The Role of the Perpetrators during the Holocaust in Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow and the Moral Involvement of Future Generations

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2009 23 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works


Table of Contents

1. Introduction
1.1. Historical Debate

2. Drawing Conclusions from the Presentation of the Holocaust
2.1. Morality and the ‘Third Reich’
2.2. Consequences of ‘Third Reich’ Morality
2.3. Moral Involvement of the Reader

3. Conclusion

4. Works Cited

1. Introduction

“A literary text not only exploits and reallocates cultural discourses and meanings, it also may have such an influence on them that it becomes a medium of cultural memory, contributing to the formation as well as the perpetuation of cultural identity.“1 The present research paper raises the question how Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow2 contributes to such cultural discourses and meanings (regarding content). The novel will be analyzed in terms of how it portrays the perpetrators of the Holocaust and which conclusions can be drawn from this specific point of view. The significance of the Holocaust for future generations will also be outlined. The style as well as the content of the novel will be taken into account to analyze how morality is portrayed (2.1. Morality and the ‘Third Reich’) and what consequences arise from this (2.2. Consequences of ‘Third Reich’ Morality). In this respect, the role of the reader in relation to the text will be elucidated (2.3. Moral Involvement of the Reader). The method of analyzing content and style of the novel seems crucial to provide an answer to the raised question: “Personally, I’ve always believed in the indivisibility of form and content. [...] Style is not neutral; it gives moral directions.” “Style isn’t something added on; it’s intrinsic to the perceptions and the way you see life.”3

Postmodern theories of history point out that historical objectivity can not be accomplished: “[... ] historians inescapably interpret, and thus shape, the history they want to document.”4 Particularly, Hayden White stresses the “construct character” of historical conclusions. “[T]here is an inexpugnable relativity in every representation of historical phenomena.”5 Furthermore, in terms of dealing with and interpreting the Holocaust, one has to be aware of the circumstance that “the historical narrativization of the Holocaust raises not only aesthetic problems, but also moral issues”6. Hence, portraying the Holocaust has untold faces. Apart from the difference between interpretations, the motivation to provide an interpretation differs. (For instance, the purpose of memory might be used to legitimate the existence and form of a state.7 ) The description of the Holocaust is part of a ‘cultural memory’. (The term is used here to “describe the complex ways of which societies remember their past using a variety of media.”8 )

1.1. Historical Debate

There have been several debates about the Second World War, the Holocaust and the question of how and why to remember it.9 Symptomatically was the historical 1986/87 debate concerning the Holocaust and the question of which role it might play in the context of forming a German identity. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas claimed that a group of historians wanted to conserve the Holocaust in merely a historical way and hence intended to make it less significant.10 He said this fulfilled the purpose of giving rise to a rightwing and conservative national identity in whole Germany. But the knowledge of the 1980s was not great enough to provide detailed and conscientious statements about how the Holocaust took place. Even simple figures, for example how many humans were killed, when, and where, were not available. Yet, the work of the perpetrators was not researched. Raul Hilberg’s three volume book The Destruction of the European Jew11 was published 1985 in America. However, due to the historical debate in the 1980s hundreds of historians followed Hilberg’s example and wrote research papers concerning different and detailed aspects of the Holocaust. Nevertheless, even today the question remains where to place the greatest atrocity of the 20th century in German and European history.12

2. Drawing Conclusions from the Presentation of the Holocaust

The style of Time ’s Arrow is based on different narrative techniques. The narrative form is a temporal reversal. An example is given in the opening dialogue of the novel. It offers the only instance of total speech reversal before the narrator learns to translate it back into conventional order:

“Dug. Dug,” says the lady in the pharmacy.

“Dug,” I join in. “Oo y’rrah?”

“Aid u too y’rrah?”13

The narrative perspective is characterized by the splitting of protagonist and narrator: “I have no access to his thoughts- but I am awash with his emotions.”14 The narrator also refers to his own position as being a “passenger or parasite”15. Furthermore, the narrative mode is one of irony that produces black humor.16 For instance: “Destruction - is difficult. Destruction is slow. Creation, as I said, is no trouble at all.”17 Narrative form, perspective and mode are taken into account to point out how the style of the novel draws attention to certain aspects and hence provides interpretations and conclusions of the Holocaust.

