The Magazine

Safety First

What it means when the Germans reward 'peace.'

Oct 20, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 06 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
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On October 19, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the German-born painter Anselm Kiefer will receive the Peace Prize of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, Germany's most important award for cultural achievement.

Kiefer seems an odd choice, not because his achievements may be in doubt, but because he is a painter. Until now the Friedenspreis (as the award is called in German) has always gone to a book person: Susan Sontag and Chinua Achebe, Jürgen Habermas and Karl Jaspers, Amos Oz and Jorge Semprún received the award. Or it has gone to someone who uses language effectively to convey ideas and ethical principles, such as Václav Havel or Theodor Heuss. Or it has gone to Jews, among them Yehudi Menuhin and Teddy Kollek, in which case their deeds spoke for them, especially the deed of coming to Germany.
Kiefer is neither Jewish, nor does he use language to impress the public with his ethical point of view. The trustees of the Booksellers Association got around that tricky issue by arguing that Kiefer's "pictorial language" (Bildsprache) transforms "viewers into readers." Moreover, their argument goes, Kiefer not only responds in his works to literature and poetry, but also turns the book--that is, "the form of the book"--into a "decisive vehicle of expression" (entscheidenden Ausdrucks
träger). Whatever that means. The trustees have in mind Kiefer's sculpture of monumental folios cast in lead, which the booksellers interpret as a "shield" against the "defeatism that dares deny a future to the book and reading."

You can see that the trustees were trying hard to justify their decision. If they had wanted to give the prize to a painter, the more bookish and challenging Gerhard Richter (born in 1932), just as famous and just as German as Kiefer (born in 1945), might have been a more obvious choice. Richter's work, honored with a 2002 retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art, is a running commentary on the evolution of the Federal Republic of Germany, its relation to its past and its petit bourgeois mentality. Probing the past, for Richter, also meant coming to terms with the fact that his father-in-law was an SS-Obersturmbannführer.

Richter's relation to, and artistic treatment of, the past is always specific; Kiefer's is mythic, grand, and vague, providing the frisson of horror memorialized. One of Richter's best known works is his 1988 series "October 18, 1977," 15 black-and-white paintings about the then imprisoned Baader-Meinhof gang, the terrorist group dedicated to changing what it considered the authoritarian structures of a Federal Republic that the failed student revolts of 1968 left untouched.

Germany's critical establishment tried hard this year to commemorate the various uprisings of 1968, and the year before tried just as hard to get a public discussion going about the fate of the remaining Baader-Meinhof members who remain in prison for committing terrorist acts. But the debate was a non-debate, and 1968 memorial efforts in the press failed to ignite any spark among the Germans, who enjoy a hearty commemoration as much as the French or Americans.

This lack of memorial zest for the events of 1968 in Frankfurt, Berlin, or Prague might be attributed to the depoliticized nihilism of the young, the deep economic angst of the middle-aged, or the feigned indifference of the newly old in whose middle age those events took place. But the fact is that the commemorative emotions of the Germans are still fully tied up in the demands that the 12 cruel years of the National Socialist regime place on their public conscience as now-enlightened European citizens.

Partly in response to their neighbors' long memories, the Germans are driving themselves to remember and invoke with the utmost precision--as they should--every jot and tittle of the Nazis' murderousness on the theory that constant displays of public contrition assuage and reassure their neighbors to the east and west, and the Jews in Israel and America, and that awareness of the Nazi abuses of power will ensure the creation of a truly just, democratic, and empathetic society.