Sunday, September 20, 2009

Guilt - German educated Nazi Monsters TALK

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Sunday 20 September 2009

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Guilt About the Past

Bernhard Schlink was born in 1944 near Bielefeld, Germany, to a German father and a Swiss mother. He grew up in Heidelberg and studied law in Heidelberg and Berlin. He is a professor of Constitutional and Administrative Law and the Philosophy of Law at Berlin's Humbolt University and a justice of the Constitutional Law Court in Bonn.

Drawing from his latest book Guilt about the Past, Schlink will examine whether fiction can be used to deal with emotive historical subjects without trivialising the tragic. Are some subjects too sensitive and traumatic that they can only be documented? Or can a fictional retelling create a truer experience for an audience? Citing examples of films and novels including The Reader (which was later adapted for the big screen and garnered no less than five Oscar nominations this year, and won Best Actress for Kate Winslett), Schlink will discuss how the arts can traverse this minefield of tense emotion, and why it should endeavour to do so.

This is an Out of Season Sydney Writers Festival event


Title: Guilt About the Past
Author: Bernhard Schlink
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
ISBN 978 0 702237 14 0

Bernhard Schlink on forgiveness and reconciliation -, 28 August 2009 10:00

Do the descendents of those who commit atrocities inherit their guilt? And how important is it for subsequent generations say "sorry"? These are questions Australians have considered in relation to the Apology to the Stolen Generations, and they also resonate in other countries. Delivering the keynote address at the Melbourne Writers Festival last week, the German author of the novel "The Reader", Bernard Schlink, lectured on the role guilt plays in societies, and how contemporary Germany is still trying to come to terms with the Holocaust.

Bernhard Schlink is a writer and professor of public law and legal philosophy. He has also served as a judge at a German constitutional law court. He currently teaches at Humbolt University in Berlin and Benjamin N Cardozo School of Law in New York. His career as an author started when he published his first crime novel in 1987. "The Reader", his first novel to be published in English, was made into a feature film starring Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet. It won a selection of awards, including an Oscar for Winslet's performance and a nomination for best Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published. He has since published a number of other works of fiction and recently a collection of essays titled "Guilt About The Past", which considers Germany's recent past and the idea of collective and individual guilt, forgiving and forgetting. 32mB 222mB

I have a saved version: big_ideas_SCHLINK-RadioAustralia----bia_20090920.mp3

Bernhard Schlink (born 6 July 1944 in Bielefeld) is a German jurist and writer. He was born in Bethel, Germany, to a German father and a Swiss mother, the youngest of four children. Both his parents were theology students, although his father lost his job as a Professor of Theology due to the Nazis, and had to settle on being a pastor instead. Bernhard Schlink was brought up in Heidelberg from the age of two. He studied law at West Berlin’s Free University, graduating in 1968. [1]

Schlink became a judge at the Constitutional Court of the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia in 1988 and in 1992 a professor for public law and the philosophy of law at Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany. In January 2006 he retired.


Schlink studied law at the University of Heidelberg and at the Free University of Berlin. He has been a law professor at the University of Bonn and Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt am Main before he started in 1992 at Humboldt University of Berlin. His career as a writer began with several detective novels with a main character named Selb—a play on the German word for "self"— (the first, Self's Punishment, co-written with Walter Popp being available in the UK). One of these, Die gordische Schleife, won the Glauser Prize in 1989. In 1995 he published The Reader (Der Vorleser), a novel about a teenager who has an affair with a woman in her thirties who suddenly vanishes but whom he meets again as a law student when visiting a trial about war crimes. The book became a bestseller both in Germany and the United States and was translated into 39 languages. It was the first German book to reach the number one position in the New York Times bestseller list. In 1997 it won the Hans Fallada Prize, an Italian literary award, and the Prix Laure Bataillon for works translated into French. In 1999 it was awarded the "WELT - Literaturpreis" of the newspaper Die Welt. In 2000, Schlink published a collection of short fiction called Flights of Love. A January 2008 literary tour, including an appearance in San Francisco for City Arts & Lectures, was cancelled due to Schlink's recovery from minor surgery.[citation needed]

In 2008 Stephen Daldry directed a film adaptation of The Reader.

