Response to Bernhard Schlink's lecture entitled "The Presence of the Past"

Prof Andre du Toit

(Department of Political Studies, University of Cape Town)

Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust forum meeting

Iziko Museum, Cape Town, 31 March 2004






AnneMarie Wolpe opened the meeting by welcoming everyone into the new venue at the Iziko Natural History Museum, which was more spacious than their previous venue. The Schlink lecture had been hosted by the Holocaust Museum and the Goethe Institute of Cape Town which was represented here tonight. So tonight was a response to Schlink's lecture which was available to those on the mailing list. The Wolpe Trust, named after AnneMarie's late husband existed to promote intellectual debate throughout the country, and had just held a conference on the land question.

She introduced Professor Andre du Toit of the Political Studies Department at UCT. Professor du Toit used to be at the University of Stellenbosch, had traveled widely and had a most impressive CV. He was a member of the South African group who met with the ANC in Dakar in 1987. Harold had said it was the most extraordinary meeting, and people's fears of one another were of course proved to be groundless. Professor du Toit's books include one on political violence, and another on struggles in South Africa.
Unfortunately there was no discussant tonight and no copy of Bernhard Schlink's book, "The Reader", which was an extraordinary book that raised pertinent questions to South Africans.



I'm not talking about my own work but as a discussant on a paper given before. I understand the text was circulated so I'm assuming you are familiar with the text. I do not present my own views but raise issues from Schlink's paper. I must stress that I'm not authorized to speak on his behalf or that of his work. I wasn't here for his talk but I was intrigued by the text.

Remembrance and the politics of memory: Bernhardt Schlink didn't spell out the special sense in which he was concerned with these terms as he assumed it was obvious. He didn't talk about the politics of memory in the normal or general sense of individual and collective memory and/or forgetting: he was concerned with special cases where something profoundly disruptive has occurred - such as apartheid, civil war, the holocaust - a major event, and how that is dealt with and how it should be remembered.

Schlink made it clear he was speaking about the German experience and was interested in how it would apply to South Africa: the nazi past as central to German history and by analogy the atrocities of apartheid in South Africa. On the evening he spoke I don't know how much that analogy was explored but let's see what we come up with tonight. My task is to pick out some things from his text with some comments of mine, and to see what you think.

There are four or five issues. When he talked about the German experience he adopted a generational perspective on dealing with the past and distinguished between four generations. He spoke only for his own generation that was born during the war, or at the end of the war or immediately afterwards: a generation which did not participate itself, but came to political consciousness in the 1950's and 60's. They were thus the second generation. The first generation were the perpetrators and victims, who by and large were reluctant to speak about the past. Post the Nuremberg trials there was silence. The second generation found this a problem: they rebelled against that silence and their identities and perspectives were formed by getting to grips with this past. That generation had specifically the problem of dealing with the past, partly through their fathers. So the first generation opted for silence, and the third and fourth have less problems with it because it is further removed, but the second generation is the one that had to deal with it.

From a South African perspective, through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which was how we did it, there are interesting differences. There is a generational difference: the South African case of the TRC was analogous to the first generation at a time when perpetrators and victims were still involved. It wasn't left for the next generation to deal with. So what are the implications?

Is it that the next generation are relieved of guilt because the first generation took it on? Does it enable the next generation to normalize their history like the third or fourth post-war German generations? Or does it set up a new problem? What do the youth make of the TRC process? Does it matter? Are they relieved? Do they think about it, or do they have different problems about it?

Secondly, in his lecture Schlink used 2 kinds of metaphors for this politics of memory. The first was the metaphor of redemption: remembrance as "the secret of redemption". The other metaphor was that of "mastering the past" as in the German term, "Vergangenheitsbewaltigung". These are two different kinds of metaphor: redemption is a religious metaphor and the mastering the past is a political metaphor, or perhaps a healing metaphor. So what is implied or assumed by them?

