Tag Archives: German literature

Uwe Timm’s reflections on his older brother who was in the SS

The 2005 German best-seller Am Beispiels meines Bruders, available in English In My Brother’s Shadow: A Life and Death in the SS by novelist Uwe Timm (Midsummer Night, The Invention of Curried Sausage) is not a memoir of his brother, Karl Heinz. Uwe was only two years old in 1942 when his brother volunteered for the SS Totenkopf (Death’s Heads) Division, and three when Karl Heinz was fatally wounded on the eastern front, in what is now the Ukraine. Or, more exactly, Uwe’s only memory of Karl Heinz (hiding in a closet, his blond hair visible over the top) is related on the very first page. The book is not really a memoir of those who remembered more of Karl Heinz either, though the lives and characters of their parents are discussed in some detail in the book. It only after they (and an alder sister) were dead that Uwe set out to try to understand something of the older brother who had passed into family legend as the model “good boy” six decades earlier—though he was very rarely talked about.


Uwe refers to himself as an “afterthought, born in 1940, sixteen years after Karl Heinz, and growing up in the postwar prosperity of West Germany. Karl Heinz was the father’s boy (the father was a Luftwaffe officer, whose wartime activities interest Uwe less than those of Karl Heinz), Uwe a “mama’s boy,” “spoiled” as a 1943 letter from father to favorite son recorded.

Contrary to SS regulations, Karl Heinz kept a diary. (One of the reasons this was forbidden was so that no one securing it could follow the corps movements, which is one use to which Uwe put the document decades later.) Surprisingly, the forbidden document was returned to the family with other personal effects after Karl Heinz died, a few weeks after having had both of his legs amputated. The diary entries were laconic, rushed, sometimes obviously written while bouncing along on military transport.

Karl Heinz was outraged to learn of the bombing of civilians in his birthplace, Hamburg (from which Uwe, his sister, and his mother had been evacuated earlier): “It’s not war, it’s the murder of women and children—it’s inhumane.” This from a member of the SS (a combat unit rather than concentration camp administrators, but still the SS). Karl Heinz did not draw any parallel to the wholesale slaughter of civilians on the Eastern Front (or the London bombings by his father’s branch of the military). This is an analogy not lost on Uwe, who quotes an October 1941 order issued by Field Marshal von Reichenau: “The soldier in the east is not just fighting by the rules of war, he also represents implacable national determination, he is avenging the bestialities inflicted on the German people…”

Uwe notes that “the diary says nothing about prisoners. Nowhere does he write about taking prisoners” and is haunted by the casual mention “75 m away Ivan smoking cigarettes, fodder for my MG.” Even more so, Uwe is haunted by the 6 August 1943 entry (before Karl Heinz’s fatal injury), “I close my diary here, because I don’t see any point in recording the cruel things that sometimes happen,” Uwe believes that Karl Heinz was involved in atrocities that Karl Heinz knew were wrong. Uwe sought the war logbook of the Death’s Head Division for 1943 from official archives. The contents of the file for that month were missing.


From later in his childhood Uwe recalls men of his father’s generation getting together to discuss how the war might have been won (but for Hitler’s bad decisions, etc.), which sickened Uwe.

My parents’ set phrase for what had happened to them was ‘a blow dealt by fate,’ a fate beyond the reach of personal influence. ‘Our boy and our home both lost’: it was the kind of remark that saved you having to think about the reasons. You [They] felt that with that suffering you had done your but for the general atonement. Everything was ‘dreadful’ for the very reason that you had been a ‘victim’ yourself, the victim of a collective and inexplicable fate—

not acquiescence and more with the crimes against humanity of the German Reich. And “my father hated American music, movies, jazz, Americanism. Our fathers had lost the power of command in public life” without taking any responsibility for their part in Nazi imperialism and genocide.

Standing up to tyranny, Timm writes, is

not the kind of courage expected in Germany, where courages always had to be shown in a group, with others, and its prerequisite was obedience. Obedience was among those Prussian virtues that included the courage to inflict violence, violence against others and against yourself… the courage to kill and be killed. But the courage to say no did not count, the courage to oppose, to refuse.


