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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The Germans want to be good because they want to be loved. And placing the Nazi period center stage--in the way the soccer-field-sized national Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe occupies the center of Berlin--is considered essential to foreign acceptability and domestic success. So German establishment culture, which means the high-class cultural products hyped in mainstream newspapers, conducts an incessant dialogue with Nazi Germany. It takes stock of the period's lasting impact on the German psyche, and probes the mystery of how it could have happened that the country of Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers) turned into a nation of murderers and "willing executioners."

The German word for that probing dialogue is Auseinandersetzung. It contains the word auseinandersetzen--to take apart, which means to explain--but can also mean to quarrel.

Observers sometimes argue that this Auseinandersetzung proceeded in stages from denial in the 1950s to lusty self-recrimination in the late 1990s, when Daniel Goldhagen, author of
Hitler's Willing Executioners, toured Germany, filling large lecture halls with young Germans and drawing standing ovations.

While German academic research on all aspects of the Nazi period has been first-rate, it should be noted that German public culture moved from mourning and memorializing Jewish victims in the 1980s and early '90s to mourning German civilian victims at the end of the century, decoding the minds of the perpetrators and heroizing noble resisters. This is an emancipatory move. The Nazi period is omnipresent in German public culture, especially in politics and the literary arts, and at no time more than in this past year.

Awarding the Friedenspreis to Anselm Kiefer instead of Gerhard Richter is a case in point. It is an effort to calm roiling waters. Kiefer's work, so the Booksellers Association argued, showcases a present that is "devoured" and "destroyed" (zerfressen and zerstört) by the past. Kiefer asks whether "after the Holocaust and the uses to which the Third Reich put the national cultural and artistic traditions, there still can be German artists and uses in his paintings symbolic and mythic elements taken from German history"--thereby answering his own question.

In the early 1980s Kiefer's teutonic pictorial world and Wagnerian monumentalism were anathema to enlightened critics. His work was considered irrational and reactionary, if not proto-fascist. But after Kiefer's having gone through the purifying fires of Israel, and received the Wolf Prize in 1990, the reading of his work changed and is now perfect for an award showcasing the ethically reformed Germany that, in 1998, had been cast into disrepute by an acceptance speech deemed offensive to the Jews.

More about that in a moment.

The Friedenspreis was first funded privately, in 1950, and the first recipient was Max Tau, a German Jewish writer and publisher who had fled to Sweden and Norway, where he spent his life promoting German literature. A year later the prize began to take on an expiatory function. The 1951 recipient was the Alsatian-born Albert Schweitzer (anticipating the Nobel committee by one year), and the ceremony was moved from a private villa in Hamburg to a public place of crucial symbolic significance, the Paulskirche (St. Paul's Church) in Frankfurt, the meeting place of Germany's first democratic national assembly in 1848.

Although, in 1848, Germany's progressive educated class failed in its attempt to unite Germany on democratic principles, the civic courage displayed by intellectuals in the Pauls-
kirche, and their idealistic rhetoric about freedom and equality before the law, created a legacy of extraordinary symbolic power, a conceptual "city upon a hill" around which most Germans could rally. In moving from a private home to the symbolically charged Paulskirche, the ceremony became a public event of national significance, showcasing for the world the state of the German moral conscience.

Of course, one cynical argument would be that the shift in venue served the economic interests of the Publishers and Booksellers Association, which funded the prize. They made their money selling cultural goods to the Germans; but more important was the reestablishment of foreign business ties in the book market, which could be helped by a creditable display of goodness.