Deutsches Requiem

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Short Story by Jorge Luis Borges, 1949

Although well known for his erudite short stories in which he blended fantasy and realism to address complex philosophical problems, Jorge Luis Borges has played a significant role in bringing his readership closer to topics that relate both directly and indirectly to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. In his story "Deutsches Requiem" (published in El Aleph, 1949) he shows the perversity of Adolf Hitler's Germany from the perspective of an unrepentant torturer and murderer who rejoices in his horrendous deeds and does not show any remorse. After being found guilty and having been sentenced to death for crimes against humanity, Otto Dietrich zur Linde writes his confession in order to show that man can transcend all compassion and "ancient acts of tenderness."

An avid reader of Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Oswald Spengler, zur Linde believes himself to be innocent in spite of his crimes (which he does not attempt to cover up) because he believes he has been part of a larger scheme, and his fulfillment of his duties as a high-ranking German officer and concentration camp director were both necessary and desirable: "The world was dying of Judaism, and of that disease of Judaism that is belief in Christ; we proffered it violence and faith in the sword … There are many things that must be destroyed in order to build a new order; now we know that Germany was one of them … What does it matter that England is the hammer and we the anvil? What matters is that violence, not servile Christian acts of timidity, now rules … My flesh may feel fear; I myself do not."

The last lines written by the protagonist of the story radiate a certain kind of nostalgia for the past rather than remorse. As a faithful believer in the larger cause of Nazism in both theory and practice, zur Linde rejects any and all acts of mercy. This becomes apparent from the outset when he writes about a Polish man imprisoned in his camp, David Jerusalem, a Whitmanesque poet from Breslau, who is seen by zur Linde as a persecuted and destitute member of a depraved and hated race. Although zur Linde reads many of his works and is moved by the poet's profound sensibility, in the end he destroys him: "I let neither compassion nor his fame make me soft. I had realized many years before I met David Jerusalem that everything in the world can be the seed of a possible hell." He kills the poet (one is never told how, although one is led to believe he commits suicide) not out of bigotry or racial hatred but out of fear and loathing of his own feelings kept deep inside him. Yet the true reason for ending the life of Jerusalem is pure destructiveness and cruelty for its own sake. Zur Linde is an intellectual who has not only read extensively but also has written on a variety of topics. He is neither a natural born killer nor a person who is mentally insane; he is rather a servant of Nazi ideology and a dutiful follower of its principles.

Though it has been hinted at by some critics that Borges's attempt to deal with the Holocaust puts the reader at too great a distance from the physical and moral horror of the events, one must take into account the fact that the story was published in 1949 (and was written even earlier), shortly after the Nuremberg trials of 1945-46 and long before the Holocaust became a topic for writers of fiction, especially in Argentina and the rest ofLatin America. Borges's stories were not concerned solely with the real events of the horror that took place in the Shoah but rather with the destruction of German culture as a whole by the Nazis. In his epilogue to The Aleph Borges explained how "Deutsches Requiem" was an attempt to try to come to terms with the Nazi horror and his sorrow for the tragic destiny of German culture.

—Alejandro Meter