Thomas A. Kovach, Martin Walser. The Burden of the Past: Martin Walser on German Identity: Texts, Contexts, Commentary. Rochester: Camden House, 2008. 141 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57113-368-7.
Reviewed by Margit Sinka
Published on H-German (April, 2010)
Commissioned by Benita Blessing
Holocaust Discourses and Martin Walser's Discontents
Although the renowned postwar novelist Martin Walser contributed no new writings specifically meant for The Burden of the Past, he appears as its co-author because three of his essays and three of his speeches--these ranging from 1965 to 2000--comprise the "Texts" listed in the book's subtitle. The second co-author, Thomas A. Kovach, translated the texts into English for this volume. Kovach also provides the context and the commentary for each text, as well as the introduction to the book and its conclusion. In fact, it is unlikely that Walser ever saw the complete translations of his texts, much less the book in its entirety, since Kovach's acknowledgments mention only Walser's helpful responses to his occasional questions on the wording of certain passages. It would therefore certainly be justified to treat Kovach as the main author of the book. Still, because readers linguistically ill-equipped to read German have previously not had the opportunity to study Walser's deliberations on Germany's attempts to confront and deal with its Holocaust past, it is certain that they will pay particularly careful attention to Walser's essays and speeches here, comparing their own understanding of them with Kovach's analyses. Thus I will not banish Walser's own, unmediated argumentations from my review.
Although chronologically only the fifth of the six texts discussed in the book, Walser's October 1998 speech unquestionably constitutes its raison d'être. Presented in Frankfurt's historic Pauluskirche (St. Paul's Church) after Walser accepted the prestigious Peace Prize of the German Booksellers Association, the speech turned out to be anything but peaceful. For the first time in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, an esteemed intellectual publicly attacked Germany's remembrance culture, decrying the pervasiveness of Auschwitz in societal discourses. Based on his own proclivity to look away when presented, incessantly, with horrific, unbearable Holocaust images, Walser postulated that the relentless reminders of the Holocaust were not conducive to promoting meaningful memory processes. Expressing himself in the stream-of-consciousness literary mode that characterizes the entire speech, Walser went one step further. Could it be, he wondered, that the plentiful Auschwitz references were not even meant to ensure memory of the Holocaust? Instead--and Walser claimed to tremble with audacity before divulging his next conclusion--Auschwitz had come to function as a "moral cudgel" with which to attack, injure, and intimidate all Germans. Clearly referencing this passage, Kovach states at the outset of his introduction that Walser perceives Auschwitz as a form of exploitation "to keep Germans in a perpetual state of guilt" (p. 1).
Yet, Walser himself never uses the word "guilt" in this speech, a fact Kovach does note in the fifth chapter. Instead, Walser uses the word "shame" (judiciously translated by Kovach as "disgrace"). This semantic difference speaks volumes. Whereas "guilt" implies perpetrators, "disgrace" is more the province of victims. For many Germans, Walser's speech therefore legitimated the view of Germans as victims--not as victims of Nazi ideology or of the postwar expulsions from the east, but rather as victims of Holocaust discourses and Holocaust images. In Walser's view, such interpretations of the past allow Germans not only to shrink back from forming a positive national identity but also from asserting the normality that should be Germany's due on the basis of its total rejection of fascism and its wholehearted embrace of democracy.
Remembering the Holocaust--above all, expressing compassion for its victims while keeping in mind the knowledge that they had been the initiators and main perpetrators of the Holocaust--had indeed prevented many Germans from considering their nation a "normal" nation. Instead of relinquishing his own dream of German normality, Walser gave a clarion call for eliminating Germany's remembrance culture. After pronouncing its sentiments a sham, he attacked even the desire for a good conscience, which in his mind prompted the public remembrance rituals that were also preventing Germans from accepting their normalcy. Lashing out not only at ritualized remembrance but also at all forms of public remembrance, Walser insisted that memory needed to be solely a private affair, relegated to each individual's conscience.
