Seventeen years after I had left it—left, as we say, forever—I went back to Germany.
I returned, last summer, not to exorcise a few aging, probably dated demons, but rather to make a kind of pilgrimage to the sources. The criminal is not alone when he returns to the scene of the crime; he is joined there by his victim, and together they are excited by the same curiosity: to relive that moment which stamped past and future for them both. So I undertook to retrace my steps, to seek a double confrontation : between them and myself, and between the self I had left at Buchenwald and the other self that thought it was healed.
I came away from the confrontation with my head down in humiliation. I had been sure of finding my hate for Germany intact; I had thought it eternal, seventeen years before. But you learn that even eternity changes its face.
After the war, I had deliberately avoided all contact with Germans. Their presence physically sickened me: the blood rushed to my head when I received a letter from a cousin in Frankfort. At the Waldorf in New York, two years ago, I had witnessed the meeting of David Ben Gurion and Konrad Adenauer, smiling, handshaking, exchanging compliments. I could hardly bear to watch. Where Germany was concerned, logical arguments no longer had any force for me.
Hence it was with apprehension that I prepared for the journey where my hate was waiting for me. I did not know that it would break the appointment. Baudelaire calls hate a drunkard in the gloom of a tavern who can never fall asleep under the table. But there are drunkards who die in their sleep.
Yet on my side the task should not have been difficult. What could be easier than to detest this people? They had started and lost the most ignominious war in history, and afterward they managed to surpass their conquerors in wealth and happiness. Above all, in complacency.
In the Paris-Stuttgart plane, there was a man sitting beside me who was a student of philosophy at Heidelberg. He asked me what I thought his country was like. I replied: I imagine it abject and kneeling, filled with ruins and cemeteries, sobbing with fear and remorse; I imagine it famished and tormented, its inhabitants crawling on the ground, begging for pardon and oblivion. He burst out laughing. Then I can promise you a surprise, he said.
He was right to laugh at me. Of course, I was not thinking of his country’s material condition, for I knew it was at the peak of its productivity. The cold war requires a “German shield,” military strength matched by economic power. The Bonn politicians like to talk of the “economic miracle” of the Bundesrepublik, and it is so. Reconstructed German industry once again plays a preponderant role in world markets, the Krupp factories work at top speed, there is no unemployment. Berlin organizes film festivals to rival those at Cannes and Venice; Volkswagons and Mercedes streak the dusty roads of Asia, not to mention the superhighways of America. Living conditions have never been better, houses hold every comfort and convenience, the worker has more than in France or Italy, and is maybe happier too. Frankfort and Baden-Baden swarm with foreign tourists, as in Paris and Rome one tourist out of two speaks German. A journalist in Munich told me: winning the war is good, losing it is better.
It was not all this that I found irritating, not the country’s prosperity, but the people’s complacency—a self-satisfaction unhaunted by the past. Only we others think about the past. They are not doing much thinking about the future, either. People in Norway or Holland, for instance, are more concerned with the fate of Berlin than the West Germans are. The Germans do not seem anxious about their split into two enemy camps and the possible dangers this holds for the world. They look straight into your eyes when you talk to them, as if they had nothing to fear or hide—were accountable to no one. Ready to admit they are no longer our superiors, they insist on being our equals. The German does not permit himself to be judged, he is as good a man as any.
We—the victims—had not imagined, during the war, that it would be this way after Germany’s defeat. We were convinced that a great deal of water would have to flow under the bridges of the Rhine before a member of the nation of executioners would dare look with unwavering glance into the eyes of a free man.
The Germans themselves were convinced of this. They were certain that the curse would pursue them, that they would never be allowed to forget. Fear kept them awake at night: the thirst for vengeance of the survivors, they thought, would surely be insatiable. In the years immediately after the war, if you stopped a man in Munich or Kassel he would begin trembling and stammering: “I didn’t do anything, see anything, know anything. I was at the front, in the hospital, at my office; I knew nothing of what was happening. I saw trains going east, yes, people disappearing, yes, I saw a column of smoke in the distance, but—I didn’t know, no one told me.”
