Ghost Warrior

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is
Tuesday, May 10, 2005


A Life and Death in the SS

By Uwe Timm

Translated from the German by Anthea Bell

Farrar Straus Giroux. 150 pp. $18

Uwe Timm was 3 years old, living with his family in the German port city of Hamburg, when a letter came from his 19-year-old brother, Karl-Heinz, "a sapper in the SS Death's Head Division" on the Russian front. Dated Oct. 9, 1943, it read in part, "I'm badly wounded. . . . [T]hey've amputated both my legs. . . . The pain is not too bad or I wouldn't be writing to you." That brave front disguised cruel reality. A week later Karl-Heinz was dead. The next missive from the front was a small package containing the few items the boy had with him, among them 10 photographs, a comb and toothpaste, a telegram and "letters and notepaper, various."

Little Uwe scarcely knew his much older brother and has only fragments of memory of him, but Karl-Heinz has been as much a presence as if he had lived:

"He accompanied me through my childhood, absent and yet present in my mother's grief, my father's doubts, the hints my parents dropped when they were talking to each other. They told stories about him, little tales of situations that were always similar, showing how brave and decent he was. Even when he wasn't the subject of discussion he was still present, more present than other dead people, in anecdotes and photographs, and in the comparisons my father drew with me, the younger son, the afterthought ."

Karl-Heinz had trained to follow his father into the furrier's trade, and Uwe was expected to do so as well. In his teens, trying to be a good son, he "trained in it and passed my qualifying exam, but I had only one idea in my head, and that was to do something else: to write, to read." He went to university, studied literature and began to write. He is now the author of a number of works of fiction, for adults and children, and is widely respected in Germany, though little known on this side of the Atlantic.

Like so many other Germans of his generation, Timm has wrestled for much of his life with the legacy of Nazism, the Holocaust and World War II. He is old enough to have powerful memories of air raids, bombed-out buildings and neighborhoods, a nation in ruins. If he harbors bitterness against the Allied forces that brought such havoc to the world in which he lived, there is little evidence of it in "In My Brother's Shadow," which is part memoir, part search into sides of his brother's life he had not previously explored, part meditation upon aspects of the German character that, in his view, contributed to Nazism and the calamities it brought about.

Karl-Heinz Timm was by most reckonings an unlikely warrior. "Height 6 feet, hair fair, eyes blue," he was "a sickly child" and "dreamy as a child and adolescent, absentminded, and sometimes, so my mother told me, he just disappeared as if some ghostly hand had led him away. He said little, you didn't know what was going on inside his head. He was good. A good child, she said. A quiet child." Yet he volunteered for the Waffen SS and joined one of its most feared and prestigious units. By joining the SS, he became one of "the chosen ones . . . defined by race, by membership of the nation and not of a social class; as in the nobility, blood was the criterion, not blue but Aryan, German blood, the master race with a vocation to rule. The Black Corps, the SS. The elite."

Timm can find no evidence that his brother participated in any SS atrocities at the death camps, but the diary he left behind "is devoted exclusively to the war, to preparing to kill, to the perfection of methods of killing with flame throwers, mines, target practice." The diary also reveals what Timm regards as German disregard for suffering anywhere except in Germany. Karl-Heinz writes, " I'm worried about everyone at home, we hear reports of air raids by the English every day. If only they'd stop that filthy business. It's not war, it's the murder of women and children -- it's inhumane ." To which Timm responds:

"It is hard to comprehend and impossible to trace the way sympathy and compassion in the face of suffering could be blanked out, while a distinction emerged between humanity at home and humanity here in Russia. In Russia, the killing of civilians is normal, everyday work, not even worth mentioning; at home it is murder. . . . I have now read other diaries and letters of the time; some observe the suffering of the civilian population and express outrage, others speak of the killing of civilians -- Jews and Russians alike -- as the most natural thing in the world. The language they've been fed makes killing easier: inferior human beings, parasites, vermin whose lives are dirty, degenerate, brutish. Smoking them out is a hygienic measure."

A related trait that Timm observes in these documents is a refusal to talk or think about what was happening to the Jews and others: "Hushing it up was a kind of cowardice that became a habit," and, also related, "the pretext of having acted under orders allowed mass murderers to walk free, and left the way open for them to resume their lives as judges, medical experts, police officers, university professors." A courageous German during the Nazi years was not one who spoke out against the system and the horrors it brought about. Instead "the kind of courage expected in Germany . . . always had to be shown in a group, with others, and its prerequisite was obedience." He continues:

"Obedience was among those Prussian virtues that included the courage to inflict violence, violence against others and against yourself, they stood firm, they overcame their baser instincts , the courage to kill and be killed. But the courage to say no did not count, the courage to oppose, to refuse to obey orders. If only everyone had rejected the idea of forging a fine career. I think of the grotesque contempt shown to those officers and soldiers who joined the Resistance movement and to those who deserted."

It will be argued that the herd instinct is deeply engrained in human nature and scarcely unique to the Prussian mind-set, but there can be no question that it attained something of an absurd extreme in Hitler's Germany, in which "courage" acquired the twisted meaning that Timm so precisely defines. Reflecting upon his father's blind, stubborn acceptance of the Nazi status quo, Timm argues that "this kind of courage, duty and obedience were . . . the values that had kept the death factories working, even if people did not know -- but could have known -- about them." By now this self-evident truth has become knowledge, in great measure because so many Germans have confronted and acknowledged it, but Timm's is a particularly eloquent, forceful statement of it, and "In My Brother's Shadow" is a valuable addition to the literature -- and self-examination -- of contemporary Germany.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company