In My Brother's Shadow
A brother's questions
By Steven Martinovich
"He didn't tell lies. He was well behaved, and above all he was brave, said our father, brave even as a child." Uwe Timm was a two-year old when his 18-year old brother Karl-Heinz announced to his family that he was enlisting in the Waffen SS. One year later he died after being injured in battle on the Russian front. In the proceeding six decades Timm has struggled to understand a brother largely known to him only through his parents' recollections and a terse war diary left behind.
Although In My Brother's Shadow is ostensibly a memoir about a brother Timm barely knew, it is also a bid to try and answer some of the unspoken questions many Germans of his generation still have about the Second World War. The Waffen SS was the most ideologically pure of the military branches, one linked to many mass murders on the battlefield and among occupied civilian populations. How were normal German boys -- such as Karl-Heinz Timm -- capable of either witnessing or participating in atrocities? And if he did, when and how does an older brother turn into something much darker?
Unfortunately Timm does not have much in the way of resources to draw upon to answer those questions. Records about his brother's regiment -- the Totenkopf (Death Head's) Regiment -- are sparse and offer little information. His parents, both passed away, dealt with their grief each in different ways and only passed along little stories about their beloved (and preferred) son Karl-Heinz. The only direct evidence he has are some letters and a wartime diary left behind by his brother, one that answers some questions but raises a host of others.
Indeed, the more questions Timm has about his brother's service, the more the diary fails him. Laconic sentences such as "75 m away Ivan smoking cigarettes, fodder for my MG" hints at a growing sterilization of feeling in his brother. There is little personal exploration in the diary, writes Timm, just a disquieting acceptance of the brutality of war. While there is no evidence that his brother participated in any atrocities, Timm is struck by his brother's apparent lack of concern for the suffering of others. In one letter Karl-Heinz blasts Allied bombing of German cities as "inhuman."
"It is hard to comprehend and impossible to trace the way sympathy and compassion in the face of suffering could be blanked out, while a distinction emerged between humanity at home and humanity here in Russia. In Russia, the killing of civilians is normal, everyday work, not even worth mentioning; at home it is murder," retorts Timm, later pointing out to some in the German military the killing of Russian civilians -- considered inferior to the Aryan Germans -- was considered a "hygienic" matter. His brother ends his diary with the cryptic words "I don't see any point in recording the cruel things that sometimes happen."
In recent years some Germans, such as historian Joachim Fest, have taken to arguing that the final victims of Adolph Hitler were the German people themselves. Denied his dream of remaking the world, Hitler -- by continuing the war even as it was apparent all was lost -- punished the German people for what he perceived as their failures. Timm clearly rejects that line of reasoning with In My Brother's Shadow, arguing that an entire generation willingly bought into the madness and that there were few who, either with grand gestures or small private ones, opposed the Third Reich.
Ultimately we learn little more about Karl-Heinz at the end of In My Brother's Shadow then we knew at its beginning but Timm's aim was higher. With this book he uses the framework of his brother's story to explore the souls of his brother and father's generations, how the concepts of honor and duty were twisted into a swastika. In My Brother's Shadow illustrates that there are many more questions that need to be answered before we can hope to put a six-decade-old chapter behind us.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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