The Holocaust à la Spielberg
German-born Britta Jung hated the books on the Third Reich that she had to read in high school in the ’90s, especially the condescending and morally superior way in which the period was depicted.
Britta Jung’s research on German youth literature about the Third Reich shows that the way the Holocaust is portrayed in books has a lot to do with the memory of the survivors.
The first books were written after the Eichmann trial in 1961. They provided information, but were emotionally detached and divided the world into victims and perpetrators.
That changed in the ’90s when the next generation brought more nuance to the debate: anybody could have been a perpetrator, a victim, or anything in between.
Now it’s time for the postmemorial generation. So-called Nachtliteratur shows the horrors of the Third Reich in a brutally compelling and emotional way. That is necessary, says Jung. ‘These books are bringing emotion back into the story. If you don’t, readers will have a hard time connecting.’
Reading time: 10 minutes (1,726 words)
When Britta Jung was in high school in the ’90s, she hardly read any youth literature on the Third Reich. She hated the condescending, morally superior way the period was depicted in them. One of the few books she did read – a classic called Damals war es Friedrich which schoolteachers cling to for dear life – was ‘not a very good book’, she says. ‘In fact, I thought it was really awful.’
The book, first released in 1961, reads like a timetable for the Holocaust. The story about the friendship between a Christian and a Jewish boy named Friedrich takes the reader through all the ‘highlights’ from the period, from the first ‘Für Juden verboten’ signs to the moment Friedrich dies in an air raid after not being allowed into the bomb shelter.
However, Jung found it ‘really off-putting’. Why? Because of the typical difference between the Nazis and the good Germans in the book; because of the stereotypes about Jews, like the way they are involved with money or the idea that they are physically different; because of the fact that when Friedrich dies, it isn’t in a concentration camp – which would have been more realistic – but in an air raid by the Allied Forces.
Luckily, a lot has changed since Jung’s schooldays. Not only has she read nearly all of the German youth literature that has been written about the Third Reich by now: she has even enjoyed much of it. ‘There’s really good stuff out there now. I wish it had been there in my day.’ Next week, Jung will receive her PhD – a joint award from the University of Groningen and the University of Limerick – for a thesis on the way the Third Reich is depicted in German youth literature.
Of course she expected to find a lot of changes. It’s hardly possible to think of anything that reflects the memory of a nation and the moral issues it deals with more strongly than the books that are written for their children. What do you want to tell them? What do you dare to tell them? When applied to the Third Reich, the answers to these questions tell us how Germany dealt – and still deals – with the historical trauma of the Third Reich.
Jung found that the way the books deal with the horrors of the past has a lot to do with the memories of the survivors. That’s why these days – as the last eyewitnesses are dying – no question is avoided anymore and no perspective is taboo.
‘Just after the war, the war wasn’t really talked about’, says Jung. ‘People were blocking it out and it certainly was not a theme in youth literature. Books that did address the recent past focused more on the difficult present and future to come.’
‘Der Tod war hier etwas Alltägliches. Ständig traf man diese hochrädrigen Holzkarren, mit denen alles Mögliche transportiert wurde, zum Beispiel die Kessel mit Essen und auch Tote. Die Karren waren nicht lang genug, oft ragten Füße oder Köpfe der Leichen unter den Tüchern hervor, mit denen sie bedeckt waren. Und einmal sah Hanna, wie der Kopf einer Frau bis auf die Straße gerutscht war und holpernd über das Pflaster geschleift wurde. Sie schaute schnell weg. Sie lernte es, wegzuschauen, denn ohne diese Fähigkeit war ein Ort wie Theresienstadt nicht zu ertragen. Wegschauen und weghören gehörte zu dem neuen Leben, das begonnen hatte. Wie hätte man es sonst aushalten können, wenn SS-Männer mit ihren unvermeidlichen Knüppeln oder mit Gewehrkolben auf Häftlinge einschlugen, oft alte Menschen, die ihre Großväter oder Großmütter hätten sein können, die dann blutend zusammenbrachen und mit überschnappenden Stimmen um Gnade winselten?’
From Ein Buch für Hannah, Mirjam Pressler (2007).
It took almost fifteen years before anything changed. The change came with the Eichmann trial in the early ‘60s that brought the horrors of the Third Reich back into the spotlight. The next generation started to ask questions: what had happened? How could it be that everybody just kept silent about something so hugely important? ‘It was with that mindset that Damals war es Friedrich was written. It’s a book that does give information about the past but also comforts the readers with the notion of the good German and the consolation that they were not guilty. It was written to educate historically and morally’, says Jung. The characters were kept flat and were more stereotypical than human, as if to deliberately create emotional distance.
Now she can see that the book she hated so much was a product of its time. It was one of the first books that addressed the Holocaust and therefore must have been a huge relief for many youths to read it. ‘Even though the war was hardly talked about, it was always there’, she says. ‘Now there was a book that finally told them what went on, that took them seriously.’ Maybe that’s also why the book is still read in schools: because of the impact it had on the teachers in their time.
