GHDI logo

Writer Martin Walser Reflects on the Difficulties of Living with German Guilt (October 11, 1998)

In a widely misunderstood speech delivered upon his acceptance of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, West German writer Martin Walser expresses his irritation with what he perceives as the expected rituals of contrition in literature. For him, acts of conscience are deeply personal and not the stuff of public demonstration.

print version     return to document list previous document      next document

page 1 of 4

Experiences while Composing a Sunday Speech

[ . . . ]

In every epoch there are themes or problems that are indisputably the themes of conscience for that epoch – or that have been made such. Two pieces of evidence for the themes of conscience of our epoch. A truly important thinker gave this formulation in 1992: “It is the reactions to right-wing terrorism – those from the political center in the general public, and those from above, from the government, the apparatus of state, and the party leadership – that make visible the full extent of our moral and political degradation.” An equally important literary figure had stated a couple of years earlier: “Go into any restaurant in Salzburg. At first glance you have the impression that these are nothing but fine, upright people. But if you listen in to the conversations of your neighbors at the table, you discover they dream only of genocide and gas chambers.” If you add up what the thinker and the writer – both indeed equally serious – are saying, then the government, the apparatus of state, the party leadership, and the upright people at the next table are all “morally and politically” decadent. My first reaction, when year after year I read any number of such quotable statements from entirely serious eminences in the intellectual and literary realms, is: why doesn’t it seem that way to me? What’s wrong with my powers of perception? Or is it my too-easily-lulled conscience? For it’s clear that these two eminences in the fields of intellect and language are also eminent in the field of conscience. Otherwise the sharpness with which they cast suspicion and even make accusations could not be explained. And if an accusation goes far enough, if it is convincing in and of itself, then proof becomes superfluous. [ . . . ]

I cannot dispute such statements; the thinker as well as the writer are too eminent for me to do so. But – and this is obviously my moral and political shortcoming – no more can I agree with them. My reaction – entirely trivial, to be sure – to such painful statements: let’s hope that what’s being said to us in such blatant fashion isn’t true. [And to reveal myself completely: I simply cannot believe these pain-inducing statements, which I can neither support nor refute.] It exceeds my moral and political and political imagination, so to speak, to regard what they say as true. Inside me an unprovable suspicion begins to take hold: those who come forward with such statements want to hurt us, because they think we deserve it. Probably they want to hurt themselves as well. But us too. All of us. With one restriction: all Germans. For this much is clear: in no other language in the last quarter of the twentieth century can one speak in such a way about an entire people, an entire population, an entire society. You can only say that about Germans. Or at most, as far as I can see, about Austrians as well.

first page < previous   |   next > last page