- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2005


By Uwe Timm

Translated by Anthea Bell

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $21, 148 pages


The original German title of Uwe Timm’s memoir translates as, “On the Example of My Brother.” That captures its central concern rather more pointedly than “In My Brother’s Shadow,” for what he wrestles with here is whether the wartime experiences of his long-dead brother Karl-Heinz left an example that can be understood.

In any case, it is not Karl-Heinz’s shadow that Mr. Timm seems to have been in most of his life, but that of his father, with whom he also does a bit of figurative wrestling. He says, “Writing about my brother means writing about my father too.”

Mr. Timm, a respected German novelist (“The Invention of Curried Sausage”), was three years old when his brother, 16 years older and a member of the Waffen SS, died in Ukraine in 1943 shortly after being wounded and having both his legs amputated. Timm tried several times to write about him, but couldn’t while his mother, father and sister were still alive.

He retains only one memory, from age 2, of life with his brother, yet he “accompanied me through my childhood, absent and yet present in my mother’s grief, my father’s doubts, the hints my parents dropped when they were talking to each other.”

Those doubts and hints are the same ones that bedevil Mr. Timm. Why did Karl-Heinz volunteer for the Death’s Head Division of the Waffen SS, an elite military organization that suffered high casualties and later became associated with atrocities? What might his fate have been had he joined the regular army, the Wehrmacht, that suffered fewer casualties and that had nothing to do with “those terrible things?”

Using a fragmentary diary that Karl-Heinz kept at the front and family recollections and experiences, the author tries to puzzle out what Karl-Heinz’s attitude was toward such things as his duty to kill for the state. Did he take part in atrocities?

The diary reveals that Karl-Heinz regarded the killing of German civilians by Allied bombers as murder. The killing of Russian civilians by German soldiers he seems to have accepted as normal.

Then there is the cryptic diary entry that repeatedly nags at Mr. Timm’s mind: “75m away Ivan smoking cigarettes, fodder for my MG [machine gun].”

To soldiers, on either side, who had experienced similar situations, Karl-Heinz’s observation might seem everyday combat; to Timm, it is chilling. What kind of example is that? Is there any example there at all? Ultimately, he finds no definitive answers.

To a large extent this book can be understood by invoking another, one to which Mr. Timm himself makes several references: Christopher R. Browning’s “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland,” the account of how average Germans became the cold-blooded murderers of tens of thousands of Jews. It is a book that, while letting no one off the moral hook, suggests that those who perpetrated the Holocaust were men much like men everywhere and not embodiments of a widespread and virulent anti-Semitism peculiar to Germans, as Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” maintains, for example.

Mr. Timm grapples with this quintessentially German question by bringing it into the context of family relationships, particularly those with his father. Mr. Timm, two decades younger than his brother and sister, was the “afterthought child,” an admitted “mummy’s boy,” while Karl-Heinz had always been devoted to his father, who served in the German military at the same time as his older son and was a veteran of World War I as well.

“Karl-Heinz, my father’s big boy, why did it have to be him?” Mr. Timm writes. “My father would fall silent, and you could feel the loss in him, you could see him wondering which of us might better have been spared.”

Mr. Timm senses that his parents always felt they had been dealt a blow by fate, thus allowing them to avoid questions of responsibility; “everything was dreadful for the very reason that you had been a victim yourself.” He wonders: Did his brother think this way?

His mother did occasionally wonder about her own guilt. His father, though, typically reacted with “an attitude of morose injury” at the destruction of the German Reich, emphasizing the definite article. There was an attempt, Timm feels, “to make the guilt relative, to shift our own guilt to the victors, to make them participants in our own guilt.”

Few peoples have been forced, by themselves and others, to examine their own character and history as much as the Germans have. As Mr. Timm’s memoir shows, they have become adept at it. Would that some other nations would sharpen the skill.

Roger K. Miller, a newspaperman for many years, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.

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