Despite the fact that Walser had vehemently struck at the heart of Germany's well-cultivated remembrance culture, all except one of the approximately twelve hundred elite individuals constituting the illustrious audience in the Pauluskirche gave him a standing ovation. The lone holdout was the now deceased Ignatz Bubis, at that time the head of Germany's Central Committee of Jews. In a media interview on the following day, Bubis branded Walser's speech as "intellectual arson," a phrase that was to become as much a household expression in Germany as Walser's "moral cudgel" or "moral bludgeon" (the latter Kovach's translation). Still, contrary to what Kovach suggests in the introduction, neither Walser's speech nor Bubis's outraged response initially caused more than ripples in the domain of public opinion. Indeed, what came to be labeled the "Walser/Bubis debate" does not refer mainly to Walser's and Bubis's disagreements in the two months following Walser's speech, as Kovach's introduction implies. Rather, to borrow the wording from the book's cover, it connotes the "protracted public battle of opinions" that ensued. Unfortunately, Kovach fails to mention that this battle erupted in full force only after Bubis's November 9, 1998 speech commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the Night of the Broken Glass (Reichskristallnacht). On that evening, at least half of Bubis's speech consisted of entire paragraphs lifted verbatim from Walser's text. Needless to say, read by Bubis in a Berlin synagogue--slowly, with unmistakable consternation--Walser's words no longer had the kind of ring that had prompted the standing ovation in the Pauluskirche.
Placing Walser's thoughts in the context of the Historikerstreit (Historians' Debate) (1986-89), Bubis stressed that the Peace Prize speech was Germany's most recent attempt to repress its history. How else, Bubis wondered, was one to interpret the passage in which Walser emphasized that he had plenty of practice in "looking away" and that he did not want to participate in efforts to "disqualify repression?" Attacking Walser for equating the media's use of Auschwitz with a "moral cudgel," he again charged him with "intellectual arson," concluding that Walser's message did not differ from that of the radical Right but would have far more legitimacy among those attempting to fashion a German normality by leaving the Nazi past behind.
In its entirety, the Walser/Bubis debate represents several so-called firsts. As the first major national debate of the new Berlin Republic, it is intimately connected with its very birth. By rupturing unified Germany's consensus, however fragile it may have been, on the necessity to integrate memory of Germany's horrendous past into the shaping of a national identity, it functioned as a signal of the Berlin Republic's new relationship to the past. Not remaining mired in discussions about whether national German institutions should dictate public remembrance, the debate extended to what should be remembered in the present and future and the appropriate forms of remembrance. The debate was also the first post-Kohl-era debate (Helmut Kohl had been chancellor for sixteen years) on antisemitism. It counts, moreover, as the first major postwar German debate conducted without much concern about what the outside world may have thought.
Given the importance of Walser's Peace Prize speech to post-unification German culture, it is perhaps surprising that Kovach is the first to have translated it into English, but then the entire Walser/Bubis debate has received relatively scant attention in the American media. Clearly, Kovach's translation of this speech represents more than the proverbial "valuable addition" to a scholarly field. The English version is in fact an essential one for non-German readers interested in contemporary Germany, not least because Walser's unpeaceful Peace Prize speech spawned a voluminous printed and oral media response second only to the vast media coverage of thoughts pertaining to Germany's national Holocaust Memorial.
Because of statements such as the one in the commentary of chapter 5 that "few if any have regarded" Walser's "plea for Germany's normalcy as controversial" (p. 101), it is doubtful that Kovach is widely read in the enormous sea of commentaries produced on the debate, a conclusion supported also by his sparse references to German media sources (for instance, although Kovach occasionally mentions Jörg Magenau's 2005 Walser biography, he does not refer to any of the articles and letters on the debate edited and published by Frank Schirrmacher in 2000; the sole note referencing this book pertains to the transcript of Walser and Bubis's televised December 1998 meeting). It was not, however, Kovach's intent to discuss the various phases of the Walser/Bubis debate or even its highlights. He is instead driven by the question of why Walser, one of Germany's most vocal leftist political analysts in the 1960s, had changed so much by the fall of 1998. How had he come to utter the thoughts in the Peace Prize speech that caused many to categorize him not merely as a rightist but even an ultra-rightist?