Then came the Nuremberg trials, and the execution of the major war criminals. The Germans could scarcely believe what they heard and saw: “Then they don’t blame us? . . . They’re leaving us alone, they’re not going to make us pay?” When they came face to face with Jews, they couldn’t help being suspicious. “What do they want from us, what are they up to? They can’t forgive us so quickly, what’s on their minds?” But finally the Germans understood that they had nothing to fear, and so their fear turned into contempt. “Look at those Jews: they’re not even capable of revenge!”—and a new phase began, the phase of self-justification. If we are not judged, it is because we have done nothing, we are innocent. Hitler? The world could and should have stopped him in time; it did not, and it must share our guilt. The camps? Their existence was known in Washington, in London, in the Vatican: no voice was raised in protest against Auschwitz. The German people were not the only ones silent: great leaders accustomed to speaking in the name of conscience and of civilization were also silent. Why blame only us?
Nevertheless, the Germans did admit a certain guilt toward the Jews. The Bonn government signed the reparations agreement with Israel and the Claims Conference in acknowledgment of this guilt—and that was that. What more did anyone want? Israel itself had offered them pardon: Israel had sold “Uzi” machine guns to the German army, and Israeli manufacturers had supplied it with uniforms. Adenauer’s Germany, Ben Gurion proclaimed in a foreign policy speech to the Knesset, is no longer the Germany that lived under Hitler. And Washington agrees. Chancellor Adenauer is one of the West’s Big Four; if Bonn pouts over Berlin or NATO, Washington does all it can to restore good feelings: the normal procedures of the cold war world.
How, then, should the Germans be embarrassed any longer before a foreign visitor, or play the innocent to impress anyone? They are as they are, and if you don’t like them, too bad. They will neither change nor lie to please a foreigner. Israel’s request to establish normal diplomatic relations was met with a polite but firm refusal from Bonn: it was not the other way round. It is as if the Germans were saying to Israel: it’s over, we no longer owe you anything. At Brussels, when Israel needed support in order to reach an agreement with the Common Market, it was not Germany that stepped forward. Israel had ceased being a moral problem for Germany—the issue was now political. The converse, unfortunately, was also true.
The Germany that swarmed with impersonators and cowardly liars during the years immediately following the capitulation of the Wehrmacht, that Germany no longer exists. You no longer hear anyone cursing Hitler in hopes of exonerating himself. No one, these days, feels he has to exclaim: “It wasn’t me, it was those others!” One young intellectual told me: “Hitler wasn’t a bad man; he was wrong to surround himself with scum.” Another young intellectual repeated to me what Heinrich Gruber, the famous bishop of Berlin and the only German witness at the Eichmann Trial, had said to a visitor from America: “Hitler was only the scourge of God to chastise His people.” In which case, are we permitted to judge the Divine Instrument?
Now and then a scandal breaks which arouses a measure of public opinion. Wolfgang Fraenkel, attorney-general of the Bonn Supreme Court, confessed finally that he had himself been a Nazi judge on the infamous “People’s Tribunals”; more than one death lay on his own conscience, while for ten years he was officially probing the consciences of his former comrades who did exactly what he did under Hitler. A nice comedy. He was relieved of his post, but not of his rights to a pension.
In Hamburg, Fritz Puls was arrested and accused of war crimes during the Russian campaign. At the time of his arrest, he was serving as a district judge.
In Frankfort, Otto Hunsche, one of Eichmann’s aides, was tried and convicted: co-responsible for the deportation of the Hungarian Jews. When he was sentenced to a mere five years in prison, even the German press cried shame.
In Nuremberg, Erich von dem Bach-Zelweski, a former SS general, commander of an Einspatz-Kommando in charge of slaughtering Jews and Russian partisans, was accused of having murdered seven members of an anti-Nazi group in 1933. (The tens of thousands of Polish Jews he and his SS men killed off even before they destroyed the Warsaw Ghetto were not included in the indictment.)
But these cases, exploding in the German press from time to time, are not instruments of justice, nor of purification, but only of internal politics. The Fraenkel scandal came to light only because the East German Communists saw in it a chance to damage Bonn: and it was they who produced the documents and furnished the proofs which the opposition in Bonn then used to explode the case. Whenever the opposition wants to embarrass Adenauer, it opens a dossier on one of his collaborators, most of whom—Hans Globke most prominently—cannot boast of a spotless past.
