The Guilt of the Lambs
IN GERMANY, THE WRITING that followed the nightmare of World War II was not a literature. It was a record of unassimilated shock. In books and trials, the horrors of the past were convulsively laid bare and the guilt placed upon major Nazis and lesser savages like "Hangman" Heydrich and Ilse Koch. But as the handful of notorious Nazis was again and again brought to public account, it became easier and easier for the rest of the Germans to think of themselves as innocent victims—lambs who had been set upon and held in thrall by wolves.
Then the economic miracle transformed West Germany from a defeated enemy into a valued ally. The haunting moral question of how the Hitler regime had come to dominate 80 million people and what responsibility countless small German citizens might personally bear for it was never adequately faced and exorcised—not even in literature. With the new prosperity, popular writers switched, like their counterparts everywhere else in the world, to sex and success. Germany, it seemed, could find neither the literary talent nor the inclination to come to grips with the most, overwhelming experience in its history.
But in the past two years, the growing success of three writers—Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll and Uwe Johnson—has signaled a change. Their achievement represents the fulfilled promise of a handful of serious writers, most of them young and linked with a maverick literary movement known as Group 47, who have persistently gone on trying to probe beneath the surface prosperity to the uneasy past. As artists, they know that the dramatic story of Nazi Germany must lie not with the wolves but in the everyday lives of the lambs—those many individuals whose accumulation of fear, self-protective indifference or private greed let it all happen. In short, the guilt of the technically innocent. What lends urgency to their literary inquiry is the parallel most of them see between the new smugness and materialism in Germany and the spirit that existed among self-seeking Germans under Hitler. What makes their work noticeable is that it at last is showing the power and subtlety needed for so dark and difficult a subject.
Whisper to Howl. Most spectacular example is a sprawling, scurrilous first novel, Günter Grass's Tin Drum, which has won prizes and stirred anger all over Europe, sold 150,000 copies in Germany, and will be out in the U.S. next month.
Grass, a 35-year-old ex-tombstone carver, is probably the most inventive talent to be heard from anywhere since the war. In The Tin Drum, he employs every technique from realism to surrealism, every tone from a whisper to a howl. The gaudiest gimmick in his literary bag of tricks, however, is a character named Oskar Matzerath. For Oskar is that wildly distorted mirror which, held up to a wildly deformed reality, gives back a recognizable likeness.
Like Grass, Oskar is the son of a German grocer and his pretty Polish wife. Unlike Grass, Oskar, when he is three years old, refuses to grow any more. He remains 31 inches tall. With a man's intelligence in a baby's body, he is largely ignored by adults. What he sees and overhears as a result adds up to a dwarfs-eye view of the Third Reich.
Oskar begins his nether contemplation of the world from beneath the family card table. There he is confronted by a forest of thighs, hairy ankles, and the sight of his mother's lover pruriently probing for her lap with a stockinged toe. Elsewhere he witnesses the rise of Naziism as reflected by a succession of details—most of them comic. When Oskar's father joins the party and feels himself becoming a hero of blood and iron, he is deflated when he has trouble acquiring a brown shirt to go with his uniform. Saturday afternoon, when the new Nazi is down at his weekly mass rally, becomes a regular time for non-Nazis to cuckold him. And then one cold November night, Oskar's embarrassed father gratefully warms his hands at the glow of a burning synagogue.
To make Oskar's odyssey say more than Oskar himself, Grass interweaves his story with symbols and takes off on flights of incantatory eloquence found most notably in Melville's Moby Dick, which Grass has evidently studied. Following the meaning of Grass's convoluted symbolism is a little like a paper chase through a wet and windy forest, with grisly oddments instead of bits of paper to mark the way. Evil is a black witch who resides, according to a German children's song, "in you, you, you." The witch is invoked during a horrifying scene in which a fisherman matter-of-factly hauls a black horse's head from the North Sea, and then proceeds to pull from its eyes and ears and mouth the feeding eels, which in their turn will be served as a delicacy on German tables. The symbolic link between evil and lip-smacking self-gratification is closed when Oskar's father is killed by the Russians in the grocery cellar. His body falls across the path of some ants on their journey to a broken sugar sack. "The ants," Grass writes, "found themselves facing a new situation, but, undismayed by the detour, soon built a new highway round the doubled-up Matzerath, for the sugar that trickled out of the burst sack had lost none of its sweetness while Marshal Rokossovsky was occupying the city of Danzig."
State of Withdrawal. Senior figure in Group 47 is Veteran Novelist Heinrich Böll, 47, who for years has turned out thoughtful novels about Germany, most of them more notable for civilized intentions than sustained artistic power.
Billiards at Half Past Nine is his crowning work so far. Its central figure, Robert Faehmel, is the architect son of an architect father locally famous for building the Church of St. Severin's. In World War II, practicing what the Germans called "innere Emigration," the psychological dissociation attempted by men who could not physically escape the war or the regime, Robert Faehmel does not go to the front but becomes a special demolition expert. Not so much in anger at the Nazis as in disgust at local churchmen and townsfolk, who are more concerned about preserving national monuments than they ever were about saving legions of flesh-and-blood victims of Naziism, he blows up his father's church. When peace comes, he lives on in the same state of withdrawal from postwar Germany. He sees little difference between the newly prosperous and the respectable self-seekers who under Hitler did not fret about goose stepping as long as they themselves were well-heeled.