But everything went silent after the publication. ‘It was as if people said: we have a book now, let’s leave it at that’, Jung says. Only in the late ’70s and early ’80s did things pick up again. However, the narrative still divided the actors in victims and perpetrators. ‘It is as if the German authors and readers were projecting or adopting into this – if you will – easier perspective.’
It wasn’t until the ’90s that a truly new youth literature arose, and when those new books began to be published, they were far richer and more layered than before. ‘Writers were trying to find out what drives human beings to act in a certain way. They explored the German suffering and the Nazi society, but also the Holocaust itself psychologically.’
They emerged in a time when the living memory of the Third Reich was fading, but old borders were also dwindling. The Schengen Treaty made border controls unnecessary, the Berlin Wall came down and the euro was introduced. The old perspectives of perpetrators and victims were changing. ‘In Germany, the notion arose that there had been a lot of German suffering, too. At the same time, in other countries like the Netherlands, new generations posed new questions, like why had the biggest number of Jews been taken from the Netherlands.’
It created room for nuance, says Jung. Anybody could have been a perpetrator, a victim, or anything in between. And as the last eyewitnesses are vanishing, there’s time for a new way of storytelling: postmemorial.
The books about the Third Reich are no longer trying to teach their audience a supposed truth, Jung found. These days, they are exploring the human mind – as literature should. ‘They’re no longer trying to educate, but to be sensible’, Jung says. ‘First-person perspectives take the reader everywhere, from the Dresden bombings to the gas chambers in Theresienstadt.’
Darker and more extreme
It poses a problem, though. Youth literature usually wants to help young readers make sense of the world. Yet how do you make sense of the Holocaust, something that is beyond making sense of? ‘This new literature is probing that question’, Jung says. ‘The books have become darker still and more extreme.’
There’s even a name for it: Nachtliteratur. It means that it handles not only dark topics, but goes even beyond that. Like Ein Buch für Hannah, which is about a Jewish girl that tries to reach Palestine but ends up in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. ‘The narrative is brutally compelling, like when she describes the way bodies are being piled up with their heads hanging to the side. In other texts, you wouldn’t see this.’ Another writer – Waldtraut Lewin in his book, Marek und Maria – creates a love story with the horrible Dresden bombings as backdrop.
There’s a lot of criticism, though. People are talking about the Spielbergisation of the memory and feel the Third Reich is just exploited for a good story. Jung doesn’t agree. She thinks yet again that it’s a clash of generations. ‘These books take the national narrative and put it into a kind of universal perspective.’
It is necessary, though. ‘Young people are quite removed from the events of the War. Very few people actually experienced it or know someone who has, so these books are bringing back the emotion into the story. You have to do that, because if you don’t, you will have a hard time connecting. So I personally embrace the development.’
But it’s hardly simple. ‘When you write a story – like Joseph Holub’s Lausige Zeiten – about a boy in a national socialistic boarding school and show how he is being indoctrinated, you can relate that to Foucault’s ideas about closed systems, or Goffman’s concept of the ‘total institution’, for example. It seems to me that that is quite a complex way of dealing with the matter at hand.’
‘Wir wohnten im ersten Stock. Oder nein, meine Eltern wohnten damals im ersten Stock. Mein Vater war arbeitslos und wollte schon die Wohnung bei Herrn Resch gegen eine kleinere eintauschen, als ich mich anmeldete. Im Jahre 1925 hatten die meisten Deutschen keine Ersparnisse mehr, denn eben erst war die Geldentwertung überstanden. Bald eine lohnende Beschäftigung zu finden, dafür bestanden geringe Aussichten. Not und Arbeitslosigkeit nahmen überall zu. So machten sich meine Eltern noch mehr Sorgen, als ich zur Welt kam: Auch ich wollte essen und musste angezogen werden.
Genau eine Woche nach meinem Geburtstag wurde Friedrich Schneider geboren. Schneiders wohnten im gleichen Haus, eine Treppe höher. Herr Schneider war Beamter bei der Post. Meine Eltern kannten ihn wenig. Er grüßte freundlich, wenn er morgens zu seiner Dienststelle ging, und er grüßte ebenso freundlich, wenn er abends nach Hause zurückkam; nur gelegentlich wechselte man einige Worte.
Frau Schneider, eine kleine dunkelhaarige Frau, sah man noch seltener. Sie kaufte ein oder putzte ihre Treppe und verschwand gleich darauf wieder in der Wohnung. Wem sie begegnete, den lächelte sie an, aber sie blieb nie auf der Straße stehen. Erst nachdem Friedrich und ich so kurz nacheinander anrückten, kamen unsere Eltern sich näher.’
From Damals war es Friedrich, Hans Peter Richter (1961).