Timm acknowledges not knowing if he would have had the kind of courage he admires if he had reached military service age before the “thousand-year reich” ended, twelve years after Hitler became chancellor. And he is not certain that Karl Heinz did more than shoot lounging Soviet troops. The book is, thus, inconclusive, crucial data on what Karl Heinz and his battalion did and thought unavailable.


Living in a country eager to give up freedom for the chimera of “security,” to label dissent from the purported wisdom of its leaders as “unpatriotic,” administering concentration camps, and dehumanizing an “other,” I am interested in how Germans handled guilt for what they engaged in or acquiesced in. Unsatisfied as Uwe Timm and others are with German acknowledgment of German crimes against humanity, it seems to me that there has been more acknowledgment and attempt to atone from Germans than from the Japanese (whose invasions and atrocities were numerous, though not including attempted genocide or fire-bombing civilian populations) or the Russians (former Soviets, whose invasions and atrocities were also numerous, and whose concentration camp death toll is higher than Hitler’s), or the Chinese communists (still ruled by the authoritarian party put in place by Mao Zedong, responsible for more deaths than any individual in human history. And whatever justification there might have been for Hiroshima, there was none for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagaski, whatever the justification there might have been for fire-bombing of cities in Japan and Germany, there is none for the final massive sorties squeezed in before the surrender documents could be signed… More than half a century ago, David Reisman wrote about Americans being increasingly “other-directed” in contrast to the “inner-directed” character structure that rejected authority (or at least did not worship power). Like Uwe Timm, I sympathize with those deployed for actions based on big lies (in the Goebbels sense, like the imminent danger Saddam Hussein posed to the streets of America or that udocumented aliens are killers and rpaists) and behaving humanely in occupied lands. I have also been reading and watching movies about Nazi-occupied Europe and the resistances that the occupiers labeled and treated as “terrorism” but which was celebrated in Hollywood movies and in streams of self-congratulatory postwar books. The victors write the histories, and I am thankful that the Japanese and Nazi empires crumbled, even as, like Uwe Timm, I try to understand what it was like to be on the wrong side.


©2005, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

A whydunit from Freidrich Dürrenmatt

I have no doubt that Frierdrich Dürrenmatt (1921-90) is the greatest Swiss writer in German ever (and the greatest Swiss writer in any language since Rousseau). Alas, The Execution of Justice (begun in 1957, when it is set, first published in German in Zurich, where it is set, in 1985 as Justiz) is not a great book—or even a good book. Fans of mystery novels (which Dürrenmatt was not*) will quickly abandon it, and most other readers will find it padded with place descriptions and backstories of minor (and not very interesting) characters. Sentences go on and on** and paragraphs run for pages without a break (I think that the longest is 19 pages).


The book is an account of an attorney, Spat, who believes in justice, but takes on a job against his principles to concoct an alternative to the straightforward murder conviction of Isaak Kohler, a business magnate who went into a crowded restaurant and shot a professor who dined at the same table every night. Two things were missing in the original case: a motive and the murder weapon. Kohler was unperturbed through the trial and seems quite content in prison, making baskets, learning Esperanto and about beekeeping.

Spat employs the lawyer who has few clients, telling him that he is not “supposed to investigate reality . . . but rather one of the possibilities behind the reality.” Spat eventually (and wrongly) concludes that Kphler’s “motive was too abstract for our system of justice,” though a desire to play God (which he correctly imputes) is not all that abstract. Spat is determined to execute justice, though he becomes aware that “executing justice is something different from having to live in the expectation of executing it.”

More or less everything is revealed in an epilogue to “Spat’s manuscript,” for anyone still interested. The author who has long had but not read the manuscript, judges that “the [dilettante] author, a lawyer, was no match for his material.” Along the way are many digs at Swiss society/character. And what the sociologist (Knulpe) Kohler also retained to study the consequences of a murder concluded is not revealed (which may disturb only other sociologists, with so much else to disturb readers, not least a statement by someone who has been there that “a person was only truly free when being raped.”