What makes the book memorable, however, is one whopping interior monologue. For more than 50 pages, interspersed Faulkner-style through the novel, Faehmel's mother records in a tone of well-bred perplexity a woman's 50-year struggle with an enemy she does not quite comprehend but which, she knows well enough, has destroyed her brothers, her two sons, her society. Time jumbles, blurs. In midsentence, she switches from memories of sending her brother off to the 1914 war to the thought that her other son must have been bewitched when he went off to join the Nazis. How else could it have happened? He didn't like sour pickles, he combed his hair just so, he loved singing.
Her fight, she vaguely realizes, began when she stole her brother's World War I cavalry saber. "I took his sword and humbled it," she muses, "scraped muck from mouldings, rust from behind benches, dug holes for my plants. It was too awkward for peeling potatoes." Her rebellion comes when she tries to thrust herself into the freight cars full of Jews bound for Auschwitz—to call them to the attention of fellow townsfolk, who have chosen to ignore what is going on. Böll's point: in an insane world, sanity is madness. Duly confined to an asylum, Faehmel's mother at last recognizes her most dreaded enemy—not the Nazis, who personify the known power of evil, but respectability, which would rather look the other way than cause a fuss.
Trains & Bicycies. Like Böll and Grass—and most of his Group 47 contemporaries—Uwe Johnson, 28, views today's Germany as the dangerous and corrupt legacy of yesterday. But his main target is less the confrontation of the past than the misunderstood present. Johnson, who grew up in East Germany and moved (not fled, he insists) to the West in 1960, has become famous writing about the side he came from and the interplay across the border. Johnson's books seem to offer Germans the gloomiest of choices. East Germany is a police state, less oppressive than the West thinks, but nevertheless no place to live. West Germany, though relatively free, is poisoned with smug, forgetful materialism and a lack of purpose.
Reduced to bare essentials, his books turn out to have hardly any plot at all. Speculations About Jakob, to be published here in March, offers fragmentary views of the life of an East German railroad switchman. The Third Book About Achim tells how and why the third book about Achim could not be written. Crossing to the East, a West German writer named Karsch begins collecting material for a biography on a much-written-about East German bicycle racer named Achim. What interests Karsch in Achim's life, however, does not have enough socialist uplift for the East German publishers.
Why the Lie? But Johnson, like a sleight-of-hand artist who asks a member of the audience to check his top hat for rabbits, skillfully engages the reader in his literary experiments. Sometimes he talks to him directly about the problems of writing. Achim begins this way: "So I thought I'd start out with a simple sentence, gravely, something like: she telephoned him, period, then I'd add: across the border, casually, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, as a surprise, to make you think you understand." Sometimes he studs his text with disarming headlines that give voice to questions readers might address to him. Commenting on some dialogue, one headline asks, WHY THE LIE? Another demands, WHY ARE THERE SO MANY PAGES?
To counteract the existing emotional preconceptions and the partisan vocabulary that clouds East-West writing and thinking, Johnson has tried to invent an entirely neutral language. It avoids metaphor. It examines not souls but outer surfaces, which can be seen and verified. What emerges with surprising vividness is a finely woven texture of physical existence in the East zone. Against this background, a Western reader, spurred by the effort to fill in the outlines of individual emotion only hinted at by the author, soon begins to speculate on small and large moral questions. Sample problem for a border guard: A man is escaping. I must shoot. But should I shoot to kill? Sample problem for a railroad switchman: It is 1956. Hungary is in revolt. The Russians are rushing in troops by train. I can delay them by not shunting off local traffic. How long? Four hours? Six hours? Is it worth it?
"A Patriotic Duty." Böll, Johnson and Grass clearly do not fit into any neat school of literature. Böll is a Christian humanist. Grass is a compassionate anarchist. Johnson is a Marx-influenced socialist who hates the Communist Party. What they and the other Group 47 writers most closely resemble is a kind of self-elected national conscience for Germany. Especially among the younger members, the appearance of anything or anyone that recalls the advent of Naziism sends Group 47 into the kind of panic which children whose parents have been destroyed by alcohol might feel at the sight of their new guardians sneaking a morning drink. In political terms, the resulting uproar often has an hysterical ring. Recently, during the scandal over Der Spiegel (TIME, Nov. 9), Group 47 issued a statement declaring that "the stealing of military secrets is a patriotic duty."
But to the surprisingly widespread contention that only a few in Germany were guilty, while the rest did not know what was going on, these German writers reply, "Nonsense. Everybody was guilty, in some way." Eloquently, angrily, they argue that the destruction of individual character (and of nations) begins with the tiniest indifference, the smallest act of cowardice, the most microscopic compromise.