with it. Maybe they are so busy rebuilding their lives that they just don't care about prosecuting the criminals. I was here in East Berlin right after the wall came down, and I think I was seeing the same sort of thing.

Not at all. Only those from the West are interested in dealing with it.

Yes, I think a post-trauma syndrome is evident here. If you go to the other eastern European countries, where you don't have the infusion of Westerners that we have in Germany, it becomes even more clear that people are just not interested. It seems to take maybe ten or fifteen years before a society is ready to deal with this sort of past.

One thing that happened was that my peers and I started reading what our professors had written during the Third Reich. We took a very moral, judgemental approach -- we judged our parents, our teachers, our professors, our politics in this very moral light. And then came the backlash, with vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and swastikas painted on the headstones. So we took that very seriously, and suddenly we became sharply aware of that past.

I think we were self-righteous in a very problematic way. We were entangled in this societal guilt too, because we couldn't and didn't really expel the previous generation. We kept them inside, of course, within the solidarity of our society.

My father was not a Nazi, and of course had suffered professionally because he would not join the sanctioned Nazi church. But it was in the 1960s that I started to look at the sermons he had written after '45, and I was shocked that the words were so reconciliatory. And I was so furious about this reconciliatory tone. It was only much later, when the wall came down, that I started to understand something of this post-trauma syndrome we've discussed. And when I read about people in my own field of study, public law and constitutional law, I was surprised to find that those who returned after the war, those who had been pushed out during the Third Reich, were also very reconciliatory. They seemed to have no word of blame for their old colleagues who had discriminated against them. They just were happy to go back to business as usual. So that was also something I couldn't understand. I thought it was awful, and only now do I think that this is a reflection of that post-traumatic syndrome that makes people yearn for normalcy so strongly that they are willing simply to forgive. But I did not understand that at the time.

I think we have to live with that tension. And I think to resolve it to the point of not loving them anymore is as untrue as resolving it to the point of saying that we love and understand them and that what they did wasn't all that bad. One resolution is as false as the other, so I think one has to live with that tension.

After I'd finished the book, I finally went to Auschwitz myself, and going there today is a confusing experience. When you go now, you see a typical Austro-Hungarian barracks, nice two-storey brick houses with lawns and trees in between. You don't really see much that looks like the pictures from 1945. It's only by using what you see as a trigger for remembering that makes it an experience -- what you have heard, what you have read, what you have seen in the photographs and films. You start thinking about how many people were crammed into these houses. You remember from the old photographs how the muddy paths between the houses looked when there were thousands of people here, where there was a ramp, and what took place on that spot. It's all in your head, and it works because the memories from what you have read or from the pictures you have seen are actual Auschwitz memories -- but that's not easy. I recall visiting another camp when I was younger, and trying to put together the images in my head with what I was seeing. And, like Michael, I had that feeling of failure. I wrestled with this -- how was I supposed to feel, how I myself thought I should feel. No, I still don't have a solution for that.

You can understand in terms of knowing the mechanics of how and why a crime has been committed. Every judge has to do that. He must understand in order to be able to condemn. But it's much more difficult when we are looking at the history of beloved parents, teachers, admired professors, and pastors. Some simply deny it; they do not try to understand and just pretend it didn't happen. Or they say: It wasn't so bad. What could they have done? Nobody could have done any better. It would be easier if we could just demonize this whole generation, make them into monsters with whom we have nothing in common. That's what makes it so difficult, because we know they are not simply monsters. So in terms of both understanding and condemning, we have to live with that tension.

I think the question is, are we allowed to do something good even though the person doesn't want it? Does our responsibility for others include feeling that we know what they need better than they themselves? Are we entitled to pursue justice in and of itself?

Well, he advised Michael to talk to her, rather than taking the decision away from her. And I've been amazed how strong are the responses of readers to that point, one way or the other. There are many who strongly advocate that he cannot be a friend or a humane being if he doesn't go to her aid, while others feel just as strongly that he has no right to do this.

I think Michael's father is right. I think it's a form of betrayal to take the matter out of the person's hands.

I think that once she has started reading and started thinking about her own role and what she did, she starts theorizing, and she starts building excuses. And I think that's a of way of accepting and, at the same time, denying responsibility for what she has done. So she understands better than she used to that she is responsible, and that she has done something awful, but at the same time she denies responsibility to the living.

My field isn't criminal law, and I'm not a judge in criminal law. Perhaps simplification or oversimplification is what society needs in dealing with issues like these. I won't deny that. But I think the complexity of what lives are, how people are, how actions develop -- all this can never be captured in a trial. So I think, yes, there is an oversimplification when we try to deal with issues like this, and that is why I never wanted to become a criminal judge.

The Reader

Absolutely. I think for the third generation the picture is completely different because entanglement in this guilt is something very concrete and specific, and it happens by loving, admiring, and being connected to real people that one knows. When those people are no longer around, the issue of personal guilt will not be there. Already, with the third generation and their relationship to their grandparents, the connection is becoming much more fuzzy and thin. By the time we get to the fourth generation, I don't think there will be the same problem of guilt. There will still be a problem of tact and of sensitivity, but not a problem of guilt.

The moral accounting will not be the same either. After all, it has been very vivid for my generation.
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Author:Wachtel, Eleanor
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 1999
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