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There Are No Perpetrators

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  Annie Ring – 8 Jan 2007 German Literature of the 1990s and Beyond ‘There are no perpetrators in recent German fiction dealing with the Nazi past, only excuses’. Discuss German fiction of the 1990s and beyond dealing with the National Socialist past  presents the reader with a complex and engaging dilemma regarding the evaluation of individual action in a society that demanded crime against humanity. The main  problem with post-war Vergangenheitsbewältigung   had been its very black and white nature: in the immediate post-war reconstruction period, suffering during the 1945 expulsions of German nationals from the eastern territories had been emphasised, in an attempt to split German identity from National Socialist identity. Then with the Eichmann and Auschwitz trials of the 1960s, the 68er generation began questioning German victimhood and focusing on the crimes of the Tätergeneration , resulting in a condemnatory discourse that excluded German suffering. Post-unification literature  began however to reflect a pluralisation of attitudes towards Germany’s past and the narration of perpetration and victimhood. Following the  Historikerstreit   and calls by conservative critics keen to rebuild national identity to place the National Socialist  past into a ‘relativised’ historical narrative, a normalisation ethic finally made it  possible for authors to deal with German victimhood without being “obliged endlessly to restate German culpability for the Holocaust” 1 , nor to treat perpetration and victimhood as diametric opposites. Günter Grass’ 2002 novella  Im Krebsgang   marks a turning point in the narration of German victimhood and the generational conflict. Nobel prize winner Grass, born in 1927 but a member of the Gruppe 47   in the 1960s, is credited with being the ‘conscience of the nation’ and had always taken the left-wing, politically correct stance on German perpetration; the novella’s focus on German wartime suffering therefore provoked media uproar, bringing the debate to the fore of public consciousness. Marcel Beyer however, born in 1965, represents a younger generation of writers, and his close studies in  Flughunde  of perpetrator and victim of National Socialist crime explore the power of ideological discourse and dehumanisation from a more technical point of view. Both works refuse a black and white portrayal of crime and excuses for it, foregrounding instead the tendency of previous discourse on the  Nazi past to concentrate on perpetration, effectively dehumanising the victims, and the problematic nature of subjective memory and historicisation. They give voice to German victims, meanwhile exploring the excuses and reasons for National Socialist annihilation and propose new narrative forms for more successful Vergangenheitsbewältigung  . Both  Im Krebsgang   and  Flughunde  challenge the traditional, politically correct view of Germans as perpetrators by giving a central voice to German victims. Marcel Beyer explores and denounces the tendency of the victim-perpetrator discourse to define those who suffered at under National Socialism by their victimhood and not their humanity. He juxtaposes the perpetrator’s voice with that of Helga Goebbels, victim of infanticide. Her child’s narration of discovering the world and playing with her siblings belies a precocious understanding of the injustice inherent to National Socialism. She is a voice of morality amid deafening hysteria, and her astute 1  Taberner, Stuart. German  Literature of the 1990s and Beyond. Normalization and the Berlin Republic.  (London: Camden House, 2005): 137    Annie Ring – 8 Jan 2007 observations function to condemn the generation of adults seduced by Fascist discourse. Papa will, daß alle Frauen ihr Personal entlassen. Meint Papa jetzt auch unsere Hausmädchen, die Köchin und die Kinderfrau? Sogar Mamas Sekretärin? Sollen die alle entlassen werden? 