2.1. Morality and the ‘Third Reich ’

From today’s point of view it’s hard to imagine how the Nazis were morally able to support and carry out the Holocaust. It is the protagonist of Time ’s Arrow, Odilo Unverdorben, who is by 1944 helping to kill “the Hungarian Jews, and at an incredible rate, something like 10,000 a day.”18 It is him who personally gets the pellets of Zyklon B from the pharmacist to place them at the gas chambers.19 He helps to remove the dead bodies which were lying in the gas chamber “where the bodies were stacked [...] with babies and children at the base of the pile, then the women and the elderly, and then men”20. But the bitter and cynical irony which Amis uses shows not only that time is reversed, but also that all the interpretations and moral judgments by the narrator are as well. While today’s morality reconstructs the action in forward order, the narrator misinterprets everything.21 In this sense, ordinary doctors make their patients miserable, while Nazi doctors seem to be the true benefactors. To Odilo, it looks as though they fulfill a “prenatural purpose” in Ausschwitz: “To dream a race. To make people from the weather. From thunder and from lightning. With gas with electricity, with shit, with fire.”22 He goes on misinterpreting the Holocaust: “This was our mission after all: to make Germany whole. To heal her wounds and make her whole.”23 Like Nazi ideology, the narrator tries to make sense of the Holocaust. He experiences reversed time and interpretation and hence suggests that the atrocities are the right thing to do.24 In retrospect, reviews of the book underline that the reversed narrator offers an unusual perspective: “Mr. Amis creates a devastatingly specific portrait of the Nazis’ warped mentality [,..].”25 Morality depends on the point of view. Accordingly, the style of reversed narration gains moral complexity, as stated by this review: ”The reader is strangely torn - between seeing the Utopian bliss of an Auschwitz reversed, and realising that this reversed vision is itself a Nazi vision of history [,..].”26


1 Christoph Henke, “Remembering Selves, Constructing Selves: Memory and Identity in Contemporary British Fiction,“ Journal for the Study of British Cultures (10(1) 2003) 82.

2 Martin Amis, Time’s Arrow (London: Vintage, 2003).

3 Martin Amis, quoted in: Valentina Adami, Trauma Studies and Literature: Martin Amis ’s Time’s Arrow as Trauma Fiction (Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 2008) 98.

4 Adami 37.

5 Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Hopkins, 1987) 40.

6 Adami 42.

7 Cp. Monika Flacke, Mythen der Nationen, II Vol. (Mainz: Zabern, 2004).

8 Astrid Erll and Ann Rigney, “Literature and the Production of Cultural Memory: Introduction,” European Journal of English Studies (10 (2) Aug. 2006) 111.

9 Cp. Alexandra Rossberg and Johan Lansen (ed.) Das Schweigen brechen: Berliner Lektionen zu Spätfolgen der Schoa (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1997).

10 Cp. Götz Aly, „Logik des Grauens: Was wissen wir heute wirklich vom Holocaust? Eine Bestandsaufnahme 20 Jahre nach dem Historikerstreit,“ Die Zeit 1st June 2006.

11 Raul Hilberg. The Destruction of the European Jew (New York: Holmes, 1985).

12 Cp. Götz Aly, „Logik des Grauens: Was wissen wir heute wirklich vom Holocaust? Eine Bestandsaufnahme 20 Jahre nach dem Historikerstreit,“ Die Zeit 1st June 2006.

13 Amis 7.

14 Amis 15.

15 Amis 16,72.

16 Brian Finney, English Fiction since 1984: Narrating a nation, (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006) 56.

17 Amis 26.

18 Amis 137.

19 Cp. Amis 129.

20 Amis 129.

21 Cp. Henke 87.

22 Amis 128.

23 Amis 149.

24 Brian Finney, “Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow and the Postmodern Sublime.” Martin Amis: Postmodernism and Beyond, ed. Gavin Keulks (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006) 107.

25 Michiko Kakutan, “Book of the Times: Time Runs Backward to Point Up a Moral.” New York Times 22 Oct 1991, late ed.

26 James Wood, “Books: Slouching Towards Auschwitz to be Born Again - Amis's Profound Book Adds a New and Terrifying Dimension to the Shakespearean Tragic Conception of Time out of Joint,” The Guardian 19 Sep 1991, London.


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Kriegsverbrecher KZ-Ärzte Mängele Auschwitz Nazis Nationalsozialismus Konzentrationslager Martin Amis Time's Arrow National Socialism Nazi doctor Valentina Adami Robert Lay Lifton Perpetrators Holocaust Shoa Moral Future Generations



Title: The Role of the Perpetrators during the Holocaust in Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow and the Moral Involvement of Future Generations