The Weekend

Bernhard Schlink is known as the author of elegant philosophical novels that examine facets of his native Germany's troubled history. But he is also a lawyer, has served as a judge, and frequently teaches classes in the philosophy of law in both Germany and the United States. Schlink particularly enjoys his work on the bench: "What I've loved," he has said, "is using all my theoretical, doctrinal, philosophical and historical knowledge, for the solution of a problem."

 

These are exactly the skills he brings to his fiction. The son of a theologian, Schlink was brought up to look at life as a series of moral problems. Historical events encouraged this natural propensity. At the time of the author's birth in 1944, German armies were facing imminent defeat across Europe, and the Nazi regime was self-destructing at home. Schlink's childhood was passed in the postwar miasma of guilt, horror, and recrimination: his 1995 novel The Reader, which has now become required reading in German schools, must surely stem from his memories of that period. The reuinification of Germany two decades ago reawakened many ghosts, as his book Homecoming (2006) demonstrates. And now Schlink has directed his attention to the 1970s, a time when many of his contemporaries turned to extreme leftist politics, and a radical few to terrorism.

 

The Weekend examines the moral legacy of that era, when the so-called Red Army Faction (better known outside of Germany as the Baader-Meinhof Group) killed a total of thirty-four people and in 1977 brought the country to a high pitch of fear. Jörg, The Weekend's central character, is supposed to have been associated with this group; he was eventually convicted on four counts of murder and consigned to prison, where he stayed for twenty-four years. As the story begins, Jörg, now in late middle age, has been released on a presidential pardon. This pardon is supposed to symbolize reconciliation, the closing of the door on that particular national trauma.

 

Jörg's sister Christiane has organized a weekend party to welcome him back to freedom. The guests, most of whom haven't seen each other since their student days, assemble obediently at Christiane's dilapidated manor house in the depths of the Brandenburg countryside. They have all left their radical pasts far behind. Karin has become a bishop in the Lutheran church. Ulrich owns and runs dental laboratories. Ilse, for many years a schoolteacher, has begun to write fiction. Andreas, the terrorists' lawyer, now represents more conventional clients. They all have a hard time understanding their youthful convictions, suspecting that even at the time their motivations were less than pure. Only Jörg appears unrepentant, ready if necessary to resume the armed struggle.

 

But how much of his apparent resolve is real and how much is due to mere vanity? This is what the others wonder as they watch Jörg preen in the adoring gaze of a young acolyte, Marko. Or is he simply stupid, ethically and intellectually incapable of feeling remorse for the four innocent lives he took? After all, it's not as if "the people's liberation struggle against imperialism and colonialism" put the slightest check on the actual progress of imperialism and colonialism. It was a futile effort whose futility lives on in Marko's idiotic rhetoric:

If we joined with our Muslim comrades we could really get things going. They with their power and we with what we know about this country—together we could really strike where it hurts….You probably think September Eleventh was just some crazy Muslim affair. No, without September Eleventh none of the good things that have happened over the past few years would have happened. The new attentiveness to the Palestinians, still the key to peace in the Middle East, and to the Muslims, still a quarter of the world's population, the new sensitivity to the threats in the world, from the economic to the ecological, the realization that exploitation has a price that is always rising—sometimes the world needs a shock to come to its senses.

Christiane's friend Margarete, new to the group, sees the "liberation struggle" in terms of pathology. "Listening to Christiane and her friends talk about the RAF and Germany's autumn of terror and the pardoning of terrorists, time and again Margarete had the sense of something sick, a subject in which people were talking about a sickness that had afflicted the terrorists back then and was now afflicting the speakers." Ilse, the most introverted member of the group, tries to work out its history through fiction. Traumatized by the sight of victims jumping from the burning World Trade Center, she writes a story in which an imagined RAF terrorist loses his own life in the Trade Center decades later.

 

It is left to Jörg's son Ferdinand, two years old at the time of his father's arrest and now an adult, to make the inevitable link between the ethos of Jörg's generation and that of the reviled Nazis, their parents.

       In the little town where I grew up, I would play cards in the pub with my friends every few weeks. One evening I learned that the five old men at the locals' table had all been in the SS. I sat down at the next table and pricked up my ears. Remember the time, remember the time—it was like that all evening. Don't you remember the time we beat up the Jews in Wilna and shot the Poles in Warsaw, obviously, but: remember the time we drank champagne in Warsaw and fucked the Polish girls in Wilna. And remember the time the barber shaved the old men with the long beards, ha-ha? You're exactly the same. What about: remember the time you shot that woman during the bank robbery? Or the policeman at the border? Or the head of the bank? Or the association president?

 

Was the decision by the 1970s generation, then, to make a virtue of random violence an earnest reaction against the evil committed by their fathers a generation earlier? Or does it represent a curse passed from father to son, one that might only be exorcised from history with extreme difficulty?

 

There is no doubt where Schlink's own sympathies lie: he has devoted his life to the law, after all, and as one might expect, the unrepentant terrorist Jörg is a thoroughly repulsive character. Germany's "autumn of terror" might seem very distant now, but it continues to haunt Schlink's generation, with reason. Uli Edel's 2008 film The Baader-Meinhof Complex, a beautifully produced recreation of the gang and its deeds, failed in its central mission, which should have been to help us understand the real motivations behind the terrorists' formulaic rhetoric. Schlink doesn't entirely succeed here either, and perhaps there is no way that those of us not infected by what Margarete deems a "sickness" can ever really make sense of the violent and irrational ideology. But its toxic residue continues to poison German waters. Just this month a fifty-eight-year-old former Red Army Faction member, Verena Becker, has gone on trial for the shooting deaths of West Germany's top prosecutor and two others in 1977. Discussions like those around Christiane's dinner table are no doubt taking place all over Germany today.

About the Columnist
Brooke Allen is the author of Twentieth-Century Attitudes; Artistic License; and Moral Minority. She is a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The New Criterion, The New Leader, The Hudson Review, and The Nation, among others. She was named a finalist for the 2007 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

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