Novelist Martin Walser on the Crisis of Identity in Germany

10 07 2008
Heidelberg lectures on cultural theory — Martin Walser on the identity crisis in Germany
For decades, Martin Walser, possibly Germany’s best-known contemporary novelist, has repeatedly been accused of a reactionary political stance and even of anti-Semitism. His friendship with Heidelberg’s emeritus professor of German studies, Dieter Borchmeyer, resulted not least from their joint campaign against what they consider to be aberrations in contemporary assessments of the intellectual climate in Germany.

After a relaxed and informal start to the final session of the series of lectures on cultural history at the University of Heidelberg, the participants were quick to address the problem of German identity and to engage with the perennially painful subject of Germany’s past.

Dieter Borchmeyer began with an account of the various literary disputes fuelled by the division of the German nation into the Federal and Democratic Republics after the Second World War. He blamed blinkered ideologists for the number of literary “gods” unjustly toppled from their pedestals both in the era prior to reunification and today. Prominent victims of this kind of iconoclasm are Botho Strauß and Martin Walser himself, consigned by rabid critics to the trash-heap of writers vilified for an ingrained “right-wing” mentality. Vice versa, the East German novelist Christa Wolf was harried by newspaper attacks into American exile in the 1990s on account of insinuations about her activity as a Stasi agent. Much of this Borchmeyer attributed to an atmosphere of artificial self-righteousness on the part of the media prompted by increasing rivalry and the attendant pressure to “disclose” trumped-up scandals for the titillation of their readers.

Martin Walser’s take on the subject was less academic and based largely on his own memories and experiences. Back in 1977 he had complained bitterly about the fact that his refusal to accept the nationhood of the two Republics born of the division of Germany had meant that he, as a German, had been unable to travel to Dresden without let and hindrance. Thereupon the self-styled “progressives”, including the then federal chancellor Willy Brandt, had labelled him a man of the past. Later, in 1988, Walser had insisted that Auschwitz could not be adduced as an argument against reunification, as the division of Germany had not been conceived of as a punishment for Nazi war crimes but had merely been a product of the Cold War. One year later, this view turned him into a man of the future.

Both speakers agreed that the atrocities of the Nazis were indeed the core of the German identity crisis. Co-organiser of the lecture series Manfred Lautenschläger gave an impressive account of the difficult relationship between confrontation and the necessity of finding a way out of the horrors of the past. He eloquently described the temptation he had felt after visiting the Dachau concentration camp to avert his eyes and slink away from the appalling site, the almost unbearable grief and shame he had felt in the face of this dreadful reality. This temptation, he added, must surely have been even greater for someone with the sensibilities of a literary author.

Martin Walser emphasised that he by no means advocated a termination of the engagement with German guilt. But he also claimed the freedom to face up to this painful heritage of his own accord, rather than letting others coerce him into an “appropriate” degree of suffering in his contemplation of the past.

Christian Bentz
© Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung

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