To illuminate Walser's initial position on the Holocaust and Holocaust remembrance and the subsequent shifts that culminated in the Peace Prize speech, Kovach includes four important, previously untranslated Walser texts: "Our Auschwitz" (1965), "No End to Auschwitz" (1979), "Handshake with Ghosts" (1979), and "Speaking of Germany (a Report)" (1988). Since Walser has been a prolific essay writer and public speaker over his long career, Kovach culled his selections from a particularly large body of texts. Unquestionably, for the purposes of The Burden of the Past, he chose knowledgeably and wisely. Nonetheless, Kovach is careful to play it safe. He remarks at the outset that he will be unable to give a definitive answer to his own question of how Walser turned from a public figure advocating acceptance of collective German responsibility for the Holocaust to a disgruntled author "complaining about the burden imposed by Holocaust images" (p. 2). But, by means of Walser's texts and his commentaries on them, Kovach hopes to offer readers perspectives "from which they may begin to consider issues" that concern all Germans in their struggle to deal with their Nazi legacy.
In other words, Kovach speaks not only to readers unacquainted with Walser's nonfiction works and oblivious to the Walser/Bubis debate, but also to readers completely uninformed of Germany's remembrance culture. This being the case, it might have been useful to provide more background on public and private remembrance in Germany, particularly in the introduction. He could, for instance, have mentioned the confrontational behavior of the 1968 generation or the ability to mourn belatedly engendered by the 1979 televising of the American film series Holocaust. In the "Context" section of the fourth chapter, about Walser's "Speaking of Germany (A Report)," he does, however, supply very cogent remarks on the Historians' Debate of the 1980s and the Bitburg controversy of 1985. Placed in the conclusion of the book, his excellent synopsis of Alexander and Margarete Mitcherlich's groundbreaking book on The Inability to Mourn (1967, the English edition in l975) would probably have been even more helpful at its beginning, when he first mentions the Mitcherlichs.
In the first chapter, Kovach notes that "Our Auschwitz," written in response to the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, was the Walser essay most frequently cited by those who disputed that he opposed remembrance of the Holocaust in his Peace Prize speech. But Kovach is too eager to stress that the 1965 essay is a condemnation of how the media responded to the trials. To be sure, Walser does discuss the media's tendency to focus on the goriest aspects of the perpetrator crimes and to describe them in escapist Dante-esque modes, but he also asks why this response is so prevalent even among the German population as a whole. His conclusion: when confronted with the previously unimaginable crimes of the Holocaust--crimes that most can't imagine committing themselves--individuals are at a complete loss, not least because of the impossibility of truly understanding what the victims went through. Yet, escaping from the victims to a "collection of subjective brutalities" (p. 20), all depicted with the utmost attention to detail, does not, Walser insists, promote any kind of reflection that leads to insight.
Though Kovach realizes that Walser points to a horror greater than the individual brutalities--"the reality of the system that designed this machinery of murder" (p. 20)--he fails to stress how very strongly Walser underscores the need to focus on the system and the circumstances that led to the well-oiled Holocaust machinery--moreover, that Walser actually predicates the recognition of collective German guilt on the examination of the system in its historical context.
In his commentary on "No End to Auschwitz," Kovach does, however, emphasize matters that are of utmost importance to Walser: that the urge to punish perpetrators represents a helpless, escapist response and that the belief in atonement through punishment is nothing other than wishful thinking. Here, Kovach accords appropriate weight to Walser's plea to examine the societal realities that enabled the crimes of Auschwitz and to Walser's conclusion that it is now only the worst in Germans, the guilt resulting from Auschwitz, that provides them with a commonality, the prerequisite for national identity formation.
