November 2005

John Detrixhe


In My Brother's Shadow : A Life and Death in the SS by Uwe Timm

In My Brother's Shadow: A Life and Death in the S.S. is a memoir, but it feels more like a long, rambling personal essay. Uwe Timm's narrative is without chapters, and although family letters and journals, as well as interviews and other sources, are an essential part of the telling, the prose is personal rather than scholarly, relying less on research and more on Timm's recollections and thoughts. But even though Shadow is limited almost completely and unapologetically to Timm's perspective, it is a memoir that is about much more than its author.

Like a memory, Shadow is riddled with forgotten bits, and it is pieced together as Timm recalls his family and his older brother, Karl-Heinz, who was a member of the Waffen SS Death's Head Division in World War II. Karl-Heinz, nearly always referred to as "my brother," was sixteen years older than Timm and died in the Ukraine in 1943 from wounds suffered while fighting there. Even though Timm has only one actual memory of Karl-Heinz, the older brother would remain a heavy presence in the Timm family, and the memory weighs especially heavily on Timm himself.

Some of the elements to this story are familiar--that of the sibling who was favored in life and immortalized by his family in death--and in Shadow these elements are thoughtful and touching. But Shadow is at its best when it demonstrates what it was and is to be a German wrestling with the atrocities and the aftermath of the war. Timm's brother is in many ways symbolic of Germany's Nazi regime, and Timm tries to understand how his older brother, his own blood, could have aligned himself with an ideology so ugly and disfigured as Nazism. Did Karl-Heinz embrace the Nazi party? Did he execute civilians? Did he execute Jews? Timm notes that his brother's letters and journal were free of typical Nazi vitriol, that Karl-Heinz would have preferred to have fought in Africa if it had been his choice, and so Timm reflects that his brother was probably a soldier first and Nazi second. But Timm doesn't allow himself to be comforted, and instead he recalls cruel lines from his brother's journal, "75 m away Ivan smoking cigarettes, fodder for my MG," and throughout the book Timm grapples with what his brother might have done. As Timm says, "The diary says nothing about prisoners. Nowhere does he write about taking prisoners. Either the Russians were killed at once or they did not surrender. A third possibility is that he didn't think it worth mentioning."

The older brother is certainly the backbone of this narrative, but the rest of Timm's family, particularly his father, are a major part of Timm's reflections as well. Insights into Timm's family, his parents' and sister's response to Germany's defeat and rebuilding, offer a glimpse of the emotional and economic toll the war had on the German people, and these reflections are nearly as dramatic as those concerning Timm's brother. A somewhat shrouded image of post-war Germany emerges, a world in which his father, by way of a discovered fur sewing machine, became a furrier, his livelihood changing as the black market gradually gave way to commerce. This part of the narrative is a more direct and literal story, which is just as legitimate as the remembrances of his brother. But instead of offering contrast, it mostly seems out of place, and with each added element, the memoir becomes just that much more diluted and unfocused. It feels as though another memoir has been spliced into Shadow.

Though the narrative is not chronological and takes a meandering path through Timm's memories, never developing a sense of flow, there are moments that work. A telling like this one is only effective if it is honest, and Shadow, despite its dreamy nature, self-consciously accomplishes this to the extent that a personal narrative is capable (or even expected). In one passage Timm explains, apparently as much to himself at to the reader, that he "must be careful not to indulge in wishful thinking instead of describing what I actually remember." And these moments, though bordering on banal, lend him credibility. He succeeds in discussing his culture's dirty laundry while maintaining a balance between truthfully discussing one's people and selling them out. Somehow Timm manages this, with prose that is laced with regret and shame, and perhaps it works because there is no sense of hate in these pages. He expresses a sober acceptance and responsibility when he says, "The Waffen SS wore the same uniforms as SS guards in the concentration camps."

Timm himself is a part of an innocent generation that grew up after the war, when the Nazi textbooks had been thrown away and older generations, "the perpetuators," had been reduced and defeated by occupiers. His memories of the Allied troops are vivid, and in one example he contrasts the penetrating sound of Nazi soldiers marching through the streets in their hobnailed boots with the Allied occupiers, ". . . the victors came on rubber soles, almost noiselessly." This rendering is poignant, but it draws negative attention to the pages of interesting but comparatively prosaic pondering that surround it. One yearns for Timm's rich descriptions--American gasoline, "different than German fuel. Sweeter."--after pages of pontificating.

If Shadow accomplishes a lot, it tried to do even more. There are so many important aspects to Timm's expression of himself, and it is a difficult, complicated portrait that he must construct. Would Shadow have been better if it had been more coherent, had explored fewer narrative strands and had engaged them more fully? Probably. It certainly would have been more compelling. But Timm has traced a painful path through his memory and conscience, and he did so with honesty. It is a memoir of so many things, but at its most profound, it is a detailed account of acceptance. It is in some ways the opposite of his brother's last journal entry: "I close my diary here, because I don't see any point in recording the cruel things that sometimes happen."

In My Brother's Shadow: A Life and Death in the S.S. by Uwe Timm
Translated by Anthea Bell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374103747
150 Pages