Why didn’t you do something?

The author of ‘The Reader’ discusses a theme that’s dominated his life: guilt about the past

Peter Andrews/ Reuters

Like most lawyer-authors, Bernhard Schlink, a prominent German jurist, began his writing career with what he knew: crime fiction. Not run-of-the-mill mysteries, mind you. His featured Gerhard Selb, a convinced Nazi prosecutor turned guilt-ridden, seventysomething private eye. And the pun in his protagonist’s name—selb means “self” in English—didn’t refer to Schlink himself, but the entire German nation. Then, in 1995, Schlink broke from type with The Reader, a literary novel that drew both acclaim and scathing criticism, for the same reason—his portrayal of a concentration camp guard with a human face—as well as an Oscar-winning film version in 2008. Now 65, and retired from the law, Schlink is still working through the themes that have dominated his working life—guilt, memory, reconciliation, the burden on succeeding generations—most recently in a series of lectures given at Oxford, now published in Guilt About the Past.

For Germans of his age, children of the wartime generation, writes Schlink, who was born July 6, 1944, two weeks before Claus von Stauffenberg narrowly missed killing Hitler with a suitcase bomb, the past has always been alive. Sixties rebellion was as rife in West Germany as elsewhere, but reaction to the Third Reich was at the heart of that generation’s rebellion against its parents. As more facts emerged about the war, young people confronted their parents, even those not personally guilty—like Schlink’s own father, removed by the Nazis from his post as a theology professor. Why didn’t you do something? was as potent a question about the war years as, What did you do?

That generation’s persistence meant that Germany did face its past with exemplary rigour, but it has also had unforeseen consequences: an ennui often expressed by its own children, a generation that never had teachers, as Schlink did, whose SS histories were betrayed by telltale blood-type tattoos. Those younger Germans, Schlink writes, never faced such issues on “a daily basis,” and they yearn to be a normal nation, no longer defined by the Holocaust. This, he argues persuasively, will have to be granted them. Soon there will be no one alive with a direct connection to committing or tolerating crimes against humanity, and if his generation does not want its children to repress the past, the past must become history—undeniable and never forgotten, but no longer a straitjacket.

Schlink writes subtly of the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. The former is only possible directly from victims, not those claiming to speak for them, and apologies—requests for forgiveness—also ring hollow when delivered on behalf of predecessors. “To ask for forgiveness for someone else’s guilt is cheap.” Reconciliation, though, can work, should willing partners commit for the long haul: renewed hostility between France and Germany is “unimaginable.”

In his last lecture, speaking more as an artist than a jurist, Schlink addresses the same topic tackled by Yann Martel in his new novel: how may the past, specifically the Holocaust, be represented aesthetically? The Reader, the novel that brought Schlink so much praise and blame, is on its surface straight-ahead historical realism, the dominant mode of Holocaust depiction, and the one Martel strove to upend in his Beatrice & Virgil.

But the German novel is also thematically rich: when one main character, 36-year-old former concentration camp guard Hanna, seduces the other protagonist, 15-year-old Michael, she is drawing the next generation of Germans into her burden of guilt. And she is illiterate, a metaphor of postwar German historical repression. (Martel, in a recent interview, expressed his admiration for Schlink’s concept—Hanna is as unable to read about the Holocaust as Martel’s silenced author protagonist is to write about it.) The Reader presages every theme in Schlink’s lectures: the capacity (never the duty) of the victim alone to grant forgiveness; the uncertainty of reconciliation; the contamination of guilt that comes from loving or merely tolerating the guilty. And it enraged critics who accused the novel of “asking us to pity a death camp guard” or of making illiteracy more shameful than mass murder.

Schlink sympathizes with the criticism that has come his way. But he can’t accept it. The pursuit of truth in art needs no justification except results, he writes. If real truth emerges, then the art is moral, and we know that when we see it. “In writing, as in other areas of life, what is moral is mostly self-evident.”

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