2  Helga’s incomprehension of her father’s hypocrisy seems unique among the crowd  bellowing their concurrence around her. “Und wie sie aus den Mündern stinken, der heiße Atem brennt an meinem Hinterkopf mit jedem: Ja. Ja. Ja.” 3  Helga experiences  Nazism as a hot, rancid din, and Beyer’s aural, tastatory and olfactory imagery exposes National Socialism’s total colonisation of the subject. Beyer’s juxtaposed, cross-referential narratives of Helga the victim and Karnau the perpetrator are assigned contrasting qualities, reflecting the perpetrator-victim dialectic and its different effects on the subject. Stuart Taberner’s suggestion that Karnau himself writes Helga’s chapters, “a transcription and fictionalisation of the recordings he furtively makes of her” 4  seems unlikely, as their characterisation and style differ so strongly. Helga’s engaging and inquisitive narrative of experience counterbalances Karnau’s technical, detached descriptions. In this new era of narration of the National Socialist past, however, nothing is to be taken for granted. The critic Ulrich Schönherr examines Beyer’s exploration of the dark and light dichotomy, the comforting “uterine night” 5  associated with the flying foxes of the title giving way to the artificial light of Karnau’s torture chamber. This imagery is important for our investigation of the development in the narration of victimhood and perpetration. The darkness of previous generations’ failure to address the human aspect of German wartime experience gives way to the enlightened plurality of 1990s literature. In Beyer’s book the bright glare of Nazism floods Helga’s world and she repeatedly expresses the desire to escape enclosed, uterine spaces: the stadium, the cellar of their house and the  Hitlerbunker  , the “dystopian counterimage to the regressive fantasy of ‘uterine night’” 6 , where humanity is annihilated by National Socialist hysteria.  Im Krebsgang   presents the reader with a more ambiguous victim of National Socialist crime. Tulla Pokriefke,  Heimatvertriebene  and survivor of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is a politically incorrect mouthpiece for the 'ordinary’ victims of wartime suffering and as such it is more difficult to empathise with her than with Helga, despite Tulla’s mantra of victimhood and the stilted dialect that excludes her from the more traditional ranks of public discourse. Into the 1990s Tulla voices her nostalgia for the  Kraft durch Freude  trips that facilitated National Socialist indoctrination of German citizens. Her victimhood does not elevate her to sainthood: her post-war loyalties also follow the tide of political power, and after the Berlin wall crumbles, she has the connections to survive. It is she who provides Konrad with the gun, and his defence counsel suggests that the murder results from “die durch Mutter verursachte Fixierung auf Wilhelm Gustloff” 7 . Her moment in court does not fit the voice of a traditional victim: 2  Beyer, Marcel.  Flughunde . (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1996): 165 3  ibid: 166 4  Taberner, Stuart. op.cit: 143 5  Schönherr, Ulrich. The Topophony of Fascism: On Marcel Beyer’s  The Karnau Tapes. ( Germanic Review  73:4, 1998): 342 6  ibid   7  Grass, Günter.  Im Krebsgang.  (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2002): 195  Annie Ring – 8 Jan 2007  Na son Schwindel! Das hat main Konradchen nich wissen jekonnt, daß dieser David ain falscher Jud ist. Ainer, der sich ond andere was vorjemacht hat, wenner sich bai jede Jelegenhait wien ächter Jud aufjefiehrt ond immer nur von onsre Schande jered hat. 8  Tulla places herself firmly on the side of the perpetrators through her identification with “onsre Schande”, the inheritance of the National Socialists’ industrial annihilation of the Jews. She represents the ‘ordinary German’ whose experience cannot be shoehorned into either category of repentant ex-perpetrator or haloed victim. Hers is an erratic voice of historical narration: she does not speak  Hochdeutsch , moreover her accounts of the past, particularly the conflicting stories of Paul’s birth, render her an unreliable source of information. Grass questions through Tulla the elitism of remembrance culture, traditionally the domain of the university educated, male, left-wing German intelligentsia. Rather than a linear history, Tulla narrates a chaotic, subjective her  story that does not conform to ideas of post-Auschwitz acceptability. She represents the pluralisation of approaches to National Socialist history, and the decline of black and white views of individuals as pure victim or pure perpetrator. The victims of Karnau’s inhumane experiments in  Flughunde , and those of the shipwreck in  Im Krebsgang   remain, in contrast to Helga and Tulla, faceless and unnamed, and this echoes the tendency of past Vergangenheitsbewältigung   discourse to overlook German victims. Although Paul agrees to write about the shipwreck that had remained “jahrzehntelang tabu,” 9  he refuses the  Arbeitgeber  ’s requests for emotive, Titanic style narration: Was aber im Schiffinneren geschah, ist mit Worten nicht zu fassen. Mutters für alles Unbeschreibliche stehender Satz “Da hab ech kaine Töne fier...” sagt, was ich undeutlich meine. Also versuche ich nicht, mir Schreckliches vorzustellen und das Grauenvolle in ausgepinselte Bilder zu zwingen, sosehr mich jetzt mein Arbeitgeber drängt. 