*An unbylined afterword reports that “Dürrenmatt thought detective novels should reflect the absurdity of real life rather than proceeding like mathematical equations with a definite solution. Of the traditional crime writers, he once said, “You set up your stories logically, like a chess game: all the detective needs to know is [sic.] the rules, he replays the moves of the game, and checkmate, the criminal is caught and justice has triumphed. This fantasy drives me crazy” and is not one he embraced, even if film producers insisted on a neat conclusion for The Pledge. Contrary to the back cover blurb, Execution of Justice is not as terse as a Maigret mystery. Simenon’s Maigret novels surely embody what Dürrenmatt disliked in the genre with which he toyed (generally to more interesting results than here).

** An example from a page selected at random (184): “I sensed that night as I became aware of what could have become of me, of a possibility beyond my grasp, which lay within me but which I had not actualized [yuck!] and because I was happy then, for one whole night long, I was convinced that I would become what I did not become.” And on the same page: “I did not tell her that her father had been forced to murder (even if that infernal dwarf may have wanted it), that he was simply taking pleasure in playing God on this wretched planet of ours, and that I had sold myself twice over, once to him and once to a star lawyer who took his pleasure in letting the game of justice be played out, like a master who magnanimously takes over in a chess game that a novice has begun.”

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

Some other reviews of better Dürenmatt works:

Romulus, the Great

The Pledge

The Judge and the Hangman

The Quarry


The Judge and His Hangman

Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990) is most famous in the English-speaking world for his play “The Visit” (which was messed up and supplied a happy ending in a 1964 movie version with Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn), and two other very dark comedies, “Romulus the Great” and “The Physicists.” In the German-speaking world, Dürrenmatt is better known for his “anti-detective” novels, the third of which, was recently adapted brilliantly in English (already having been filmed in German) as “The Pledge,” one of the few movies based on the work of a major writer that I think was improved in adapting.

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The first of his detective novels, Der Richter und sein Henker, originally published in 1950 (and translated into English in 1954 as The Judge and His Hangman), was filmed in 1975  as “The End of the Game” (from a screenplay credited to Dürrenmatt and Maxmilian Schell; actor Schell directed director Martin Ritt as the main character in it, Jon Voight as his assistant, Robert Shaw as the arch-villain, and Jacqueline Bissett as the romantic interest for most everyone, including Donald Sutherland whose character is already dead at the movie’s start). The movie is intriguing but more than a little murky, even though Dürrenmatt himself plays a part in the film in whom the two detectives consult.


The novel(la) begins with a rural constable finding a policemam from Bern, Switzerland’s capital, shot in a car with its engine still running. The passenger door is unlocked and the constable pushes the corpse over, put a hat on him, and drives the dead policeman’s car to Bern police headquarters. The dead policeman, whose name is Schmied was a promising younger detective and the partner of an ailing senior detective named Barlach (whose insistence in working his own way to the irritation of his nominal boss is reminiscent of Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, as is his concern with justice more than with law). Barlach goes to the dead man’s flat and takes away a folder with notes on an investigation about which Barlach’s superior know nothing. In investigating Gastmann, a long-time nemesis of Barlach, a very rich and well-connected industrialist who has returned to where he grew up, Schmied had been attending weekly parties Gastmann threw. The parties brought together artists (including the novelist whom Dürrenmatt plays in the movie), high-ranking members of the party in power in Switzerland, and trade staff from an embassy. (The political/economic connections are MIA from the movie.)


Barlach is an interesting character, whose insides are literally eating him up. Before surgery and its risks, he wants to finish the job of bringing down Gastmann. The complexity of his plan is only apparent at the end, and I certainly do not want to spoil its ingenuity.

In general, Dürrenmatt’s detective novels “show that the ordinary detective story’s belief in rationality is itself irrational” and in much of his writing for the stage, too “reality is unfathomable and defies calculation.” Planning in Dürrenmatt generally runs aground on unexpected coincidences (for instance, the well-planned trap in “The Pledge” or the asylum sought in “The Physicists”). Elsewhere, he wrote, “The more human beings proceed according to plan, the more effectively they may be hit be coincidence,” and took Oedipus as the archetype of being struck by what he (and his parents) were trying to avoid. Barlach is an exception. He has been foiled for decades, but has become flexible in adapting what happens.