I suggest that the metaphor of redemption assumes a fallen state and requires the project of salvation. The logic of the metaphor raises the question: what if you're not saved - then what? If remembrance is the secret of redemption, what about the cultures of forgetting? In his context Schlink gives two examples of cultures of remembrance, that of the Germans and of the Jews, in Diaspora but they can't be the same. Schlink says: "…everyday remembrance, cultural and literal remembrance, legal remembrance" is the secret of redemption particularly for Jewish people in the Diaspora. All they had was concrete cultures of remembrance. What does this mean? Germans need redemption from guilt but in the Jewish case of the Diaspora, if they they are in a "fallen" state, that is not a problem of guilt but of identity and survival. So these two cases are different and putting them together is a problem. But what of the cultures of forgetting? Schlink refers to post-fascist Spain, Russian and post-fascist Austria as relevant cases. Each of these had important and successful transitions to democracy through collective forgetting or amnesia. So if remembering is redemption, what is he implying about these cultures of forgetting? Schlink asks when and what develops the cultures of forgetting or remembering.

His other metaphor is that of mastering the past: he says what drove us was our desire for freedom from the past, so the idea is that those who work hard at the task of remembering will be freed from the past. So what is it saying? It's a political metaphor that assumes a condition of traumatisation or unfreedom, but what then about those who do not master the past? Logic implies that they remain captive to the past This means that those who do not remember but forget the past thereby remain captives of the past -- which is a paradox. Schlink goes on to problematise the notion of mastering the past: he says attempts at mastering the past may amount to a fixation on the past in the mistaken belief that this means liberation from it. As against this conception he warns that there is no such thing as complete liberation from the past. People must be able to both remember and forget.

If we compare it with the TRC here: it's sometimes been criticized as an attempt at mastering the past, of "dealing with the past" so we can move on and be rid of the past. To the extent that it didn't happen, this is then seen as a failing of the TRC, since it could not deliver a complete liberation from the past. As against this Schlink suggests that this is a misguided critique since ther can be no such thing as complete liberation from the past..

Thisrdly, two more points which I personally regard as Schlink's most profound insights: there is a large literature about this but these 2 points are novel and profound to me: the first concerns the role of the significant other in remembrance of this kind. What is decisive for remembering or forgetting is whether there is an other that demands remembering, prosecution and convictions.

This provides an illuminating perspective on the politics of memory and forgetting: are we talking about what society has done to itself, or what society has done to some other. To what extent is the other a part of the political process of remembering or forgetting? Schlink suggests that in his forgetting cultures, these are things which societies have done to themselves; there is no other demanding restitution, which was different in Germany. So in the South African context, how would one characterize South Africa's dealing with the past? Is it basically an internal process - concerned withwhat we have done to ourselves, or is an other involved? I think the South African case is ambivalent and complex. On the one hand South Africa had an internal TRC process unlike other cases with international truth tribunals and/or international participation, so does this mean there is not an other in Schlink's terms? I don't think so, because there were major racial and ethnic components, so there both apply.

Fourthly, another important insight is how he deals with the issue of collective complicity: he argues that in the German case there is a collective guilt and complicity, an "enmeshing", not just through committing the crime but also by knowing about it, through looking or looking away, through not helping, and through not ostracizing. The fact that the Third Reich perpetrators were not ostracized by the German community enmeshed not only the those directly involved but the entire community and even the next generation who had not been born yet.

At the time of the Nuremberg trials the great German philosopher Karl Jaspers said there were four types of guilt: criminal, moral, political and metaphysical guilt. He said some of these guilts were individualized, e.g. criminal guilt as in Nuremberg. Similarly moral guilt was individual guilt. But political guilt was collective. There your membership of a group in society enmeshes you and makes you complicit. . To many the notion of such collective political guilt or complicity remains problematic: how can any individual who didn't engage directly or indirectly with the actual atrocities be complicit? Schlink says the key is not only what happened at the time, but also what transpired afterwards: were the perpetrators ostracized afterwards for their atrocities, or were they harbored by the community? If you freeze the camera at the moment of atrocity then bystanders have no part. But if you move on to the next generation, then they acquire complicity through the non-punishment of perpetrators.

It seems to me an interesting question in the South African context where we have focused on the amnesty process for perpetrators of apartheid atrocities. Schlink, however, asks what happened to them in their communities. In Afrikaner rightwing circles, for example, were the perpetrators made to feel at home? And similarly with perpetrators on the liberation struggle side: if they were not ostracized or punished, their communities were enmeshed.

