This poem was inspired by the 2015 German movie, Labyrinth of Lies, about a young and idealistic public prosecutor in post World War II Germany learning about Nazi war crimes and their endemic impunity. As one reviewer summarizes:
“Powerful and haunting, Labyrinth of Lies turns over a rock and watches the vermin crawl out in a disturbing and rarely talked about footnote to German (and world) history. The rock is Germany’s massive effort to forget the past under National Socialism and move on. The rats are the former Nazis who, after the war, found acceptance and protection in comfortable positions of importance in the German government at a time when the country was on its way to reconstruction and cultural renaissance. The movie centers on the handful of brave men and women who dedicated themselves to an uncompromising search for the truth in the investigation that led to the Auschwitz trials from 1963 to 1965 in which Germans prosecuted Germans at last. It’s one of the most important and revelatory films of the year.”
The first line in this poem, Courting the truth, has multiple references and meanings. The movie is a prosecutorial investigation leading to the 1963 trial of Nazi war criminals for murder (which doesn’t have a statute of limitations) which was the largest trial in German history and considered the pivotal event in Germany coming to terms with its haunting past of Hitler’s reign and the tsunami of obedience by the overwhelming proportion of German citizens. “Courting” refers to the culminating courtroom drama which the story preludes. “Courting” also refers to the courtship of the truth and of the love affair portrayed in the movie between the lead character, the lead prosecutor, and his wife-to-be. The courtship of the truth, which reveals reams of human ugliness, stands in sharp contrast to the love affair. Or does it? The love affair is romantic, even magical, until in drunken despair the prosecutor confronts his wife with the reality of her own drunken father who fought with the Nazis in Poland: “Ask him why he drinks?” She tells her husband to get out, for good. The allusion is that she continues in denial about her father. The full-circle carnage is complete as the drunken despair was triggered by the idealistic prosecutor’s daring to look at his own father’s war records, only to find out that he was a member of the Nazi Party. The literal image of his father, a picture inscribed to him with the implied command, “Always do the right thing,” was now only an idol hypocrisy. The merciless truth of endemic Nazi collaboration couldn’t be clearer. Or could it? Among other revelations, he learns that the activist journalistic pushing for the Auschwitz investigation was, in fact, a guard at Auschwitz, making a somewhat-late and partially-muddled attempt at amends for his own presumed war crimes. Courting the truth offers unsatisfying justice as the original horrific injustices and decimation of humanity could never be fully restored.
The second line in the poem, Their stories were tolled, is the best answer offered to such overwhelming tragedy and criminality. Simply to have some of the countless untold stories of uncounted victims was the only path to honor the murdered and begin the healing of a war-ravaged nation. The damning awe of the truth cannot be successfully covered up by however neat or sterilizing monuments over which the dead are encrypted from the light of day. The terrible truth must be tolled — exacting unpayable pries. The river of denial must give weigh to the river of blood teeming underneath “A broken body politic.” That a broken body politic can re-member at all is the only redemption realizable.
May we never forget the lessens of war and its many patriotic and cowardly crimes against humanity. May we have the necessary courage and bounding love for humanity to empower us to defeat the scourges of nationalism and that bastard of patriotism: fascism.