Martin Walser’s Death – by Michael H. Kater

Michael H. Kater, author of After the Nazis, contends with the legacy of controversial novelist Martin Walser, within the context of the emergence of postwar culture in West Germany.

Martin Walser died on July 26 of this year, a controversial figure, at the age of ninety-six. He was the last of West Germany’s leading novelists of the immediate post-World War II era, along with Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass. Grass, his exact contemporary, who had snatched the Nobel Prize from him, had preceded him in death in 2015.  Hans Magnus Enzensberger, better known as an essayist, had died last year, ninety-three years old.  Two important critics of that era, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, somewhat older, had died in 2013, and Joachim Kaiser, a bit younger, died in 2017.

Walser was always conscious of the imminence of death and showed that in his novels.  As a boy soldier on skies in the Bavarian Alps in early 1945 he had not experienced any combat; perhaps disappointed and having laid down arms, he quietly surrendered to U.S. troops.  In his first novels of the tough reconstruction times during the late 1950s and early 1960s, he much described life as a struggle for survival, often setting himself up as the hero, a small-time door-to-door salesman, reminiscent of Willy Loman, who had been introduced by Arthur Miller to world literature in Death of a Salesman in 1949.  In Walser’s first full novel, Ehen in Philippsburg of 1957, there are two suicides and one fatal traffic accident.  In the follow-up novel Halbzeit and later ones, death looms in not so ordinary ways.  Walser’s hero talks about almost having been shot by his own Wehrmacht commanders in a punitive exercise (an action which, in this form, has yet to be documented during World War II).  He fantasises to two barmaids about German soldiers throwing up into the air toddlers torn from their Russian mothers, for pistol practice.  The Jewish girl Susanne, a love interest, possesses a tangled personality after having survived the Holocaust as a child.  At the end of Walser’s novel Der Sturz of 1973 he pictures himself with his wife, towing a huge sailboat behind his old Mercedes across a Swiss mountain pass in winter, during a snowstorm.  The sailboat pushes the car down the mountainside till it crushes it, trapping the two Walser characters underneath, who are facing certain death.

Walser’s sexual obsession with the Jewish Susanne was tied to his interest in the fate of the European Jews under Adolf Hitler.  It had been kindled as he remembered the disappearance of a Jewish woman during an enjoyable time with the Hitler Youth, in his native village on Lake Constance.  In 1964 he visited the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial and, so his diary reveals, was shocked by lethal atrocities perpetrated upon Jews by the SS in Auschwitz.  In Frankfurt, some guards were now prosecuted: “Oswald Kaduk, 57, butcher and orderly, SS-Unterscharführer.  Placed a walking stick over inmates’ necks and then stepped on it.  Pulled the stool from under inmates to hang them, shots in the back of the neck at the Black Board with Pistol 08 with inserter, drove over inmates with a motorcycle, selected inmates and led them to be gassed.” 1

Walser became concerned about Auschwitz as a symbol of death and began to inquire what kind of people, what kind of Germans would be capable of creating such a hellhole.  In 1965 he published an essay, having come to the conclusion that short of demonising the SS, all Germans could be described as potentially having suffered the unfortunate fate of having been placed into an Auschwitz where perforce they would turn into killers.  In 1979 Walser modified his views by holding that because the German people were collectively as accountable as any SS guards at Auschwitz, no single individual could be held responsible; the crimes of Auschwitz were so great as never to be atoned for.  Then, during a speech at Frankfurt’s Paulskirche in October 1998, Walser expressed extreme discomfort with “the grim service of memory” the crimes of Auschwitz had necessitated over the decades and confessed that he had been impelled to avert his eyes 2. In left-liberal circles of the West German republic, where Walser had long been a respected man of letters, this created a huge scandal.  The leader of the German Jews, Ignatz Bubis, who had listened to this speech in disbelief, declared shortly before his death in 1999 that Jews could not live freely in Germany.  He asked to be buried in Israel.