Finally what Schlink calls the deeper, comparative question: the German experience was historically unique and disturbing because his country at the pinnacle of European civilization was capable of such horrors despite its cultural heritage. That is the question raised by the German experience. In South Africa how do we think about the atrocities of apartheid? Do we think they were committed despite the heritage - the high culture? But no, we tend to think these atrocities were due to apartheid not being at a high enough level of "civilization". So where does that leave us? Maybe we need to think again - maybe the horrors of apartheid were not due to its lack of high culture and "civilization" but came out of its best, like the Germans?



       Question 1: Can we compare a minority within Germany with South Africa where the majority was oppressed? What is the nature of prejudice and discrimination? I think the two examples are so different - our colonial experience with the Dutch and the English - maybe they don't bear comparison for that reason?

       Response: This is part of Schlink's challenge: coming to South Africa as a German, he raises the question of how the two experiences relate. Schlink says the German case was particularly disturbing because of the high culture it had and then the holocaust…If we turn it around in South Africa: are you saying apartheid and it's atrocities are not the same kind of thing because of our colonial experience and minority rule?

       Question 2: I take issue with Schlink about the question of the other, which is a crucial issue. He says Germany discriminated against the other, but for six years prior to the war German minorities like Jews were discriminated against - these minorities were Germans and it was internal. Is this not perpetuating a racial thing which was at the basis of German discrimination? They were all Germans - they were only the other in terms of Nazi ideology. So the six years before the war paved the way for the holocaust in the war.

AnneMarie felt those present should engage with one another rather than directing all questions to Professor du Toit

       Question 3: If you asked about the majority or minority in South Africa, would Verwoerd not have called blacks a set of distinct tribes or minorities?

       Question 4: I had a second-generation colleague who revealed much German collaboration of doctors. He was impressed with doctors here for challenging the institutions. So it also operated at an institutional level.

       Response: Schlink makes that point: he says the second generation focused on individual guilt but, looking back, he has come to realise that this individual focus was inadequate. They also needed to look at institutional complicity.

       Question 5: One of Schlink's key points is that if the first generation perpetrators were ostracized, the rest of society is not complicit. But in South Africa is it about ostracising or truth speaking? Truth speaking and remembering might be more powerful than ostracising. He also says it depends whether it was done to the self ie if it was internal or to an other. But I think there is always an other involved, so is that such a useful distinction? Doesn't the balance of power at times play an important role? Schlink's emphasis is mostly on the role of perpetrators and how they were dealt with, but it's also important to think about how victims digest the process with the perpetrators. In my simplistic reading of Germany after Versailles and after the First World War, and the Jews after the Second World War, it looks like victims can become perpetrators. History can repeat itself - if we look at how power shifts over time.

       Response: Schlink's notion of ostracizing, comparing it with the South African case, is an interesting one. He says there are limits to ostracization - children cannot ostracise their parents - so there is a limit at the generational level. But to compare with South Africa: here the keyword was "reconciliation" not ostracising. So what's the difference between reconciliation and the harboring of perpetrators? The key difference is your point about truth: amnesty here was conditional on telling the truth, on making a full disclosure. So reconciliation was a form of not ostracizing, which is an advance on the German case.

       Question 6: Is Schlink talking as a therapist or as a legal mind? Restorative justice doesn't form part of his system of ostracizing - what can children do against parents? Mastering the past means understanding human nature: how was it possible for civilized people in South Africa to perpetrate atrocities? If you look at Jann Turner wanting to forgive Prime Evil, after talking to him for fifty hours... So maybe it's to do with Schlink's shame at finding himself ostracised in the world as a German, even in the third or fourth generation. And the work of the TRC is not over - reconciliation work is still being done by NGO's in small towns. Is this a problem of Schlink's framework?

       Response: I get your point, but Schlink's point is about this knot of social solidarity and complicity I am reminded of the confrontations and discussions in Stellenbosch in the Afrikaner community in the 70's and 80's. We'd go to leading intellectuals and raise these issues with them and one final answer was Van Wyk Louw's: I love my people not because of their achievements but I love them in their "ellende" (despicableness or shame). The logic of that is that if people in your community have committed atrocities, you don't ostracise them in their "ellende" but demonstrate critical solidarity with them. But the price for such ethnic solidarity must be a measure of complicity I don't know how general that attitude still is.