The Germans no longer feel any shame over these exposures and they deny outsiders the right to intervene in any way. It is their own business, they say—just as an internal American scandal (they mention Billy Sol Estes) is exclusively American business, or the Israeli scandal of Yaakov Bar-Or (Gideon Hauser’s assistant, recently found guilty of using false university degrees) concerns only Israel. If (as in the case of Franz-Josef Strauss) the German army is involved in politics, that also is strictly Germany’s business. If you say to them: “You are forgetting that it was in this way that your country first fell into the hands of dictators,” they reply: “Keep your own nose clean. Look at America’s General Walker, France’s Generals Salan and Jouhaud.” It is useless to argue that Walker was dismissed, that Salan and Jouhaud are in prison. The Germans no longer feel they are standing at the bar of history.
I for one had no desire to argue with them. I could not imagine that a dialogue was possible. Anything between us would not be words: language was already too much of a link.
But finally, if I was compelled to cut short my visit and take the plane back to Paris after forty-eight hours, it was precisely because I fell into the trap: I answered questions, I shook hands, I even smiled back. And then I could bear no more of this civilized behavior: I began to hate myself, having lost my taste for hating others.
The very first contact was, indeed, just as I had imagined it would be. A shudder ran through me as I set foot on German soil and caught sight of the police uniforms. When the customs officer questioned me in German I chose to answer in English, in brief, hostile phrases. “Nothing to declare?” he asked.
“I said: nothing.”
“Danke sehr, mein Herr.” I shrugged and walked away from him without another word. German politesse was something I was not interested in. The customs man stared after me—he was no longer used to this sort of hostility.
(In New York, I had run into a different kind of official. When I went to arrange for my trip, the head of the visa section of the German Consulate behaved with particular arrogance. It was clear that he suspected every Jew who asked for a visa of scheming to emigrate to Germany. His interrogation was humiliating. When I objected, he furiously reproached me for being oversensitive: he did not understand how a Jew could be oversensitive to a German who is only trying to hurt his feelings.)
I strolled through the streets of Stuttgart, waiting for the train for Baden-Baden. Now and then my eyes rested on a face: “This one too?” I stared insistently at a middle-aged man; I wanted to perceive the invisible: what had he done during the war? Had our paths ever crossed in the world of concentration camps? I was in enemy territory, surrounded by suspect faces; on guard, as if threatened by an unknown but familiar danger.
I had been walking in silence, alone, for an hour. A young woman came up and asked me the way to the station. I told her I did not know, that I was a stranger. She smiled. I almost smiled back, when my lips suddenly froze: I became aware that I had been speaking German.
Later I allowed myself to relax. The definition of man as a social animal—a polite animal—is a true one. I had mistakenly supposed that all definitions would have to be revised for Germany.
In Baden-Baden I took part in the taping of a radio program. Listening afterwards I found what I heard incredible: there was no hate in my voice, not even bitterness, perhaps just a shade of the anger I was, unconsciously, trying to conceal. Instead of shrieking out a curse, I merely murmured. It is difficult to live among men because it is difficult to keep still, Nietzsche said. But I should have kept still.
Next day I spoke in Munich. The Bechtle Verlag, my publisher in Germany, had arranged an evening of readings. I read from the original French text of my first book, Night, which is a memoir of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and the young novelist Peter Jokostra read the German translation. The audience listened in silence, and then sat motionless for a while. I reassured myself: after all, there is a certain logic in my being here and relating to these Germans a few chapters of “our” history—our history in common. But I could not shake off the uneasiness that weighed upon me. The Israeli humorist Ephraim Kishon has remarked: Logic, too, went up in smoke at Auschwitz.
I talked about literature and philosophy far into the night with a group of writers, young men between twenty and thirty. The subject of the camps came up seldom, always indirectly, elliptically. One man said to me: “It doesn’t interest me, because man doesn’t interest me; only abstract ideas are worth bothering about.” Another remarked, apologetically: “Such themes are too sad. I like literature to have more gaiety, more joie de vivre.” A third said: “I heard you read tonight, but I must confess that concentration camp literature leaves me cold, I just don’t understand it.”
