- The Mark of Cain: Guilt and Denial in the Post-War Lives of Nazi Perpetrators by Katharina von Kellenbach
Scholars of post-war German reconciliation with the Nazi past will likely already know Prof. Katharina von Kellenbach’s superb article “Vanishing Acts.”1 That piece links the very personal story of her family’s response to one of its members having participated in anti-Jewish atrocities with the broader reaction of West Germans to the continued existence of Nazi perpetrators in their midst. Her most recent book, The Mark of Cain, is an ambitious and thought-provoking expansion of the issues broached in that earlier article. Once again, the starting point is her uncle, Alfred Ebner, an SS civil administrator who was intimately involved in the ghettoization, starvation, enslavement, and murder of 18,300 Jews in Pinsk, Belarus. Ebner’s past was not openly discussed in her family (although his release from trial was celebrated), and her youthful attempts to understand his case were answered with derision.
The knowledge of mass murder, von Kellenbach writes, is bearable when it can be kept at a distance (6). But for her family, and for the families of the approximately 500,000 men and 5,000 women actively involved in the Nazi killing programs, the proximity to that knowledge threatened to make it unbearable (6). The goal of her book is to explore how perpetrators, their families, and their nation might have emerged from the weight of the guilt of their crimes in a way that would have neither denied the injury to the victim nor demanded total absolution for the perpetrator.
Professor von Kellenbach is a theologian, and The Mark of Cain is a combination of theology and history. The work began with her interest in Nazi perpetrators’ self-understanding and the role of the church (as a national institution and as represented by individual clergy) in bringing about reconciliation with Nazi crimes. She researched the archives of chaplains who had counseled war criminals held at Landsberg prison, as well as documents left behind by war criminals.
Any consideration of guilt and forgiveness in post-war Germany necessarily raises questions of justice. Early on, von Kellenbach acknowledges the indispensability of trials in criminalizing atrocities, identifying perpetrators, and imposing punishments. She rightly concludes that as tools for creating records of atrocity and as instigators of public discourse about atrocity, trials have a key role to play in the confrontation with mass crime. However, the judicial project is an inherently symbolic and limited one. The courts cannot process all perpetrators, no punishment is truly commensurate with the enormity of the crime, and, albeit regrettably, society needs its doctors, teachers, police officers, business people, parents, and spouses back if it is to function (207). The challenge, then, and the one von Kellenbach seeks to address, is devising a way to acknowledge and bear the guilt of atrocity in a socially constructive way in the absence of a court’s sentence.
Two biblical paradigms serve as models in this endeavor. In the parable of the prodigal son, a man leaves his father with his inheritance but squanders it. He returns home, and his father welcomes him unconditionally. Von Kellenbach discusses the historical tendency within Christian teaching to forgive even without any remorse from [End Page 256] the sinner. The failure to acknowledge the crime and atone for it dehumanizes the victim, amplifies his or her suffering, and thereby compounds the original injury. The consequence is manifold: unacknowledged guilt potentially sows seeds of revenge in the victims or returns as shame upon the perpetrator and his or her community.
Despite these dangers, the paradigm of the prodigal son served as guidepost in religious confrontations with Nazi perpetrators. Forgiveness, mercy, and amnesty became the churches’ “rallying cry” in the post-war era (207).
Von Kellenbach suggests the story of Cain as the alternative biblical model for society’s response to atrocity. In the Book of Genesis, Cain murders his brother Abel in a fit...