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