Monday 6 January 2020

The German House | Annette Hess #DEUfiction

The German House by Annette Hess was a fascinating read.

Translated into English by Elisabeth Lauffer, it's essentially a coming-of-age story about a young woman who works as a translator during the Frankfurt Trials of 1963-65. Her story is complicated by childhood memories that her parents gloss over, a controlling fiance, a co-worker with demons from his past and a sister who is completely disturbed and dangerous, yet works in the maternity ward at the nearby hospital. So many secrets, psychological problems and unresolved issues. All these individual and personal stories of guilt, culpability and responsibility echo the larger drama being played in the court room and across the country.

Hess covers this murky period of time, post-war, where the German people tried to forget the war, with a great deal of perception and sensitivity. The older generation's collective amnesia and motto of 'let the past lie' haunted the next generation as they grew up during a time of peace and well-being, completely unlike that of their parents. What their parents did during the war and how much did they know tainted and divided families with guilt, distrust and shame.

In the 1960's, Germany was enjoying a post-war boom and didn't want to be reminded of its past. The Nuremberg Trials, immediately after the war, had dealt with some of the big names of the Reich leadership, and for most Germans this was enough. The defendants were tried under the international crimes against humanity law. Everyone else was considered to have been just following orders, without really knowing or understanding what was happening in the camps.

In 1963, KGB assassin Bohdan Stashynsky was found not guilty of murder by a German court. Instead he was found to only be an 'accomplice to murder' as the ultimate responsibility lay with his superiors in the KGB.

According to Wikipedia, the implications for this meant that:
in a totalitarian system only executive decision-makers could be convicted of murder and that anyone who followed orders and killed someone could be convicted only of being accomplices to murder. The term executive decision-maker was so defined by the courts to apply only to the highest levels of the Reich leadership during the National Socialist period, and that all who just followed orders when killing were just accomplices to murder. Someone could be only convicted of murder if it was shown that they had killed someone on their own initiative, and thus all of the accused of murder at the Auschwitz trial were tried only for murders that they had done on their own initiative. 

The Frankfurt Trials attempted to bring to account many mid to lower level officials from the Aushwitz-Birkenau camps. Under state law, the judge could only indict for murder if there was a clear case that showed an individual had murdered on his own initiative. Those, for instance, who had operated the gas chambers, could only be indicted as accomplices to murder because they had been following orders.

No wonder the whole issue around complicity and culpability created tension between generations. How to come to terms with supporting and adoring, right to the bitter end, a charismatic leader. Where did his madness and evil end and individual responsibility begin?

The Germans have spent the past 70 years working through this concept of German collective guilt, or Kollektivschuld. I believe there are levels within levels that describe the various phases of this guilt over time.

One such idea is Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the 'struggle to overcome the past' or 'work through the past'.

Modern generations today may wonder about the extent of this generational collective guilt. Young Australians and young Americans seem to have very little concept of historical legacy. They seem to have completely drawn a line under anything that happened in previous generations as having nothing to do with them. The Gen Z's I know have almost no interest in anything older than them. George Santayana's famous and oft-quoted observation that 'those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it', is completely lost on them. I have been told numerous times that this history is not only forgotten, but irrelevant. They would never fall under the charm of a magnetic, yet dubious personality or do anything that they didn't want to do.

Oops. I didn't mean this post to become a soapbox rant about generational attitudes towards history. I've obviously been holding onto that one for a while!

As you can probably guess, I feel very strongly about historical precedent, bias, revisionism, lenses, patterns, cycles, who gets to tell the story of history, which bits get left out and what lessons can be learnt, if any. As Hess implies in her story, the contemplation of history is both a bitter and healing exercise.

The German House was meant to published in Australia on the 3rd December, but we are still waiting for it to appear on our shelves. I'm not sure why it has been delayed.


  • Lauffer was the recipient of the 2014 Gutekunst Prize for Emerging Translators.


  1. Hm, sounds like a book I want to read! These questions about history are issues I think about a lot, too. I'm happy to say that I know a few Gen Z kids who are interested in history...but it is so very rare, and yet the more history I read the more I see our current issues reflected back to me. It's never very comforting, either.

    1. No, as a student of history, these days are not comforting at all!
      And you reminded me that, back when I was at school and uni, studying history, I was thought to be a bit of an odd-bod. So it's not just Gen Z-er's who have little interest in the study of history.

    2. Ha, and you remind me that back in the day (I am a GenX kid) I went to live in a foreign country for a while. The Berlin Wall fell down next door and I was all "Wow! History is happening!" and I'm not at all sure that any of the other teens in my class had any inkling -- which I only barely did. Indeed history has probably never been a favorite subject, at least since the invention of TV?

  2. Some really thoughtful commentary Brona, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Thanks for highlighting this book. I now want to read it. Collective guilt is an interesting topic whether it be about past genocide or slavery or crimes of the state etc. How do people deal with the history of their home countries? Hmm.

    1. Sadly, Australia is certainly no leading light on the topic of dealing with, remembering or honouring our past. I have to admire the Germans for trying to make sense of what happened during the war, how they let it happen etc. It hasn't been a perfect process, but they've tried.

  4. Sounds like a very interesting book. It obviously touches very difficult questions, that several generations have had to live with.
    It will go on my list. I think I will suggest it for my book club, if it is translated into Swedish. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    1. It would be a great book club book Lisbeth. Not sure about a Swedish translation, although according to Goodreads, it has been translated into a multitude of other languages!

    2. It seems it is being translated and will be published this summer in Sweden.


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