Of course there are some German writers tormented by a guilt they shared by the mere fact of having lived under the Nazi regime—Heinrich Böll and Paul Shaluck, for example. Others live with a memory inherited from their fathers: like Günter Grass. The burden of guilt weighs sometimes heavy, sometimes lighter. In the writings of Martin Walser, Peter Jokostra, Alfred Andersch, or Ulrich Becher, there is, if not revolt, at least a search for justice and an authentic protest. Their heroes sit uncomfortably in their skins, feeling their corruption. Yet these writers, for the most part, do not truly represent the younger generation. The members of the younger generation have adopted a quasi-Brechtian attitude, seeing and judging the past from a distance, not in order to comprehend it better but to prove that they have nothing in common with it. Novelists like Hans Christian Kirsch or Uwe Johnson turn their backs on the Nazi period as something alien to them. In the schools, there is rarely a mention of what the Jewish Question was under Hitler. Dachau for the young students is the name of a peaceful village: the word has no other ring. Auschwitz is—ancient history. Yet these students have to be told something, and they are told that it is true the Nazis mistreated the Jews: but the teachers do not go into indelicate detail. Even if they did, the students would not be interested—it is all dead and gone and they can pass their tests and make their way in life without knowing such things.
I had imagined an angry German youth. I had seen the reports of students making a pilgrimage to Bergen-Belsen, and shedding bitter tears at a performance of The Diary of Anne Frank. Surely if any youth had the right, and even the urgent duty, to fling its rage into the face of its parents, it was not the youth of England, nor of Paris, but of Germany. May not a young German be permitted to accuse his father: “So that was it, you were at Birkenau. You were one of the cowards, I despise you.” So I had imagined. But nothing I saw or heard in Germany, and virtually nothing I have read, bears witness to an angry youth: there is more anger in the youth of France or England or the United States. One exception is Günter Grass. He describes, in his “The Tin Drum,” a dwarf who refuses to grow, or talk, or escape his condition: in this way he judges his contemporaries, who may criticize the Adenauer regime but think it political whimsey to bother about what went before.
To be sure, the intellectual elite tries here and there to sound the alarm. Lectures are held, and books dealing with Jewish subjects are published. Martin Buber has for some time now been glorified, Exodus appears on the best-seller lists, and a translation is being prepared of the works of Sholem Aleichem and of Mendele Mocher Sforim. To all this, the general population continues to remain cool. It is not good breeding, in today’s Germany, to discuss Buchenwald. If Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just achieved only limited sales in Germany as compared with its reception in other countries, it was because it contained an indictment of those who made Ernie Levy their victim. The works of a Paul Rassinier sell better and are praised more. In his three so-called historical sketches, this author claims to “prove” that the Nazi liquidation of the European Jews was only a myth invented by the Zionists and their friends. According to him, the Nazis did not kill off six million Jews—a few hundred thousand at the most. Gas chambers?—pure fantasy. The Germans—young and old—like to hear a “Herr Professor”—for Rassinier is a professor and French—tell them such things. It reassures them. If, at a certain period, the Germans were in bad odor the world over, it was not their fault: blame the Jews.
Suddenly, I no longer knew why I had come. To tell them about the camps? Convince them that such things had really existed? To describe the Nazi era which was, in Malraux’s phrase, “a time of scorn”? I did nothing of the kind.
Aside from that one reading of a few pages of Night, I treated Auschwitz as taboo. I found absurd the notion that a Jewish writer should come and tell the Germans about their crimes. Reveal, perhaps, but tell? What was there that had not already been told? Each time my interlocutors out of politeness tried to broach the subject, I changed it. But it was only later that I understood why: I was no longer capable of hating.
A few months before, at a party in New York, a young woman came up to me and said: “Deep down, I’m afraid of you. I know you hate me.” I was stunned: “Why should I hate you?” She was of German origin, she confessed. I blushed: “Of course I couldn’t hate you, you’re too lovely.” She was in fact known for her opposition to Hitler and had spent many months in Nazi prisons, but I didn’t know it at the time. I had blushed simply because I was ashamed of being accused of hate: so I had explained it to myself. The real truth was different: I had blushed because I was ashamed of having permitted my hate to get away from me. It was this shame that overwhelmed me in Germany: I was betraying the dead. Instead of judging the Germans, then, I judged myself.
