Bernhard Schlink, author of The Reader, spoke to a sold-out opening night crowd at Melbourne’s Town Hall. In person, he is almost precariously tall and thin, walking with a slight stoop, as if apologising for taking up so much space. His voice is soft, low, polite. Heavy with the weight of the subjects he speaks and writes about.
Schlink spoke about the topic of his new (non-fiction) book, Guilt About the Past. Of course, it’s a topic that has informed his novels, too. The Reader was about a 15-year-old boy who had an affair with a much older woman, who he encountered years later in a courtroom, being tried for war crimes. Homecoming explored the experience of a man whose supposedly long-dead father turns out to be alive, living in the US – a Nazi collaborator.
Both novels explore the idea of coming to terms with a younger generation being intimately (often unknowingly) involved with someone implicated in Nazi war crimes and their attempts to come to terms with that.
Schlink spoke about “guilt through solidarity” – guilt suffered by people who didn’t perpetrate war crimes, nor were in a position to offer resistance or opposition, but suffer a kind of guilt through their association with the perpetrators. Some of these people are children or grandchildren of perpetrators; others are simply Germans who identify with the culture and the nation that perpetrated these crimes.
It’s a guilt associated with not renouncing the guilty members of their society or family, even though they know they are guilty. And it’s something that, I presume, affects huge numbers of everyday Germans. (Not to mention the application of that principle here in Australia, to non-indigenous Australians and their relationship to those who dispossessed or oppressed Australia’s indigenous people.)
“To distance oneself from grandparents who were perpetrators is not actually a choice for most children.”
There is a correspondence, Schlink said, between the trauma inherited by the children of victims and the guilt inherited by the children of perpetrators. They are united by the same crime. These groups can’t ask for or give forgiveness, though reconciliation between these two groups is possible.
“While forgiveness lifts the burden of guilt fromt he guilty party, reconciliation makes the burden lighter.”
Referring back to the Australian experience, Schlink concluded that Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations seemed problematic, “because it doesn’t come from the perpetrators themselves”.
Bernard Schlink commanded respect from his audience, but he didn’t necessarily command our attention. What he had to say was extremely worthy and interesting and made good sense, but I came away feeling that I would have got those messages better by reading his book. The general buzz in the Town Hall lobby afterwards, and at the festival over the weekend, agreed with my observations. Still, he sold out the space and I dare say that most of the people there went away pleased to have been in the presence of a great writer and thinker.
What I was left with, I think, was the gravitas with which he carried himself – modest but not falsely so, dignified and understated. There was the sense that he was there to serve his material, to deliver his message. And a sadness, too. A sense of shame at being German, a carefulness about him as a result of all the cultural baggage that carries in the post-Nazi era.
One audience member questioned him about Jewish activities in Palestine, asking what he thought the pathology was connecting Jewish survivors to Palestinians.
"I don’t think it is for a German to judge what Israel is doing in Palestine," he said. "Israelis will listen to what Canadians, Americans and Australians say to them, but the definitely will not listen to what a German would say to them."