All Apologies

DEAR URSULA HEGI,

You and I have a couple of important things in common. We both were born and raised in Germany; moved to the United States as young adults; and spent a lot of time thinking about the Holocaust.

We also have one major difference. You seem to assume that Tearing the Silence, a collection of interviews with German-Americans born between 1939 and '49, makes an important contribution to understanding the Holocaust, World War II, and humanity at large. I think it's one of the more egregious wastes of paper and ink this year. And that infuriates me--precisely because it could have been so much more. Because I was hoping so desperately that it would be.

I guess I should have known better right from the introduction: "There is a great body of significant personal histories connected to the Second World War," you write. "But the personal histories of Germans who were born during or after the war and left their country of origin to settle in America have remained largely unexplored. And yet those victims belong there, along with the others..." Stop. Wait.

I understand these people had hard lives, and they had to think hard thoughts, and it was painful at times and unfair. But "victims"? The word is sickening in its implication that by virtue of having been born German, we're somehow in the same category as the gassed, the mauled, the exterminated; galling in its assumption that being confronted with history amounts to suffering abuse; and just plain annoying in its pop-psych pseudo-sympathy. And, all that said, it makes for a boring discussion. If Victimhood is the starting point, the outcome is predetermined: Let's look inward, feel the pain, acknowledge the sorrow, feel as if we've accomplished something.

Sure enough, there's little in these interviews that I haven't heard a million times since grade school. Everyone you interview had a moment growing up when they discovered it, and the silence surrounding it. That's partly a result of the generation you chose, that strict limit to those born between '39 and '49; those of us who came later may not have learned much, but at least our history books didn't stop in 1933. All the predictable responses are represented, from not wanting to hear about it anymore to struggling to understand, remember, learn. And, of course, the easy way out: "Bad Germans did bad things. Bad Americans have done just the same. I've known enough bad people to know who's capable of what."

There are, occasionally, glimpses of something more complex: Anneliese, who thinks there are way too many of "those movies," and who coincidentally "can't remember whole sections of my life." Gisela, who's furious at her father for abandoning her, but insists that "what he did in the war doesn't have anything to do with me." Beate, who remembers her mother's horror at stepping into a community shower after the war. Jurgen, who never found his German birth mother, but obsesses about maintaining America's "Northern European heritage." And, of course, that bizarre thing we've all run into--the way people, as Kurt says, "seem to respect me more because I'm German."

But those hints dissipate without further investigation. Instead, it's tale after sorry tale of rotten parents, disappearing spouses, difficult kids; maybe a more appropriate title would have been "People with Awful Family Lives Who Happen to Be German-American Boomers." And yes, there's some insight here--German culture's focus on obedience, efficiency, and conformity helped make Hitler possible. But it's nothing Theodor Adorno didn't say as well or better in The Authoritarian Personality half a century ago.

Not that any of this matters. Your book will receive lavish credit in all the appropriate places--you come, after all, vested with the credibility of a best-selling novelist. There will be reviews with the usual vocabulary: Trenchant. Compelling. Thought-provoking. People will read Tearing the Silence and assume that this is all there is.

And that's why I'm angry. Because this book could have set fires, striking one complicated history against another and waiting for the sparks to fly. It could have dispensed with the victim crap, the pat and the wink and the nod that say, "Okay, that was hard, now you're done." It could have probed guilt, shame, and the lesson in the difference. It could have been difficult.

 
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