Martin Walser, who has died aged 96, was a prolific novelist – at one point producing a book a year – but his role in German life was wider than that. He came to personify the complexities of the generation that came to adulthood as the second world war was ending, his long and controversial career spanning the entire period between then and the present day.
His writings were admired and criticised in equal measure. As Olaf Scholz, the chancellor, noted: “Generations of people have read his books, and his love of argument made for many lively debates.”
Walser may not have achieved the same global fame as the Nobel laureates Günther Grass and Heinrich Böll, but among German readers his output is often compared to theirs. Internationally he is perhaps best known for one episode in which he confronted the central tenets underpinning remembrance of Nazi crimes.
Ever the iconoclast, he knew he was stepping into hot water when preparing an address he would give on being awarded the peace prize of the German Book Trade, the most prestigious literary award, in October 1998. In what he titled Experiences While Drafting a Soap Box Speech, he sought to challenge the unthinking conformism of many of his peers who had effortlessly shed their Nazi sympathies for the societal paradigms of the pro-American Federal Republic.
Germans, he declared, “are confronted all the time with our guilt,” adding: “Instead of being grateful for the continuous show of our shame, I start looking away.” He reserved his most contentious lines for the memorialisation of the most gruesome of all the concentration camps. Auschwitz, he said, was an “ever available intimidation and moral stick” with which to beat Germany. Its ritualisation, he argued, was little more than lip service.
His audience, in the evocative setting of the Paulskirche in Frankfurt (the former church that once housed the National Assembly, the failed first step towards democracy after the 1848 Revolution), gave him a standing ovation. It did not take long, however, for the condemnations (plus the odd note of support) to come flooding in.
More than 1,000 articles were written in newspapers and journals about the speech. The prevailing view, at least publicly, was that Walser had overstepped the mark and undermined the sanctity of remembrance.
After a large measure of suppression in the immediate postwar decades, by the mid-1980s a much more open, and raw, debate was being had. The Historikerstreit – “Historians’ Dispute” – saw public intellectuals feverishly debate the topics in the media, grappling with the question of how to frame the Holocaust within wider German and global historiography. Walser was criticised not for entering the debate, but for doing so without the requisite dose of sensitivity.
The Nobel peace laureate Elie Wiesel accused him of opening “a door that others can push through, others who follow completely different political views and are dangerous in a completely different way”. The most vocal condemnation came from Ignatz Bubis, chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
In a speech marking the 60th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Bubis accused Walser of “spiritual arson”. As the row escalated, and a host of politicians and public intellectuals waded in, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) newspaper offered to moderate a discussion between the two men.
The meeting ended with a ceasefire of sorts in which Bubis retracted his “arson” accusation and both called for a “common language of remembrance”.
Four years later, Walser went headfirst into another row. Over his career, he had frequently taken umbrage over reviews of his books and used one of his novels, Tod eines Kritikers (2002, Death of a Critic), to mock one of their number. The protagonist was said to bear an uncanny resemblance to Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the influential literary editor of the FAZ.
Walser was accused of using antisemitic tropes; Reich-Ranicki was Jewish and a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto. Walser was shunned by the American literary scene for several years after the incident. His reputation suffered further when documents released in 2007 suggested that he had joined the Nazi party on his 17th birthday. He vehemently denied he had done so knowingly.
Born in the picturesque resort of Wasserburg on the shores of Lake Constance, Walser came from a conservative Catholic family typical for its time. His parents, Augusta (nee Schmid) and Martin Walser, were coal merchants and also owned the town’s railway station restaurant.
In the last year of the Third Reich, Martin Jr was conscripted into the Wehrmacht. At the end of the war, he studied literature, philosophy and history at the universities of Regensburg and Tübingen, where he wrote a thesis on Franz Kafka.
While still a student, he worked for the region’s public radio station, Süddeutscher Rundfunk, where he started also to write radio plays. Shortly after, he devoted himself to writing and was one of the first members of Group 47, an informal forum established as a platform for young authors to help in the renewal of German literature.
Walser wrote extensively about the complacency of the early baby boomers who helped create – and reap – the benefits of the Wirtschaftswunder, the economic miracle that began in the 50s.
His first novel, published in 1957, set the trend. Ehen in Philippsburg (Marriage in Philippsburg, published in English translation as The Gadarene Club) was a satirical portrait of a character called Hans trying to make a career for himself in the Stuttgart of the late 50s. A consistent theme of his work were the comic-tragic struggles of characters who tried, and usually failed, to live up to the requirements of bourgeois society.
Two decades later, his biggest selling book, Ein Fliehendes Pferd (1978, A Runaway Horse), focused on the rivalry between two ambitious middle-aged men, old schoolfriends, who meet while holidaying on Lake Constance with their wives: two more in his string of antiheroes in a stiflingly conformist society.
Walser intervened on several occasions in the politics of his time, though his positions changed, sometimes a social democrat, others a communist, later in life moving towards the right. He attended the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of the 60s, condemned the Vietnam war and denounced the division of Germany.
In his later years, Walser became somewhat alienated from the mainstream literary community. But that did not stop his writing. His canon ranged from novels to short stories, poetry to plays, to “Augenblickstexte”, instant musings.
A little more than two years ago, he offered his thoughts about the end of life in an illustrated collection of texts, Sprachlaub. “I do not defend myself,” he wrote. “I am thoughtful and want to live until the last evening.”
Walser is survived by his wife, Katharina Neuner-Jehle, whom he married in 1950, and by their four daughters, Franziska, Alissa, Johanna and Theresia, and by a son, Jakob, from a relationship with the translator Maria Carlsson.
Martin Johannes Walser, writer, born 24 March 1927; died 26 July 2023
Source : The Guardian