Should we care when guilty people suffer?

“…we have to protect the value of ….respect for the individual even when the individual has forfeited our sympathy and compassion … to protect the capacity to feel in the face of suffering whether that suffering may be deserved or undeserved.” (Stig Dagerman, German Autumn)

Some months ago, I met four German students in their early twenties at a university seminar about the Swedish educational system. The five of us immediately bonded and felt comfortable talking about just anything. Which brought us to WWII … As I was rereading German Autumn, I told them about these articles Dagerman wrote while traveling through the ruins of Germany in the fall of 1946. They were written for the newspaper Expressen, and are now widely regarded as a classic piece of journalism.

This conversation reminded me of something I had scribbled down on the front cover of my Swedish edition of the book: “check out W.G. Sebald, he wrote something about Tysk höst”.

When I looked it up, I found On the Natural History of Destruction, 2004.  In this volume, based on lectures held in Germany in ‘97, Sebald describes the bombing of 131 German towns and cities by the Allies during WWII. A large number were completely destroyed by the carpet bombing. More than 600,000 civilians died, and 7.5 million Germans were left homeless. Referring to German Autum, Sebald writes …

Stig Dagerman describes the lives of the cave dwellers in a city in the
Ruhr: the unappetizing meals they concocted from dirty, wrinkled vegetables and dubious scraps of meat, the cold and hunger that reigned in those underground caverns, the evil fumes, the water that always stood on the cellar floors, the coughing children and their battered and sodden shoes Dagerman describes schoolrooms in which the broken windowpanes were replaced by school slates, and where it was so dark that the children could not read the textbooks in front of them. In Hamburg, says Dagerman, he talked to one Herr Schumann, a bank clerk then in his third year of living under ground. The white faces of these people, writes Dagerman, were just like the faces of fish coming up to the surface to snatch a breath of air.
pp. 37-38

Why, asks Sebald, does a subject like “the suffering of the guilty” so little occupy German cultural memory?  Again, he refers to Dagerman:

The quasi-natural reflex, engendered by feelings of shame and a wish to defy the victors, was to keep quiet and look the other way. Stig Dagerman /…/writes from Hamburg that on a train at normal speed it took him a quarter of an hour to travel through the lunar landscape between Hasselbrook and Landwehr, and in all that vast wilderness, perhaps the most horrifying expanse of ruins in the whole of Europe, he did not see a single living soul. The train, writes Dagerman, was crammed full, like all trains in Germany, but no one looked out of the windows, and he was identified as a foreigner himself because he looked out.” p. 30

In German Autumn,  Dagerman quotes the British publisher Victor Gollancz who as early as 1945 had questioned violence on the part of the Allies against the defeated Germans, and raised concerns about the values thus communicated by the victors. For more – see Our Threatened Values, London, 1946.

There is so much more to be found on this topic of whether we should care about “the suffering of the guilty”. A 2003 Davidsons symposium about guilt and revenge , brought up the relevance of German Autumn and how much more freely the issue of universal human suffering can be spoken of today. Another good source is “Speak no Evil, Write no Evil: In Search of a Usable Language of Destruction”, where Wilfried Wilms elaborates on the themes put forward by Dagerman, Sebald and others (in W. G. Sebald: History, Memory,Trauma, Denham et al(Eds. ) Berlin/New York, 2006).

It is not an easy thing to show empathy for those among us who are guilty of horrible deeds. But if we don’t, what price do we pay?

Bengt Söderhäll

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