Schlink currently divides his time between New York & Berlin.[2]


Literary Works in German

  • 1962 Der Andere
  • 1987 Selbs Justiz (Self's Punishment; with Walter Popp)
  • 1988 Die gordische Schleife (The Gordian Knot), Zurich: Diogenes
  • 1992 Selbs Betrug, Zurich: Diogenes
  • 1995 Der Vorleser (The Reader), Zurich: Diogenes
  • 2000 Liebesfluchten (Flights of Love), Zurich: Diogenes
  • 2001 Selbs Mord, Zurich: Diogenes
  • 2006 Die Heimkehr
  • 2008 Das Wochenende

Other Works in German

  • 1976 Abwägung im Verfassungsrecht, Berlin: Duncker und Humblot
  • 1980 Rechtlicher Wandel durch richterliche Entscheidung: Beitraege zu einer Entscheidungstheorie der richterlichen Innovation, co-edited with Jan Harenburg and Adalbert Podlech, Darmstadt: Toeche-Mittler
  • 1982 Die Amtshilfe: ein Beitrag zu einer Lehre von der Gewaltenteilung in der Verwaltung, Berlin : Duncker & Humblot
  • 1985 Grundrechte, Staatsrecht II, co-authored with Bodo Pieroth, Heidelberg: C.F. Müller
  • 2002 Polizei- und Ordnungsrecht, co-authored with Bodo Pieroth and Michael Kniesel, Munich: Beck
  • 2005 Vergewisserungen: über Politik, Recht, Schreiben und Glauben, Zurich: Diogenes

Titles in English

  • 1997 The Reader, translated by Carol Brown Janeway, New York: Pantheon Books
  • 2001 Flights of Love: Stories, translated by John E. Woods, New York: Pantheon Books
  • 2005 Self’s Punishment, Bernhard Schlink and Walter Popp, translated by Rebecca Morrison, New York: Vintage Books
  • 2007 Self’s Deception, translated by Peter Constantine, New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
  • 2007 Homecoming translated by Michael Henry Heim, New York: Pantheon Books
  • 2009 Self's Murder, Weidenfeld & Nicolson
  • 2009 Guilt about the Past, University of Queensland Press, 9 January 2009[3]

External links

  • Guaranteeing truth, and avoiding it an extract from Schlink's book, Guilt About The Past, in the Sydney Morning Herald SEE BELOW
  • VIDEO Bernhard Schlink delivers the keynote address at the 2009 Melbourne Writers Festival on ABC FORA
The truth … Auschwitz II-Birkenau's "gate of death" - the main guard house and railway that was the last stop for Jews to the death camp.
The truth … Auschwitz II-Birkenau's "gate of death" - the main guard house and railway that was the last stop for Jews to the death camp.

anuary 10, 2009

Should some subjects - such as the Holocaust - be off-limits to writers and filmmakers? The German author Bernhard Schlink looks at the rules for fiction when dealing with the past.

There are people who were not heard or not seen and who want their truth acknowledged, traumatised people who want their trauma respected, people deprived of a dignified life who want their dignity restored. Their expectations come to the fore whenever someone writes about the past they experienced.

Can these wants be dismissed or must they be honoured?

What is truth in fiction? Is it that the facts that fiction presents happened, or at least could have happened? But what if fiction does not claim to present facts? What if the story is clearly a fairytale, a satire, a comedy, which by definition does not limit itself to what happened or could have happened?

Are authors allowed to craft fairytales, satires or comedies about anything? Even about the Holocaust?

Adorno's 1951 statement that to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbarian covers poems about Auschwitz and, to be sure, any Auschwitz comedy or satire. Are there events so serious and awful that they can only be documented, or at best fictionalised so that they present what happened or what could have happened?

