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We need to talk about Nazis

Guilt About the Past - Bernhard Schlink

This was an impulse purchase which turned out to be a gem...  a short little nonfiction book which I would rank among my top 5 reads of 2015.


The author, a German lawyer, waxes philosophical and shares some interesting observations about the collective guilt and shame the German public (by and large) have felt about the atrocities of the Third Reich. Many of the incidents discussed come from Mr. Schlink's personal and/or professional life.


Growing up in Germany in the 1950's, Schlink learned from a young age that "What did you do during the War?" was a taboo question, and even less direct questions to older folk like "What was life like when you were growing up?" or  "Do you have any children?" or even "How did you meet your wife/husband?" commonly drew odd, defensive, even hostile responses because of the information those answers would expose. For at least twenty years after the war, it was an unspoken rule not to talk with strangers about the recent past, and certainly not to ask somebody about their personal history during the years 1933-45.


Even into adulthood, even after experiencing this multiple times, Schlink continued to be shocked whenever it was revealed that members of his community... neighbors, shopkeepers, members of his church, etc... had been Nazi collaborators or worse.  "Dear God, not good old Mr. Schiffer",  "Not sweet Mrs. Muller", etc.  Sometimes the information would come in the form of a personal confessional, as people unburdened their guilt. Other times, crimes covered were exposed and officially prosecuted. Other times, information once hidden was leaked in the course of acrimonious divorces, legal disputes, etc.  Each time it happened, it was picking at a scab on the entire community.


Two philosophical points from this book struck me.  The first has to do with the response some Germans have towards Hitler and the Nazis, which is (if applicable) to say "Why should I feel guilty?  I didn't take part in any of those atrocities."   And if that's the case, it is perfectly reasonable to say so.  Nobody is saying that average Germans who weren't Nazi party members should have stood trial at Nuremburg with the likes of Goering et al. 


It's a legitimate position, as far as it goes... yet Schlink observes that it provides no comfort on the question of what the Third Reich has done to the German public's sense of national cultural identity.  I'm not talking about supremacist ideologies or anything like that, but travel the world, and you'll see that every country has things in their history that contribute to a sense of national identity and pride. The Italians can rightfully take some pride in the sculptures of Michelangelo; (USA) Americans in the Apollo moon landings, etc (for some reason I feel like any example I offer is going to be problematic in the comments section, but I'm trying to make a point here)... the thing is, the pride generally comes from things that most nationals of those countries didn't actually have anything to do with. Nobody in Italy today helped Michelangelo make those sculptures, and only a very very small percentage of the American population made any significant contribution to the 1960's NASA space program. Yet they are part of a collective heritage and sense of identity.


When a German distances themselves from the atrocities of the Third Reich because they had no personal participation, it is fair enough, but if they are being intellectually honest, they are thereby also distancing themselves from all of the great things about German history and culture, which they also didn't personally contribute to. 


And of course this works the same in every culture and country. An American who feels no sense of national remorse or shame about things like slavery or the treatment of Native Americans because "Well I never owned any slaves" or "I never drove any Indians off their land" also don't get to be proud of the moon landing because that same person probably also never flew a rocket or set foot on the moon either.


It's a painful decision to confront (or avoid) the past in this way.


There's a lot more in this book, but the only other thing I feel inspired to pass on in this review is the author's attitude towards "Godwin's Law" and the way popular culture talks, or doesn't talk, about the Holocaust.  In some circles, Nazi comparisons have become so overdone, there has developed an almost kneejerk tendency to dismiss any and all such analogizing as being necessarily hyperbolic. I'm not talking about calling somebody a "grammar Nazi" here, but more like how comparisons to the Third Reich don't get any traction when talking about something like the national "No Fly" list in present day America... a secret list of people singled out for restrictions, when nobody knows how you get on it, how (if at all) you get off of it, who maintains it, and there is no process to appeal being included on it.   It isn't an unfair comparison, because the government of the Third Reich did single out people with secret lists that had no appeals processes. It may indeed be an imperfect comparison, as analogies almost always are, but there are enough legitimate similarities in a focused aspect of the subject that it shouldn't be the complete non-starter it seems to be today.


I think the problem a lot of people have with Nazi comparisons is that if the subject being compared doesn't seem to roughly approximate the same level of human suffering and injustice as the mechanized genocide of 6 million innocent people, that the comparison is minimizing the Holocaust. 


On one hand I get that. Saying "My Dad is like Hitler because he didn't let me borrow the car" is obviously grossly inappropriate in its insensitivity to the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. On the other hand, to use the earlier example, it shouldn't be off-limits to raise a comparison to the Third Reich when discussing the "No Fly" list, on the basis that America doesn't operate a system of death camps like Dachau.


Comparisons of mechanisms don't need to account for scale. In other words, the difference in scale between an ocean liner and a rowboat shouldn't preclude discussing ways in which they are similar.  Likewise, if the only thing which can be compared to the Third Reich is a regime of equal or greater evil and suffering, then there is very little that chapter in History can teach us going forward,  and what lessons we do allow ourselves to learn from the Holocaust have no value in preventing another Holocaust, because (by the prevailing attitudes of Godwin's Law) we aren't allowed to talk about them until after a tragedy equal in scope to the Holocaust has already happened.


Believe it or not, all this is packed into less than 200 pages of very enjoyable reading.