After the war, one question had absorbed me: how explain the absence of vengeful feelings on the part of the survivors? When Buchenwald was liberated, the Russian prisoners lost no time commandeering American jeeps and driving to Weimar, where for hours on end they machine-gunned the inhabitants for having led a normal—if not peaceful—life on the other side of the barbed wire. The liberated Jews did nothing like this. Why not? In Palestine, in the kibbutzim and around the Palmach campfires, the idea of vengeance was violently argued—and rejected. The basic principle embraced was that the Nazi crimes must be opposed by a humane justice: hate must not be fought with hate. We had to show the executioners our moral superiority, prove to the other peoples that the Jews are incapable of deeds of hate. Hatred of the enemy—especially in his defeat—has never been a Jewish habit. “Rejoice not on seeing thine enemy struck down,” Solomon teaches. There is a passage in the Midrash which describes the wrath of God against His angels who had begun singing His praises as the Jews were crossing the Red Sea. “My creatures [the Egyptians] are drowning and you are disposed to sing?” And though he lost his throne for it, Saul refused to kill Agag, the Amalekite king who is the symbol of Israel’s hereditary enemy. Typically, in the few places where hatred figures in the Bible, it is always hatred of family, of tribe, or of neighbor—not of foreigners. The Jews are suspicious of foreigners, they do not hate them. The Torah bids us remember Amalek, not hate it. In modern times, the ghetto Jews expended upon the Judenrat a more concentrated hatred than upon the Germans themselves, and during the British occupation of Palestine, the secret political organizations hated each other more than they hated the English.
The night Eichmann was executed, a friend of mine made a remark which at the time left me perplexed: he could not help feeling a kind of pity for this functionary of death as he stepped to the scaffold. I protested violently. It was, indeed, not until I re-entered Germany that I understood about hate, a hate that was more than desirable: justified. It escapes us, disappears as the events that engendered it have disappeared.
A Jewish poet in an extermination camp prayed: “O God, give me the strength to hate.” Of reasons he had more than enough, and it was only strength he needed. Two thousand years of persecution had failed to prepare the Jewish mentality for hate, had only immunized it against hate. Jewish history is full of examples, from Akiba to Hillel Zeitlin, of how the Jews have always been able to meet beast with man, massacre with prayer, cruelty with faith.
It must be said, moreover, that relations—aside from the business of propaganda—between Jews and Germans had always been, in the time of the apocalypse, devoid of hatred. This seems strange, yet it is what gave—and still gives—the tragedy its true dimension of horror. “I am not an anti-Semite,” Eichmann proclaimed in his trial at Jerusalem: the same Eichmann who was responsible for thousands of death trains. Absurd as it seems, he was probably telling the truth. He killed off Jews—and he did not necessarily hate them. The Nazis saw the Jews not as human beings—stimulating hatred or justifying it—but simply as objects, minerals, numbers: one does not hate numbers. As for the Jews, they saw the Germans as a machine crushing life and spirit, reducing them to ashes: one does not hate a machine. In the camp—I am trying to remember—my senses were too atrophied to make me capable of hate. Yet if I was able to feel hate, it was directed toward my bunkmate because he had wangled an additional ration of soup or bread. You hate man. For us the SS guards were a force that destroyed and denied man. You do not hate the stone that crushes you, or the animal that devours you. Only man inspires hate, and only man suffers it. At the moment of his death, the victim does not cast his last glance of hate at the executioner: it is his comrades he hates, those who betrayed or abandoned or forgot him, or simply, those who remain alive, which is reason enough to hate them. The executioner already belongs to the landscape of death. “I forgive you!” Pierre Laval shouted these last words to the soldiers of the firing squad. His hate was directed toward the judges and witnesses, and toward the joy of the victors—his equals, whom chance had favored. In our heart of hearts, we hate only what resembles us. The first murder was a fratricide.
There is a time to love and a time to hate; whoever does not hate when he should, does not deserve to love when he is able. Perhaps, had we learned to hate more during the years of ordeal, fate itself would have taken fright. The Germans did their best to teach us, but we were poor pupils in the discipline of hate. Yet today, even having been deserted by my hate during that fleeting visit to Germany, I cry out with all my heart against forgiveness, against forgetting, against silence. Every Jew, somewhere in his being, should set apart a zone of hate—healthy, virile hate—for what the German personifies and for what persists in the German. To do otherwise would be a betrayal of the dead.
* * *
I shall not return to Germany soon again.