The Burden of the Past

The Burden of the Past: Martin Walser on Modern German Identity: Texts, Contexts, Commentary

Thomas A. Kovach
Martin Walser
Volume: 28
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 153
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt82047
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  • Book Info
    The Burden of the Past
    Book Description:

    The German novelist Martin Walser's 1998 speech upon accepting the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade remains a milestone in recent German efforts to come to terms with the Nazi past. The day after the speech, Ignatz Bubis, leader of Germany's Jewish co

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-789-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowlegments
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Thomas Kovach
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    On October, 1998, Martin Walser, one of the most prominent of the postwar generation of German writers, gave a speech at St. Paul’s Church in Frankfurt am Main as he formally accepted the “Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.” This speech, which took place in a historically weighty setting — the church had been the site of the German National Assembly during the 1848 revolution, arguably the first (albeit short-lived) democratic institution in German history — addressed what Walser called the exploitation of the Holocaust, the use of Holocaust remembrance by unnamed individuals to keep Germans in a perpetual state of...

  5. Our Auschwitz (1965)
    (pp. 5-22)

    During the first decades following the war, West German society was preoccupied with the task of rebuilding its physical structure after the damage caused by Allied bombardment of German cities and creating a vibrant new economy — an accomplishment widely known as the “Wirtschaftswunder” or Economic Miracle. Most Germans wanted above all to put the past behind them, a desire (as argued by Alexander and Margarethe Mitscherlich in their 1967 book Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern [The Inability to Mourn]¹) that sometimes verged on a kind of pathological denial, even a tendency to think of themselves as the real victims. The writers...

  6. No End to Auschwitz (1979)
    (pp. 23-34)

    In 1965, when Walser wrote his essay “Our Auschwitz,” he was becoming increasingly involved in politics, initially through the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Then, when he and other left-wing intellectuals grew increasingly frustrated in the late 1960s with the German government’s cooperation with the US war effort in Vietnam and the SPD’s failure to offer effective opposition to this policy, he became associated with the “Extra-Parliamentary Opposition” (APO) and even flirted with the German Communist Party. This development was given further impetus by the “Grand Coalition” of 1966 to 1969, in which the Social Democrats (led by Willy Brandt) joined...

  7. Handshake with Ghosts (1979)
    (pp. 35-54)

    In the same year as the preceding speech (1979), Walser published an essay that, unlike the previous two texts, makes no overt reference to Auschwitz in its title; in fact, the title “Handshake with Ghosts” is deliberately mystifying, and suggestive of the more ambiguous and “literary” nature of the text that follows. Ironically, since one of the themes of the essay is the problematic role of the “public intellectual” in West Germany, the essay appeared in a collection edited by Jürgen Habermas, who is himself the epitome of the public intellectual and who thematizes the concept of the public sphere...

  8. Speaking of Germany (A Report) (1988)
    (pp. 55-80)

    The speech that follows was delivered at the Kammerspiele Theater in Munich on October 30, 1988, as part of a series called “Reden über unser Land,” or “Speeches about Our Country.” Though he was not involved in any major controversies in the 1980s, Walser’s reputation as a writer who had abandoned his older left-wing convictions in favor of right-leaning nationalist sentiments had established itself among most of his former left-wing colleagues, in spite of the fact that during these years he signed at least one pro-labor petition and spoke enthusiastically about the success of the Green Party in gaining seats...

  9. Experiences while Composing a Sunday Speech: The Peace Prize Speech (1998)
    (pp. 81-106)

    As is now well known, what seemed a pipe dream at the time of Walser’s 1988 speech — the idea of overcoming the division of Germany — was to become a reality within months afterward. In the same year, the East German government felt so threatened by Gorbachev’s liberalizing tendencies that it actually forbade the distribution of some Soviet publications it regarded as subversive. In the summer of 1989, the reformist Hungarian regime opened its border with Austria, thus creating a route to the West for citizens of East Germany. East Germans looking to escape also sought asylum in the West German...

  10. On Talking to Yourself: A Flagrant Attempt (2000)
    (pp. 107-128)

    The Walser-Bubis debate, occasioned by Walser’s Peace Prize speech and Bubis’s ensuing accusation that Walser had made inflammatory remarks, is widely considered the most prominent debate regarding the German past and how it should be viewed by Germans today since the Historian’s Debate of the mid-1980s. Though at first it seemed that Bubis was alone in his criticism of Walser’s speech, his voice would soon be joined by many others who were similarly disturbed by the speech. The media reflected this turn as well, going from what was for the most part an uncritical celebration of Walser to what was...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 129-134)

    In 2002, four years after the Peace Prize speech, Walser published his novel Tod eines Kritikers (Death of a Critic), which featured a corrupt and power-hungry literary critic and media celebrity named André Ehrl-König, who “happens to be” Jewish. Anyone familiar with the German literary scene would recognize Ehrl-König as a caricature of Marcel Reich-Ranicki. Even before the novel’s appearance, it unleashed a scandal almost equal to the one following his 1998 speech: Frank Schirrmacher, the literary editor and co-publisher of the FAZ, who gave the introductory tribute to Walser prior to his speech in St. Paul’s Church, and who...

  12. Suggestions for Further Reading
    (pp. 135-138)
  13. Index
    (pp. 139-141)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 142-142)