10  This passage charts the different pressures weighing on a writer’s narration of German suffering. Tulla (Mutter) cannot describe the suffering she witnessed, and Paul claims to share her sense of unspeakable horror. However, reading Paul as a representative of the 68er generation, his wordlessness – “undeutlich” - and unwillingness - “Also versuche ich nicht” - to internalise images of “das Grauenvolle” actually represent what Kathrin Schödel refers to as “the failure of [Grass’] own generation, the generation that, from the late 1950s, had insisted so firmly on German perpetration, to integrate German suffering into public memory” 11 . This results in  Im Krebsgang   on the private plane in the fragmentation of the family, with Paul refusing to bear witness in his writing to his mother’s experience of the shipwreck, and Konrad’s resulting isolation and obsession with vengeance for the death of Wilhelm Gustloff himself, as well as the thousands of nameless dead in the cruise liner. Through the figure of the  Arbeitgeber  , Grass criticises the sentimentalised narratives that romanticise suffering 8  Grass, Günter. op.cit: 182 9  ibid: 31 10  ibid: 136 11  Schödel, Kathrin: “Narrative Normalization” and Günter Grass’s Im Krebsgang. In Stuart Taberner and Paul Cooke (eds.) German Culture, Politics, and Literature into the Twenty-First Century Beyond Normalization.  (Rochester: Camden House, 2006): 199    Annie Ring – 8 Jan 2007 for commercial gain, and looks to a depiction of human suffering that avoids reducing victims to objects of authorial intent. Beyer’s representation of Karnau’s human guinea pigs comments on the process that removes torture victims’ humanity to justify their horrific treatment. The perpetrator Karnau carries out investigation and destruction of the victims’ voice boxes. This literal removal of their capacity to speak symbolises their reduction from human to victim: Seltsam: Nun ist der Tastsinn soweit reduziert, daß sie im abgedunkelten Raum die eigene Stimme aktivieren müßten, um sich zu orientieren, sie müßten auf Stimmfühlung gehen mit den anderen Patienten und die Raumverhältnisse durch Widerhall erkunden. Aber sie unternehmen nichts dergleichen. Das sind keine Lippen zum Formen von Lauten mehr, das sind nur noch Lippen zum Zerbeißen...Sie führen ein Tierleben... 12  Karnau narrates in detached, scientific tones that employ passive and descriptive language: the passage resembles an experimental report in which the scientist’s role is to observe the behaviour of the subjects. There is no sign of remorse or even acknowledgement of Karnau’s presence and role in the torture. His contempt for others is identified at the beginning of the novel, in his reaction to a man who burps on the tram: “Löschen. Man müßte die Laute solcher Kreaturen löschen können.” 13  This personal view of those he disdains as creatures is however cultivated by the “sinister ‘normality’ of everyday Fascism” 14  which reduced humans to animals on a larger scale. He describes the subjects as leading a “Tierleben”, the verbal noun “Zerbeißen” specifically referring to beastlike gnawing, and marvels at the estrangement of lips from voice and communication. This double rupture, of voice from communication and humanity from the subject, is symbolic of the wider alienation symptomatic of the German remembrance discourse that forbade German victimhood from existing in the same narrative as German perpetration. Karnau’s deaf and dumb victims represent the heritage of “die stumme Zeit, die taube Zeit” 15  and their dehumanisation through torture warns against the repression of the National Socialist past.  Nein, niemand hört die alten Stimmen gerne wieder...sie wären alle gerne Taubstumme gewesen. 16  Karnau comments on the will of some to deny personal involvement in National Socialist crime, and unwittingly comments on his own repression of memory discussed later on. For successful Vergangenheitsbewältigung  , the voices of victim and perpetrator must be heard and understood. Indeed, as Karnau the acoustician implies, the voices of the past are not so easily repressed: “daß jeder Schrei, jede so laut hervorgebrachte Äußerung auf den Stimmbändern eine kleine Narbe hinterläßt” 17 . 12  Beyer, Marcel. op.cit: 170 13  ibid: 18 14  Schmitz, Helmut. On Their Own Terms: German Literature and the Legacy of National Socialism after Unification. (Birmingham: Birmingham University Press, 2004): 142 15  Beyer, Marcel. op.cit: 230 16  ibid: 231 17  ibid : 14
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