I have heard and read affirmation of this position more than once, but I don't think it is meant to be taken literally. A fairytale, satire or comedy can open one's eyes to truth as effectively as a documentary can; and fiction presenting what happened and only what happened can create a veneer of truth that distorts by omitting what also happened.

It seems what lies behind the refusal to fictionalise an event such as the Holocaust, or to reject its representation in certain ways, is the fear that the full truth might disappear not only through the imaginings and fabrications of well- or ill-intentioned authors but also through true but singular and misleading aspects of what happened.

Even if there might have been a funny moment in Auschwitz, even if there might have been a decent concentration camp guard, even if there might have been a fairytale element in someone's rescue from horror, couldn't a novel, a play, a comedy about this make the reader or viewer forget that the full reality was profoundly different?

It's understandable how this fear gives way to the demand that an event like the Holocaust should be documented but not fictionalised or only fictionalised in a way that makes the full truth visible. A good documentary that can make us understand the full truth and fiction is able to do the same; it can represent single moments and episodes in a way that makes us aware of the large picture. Think of Primo Levi's or Imre Kertesz's work. And it can fail. I, at least, could not find the whole picture in Benigni's comedic movie Life Is Beautiful about a Jewish father and his son being deported into a concentration camp where the father manages to present everything to his son as a complicated game.

But to turn that fear into a demand for only certain types of representation reveals too much and too little faith. The demand that artistic representations of the Holocaust be presented so that the whole picture becomes visible shows too little faith in an audience's ability to create the whole picture for themselves. Now that such a multitude of books and articles, plays and films have come out, whether individual works show only certain aspects of what happened matters much less. The whole picture is present anyway. The demand that the Holocaust not be presented in a comedic or otherwise reductive way, on the other hand, shows too much faith in the power of social norms - excluding any other type of norm for the moment. The norm would not succeed and would even be counterproductive.

More than anything else it would trigger the wish to come up with something provoking and scandalising.

Germany has a norm against reductive representation of the Holocaust that is also codified as a legal norm in the penal code that makes Holocaust denial a criminal offence. The law signifies that our society is united in its willingness to accept its past and deal with it. One unintended effect of the norm is that those who set out to deny the Holocaust don't do it bluntly any more. Rather they minimise what happened in a skilled, subtle manner. The vice-president of my university once gave me an internet article that minimised the Holocaust; it had been sent to him anonymously and he had given it to police, who couldn't do anything because the denial was too subtle.

Instead of any blunt Holocaust denial, it asked questions like: the graves of all the great massacres of the last century have been found, why is it that the graves of Jews murdered by Germans found in Eastern Europe don't by far add up to the 4 million victims that are the official number? I read this with my students and, even though they had been taught extensively about the Holocaust, they found it far from easy to counter its arguments. Here the effect of the norm is not a will to provoke, since a provocation would be punishable, but something else similarly undesirable: a distortion of the truth that is not easy to detect and refute. There is always a social price for norms that limit what one is allowed to say.

A common version of the demand on fiction to show the whole truth demands that it be representative.

If a movie shows the sufferings of a Jewish family it should not end with an unusually lenient fate for them. An SS officer in a story about persecution and annihilation should be the typical SS officer, and a book about a German helping a Jew should make it clear that such help was exceptional.

I agree that an atypical character or a non-representative situation may be presented in a way that distorts the truth. Yet there may still be good reasons for liking those stories. Take Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's film The Lives Of Others, set in the waning years of the German Democratic Republic. In it, a Stasi officer assigned to spy on a playwright comes to admire his life and sees the value of freedom. He recognises what he does is evil and helps the playwright whom he is supposed to denounce. The film distorts the truth; the Stasi officer is a fairytale figure.

But the film was widely praised; the fairytale reconciled the divided East and West Germans. Its healing message that there is always some good in the bad was irresistible.

Often enough it is not the presentation of an atypical character that distorts the truth but the creation of an overly typical one. Where the typical character simply doesn't exist, creating a stereotype is a distortion of the truth.