As far as Jews in West Germany were concerned, Walser believed from the beginning that they had a rightful place in the new democracy.  But he developed an especially strained relationship with Reich-Ranicki, who was a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto.  Reich-Ranicki early on appeared to be at pains to criticize harshly Walser’s work, and Walser retaliated with sharp invective.  In his diary, for example, Walser became more explicit how he felt about the Jewish critic.  In 1976 he wrote that given the opportunity, he would slap his face in public; at the same time, he mused that Reich-Ranicki should not be so foolish as to interpret any of Walser’s remarks as anti-Semitic, for they were, objectively, remonstrations.  Intimating that he knew well how close to death Jews always were during Hitler’s hegemonial rule, Walser noted two years later that Reich-Ranicki used a razor every night, as a habit from the ghetto, for there, whoever did not look his healthiest was speedily selected for death.  Decades later, Walser condemned Reich-Ranicki to a literary death in his novel Tod eines Kritikers (Death of a Critic), describing the Jewish protagonist André Ehrl-König, who talks with his hands and bounces his bald and massive head up and down, as so small and ugly as a child that his mother had had to reject him.

As the novelist, ideologically, moved further and further to the right of centre, he came to believe that a sacrificial death for one’s fatherland was to be aspired to. His exemplar was Albert Leo Schlageter, a Free Corps fighter of the early 1920s, on the extreme right. Born in 1894, Schlageter and Walser had much in common. Both were from Baden in southwest Germany, raised in modest circumstances and considering the priesthood as pious Catholics, and eventually studying, as indigenous students, at university.  They had been willing soldiers, fighting in both world wars.  Both had lost their war, and Walser now joined Schlageter in regretting the Peace of Versailles of 1919, a shameful setback for the German Reich.

Walser came to argue that Schlageter had followed a patriotic course of martyrdom; he had been trying to keep his country together just as Walser thought, in the late 1980s, that East and West Germany should be reunited.  Schlageter had fought in an illegal Free Corps, against emergent Bolsheviks in the Baltic and attempting to reclaim Upper Silesian territory ceded, by Versailles, to the Poles.  In 1923, he was trying, in a corps called Organisation Heinz, to sabotage the French occupation of the Rhineland, which the German government in Berlin had had to accede to.  Organisation Heinz was pushing guns and aimed to destroy railway lines used to transport reparation goods from Germany to France.  The Organisation was known to have killed alleged spies.  On March 15, 1923, Schlageter caused a German reparations train to derail.  He was tried by the French and executed on May 26.

Throughout, Walser denied that Schlageter had had any association with the fledgling Nazi Party.  For Walser, Schlageter was an idealistic nationalist, whom the Nazis appropriated for propaganda purposes after 1923.  That was indeed the case; Nazi commemorations culminated on April 20, 1933, when the playwright Hanns Johst had a drama performed, Schlageter, dedicated to Hitler on his birthday, celebrating its hero as the first National Socialist soldier.  Nonetheless, Walser chose to disregard that Schlageter himself had joined the Nazi Party in Berlin in 1922 and that he had been planning to travel to Munich to be with the Führer.  Overall, Walser conveniently overlooked the dark side of the Free Corps, their foundational anti-Semitism, their abject misogyny, and their deep-seated hatred of democracy, as evinced by their January 1919 murder of the Spartacists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.  When Walser died, he had completed his conversion from a republican leftwinger to a reactionary naysayer.


1 Entry for February 27-8, 1964, in Martin Walser, Leben und Schreiben: Tagebücher, 1963-1973 (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 2007), 101.

2 Walser in Thomas A. Kovach and Martin Walser, The Burden of the Past: Martin Walser on Modern German Identity: Texts, Contexts, Commentary (Rochester, NY, Camden House, 2008) 86, 89-92.

About the author

Michael H. Kater is Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of History at York University, Toronto, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He is the author of Culture in Nazi GermanyWeimar: From Enlightenment to the Present, and Hitler Youth.

About the book

After World War II a mood of despair and impotence pervaded the arts in West Germany. The culture and institutions of the Third Reich were abruptly dismissed, yet there was no immediate return to the Weimar period’s progressive ideals. In this moment of cultural stasis, how could West Germany’s artists free themselves from their experiences of Nazism?

Moving from 1945 to reunification, Michael H. Kater explores West German culture as it emerged from the darkness of the Third Reich. Examining periods of denial and complacency as well as attempts to reckon with the past, he shows how all postwar culture was touched by the vestiges of National Socialism.

From the literature of Günter Grass to the happenings of Joseph Beuys and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s innovations in electronic music, Kater shows how it was only through the reinvigoration of the cultural scene that West Germany could contend with its past—and eventually allow democracy to reemerge.

Also by Michael H. Kater

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