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Book Forum: Autobiography and Biography   |    
In My Brother’s Shadow: A Life and Death in the SS
ROBERT MICHELS, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2005;162:2404-2404. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.12.2404
View Author and Article Information
New York, N.Y.

By Uwe Timm; translated from the German by Anthea Bell. New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005, 160 pp., $18.00.

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Uwe Timm is a leading German writer and novelist. In My Brother’s Shadow (more literally translated as "My Brother’s Example") was published in Germany in 2003. It is a literary collage, reading like a transcript of free associations, comprising historical accounts, memories, letters, excerpts from his brother’s notebook, biographical notes, anecdotes, fantasies, dreams, quotations, and psychological and sociological insights. These are unified by Timm’s attempt to comprehend the paradoxes of his brother as older sibling, hero, and Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) trooper, his family grappling and failing to grapple with the trauma of his brother’s death, his nation struggling to deal with the same issues on a larger scale, and how each of us constructs a personal identity out of contradictory and at times incomprehensible fragments that are, nonetheless, all that we have.

Uwe Timm’s "facts" are relatively simple. He was born in Hamburg in 1940, a third and last child (a "latecomer," an "afterthought"). His father, a volunteer in the field artillery in World War I, was a successful taxidermist and served in the Luftwaffe in World War II. The postwar period was difficult. Timm writes, "Overnight the big people, the grown-ups, had shrunk.…There is probably a connection between this impression and the antiauthoritarian student revolution against our parents’ generation" (p. 60). Timm’s grandfather had abandoned his family for another woman. Timm’s father failed as a furrier after World War II and became alcoholic before he died. Timm’s mother said that her husband "was the only man in the world for her" (p. 38), and that "being married was something final, something dependable, a bond that was indissoluble once you had entered into it" (p. 39). Loyalty is an important and sometimes tragic theme in this story.

Timm had two older siblings. His sister, 18 years his senior, "was not the son they wanted." His father needed "sons to make up for what had gone wrong in his own life" (p. 43). His sister never recovered from the rejection and spent her life searching in vain for a man who would treasure her. Timm’s brother, 16 years his senior, the center of the story, is the enigmatic hero. Six feet tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed, he volunteered for the elite SS Death’s Head Division in December 1942 when Timm was 2, was severely wounded and lost both of his legs in the Ukraine in September 1943, and died the next month. Timm has only a fragmentary memory of being lifted high in the air by him when he visited home from the war, along with family stories, letters home, and a diary his brother kept during the war.

The central theme of the book is Timm’s struggle to forge his own identity by constructing inner representations of his brother and his father. "To get close to them in writing is an attempt to resolve what I had barely held on to in my memory, to find myself again" (p. 14). Were his brother, and his father before him, evil, heroes, strangely blind to the humanity of others, tragically obedient to an insane and violent culture, or all of the above? "How did my brother see himself? What were his feelings? Did he acknowledge anything like personal responsibility, guilt, injustice?" (p. 82). His account invites the reader to speculate further—how do Oedipal themes and sibling rivalry color his thoughts—his father and brother were more masculine, while he was his mother’s favorite. He describes his father taking in and lovingly caring for a veteran who was a double amputee—a proxy for the lost beloved son whom Timm could never replace. His father reworks his memory of the brother; the brother’s notebook included a sketch of a lion:

I suspect that my father improved the sketch later…added some lines and shadings when the notebook was sent to him. He probably wanted to make this little sketch by his son come up to his own expectations and wishes, with some other potential reader in mind. I am that reader. (p. 133)

I compared Timm’s style to that of free association. The reader is left with the kind of impression that an analyst has after a good session, not so much of new facts or new answers but, rather, with a deeper and more nuanced experience of a set of particulars and an enhanced understanding of the meaning of the universal questions that underlie them.

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