In the court of history: Bernhard Schlink returns in a non-fiction book to the burdens of a savage past

Boyd Tonkin meets the author of 'The Reader' in Berlin
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East of the Brandenburg Gate, the stones of central Berlin don't merely speak of the city's harrowed history. If you care to hear them, they positively scream. On the south side of Under den Linden, that most imperious of thoroughfares, lies the bleak expanse of Bebelplatz. Here, on 10 May 1933, the Nazis burnt 20,000 "decadent" books by the leaders of modern German literature: an early-warning crime commemorated now in Micha Ullman's eerie underground memorial.

On the west side of the square, opposite the opera house, stands the curved façade of the Altes Palais where the first Kaiser Wilhelm lived. Under restoration, its exterior is swathed in a vast ad banner for the latest swanky Mercedes. Behind the iconic machine, the palace houses the law faculty of Humboldt University. Although no longer on the full-time staff, the jurist and judge who became professor of constitutional and administrative law here in 1992 still has his office on the third floor. Bernhard Schlink also happens to have written, in The Reader, the novel that more than any other built a bridge between postwar Germany's soul-searching examination of the Third Reich and its aftermath, and an audience of millions around the world.

"I had no idea that this book would become what it became," Schlink says. Gentle, informal and courteous, he speaks a pithy, exact but far from legalistic English in a plain academic's office lined with textbooks and bound volumes of law journals. "I didn't think about what might happen if an Israeli reads it or an Englishman reads it. I thought it was such a German book. I didn't think that anyone else would be interested in it."

Now the scrupulous scholar and global bestseller has delved deeper into the still-toxic ground of historical memory, justice and responsibility. His set of essays, based in part on the 2008 Weidenfeld Lectures he delivered in Oxford, is entitled Guilt about the Past (Beautiful Books, £8.99). On a chill grey day in Bebelplatz, with traces of grit-blackened slush still underfoot from a fierce cold snap, person, theme and setting seem to mesh with a well-engineered precision.

For any reader of The Reader, or indeed of Schlink's more light-hearted take on the same array of issues in his detective series about the ageing gumshoe Gerhard Self, Guilt about the Past will not so much answer the questions that his fiction poses but prompt sharper and deeper thoughts about them. Born in 1944, its author studied, taught and practised law in the Federal Republic – becoming a professor in Bonn and Frankfurt and also a regional judge - just as a full reckoning with Nazi atrocities took shape after long years of denial.

Above all, the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt (1963-1965) had driven a wedge between young and old all over Germany. These are the events that open the eyes of the law student Michael in The Reader when Hanna - the illiterate tram-conductress who seduced him – appears in the dock. The struggle to remember the Holocaust "stood at the centre of our arguments with our parents," Schlink writes, "and our rebellion against them". It was, he now says, "the topic of my generation".

His new book keeps faith with that topic, and with that generation. It argues that "there is no mastering the past" – at least a past as lethally alive and kicking as that of the Third Reich. Rather, the quest to recover the whole truth, to assign responsibility, even to pursue justice, must persist. Schlink shows how this might happen, with examples of remembrance and restitution from the cultural and moral ruins left by the Hitler period, his own youth in the turbulent 1960s, post-apartheid South Africa, and the rushed and messy unification of Germany after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

"I don't know of any intellectual who would say, 'Let's close this chapter. It's over. Let's move forward'," he says of the Holocaust. But the passage of time, though it might not heal wounds, will perhaps allow clarity of vision. In Germany, he argues, the era of genocide "has become such an undoubted integral element of our cultural and historical memory because it's not as painful as it used to be before. It's more painful when it's about the guilt of your father or your mother or uncle or professor - or the teacher whom you respected. When it is about a great-grandfather, the pain disappears".

Schlink's own father counted among the sufferers rather than perpetrators – albeit, by Third Reich criteria, in a mild form. A leading Lutheran theologian from Bielefeld in northern Germany, Edmund Schlink lost a university post thanks to his participation in Martin Niemöller's dissident Confessing Church. He became a clergyman in Heidelberg, where his son grew up before studying law there and in Berlin.

Coming from a family in "internal exile", the son of a thinker who wrestled long and hard with ideas of faith and duty in bad times under false laws, Schlink has a firm footing in that grey area between resistance and collaboration. His book takes a tough line on purely passive dissent, ascribing guilt to "those who were fully capable of resistance and opposition but did nothing" at the time. Also culpable are those living in a national "circle of solidarity" who kept quiet, averted their eyes, and refused to repudiate the past when its gross crimes came to light.

So the children may inherit sins of the fathers – if they do too little to reject them. With a degree of understatement, the book suggests that the young descendant of an SS man and an Israeli child with relatives murdered in the camps will have "something to talk about" - even when questions of direct guilt no longer arise. But it lucidly insists that the choice to forgive or not belongs to victims alone, and can never be passed on to a proxy.

Schlink himself has stood at the eye of a storm of vicarious blame. From George Steiner and Oprah Winfrey to many people who had simply never read a modern German novel before, The Reader (first published in 1995) found legions of admirers. Yet some critics diagnosed it as a self-pitying tale of evasions and excuses. In Israel or in New York (where he also teaches), Schlink reports that the survivors of wartime barbarism do not tend to take offence – but that their offspring may. At readings, "The audience, insofar as they were from the war generation, they were just interested: this is how it looks from the perspective of a child. While their children and their grandchildren – they were the angry ones." For them, to seek to understand the motives of a death-camp guard itself ranks as a kind of complicity in evil. "You have to condemn. Period."