       Question 8: Schlink talks about two sides: the victims willing to confront and other willing to reconcile. My question is when Jann Turner said "I'm willing to listen and engage with you", was she saying "I'm forgiving you "or "I'm willing to move on"? Without willingness to reconcile you can remember all you like but you won't move on. In nation building there is that element from the victim to say, "I want to listen and I'm prepared to listen". I haven't heard answers in South Africa yet.

       Question 9: I agree that Schlink's question about ostracizing is interesting and I think of Mamdani's article about the sector of society that benefits and how they deal with it. In South Africa we have had such a range of responses from victims that we haven't got a response yet. You can find people opposed to one another yet willing to listen. There is not enough commonality in South Africa.

AnneMarie: The youth are riven with class differences, it is not an homogeneous group.

       Question 10: I want to respond to the question of the German Jews, not Schlink's talk. In "Mein Kampf" written in prison in the 20's, Hitler made it clear how he was going to raise the fatherland spirit and that Jews were a hindrance and - it was to the disgust of many in Germany that he got into power - it was not for years that many Jews could become citizens. So when the Nazi machine came in and reclassified who was Jewish, people were so minutely investigated that many who had only 10% Jewish blood were classified Jewish and grossly humiliated as citizens. Kristallnacht was directed at the German intelligentsia which included the Jews. So how does that relate to South Africa?

       Question 11: You focused on Afrikaner culture as perpetrators but I was English. There was a terrible lack of responsibility in my language group with their culture of silence and consent, and now in my generation - I was born in 1949 - there is a culture of denialism: it's not forgetting but never acknowledging one's role.

       Response: What is the attitude of Afrikaner communities to specific perpetrators revealed through the TRC? I don't know what the answer is. It would be interesting to know how Nieuwoudt et al are regarded in their communities. Have they been ostracized, or not? A real question and answer would be relevant to the question of the complicity of Afrikaner communities. Also with the youth - I acknowledge there are many youths - and we don't know how these different youths relate to the TRC. At UCT the students are not interested - they've got their careers and money to think of, thanks to the TRC for doing it for them.

       Question 12: Where does it all stem from? There has always been a historical situation of the haves and the have nots. In Ireland you can't talk about Catholics and Protestants - it's the haves and the have nots. Look at the animosity to blacks coming into South Africa. They're hated because they're empowering themselves. It was the same thing in Germany: there was a perception of the Jews controlling the economy. History is repeating itself: we need equity and we need a job.

       Question 13: I'm responding to the person born in 1949: Schlink says individual accountability was problematic because institutions were complicit, so you had to be heroic if there was no institutional support.

       Question 14: I concur with Andre about the students not being interested, but surely in Germany people were not confronted by the victims of their deeds, whereas we are in South Africa. So isn't reconciliation then enlightened self-interest? Whites are here at the sufferance of the black majority.

       Question 15: The point about there being a high German culture at the time of the holocaust - isn't that the weakness of Schlink's thesis because of the weakness of institutions compared to other advanced countries?

       Question 16: I think we have the result of the TRC process: affirmative action and black economic empowerment. Where does it leave Indians and coloureds who don't see themselves as blacks? Coloureds are complaining that blacks get all the jobs. Also one gentleman said Verwoerd saw blacks as different ethnic groups, but Rhodes said, "We must be lord over them," so ethnicity was a convenient strategy.

       Question 17: Ethnicity existed to divide blacks.

AnneMarie said there were different types of memory…

       Question 18: Maybe Germans are not getting confronted in the street but the governments of Israel and Germany talk.

       Response: It's not possible to deal with all the issues raised here today. In the nature of it, it is somewhat unsatisfactory because one of the parties to the conversation is not here (Schlink), but something that has come up from the audience is clearly a problem: the lack of emphasis on the institutional and an over-emphasis on culture.

AnneMarie thanked Professor du Toit and the audience and closed the meeting.