The Nazi Next Door

The War Criminal

By Mark Heffernan

A review of The War Criminal by Leon Berger

Published on April 1, 2002

The War Criminal
Leon Berger

ECW Press
$29.95
cloth
214pp
1-55022-465-4

Horst Schneider, formerly a member of the Nazi SS and chauffeur for Reinhard Heydrich, the man who designed methods of mass extermination, lives out a bleak and anonymous existence in a New Jersey suburb. In his apartment building he meets the 14-year old Michael who has developed a fascination for Nazism. Horst, troubled by vague regrets, tries to understand how social forces in a democratic society could become so unhinged as to lead to a fascist revival:

Listen hard and you’ll hear me hacking through the undergrowth, trying to clear a way toward you. But stand back when I finally reach you, because the slash of my truth can slice through your arteries…through all your preconditioned assumptions…I am infinitely more dangerous today with my flashing machete of words than I ever was with my SS dagger.

But Horst is not a man of words, and he frequently has trouble with the most elementary thoughts. He soon admits this when he says, “I know things, things I find difficult to express.” His mental meanderings are described by the narrator himself as “the what-if pathways and the might-be trails.” His digressions often lead to more questions. He offers Michael a meal and then deliberates over why he did so:

Why had he offered the boy a meal? He couldn’t work it out. Charity was one thing, but this wasn’t charity…but sanctuary that he’d given. But why? Why this boy? Why this human being? Because he just happened to be there? Maybe. Because it was simple kindness? Maybe.

The episodic narration (many novelists use such an approach effectively, but even Don DeLillo drifts into purposeless and redundant scenes in his long novel Underworld) is accompanied by Horst’s italicized internal monologue. Horst, in italics, is suddenly quite a psychologist and philosopher, commenting on the phrase “Jewish blood” as “scientifically incorrect and steeped in medieval superstition.”

The novel is based on the premise that Horst can understand and even redeem his past by helping guide Michael, a neo-Nazi in the making, away from the seduction of power and evil. But Horst is cast in the mould of the ‘regretful old man’ stereotype, just as his neighbour Mrs. Leibowitz must fuss about and serve soup like every other Jewish mother while her husband responds to contemporary events with the typical “terrible, terrible.” Such characters are too feebly sketched to engage our moral interest. And the very basis of Horst’s regrets is made doubtful by the example of such unrepentant public figures as Leni Riefensthal. Ex-Nazis are soldiers who served the Fatherland, as patriots of any nation are expected to do.

In one of his flashbacks Horst recalls being spotted on a Canadian street by the sergeant to whom he surrendered in Holland:

“Looking back now, nothing is clear, yet the moment is imprinted in the bible of my soul.”

This turn of phrase, “the bible of my soul,” is absurd when placed in the context of the story and Horst’s one-dimensional character. Ours is an age when all bibles have been trampled into the dust, when few people could give a credible defense of the concept of the ‘soul.’ The contemporary writer cannot fall back on lofty phrases but has been forced – if he/she cares about meaning – to confront the depths of nihilism. Cortazar once described the writer as a “poor, white shaman in a polyester suit,” a creator engaged in a daemonic struggle with meaning in a secular age. When Adorno said “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz,” he meant there could be no more “bibles of the soul.” Only in a verbally humbled condition can the writer hope to approach the daunting subject of Nazi terror. mRb

Mark Heffernan is a Montreal writer.

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