Géraldine Schwarz longlist author interview
Géraldine Schwarz author of Those Who Forget: My Family's Story in Nazi Europe - A Memoir, A Histroy, A Warning, shares a very personal account of what it was like to tell the story of her family history and their code of silence in post-Nazi Germany.
What does it feel like to be longlisted?
It is really encouraging, and it gives me hope that the commitment of those of us who defend a certain idea of humanity is not useless. That consciousness is growing. In the massive disorientation we are going through, the past – not only war and fascism, but also the colonial past – provides us with vital benchmarks. It can guide us to understand the world instead of suffer it, can give us the perspective and experience necessary to face the many challenges before us and protect us from the forgers of history, creators of false hatreds and violators of identities.
I am a child of the French-German reconciliation, a child of Europe. I’ve known only peace and freedom where my grandparents experienced almost exclusively wars, interwar periods and dictatorships. I am thankful to those who made that transformation possible. I would like to make a contribution to this heritage by communicating a narrative that inspires us to take action and responsibility. For the granddaughter of Mitläufer of Nazism, to be longlisted for a British book prize is in this regard a very moving symbol: 75 years ago, when the war ended, such perspective would have been inconceivable.
What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?
One of my favourites is The Rings of Saturn, by W.G Sebald.
Sebald's tireless quest to commemorate the suffering and destruction of the past makes him an important figure in keeping memory alive, even if his contribution came late for Germany. It is hard to cope with the knowledge of how horrible man can be: it can wear us down. But in The Rings of Saturn, Sebald manages to empower us because his melancholy, far from being passive, takes on the aspect of resistance.
As a journalist, documentary filmmaker, historian by education and writer, one question always underlies my work: which medium should I use to tell which story? In The Rings of Saturn, by mixing philosophical and historical considerations, poetic texts, maps and photos, Sebald adopts a plural approach, creating magic: the world of yesterday emerges, superimposed on today’s world. And finally, by combining fiction and non-fiction, Sebald also inspired my vision of the past. He acknowledges that we can only access traces of the past, and that we use representation to create links between those traces, to give them a shape. Representation is a form of fiction, so we can say that in historians' books there is always some fiction. What is crucial is that this fiction does not serve political or ideological goals, but instead the quest for truth.
How did you conduct your research?
I started to ask to myself: How do you write about the past? About an era that you haven’t lived through? How do you write about a history that is multifaceted, and extract some fragments of truth from the endless complexity of its traces? And how not to get lost in the labyrinth of memory, in its omissions and lies, its blind spots and mirages? To find my way through, I knitted the thread of family memory together with that of major history.
I knew that my grandfather, Karl, had been a member of the Nazi party, but he never held any kind of official position under the Third Reich, nor was he ever a soldier. I didn’t dig deeper. A remark from my aunt finally piqued my curiosity. I rummaged through old filing cabinets in the basement of the family apartment building in Mannheim, Germany. Among the yellowed papers, I discovered that my grandfather had taken advantage of anti-Semitic Nazi policies to buy a business from a Jewish family for a low price. I also found a letter from the only survivor of this family demanding reparations after the war, and Karl Schwarz’s response in which he refuses to acknowledge his responsibility. My first reaction was to go in search of the Löbmann family, though few traces remained. I trembled at the thought that these existences had perished twice: once at Auschwitz and a second time in our memories. Finally, I found myself in a London suburb, sitting across from Lotte Kramer, a 95 years old cousin of the Löbmann.
In order to learn more about my German grandfather, who died before I was born, I called on two firsthand witnesses: my father, Volker, who was born in 1943, and his sister, born in 1936. My aunt always excused Karl’s actions whereas my father was less lenient.
Testimonies are not as reliable as documents, they are filtered by emotions. Memory is a living organism, it changes with time. But memory is not a lie, it is just a specific version and perception of the past.
How many versions do we need to overlap to have the truth emerge? To give depth to my family narrative I submitted it to the wisdom of historical facts and documents – I read many books and documents, saw archival films, listened to many witness accounts, visited historical sites and museums. My conclusion was that in its essence, the story of my grandparents is the story of many Germans of that time. Furthermore, that it embodies a timeless and universal phenomenon many can identify with: Mitläufertum, those who follow the current.
How did it feel to use your personal family history as an example of the code of silence and lack of guilt carried by many who were citizens during WW2?
How do you write about the dead, who can no longer react, or defend themselves? The responsibility I assumed in taking on these vanished lives has haunted me. I wanted to be fair, as fair as possible, particularly when it came to my grandparents, whom I had barely known. Unlike for my father and my aunt, whose accounts are filtered through a mixture of anger, sadness, love and loyalty, for me my grandparents are ghosts. I can reflect on them with a cool head. But this alone doesn’t open the doors to the past: you have to draw on the power of representation, of intuition and psychology, and also to allow for empathy with my grandparents, Karl and Lydia, who had the misfortune of being born at the dawn of a cursed century.
The greatest difficulty was to assess the responsibility of my German grandfather. I wanted to avoid judging by what I know today, but to try to travel backwards into the past. That involved not applying today's moral and social standards to them, but rather to contextualize. For example, I had to find out: was it possible to say no? What were the risks? What did they know about the fate of the Jews? What was their level of political education?
There is also the psychological dimension that must be taken into account, the impact of conformism, indifference, opportunism, and also fear on the attitude of a person and the choices he makes. The importance of political manipulation should not be forgotten: indoctrination, propaganda, lies, the hypnotizing of an entire society... We often forget how seductive National Socialism was for many Germans.
My father was very supportive and the book gave me the opportunity to know him better. Whereas my aunt was angry at first. She wanted to know why I had to use the family story in my book about collective memory. I told her that now that the last witnesses are dying, we need to help the younger generations to identify with a story that seems very distant to them. Our engagement with the past should not only be rational but also emotional, and digging into family memories can help history become part of one’s own family: the abstract, dusty past is suddenly given a soul, the face of one’s ancestors. This can allow younger people to ask themselves: what does it mean if my grandparents or great-grandparents made mistakes or suffered and made sacrifices, and I don’t learn from that? Now, my aunt and I are friends again.
What are you working on next?
I am involved in a number of initiatives in several European countries to advocate for a new approach to memory that allows us to learn from history, to use the past to shape our future together and to get to know each other better, at least in Europe. A work that should be thought of in an intergenerational and transnational context that goes beyond borders.
The project I have just completed is along these lines: a documentary film on the trauma experienced after the fall of the Iron Curtain by East Germans and, more generally, Eastern Europeans. My aim was to share the experience of many Eastern Europeans who feel left out of the European culture of remembrance,. In order to foster an inclusive European memorial culture, we need to build more bridges with the memory of communism - as well as that of colonialism, since many people living in Europe today originally come from former colonized countries.
My next project is a book about the relations between Germany and the Middle East in the first half of the 20th century. Starting under Kaiser Wilhelm II, these relations were carried out under the Third Reich, and this ideology helped discredit the West and democracy in the Arab world.