Sunday, January 13, 2008


The most heartbreaking place I’ve ever visited is the vast, spare, tree-lined cemetery where half a million people who died in the Nazi siege of Leningrad from 1941 to 1944, most of them civilians, are buried in gently rising, grass-covered mass graves — long, rectangular and symmetrically arrayed, each plot holding thousands of dead. From loudspeakers, tragic music swells over the grounds, where a statue of the Motherland watches over all. In pavilions near the entrance, by an eternal flame, notes and photographs of the victims are collected in glass cases.

By Bernhard Schlink.
Translated by Michael Henry Heim.
260 pp. Pantheon Books. $24. (NZ$39 Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

By Pascal Mercier.
Translated by Barbara Harshav.
438 pp. Grove Press. $25.

This is the human face of history. But what are the abstract ideas, the justifications, the words, that put such acts of destruction into motion? And how can we be sure we won’t repeat them? Two German novels recently translated into English — one sensitive and disturbing, by Bernhard Schlink, author of the understatedly eloquent novel “The Reader”; the other fantastical, long-winded and dull, by the Swiss-born philosopher Peter Bieri (who writes his novels under the pen name Pascal Mercier) — wrap these questions in the cloak of fiction. In Schlink’s “Homecoming,” a German legal scholar and publisher, Peter Debauer (the name contains coded reference to the word “deconstruct”), comes across a defense of the Nazi siege of Leningrad written in the 1940s by a man named Volker Vonlanden. Justifying the siege on the grounds of the “iron rule” of law, which “supplies the foundation for all authority and leadership,” Vonlanden wrote that “if you are willing to subject yourself to something, you have the right to subject others to it.”

Vonlanden’s words haunt Debauer. As a student, Debauer had sought in his (abandoned) dissertation to intellectualize justice in a similar way. “Fiat iustitia, pereat mundus,”; he had maintained: “Justice be done though the world perish.” And here he sees the consequences of such unbending logic. Perhaps even more disturbing, he suspects that Vonlanden may be the nom de guerre of his father, who supposedly died during the war while serving with the Swiss Red Cross.

Debauer digs up a propaganda article Vonlanden published in 1942, arguing that the Russians “need to kill us, so we treat them as our equals when we besiege, starve, conquer and destroy them.” By his warped logic, the iron law made “ruthlessness an ethical principle, the siege of Leningrad an act of chivalry.” Repelled, Debauer asks himself, “Did I want to know any more about him?” But curiosity compels him to look further. How much of what he knows about his father is true? How can he reconcile the perished Swiss hero with the pitiless propagandist? And is his father really dead? Or could he be living under an assumed name, having left his wartime past and his family behind? As a legal thinker, Debauer craves concrete evidence of the missing person. As an abandoned son, he yearns to understand who his father was, so he might understand himself.

How tormenting it must be to be born with a keenly empathetic nature and to learn as you reach the age of reason that you’re connected with the cruel history of the Third Reich. If you’re a man of intellect and conscience, do you feel impelled to unlock the door to that dark corridor and contemplate the portraits on its walls, hoping to find no resemblance to yourself? Do you seek out relatives for explanations, to pinpoint crimes they may have committed? Or rather — since you’re so keenly empathetic — do you brick off this frightening corridor to shield yourself from painful knowledge and spare your relatives the awkwardness of being so baldly confronted? Bernhard Schlink makes the harder choice.

In “The Reader,” he examined this predicament through the words of a German boy who, like his contemporaries, was ashamed of the previous generation. “Our parents had played a variety of roles in the Third Reich,” he reflects. “Several among our fathers had been in the war, two or three of them as officers of the Wehrmacht and one as an officer of the Waffen SS.” Still others had been teachers, doctors and officials. Uncertain of their wartime roles, “we all condemned our parents to shame, even if the only charge we could bring was that after 1945 they had tolerated the perpetrators in their midst.” His generation grew up without role models: parental expectations were “nullified by the fact that these parents had failed to measure up during the Third Reich, or after it ended.” In the boy’s mind, he was as fatherless as Debauer. His lover, an older woman who was imprisoned for war crimes after their affair ended, tells him that blaming the perpetrators isn’t fair: “When no one understands you, then no one can call you to account. Not even the court could call me to account. But the dead can. They understand.” The work of “Homecoming” is to enlighten the living.

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