He regrets that "Understanding is misunderstood as justifying". Both in New York and in Berlin, with his own students, he suspects that when younger people look at history now, "the sense of past periods of time being profoundly different is disappearing... They can only judge by today's criteria of political and moral correctness." His approach has nothing to do with relativism. Rather, he seeks to get under the skin of the past: to grasp, for instance, why a great philosopher might have defended slavery.

As for the still-contentious issue of Hanna's illiteracy, and whether it can be read as mitigating her crimes, Schlink recalls that "When I wrote the book, it never occurred to me that her illiteracy might be taken as an indication that these guards didn't really know what they were doing... Nor did it cross my mind that someone might take her illiteracy as an excuse. Whether you are literate or illiterate you know what murder is and what killing is... and what the value of a person's life is." Her illiteracy "stood for me more for these things with which you go into life that lead you into whatever you finally end up doing. They don't excuse anything. They don't justify anything. In a way they are unrelated to what you finally do. But they get you into it."

The Reader did challenge the easy hindsight that at a stroke divides people from a savage past into monsters and martyrs. The last section of Guilt about the Past touches directly on Schlink's extra-legal career in fiction, which embraces another novel (Homecoming) and the stories in Flights of Love, as well as The Reader and the trilogy of Self mysteries. It defends the ambiguous cases, the anomalies and exceptions, that always complicate the black-and-white of textbook history: "The atypical is also part of the truth."

Yet many observers worry that some historical complications – in particular, the recent stress in Germany on civilian suffering though area bombing and ethnic cleansing during and after the war – could be used by revisionists to diminish the singular horror of Hitler's war against the Jews. Schlink reminds me that, from a German point of view, it took long years of struggle to tell the now-conventional story of genocide at all.

"When I was growing up in the 1950s these stories were told so much more than any Holocaust story," he recalls. "So I grew up with stories told by my teachers, by relatives... about the expulsions of Germans from central and eastern Europe, and about the bombings. Teachers told about their times in camps in Siberia. All these stories disappeared in the 1960s once we realised the Holocaust in its full dimensions – not just in figures and numbers... but what it actually meant."

Over a generation of narratives, for the best of reasons, the shadow of the death camps blocked out all other scenes. "So what then happened, in my perspective, first in the 1990s and then in the first decade of this century, is: we find a balance." There can be no attempt to cancel one debt with another, he affirms. Instead, "We have a huge painting. What happens in the left corner doesn't really compete with what happens in the centre. But I think the whole picture is necessary." Thus "It's a completely healthy thing" that a young historian, say, who writes a dissertation "is as free to turn to the expulsion of Germans from Breslau as to a chapter of the Holocaust."

In Germany, he points out, the collapse in 1989 of the Soviet satellite regime in the east offered the nation a second chance at healing after dictatorship. After 1945, the victors' justice at Nuremberg and elsewhere had proved fitful and arbitrary. Many human pillars of the Hitler state still stood. "I grew up in a Federal Republic where old Nazi judges and bureaucrats played an important role. Then they couldn't just replace them. In a way it worked."

He does object to the piecemeal fashion in which retroactive law overrode the statute of limitations, in order to bring a few former Nazis to justice. "The jurisprudence of the courts had to find a way to say, Hitler's orders were not really legal orders. They came up with one thing after the other." Instead, the postwar constitution should have allowed a systematic pursuit of crimes against humanity. "Putting it into the constitution would have led to wide... discussions. I would have preferred that."

After 1945, the new order had erred on the side of leniency. After 1990, it erred on the side of severity. "How far do you go in your ostracism?" Schlink asks. "East Germany went much further than any other eastern European country simply because people could be replaced so easily by West Germans... I never had a good feeling about this." The wave of post-Communist purges drowned minor offenders as well as major rogues. He mentions one former colleague who informed for the Stasi between the ages of 15 and 19.

After her files were released, "the pressures started to build up and she decided to leave": 33 years after her final teenage report. "These things, I found, went overboard." The purgers, high-minded liberal thinkers from Schlink's own generation, had over-compensated for the blunders of the past. "They thought, what happened after the Second World War wasn't right. Now can we do a better job?" He's not at all sure that they did.

Beyond the fine moral calculus of conviction and acquittal, Schlink also looks for other ways to bind the wounds of history. Visiting South Africa, he admired the Truth and Reconciliation process that went beyond courtroom clashes and, in some cases, "tried to give old tribal rituals a new meaning". Nearer home, "I often think that the secret of peace is exhaustion. Let's look at Germany and France – arch-enemies since the early 18th century. They have exhausted each other in war after war after war and just realised, 'Now we are going to get along... We don't want to fight any more'."

Besides, we have other idols and ideals to serve these days. Other stories grab attention and authority in a time when, as Schlink says about his son's generation, "competing narrations" vie for hearts and minds. Outside the Altes Palais, that Merc advert has a two-word slogan: Oh Lord..." Passers-by will (so the agency assumes) spot the Janis Joplin quote: "Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz...". On his nearby plinth in Unter den Linden, Frederick the Great still sits on his iron steed, the Prussian conqueror's memory outshone by a American blues diva. Progress? Probably.