Saturday, April 24, 2010

Bernhard Schlink's "Guilt About the Past"

Bernhard Schlink is famous for his novel The Reader which became a film and won an Academy Award for Kate Winslett for "best actress". That film deals with guilt lingering from the Holocaust.

This book is six essays on the topic of guilt. I found them interesting but not really satisfying. Schlink is too much a laywer and too coolly rational for my taste. There are moments in these essays when he gets at some content with real bite, but not that often. This is surprising because the topic is so horrifying and has the potential to dig up lots of emotionally laden material. He doesn't.

The one essay that lingers with me, the one entitled "Prudence and Corruption", is the one where he blames himself for the same failings as his judicial colleagues, law professors, back in 1933 in Berlin. They had a chance to stand up for justice against Hitler's decrees to "purge" universities of Jews. They didn't. Instead they tried to use "influence" and wrangle a "deal" for their Jewish colleagues. It didn't work. The Holocaust was the result.

Similarly, in 1970 Schlenk witnessed a confrontation between a radical leftist and an old guard law professor, a member of the SS. That came back to bite him. In 1992 those two protagonists clashed again when this old professor wanted the Association of German Constitutional Law Professors to blackball the young radical who now had his PhD and wanted membership. Schlenk fell into the same trap as the professors of 1933. He worked to wrangle a "gentleman's agreement" that would paper over the conflict.

The point of the essay is to show how slippery justice, right, and guilt are. The world is a complex place and it is easy to lose your way.

So... if you like ruminations about law and philosophy with a bit of German guilt over its Nazi past thrown in, this is a book for you.

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