Book Review: Bernard Schlink’s The Weekend

Bombing the way out of exile: Bernard Schlink’s recreation of a reunion of the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF)

Ex-Terrorists Meet for “The Weekend”

In the second decade of the 21st century, which almost makes us feel as though history has given the human race another chance, we wonder whether we have learnt anything from our fallen ancestors. German writer Bernhard Schlink has dedicated his work to gaining greater understanding of this heritage, and through his novels, urges us to learn from the mistakes history has taught us.

Most widely known for his best-selling novel The Reader, Schlink is absorbed with an exploration of Germany’s past, unfolding through his characters multiple layers of denial and soul-searching, people caught between guilt and a search for release, who struggle between right and wrong in an effort to come to terms with horrific events that cannot be changed. Through these novels, he has become the voice for Germany’s post-war generation, who, haunted by images of Nazi horrors, have still held themselves accountable for the sins of their parents. Thus, Schlink is carrying on several sides of a conversation Germans of all generations have responded to with at least recognition if not relief.

In The Reader, an adolescent boy falls in love with an older woman, who had been a concentration camp guard for groups of women prisoners. Their affair is his spiritual awakening, and they spend many afternoons together making love and reading aloud, as he discovers pride in the scholar he is becoming. Later as a law student, he happens to sit in on a trial in which she is one of a group of prison-guard defendants accused of crimes against humanity. He watches as she chooses to take responsibility for her colleagues collective guilt rather than admit she is illiterate. The novel explores issues of shame, guilt and redemption on both individual and societal levels, so complex in its moral themes and execution that it is already considered a modern classic.

Schlink’s latest novel The Weekend raises some of the same issues. Once again, the contemporary political world and the haunting images of the German past are reflected in the individual dilemmas of the characters. The story starts with the reunion of a group of friends, all former members of the terrorist group the RAF (Rote Armee Fraktion) to  celebrate release of one of their companions in arms from prison. After 24 years, Jörg is finally able to enjoy a couple of days with the people who were close to him decades ago. Eventually the weekend turns into a mock-trial as the explanation for violence and the loss of innocent lives has been long overdue.

Jörg justifies his involvement with the ultra leftist Rote Armee Fraktion [portrayed in the 2008 film Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex, directed by Bernd Eichinger based on the book by Stefan Aust] by the necessity for resistance, an attempt to avoid their parents’ mistakes, and the struggle against fascism in any form it may take. In the novel, the aftermath of the Nazi-regime has alienated young people, causing disrespect towards the authorities. Former Nazis were now occupying prominent roles in the Government, pushing German youth to believe that they were watching a continuation of the authoritarian tradition of the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft. Initially aiming “to escalate the tension between the state and opposition” and stand up to “those who exploited the Third World,” the organization shifted to violent armed resistance following the murder of their leader Benno Ohnesorg on Jun. 2, 1967, by a police officer, revealed decades later to be a Stasi undercover agent.

By 1970 a number of leftist organizations had also emerged in Italy and Japan declaring a “righteous” war against capitalism. While RAF, Italian Brigate Rosse and the Japanese Sekigun sought redemption for their fathers’ sins, the means remained the same – atrocious violence and utter disregard for human life.

Ferdinand, Jorg’s long lost son, at the peak of his outburst accuses his father of bearing an uncanny resemblance to the previous generation – “the generation of murderers,” which, just like his fathers, only felt sorry that “things went wrong.”

As friends reminisce about their youth and lost dreams, the idea of living with the dread of the past forces itself into the narrative. The weekenders choose to be pleased by the little things in life, their leftist views long gone, and to carry on with their lives without the political hassle. Except for Marko, a young revolutionary, who urges Jorg to rejoin the resistance as their leader. The ex-terrorist seems disinterested in Marko’s arguments for rejoining the struggle, and just lets him and Christiane, Jörg’s sister, flirt with the ideas about his life and well-being.

Jörg has abandoned the dream to change the world just as his friends have abandoned the dream of happiness.

The characters succumb to a state of detachment and a muffled sense of disillusionment and regret. None of them has achieved what they believed they were destined for and settled instead for doing what they know best. Jorg’s struggle proved unsuccessful and loss of innocent lives, in retrospect, unjustified. And while most of those at the gathering have found peace with the loss, Jörg, who had “wanted to bomb his way to his dream of home,” rationalizes the “collateral damage.”

Here once again Bernhard Schlink issues no pardon for the barbarism of Germany in the 20th century. For him the ends never justify the means. But neither does he offer a plan of salvation for the sinners except for a commitment to a common goal of creating a better, decent future.

And while The Reader succeeds in portraying the shame of a nation through the prism of the Hannah’s disgrace, The Weekend lacks the central irony of her illiteracy that makes her if not sympathetic, at least understandable. The same moral tension is never achieved here, missing the depiction of the intricate allure of love, lost innocence and imperfect loyalty. As always Schlink’s narrative is precise, his prose a clear, well-oiled mechanism.

Nevertheless, the characters seem blunted in their innermost desires and the deeper demons remain undisclosed. We don’t learn enough, and they don’t change. By the end, the weekenders don’t become any more interesting, neither are the driving forces behind their actions explained.

Those who expect a catharsis in The Weekend will be disappointed, because there is none. The novel exposes the reader to the roots of a nation’s shame from the standpoint of an unapologetic censor, but provides no means for lifting of the curse – no escape and no redemption.


See also The Vienna Review, Feb. 2010: “The Reader’s Roots”, by Susan Doering, and “Schlink on Screen,” by Valerie Crawford, on

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