It is what propaganda movies do. In Veit Harlan's 1940 film Jud Sü*½, a Jew who finances and ruins a German state in the 18th century is presented as the quintessential Jew and the Germans, decent and patient until they are finally driven to stand up and fight, as the quintessential Germans.

The danger of creating stereotypes can be even greater than the danger of not paying tribute to what's typical.

In his novel The Kindly Ones, which was praised and criticised as provoking and scandalising, the French-American-Jewish author Jonathan Littell presents an SS officer's career and inner life because, as he has said, he wanted to find out what evil is from the inside. But there are as many insides of evil as there are evil people and there isn't that much to find out about them.

Once an SS officer or soldier has crossed the line from being a fighter to being a murderer every additional murder is just an additional number. And they crossed the line for all kinds of reasons. The psychological predispositions that enabled them to enjoy crossing the line or to want to obey orders or not to care were as manifold as the reasons for doing so. To create the typical evil-doer is as simplistic and misleading as creating any other stereotype.

I was often criticised for depicting Hanna, the woman protagonist of my novel The Reader, a former concentration camp guard who committed monstrous crimes, with a human face. I understand the desire for a world where those who commit monstrous crimes are always monsters. We don't easily talk about people looking beautiful and being awful, looking warm and being cold, looking cultured and being amoral.

But the world is full of this tension. Not seeing its multifaceted nature is simplistic and misleading. Maybe I insist on this point so strongly because my generation experienced again and again that someone whom we loved and respected turned out to have done something horrible during the Third Reich.

I remember the nights that I worked in a factory as a student in the 1960s. My impressions of my fellow workers, who had all fought in the war, were of nice, decent, helpful people. But between 2am and 5am they sometimes talked about the war and in what capacity they had been involved. They didn't talk in detail, but it was clear that some had been involved in evil things that they could neither forget nor repress. And I remember the professor whose class I attended at law school and through whom I came to understand that studying law is more than studying articles and paragraphs; that it includes history and philosophy and is a rich intellectual universe.

After my exam I started reading the legal literature from the Third Reich that, during my years of study, had been locked away in the so-called poison closet and had become available only as a concession to the rebellious students of 1968. And there they were, his writings on the totalitarian state and its necessary homogeneity and exclusion of the other, the Jew, the enemy.

No, sticking with what appears typical is no guarantee for truth: nor is avoiding it. My impression is that the demand for fiction to be representative by presenting typical characters and situations doesn't come out of a concern for the truth but rather for keeping up a precious image of events. It arises from the fear that writing about Germans as victims might damage the image of Germans as perpetrators; that writing about collaboration in the German-occupied countries might relativise German responsibility; that writing about the Judenrate, the Jewish councils required by the SS to govern affairs within the ghettos, might damage the image of Jewish suffering, and so forth.

I understand the impulse. Yet I don't believe in avoiding or suppressing the tension that reality holds for us. Germans were perpetrators and victims, the people in the occupied countries were suppressed and also collaborated, Jews suffered and were also involved. Since the tension is already there, an image free of tension couldn't be upheld in the long run even if it served a noble cause. What can and should be upheld and strived for is not a reduced but a complete image where the involvement of the Judenrate is not suppressed but explained, where the fact that Germans were victims is not meant to insinuate any excuse, and where collaboration is shown as a companion to each and every occupation - as is, in one form or other, resistance.

The atypical is also part of the truth - as long as it is presented as being atypical.

I understand the impulse to defend a precious image of events. It is similar to the impulse to tell and preserve myths and fairytales. They can serve good purposes; The Lives Of Others was, for my still-divided country, the right film at the right moment. Legends can inspire and encourage us, and founding myths can hold nations together.

But they can do so without pretending to be the whole truth? We don't have to fear that they will lose their power in the bright light of truth.

This is an extract from Guilt About The Past, by Bernhard Schlink (University of Queensland Press), available from today. Schlink is also the author of The Reader, Homecoming and Flights of Love
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