Watching the Holocaust--From a Distance

The German Lesson, by Siegfried Lenz Hill and Wang, 471 pp. $8.95

THE PHOTOGRAPHS force us to remember. The hollow faces and hopeless eyes of the victims keep us from slipping the Nazis back into history. For those of us born after the holocaust, pictures and stories are all we have to help us understand. But who can understand a nightmare? Analyze it, break it down to rational bits. You can understand the bits, but the terror will elude you. It is the terror you feel while you watch on color film as the camera sweeps along the ceiling of a gas chamber, and you see the concrete surface riddled and gouged by dying fingers. It is the terror of incomprehension. Were these Germans men or monsters? How could human beings do a thing like this?

The easiest way to understand them is to dismiss them as monsters. If writing off a whole nation makes you uncomfortable, you can posit a totalitarian state that shredded a people to an atomized mass and transformed each man into a monster. But the facts are less convenient. Most Germans lived close to normal lives. The world turned upside down, but most Germans remained standing.

The Nazi citizens in Siegfried Lenz's fine novel. The German Lesson, are not fear-crazed automatons. They are men and women who eat herring, talk gossip, wash dishes and dig ditches. In decent times they would be called decent people. Their tragedy is their loss of contact with life. They live according to ideals, according to banal principles of duty, work, honor. When the world turns ugly and nobility of duty becomes complicity in murder, they never notice.

THE FATHER of Siggi, the narrator, is a policeman by the name of Jens Ole Jepsen. Jepsen honors duty above all things. "I don't ask what good it does a man to do his duty, nor whether it's good for him or not," he remarks. "Where would it get us all if every time we did something we asked ourselves what it was going to lead to?" Jepsen never asks. He turns in his son Klaas as a deserter with the same alacrity and sense of duty that he feels when he spanks naughty Siggi or rescues a cat from a tree. He lives according to the stereotype of "the impeccable officer of the law" and carries out orders with zeal--"without orders he was only half a man."

When Jepsen receives orders from Berlin to stop Max Ludwig Nansen from painting, he feels rather awkward. Nansen is not only a world famous artist, he is also Jepsen's lifelong friend. But the policemen never wavers. Echoing the party line, he informs an incredulous neighbor that their friend Nansen is "a danger to the State and undesirable, simply degenerate, if you see what I mean." Jepsen hesitates in the performance of duty when he finds the wounded body of his traitor son. But the hesitation is momentary. "What has to be done is going to be done," he reassures his wife, who has begun to doubt his resolve. And at the end, as British troops approach the town, Jepsen digs trenches and waits, performing a grotesque masquerade extracted from World War I movies and barroom battle tales.


Jepsen is not out to save his neck. He is a good citizen who enjoys his work. The artist Nansen calls him "a man who only wants to do his duty and makes no other demands on himself." His self-image is a stereotype: he is, as Siggi realizes, the embodiment of "the joys of duty."

WATCHING JEPSEN we are reminded of Adolf Eichmann, the office worker and patriot who, busily arranging deportation dates and train schedules, had neither the chance nor the inclination to point the finger of death at individual victims. Here was, in Hannah Arendt's words, "a mass murderer who had never killed." But Eichmann, like the fictional Jepsen, was no mindless cog in the Nazi machine. He was an individual who liked his job and did it well. When Himmler ordered Eichmann near the end of the war to halt the deportation of Hungarian Jews, the outraged bureaucrat threatened to appeal the decision to Hitler. In his own smaller sphere, Jepsen too has a sense of duty that goes beyond the letter of an individual order. "They say you're doing more than anybody's supposed to, anyway more than duty demands of you," a neighbor tells Jepsen. "You don't know what they expect from me, the whole lot of you," Jepsen replies.

Jepsen cannot be sure what "they" expect from him, either. He is guided by his sense of what a loyal policeman should do and think. When the ugliness of events looms before him, he shuts his eyes and keeps on working. He lacks the humanity of Nansen, who agrees to hide the deserter Klaas from the Gestapo. The painter quickly abandons generalities when he is confronted by a contradictory reality. Although Nansen joined the Nazis when the Party was still a small band of loudmouthed chauvinists, he rejects the National Socialist State just as everybody begins to cheer it, because he sees the brutality behind the ideals.

Most Germans saw only the ideals. Watching the films and hearing the songs of the time, we can appreciate the power of those ideals. The myth of a man as a warrior against Fate, the call to self-sacrifice, the eulogies of the people, the veneration of the spiritual and the degradation of the material--even today, a quarter-century later, we find these platitudes attractive.

The Nazis were sincere in their cult of the spirit. As sincere as the pilot who risks his life bombing children into the ground to safeguard their freedom. National Socialism canonized cliches but pulverized thoughts. The cultural shell was reinforced by official approval, constant repetition, and deliberate concessions to popular taste. For example, when the Nazis banned Expressionist art, most Germans nodded approvingly. Would most Americans act differently today? "Art is not a sphere of life that exists for itself, which must defend itself against the invasion of the people. Art is a function of the life of the people and the artist its blessed endower of meaning." Only an intellectual would object to these fine words of Goebbels. And many intellectuals would agree.

Forget the intellectuals. Forget the bureaucrats. There will always be some to spin and spread the lies. But afterwards, will the ordinary man be able to compare the propaganda world with the reality that surrounds him? Or is the world of lies so powerful and deceptive that only the eye of the true artist can distinguish fact from fiction? The Nazi use of radio is rivaled only by the American use of television. As industrial society eats away the old world and drops a substitute behind, we can no longer rely on an obvious disparity between the truth we see and the falsehood we are fed. Our tastes, our pleasures, our thoughts and, at last, our morality become nothing more than conditioned response.

WHEN JEPSEN calls his old friend Nansen a "degenerate," he is taking the word of the loudspeaker over the experience of his daily life. This victory of the pseudo-idea is the triumph of Nazism. The exceptional man, the artist of whatever profession who can see through the lies, resists. The rest follow. And even Nansen turns his eyes from the central horror. When the breeze wafts the black smoke of the death camp ovens towards the small town where the painter and the policeman live, the two men have lies to blow the smoke away: "the Dutch are burning peat, they said, and their minds were at rest."

What could they say? What do we say? Our machines have outraced our minds, and we are unable to comprehend the evil that our tools accomplish. It is easy to react to the ugliness close at hand. It is easy to share the dismay of the college president surveying the wreckage of his occupied office. But the greater horror eludes us. The Jews were slaughtered nearby, the Vietnamese are killed thousands of miles away: the lesson is the same. With a bit of government cosmetics, suffering can be forgotten if it is kept at arm's length. As evil becomes impersonal, we must fight to remember that suffering remains human.