Nonetheless, Kovach's commentary completely misrepresents one key argument in "No End to Auschwitz:" Walser stresses that the "guilt of Auschwitz" is so singular and so enormous that individuals are incapable of bearing it alone. To bear it "requires transcendent elements, solidarity" (p. 27)--the kind of solidarity that stems from the acceptance of a collective national identity. About this Walserian stance Kovach writes: Walser "questions whether it is possible for an individual to bear 'pure guilt' and then suggests that for a collectivity to do so is even more difficult" (p. 32). Yet in "Handshake with Ghosts," also a text from 1979, Walser voices the key thought expressed in "No End to Auschwitz" even more plainly and firmly: "One can absorb, retain, and bear it [guilt] only in togetherness with others" (p. 32). In light of Walser's rejection of collective remembrance in his Peace Prize speech, his 1979 advocacy of confronting the Holocaust collectively as Germans should surely have received more sustained attention. In fact, it would be possible to argue that the increasing attention Walser pays to nationhood--for instance, his disapproval of Germany's division in "Handshake with Ghosts" and his assertion of Germanness in "Speaking of Germany"--was motivated, at least in part, by his conviction that German guilt can be faced only with national solidarity. On the other hand, after the unified Germany did face guilt for the past collectively, as well as individually, Walser had a complete change of heart and mind. Kovach, as he predicted at the outset, is not able to pinpoint--certainly not on the basis of the essays in the book--when and why the change in Walser occurred, but often it seems that he is not even trying. For example, he focuses regularly on other matters: the glaring gap between perpetrators and victims that he perceives in Walser's texts or on Walser's failure to name the individuals and groups representative of the political correctness and the exploitation of Germans that he derides.
Kovach's commentaries provide many valuable insights--such as the ways in which Walser departs from the norm but also the ways in which he seems to represent it (the stress on normality in the Peace Prize speech, Kovach writes, was in accord with the less troubled attitude toward the past represented by the newly elected chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder). I also found Kovach's close attention to Walser's pronoun usage (the shifts from "we" to "I" and vice versa) enlightening in terms of Walser's ambivalences toward a broad range of issues or with respect to his struggle to determine the components of personal and collective identities. Still, Kovach tends to elucidate Walser's texts too chronologically, presenting paragraphs or passages in the order in which they appear, a procedure that at times leads to disjointedness or an accentuation of the more important followed by the less important (in the case of the Peace Prize speech, however, the chronological approach is revealing, for it uncovers several examples of unmotivated argumentation).
Although Kovach does his best to represent Walser's views accurately and fairly, he clearly also cares about interpreting critically. At times, this intent to be critical results in unfortunate emphases. One example is from his comments on "No End to Auschwitz," a speech Walser gave at the opening of an exhibit of drawings by Auschwitz inmates. There Kovach faults Walser for insisting that "the responsibility for the Holocaust rests solely on German shoulders" and thus for assigning Germans "a crushing burden that no other nation must shoulder" (p. 31). One shudders to imagine the reactions had Walser attempted--in this setting--to apportion responsibility for the Holocaust among various nations. In another instance, in the commentary to "Handshake with Ghosts," Kovach observes that Walser's synecdochic use of "Auschwitz" to represent the Holocaust (a use generally taken as shorthand for the worst that happened) "could be understood as minimizing the extent of the genocide committed" (p. 53).
These kinds of observations are distracting, but they do not affect Kovach's substantive comments. And such asides are largely absent from the last chapter, a lucid analysis of how Walser defends literary language, particularly its reliance on contradictions, to the detriment of public speeches and their single-minded goal-orientation. Nonetheless, Kovacs refuses to be fooled by Walser's defense of his personal language, and argues convincingly that Walser may be attempting to evade culpability for what he says by insisting on talking in the public sphere as if he were conducting an internal conversation. While exonerating Walser of the charge of anti-Semitism, at least based on the texts discussed, Kovach's conclusion to the book--likely to be regarded excellent even by the most stringent standards--still argues for holding intellectuals active in the public sphere at least partly accountable for the responses they generate in their audiences.
. Jörg Magenau, Martin Walser: Eine Biografie (Rowohlt: Reinbek bei Hamburg, 2005); Frank Schirrmacher, Die Walser-Bubis Debatte (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt/Berlin, 2010).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Margit Sinka. Review of Kovach, Thomas A.; Walser, Martin, The Burden of the Past: Martin Walser on German Identity: Texts, Contexts, Commentary.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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