The book is splendid and very lucid a detective story, with a long-ago crime that was nihilistic in the Leopold/Loeb/acte gratuite sense. It also includes a high level of reflexivity, with a novelist who is fascinated by someone who might do anything and how the philosophical matters (as well as a discussion of goumet meals between the novelist and Barlach) are entirely lost on the ambitious new assistant with whom Barlach must work (and whose name is German for “chance”). The novelist says he is a kind of policeman, too, though without any state power. “It’s my job as much as it is yours to keep a sharp eye on people.” Barlach understands what he means and already knows that Gastmann is capable of murder, whether or not he killed the policeman.


©2018. Stephen O. Murray


Spying on Bertolt Brecht in East Germany

Jaques-Pierre Amette’s 2003 novel La maîtresse de Brecht became the hundredth book to win the Prix Goncourt. It was translated into British English in 2005 not as Brecht’s Mistress, but as Brecht’s Lover. The young and beautiful actress Maria Eich at no point in her assignment by the KGB (The German Democratic Republic’s Ministry of State Security [Stasi] was only officially formed in 1950, though continuing to co-ordinate with the KGB until 1990) to spy on Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), who has come to communist East Berlin after 15 years pereginations to Scandinavia and Hollywood is in love with Brecht, nor he with her. He uses her sexually and, for a time, promotes her career in the theater company, the Berliner Ensemble that he heads with his wife (used to his philandering with younger actresses) Helene Weigel. Maria’s KGB/Stasi handler, Hans Trow, is grateful for her zeal at copying every scrap of paper Brecht writes, including those he throws away. That Hans is in love with Maria is more plausible to me than that she is in love with him, but he is determined not to have sex with one of his agents, especially one whose assignment centers on keeping the sexual attraction of the most prominent cultural star of the East German state’s otherwise fairly dim firmament.

The novel opens with Brecht’s return to German soil in October of 1948. The “lovers” have little in common, including one-way (old to young) sexual attraction. “For Maria EIch, Germany was a new country, a series of green hills lined by birch forests, ruined motorways, clouds; for Brecht, it was a country to be rebuilt with money. A field for experimentation, a laboratory for an ideological revolution aimed at the younger generation. Neither of them had this country in common…. They would both eat at the same table, sleeping the same bed and never think the same thing at the same time.”

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(1988 German Democratic Republic stamp with Galileo, the subject of Brecht’s last major play, written and performed in his LA exile not in the GDR/DDR)


When that delight waned, by 1952, Hans Trow provided the funds for Maria to go to West Berlin, where her tubercular daughter and mother had been all along. She becomes a celibate teacher of German, most enamored of earlier German poets, Hölderlin and Heine, not paying much professional attention to the German poet she had lived with for four years. Brecht’s best-known plays other than the musicals with Kurt Weill were written in LA; he theorized and directed plays after returning to Germany, but wrote mostly poems and no major plays.

The novel captures the grayness of East Berlin and the dread of the whims of Stalin in his final years that even the secret police in far-away Berlin constantly felt. The title character is Maria, who is not an intellectual.

Though doubts have been cast (especially by John Fuegi) on how much of Brecht’s oeuvre was actually written by him, he was a gruff intellectual and an avowed Marxist, though of the heterodox Karl Krosch variety rather than a communist subservient to Moscow. Brecht’s most notorious support for the German Democratic Republic’s suppression of dissent came after the period covered by the novel, the GDR crushing of 1953 rebellion using Soviet military force. (He praised the regime for “safeguarding the socialist achievements,” even while living a life of relative privilege that included subscription western publications generally banned in the GDR.)

The characters in Amette’s novel are attempting to understand what Brecht really thought, especially about Stalinist communism. He chose to live (in comfort denied most residents) in the Soviet zone, but had an Austrian passport and Swiss accounts accruing his royalties. Many have considered him a hypocrite. I think that in a bipolar world he managed to prosper as a heterodox (usually) Marxist capitalist, and if he was a sexual predator, much of the prey, including Soviet-sponsored spies was willing to work with and submit to sex with him.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray