The Language of Silence: West German Literature and the Holocaust, by Ernestine Schlant

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The Language of Silence: West German Literature and the Holocaust, by Emestine Schlant

Ernestine Schlant's highly focused study about West German fictional narratives is a well written resource that raises significant questions and challenges. Because she contextualizes authors and their narratives historically, culturally, sociologically, and psychologically, the reader gains a comprehensive image of the evolution of the central post-war issue in West German literature: the destruction of the European Jews and the always more or less defensive strategies authors employ over and against the horrendous crimes committed by their civilization. In covering the period from 1945 to 1990, Schlant demonstrates how German author's have reflected the collective consciousness of Germans in regard to the Holocaust while contributing through subtexts to the collective unconscious where Germany's atrocious history has by no means been "mastered." Auschwitz, as historical fact and as trope, remains for Germans both a point of reference and a vanishing point.

Schlant distinguishes the silence of the Holocaust -- a silence over the horror of direct experience -- from the silence about the Holocaust -- the silence of perpetrators and the succeeding generations that attempted to address that silence. Those attempts have been undermined for decades by Germany's "inability to mourn," even as our knowledge, interpretations, and understanding of Nazism and the Holocaust have increased since 1945. Schlant argues that "coming to terms" with the past is not equivalent to "working through," for "it leaves the victims and the crimes as unmourned as they have always been" (p. 14).

She accepts Margarethe and Alexander Mitscherlichs' contention that Germans were unable to mourn the loss of their emotional investment in the Third Reich as they redefined the Hitler era by perceiving themselves as deceived and victimized by the Nazis. This self-victimization is a major defense mechanism in post-war narratives and represses the victimization of Jews. Schlant argues that the ability of authors and their fictional characters to connect affectively with the victims of the Holocaust is necessary for any genuine mourning that "works through" to an authentic "restitution of personal identity."

Some readers may take issue with this argument. It is very possible that private grief can eventually mature into the restitution of a mature personal identity, but I seriously doubt if such an ideal grieving process is ever effected by the collective consciousness of an entire people, especially in mass societies. Schlant could have challenged the Mitscherlichs' paradigm of mourning, useful as it has been since 1967 as a frictional device in our questioning of Germany's post-war attitudes towards Nazism and the Holocaust. As German narratives reveal through their rhetorical strategies, it is impossible to grieve over the Third Reich; the Holocaust, on the other hand, demands a mourning for which closure would be highly problematical.

Schlant's discussion of representative German authors is most insightful when she discusses the subtexts, points of ambiguity, blanks, or over-determined narratives since 1945. The mythic Nullpunkt (zero hour) was no new beginning because "knowledge of the Nazi past was channeled into denial and repression" along with "the most heavily charged and tabooed word of all -- `Jew'" (pp. …