The Magazine

Safety First

What it means when the Germans reward 'peace.'

Oct 20, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 06 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Thus the Friedenspreisfeier, a gravely festive event, became the highlight of the Frankfurt Book Fair. By the mid-1950s the demand for tickets was so great that the organizers were obliged to publish a statement about their intent to distribute the tickets fairly. The event was piped into assembly rooms for an overflow audience, and serving the spirit of democracy, the Sunday morning Friedenspreisfeier was broadcast live on public television in German living rooms.

The function of the prize, in the words of the official statement, was the "regeneration of a sense of self-worth through critical reflection." The German word for self-worth is Selbstbewu tsein, which also means self-confidence through self-awareness. The mood at these ceremonies was somber and church-like, a strange mixture of contrition and self-confidence. Over the years Germans have perfected the paradox of self-confident contrition, or contrite self-confidence. They grew bolder in their choice of recipients, moving from Theodor Heuss (1959) and Victor Gollancz (1960) to Léopold Sédor Senghor (1968) and Ernesto Cardenal (1980) to Yasar Kemal (1997) and Assia Djebar (2000). Jews took pride of place both as recipients and in delivering the speeches of praise. Hannah Arendt and Nelly Sachs, Ernst Bloch and Manès Sperber, Alfred Grosser and Hans Jonas, Teddy Kollek and Yehudi Menuhin, were so honored. The Jews came, the international community listened, business flourished, the booksellers were happy, the Germans were on their way to goodness.

Until 1998. That year the committee picked Martin Walser, one of a handful of German megawriters (Gro schriftsteller) born in the late 1920s. In his sophisticated speech Walser objected to the moral correctness required of this Sunday sermon (Sonntagspredigt) and so exposed the precise nature of the Feier in which he was to function as a representative German: crushed, contrite, yet newly self-confident.

Walser refused to play. Instead of presenting the prescribed critical reflection, he described a case of legal injustice caused by the unification of Germany, and then, to show what a truly courageous speech in the Paulskirche ought to be arguing, criticized the appropriation of Auschwitz as its transformation into a moral cudgel to achieve political results. He defined moral conscience as a private, not a public, matter, and his audience responded with a standing ovation. Few noticed that Ignatz Bubis, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, remained seated and, two days later, accused Walser of "mental arson" (geistige Brandstiftung).

The accusation by a prominent Jew of a prominent German triggered a fierce debate about the speech and whether Walser was an anti-Semite. But no matter how that issue was resolved, the ethical purity of the prize had now been impugned, and largely because of Walser's standing ovation.

It is not unreasonable to guess that subsequent recipients have been chosen with an eye to damage control. The Jewish historian Fritz Stern, born in Breslau (now
Wroclaw) in 1926, and whose family had fled Germany in 1938, was the perfect successor to Walser in 1999: a Jew touched by the cruelty of Nazi Germany at ease in the Federal Republic. In 2003, the start of the Iraq war (widely believed in Germany to have been engineered by Jewish neoconservatives keen on reorganizing the Middle East to strengthen Israel's position) relieved the pressure on the Germans to demonstrate contrition and goodness. The American Jewish critic Susan Sontag was the recipient that year, and obliged by delivering a moral indictment of the United States.

Yet the damage from Walser's speech and its reception could not be considered fully repaired until 2007, when Saul Friedländer, born in Prague in 1932 to German-speaking Jews, accepted the prize. Friedländer had spent the war in a French monastery while his parents, turned away as refugees by Switzerland, were arrested in Vichy France and perished in Auschwitz.

Friedländer had just published the second volume of his magisterial history, Nazi Germany and the Jews; and it was Friedländer who, in his remarks after winning the Geschwister-Scholl Prize in Munich in 1998, insisted that the Germans' incessant memorializing of murdered Jews is not (as Walser claimed) a compulsory exercise to which Germans are whipped by the cultural and political establishment. Since the Germans are now a "normal people," he argued, they practice the rituals of normal peoples, which "traditionally" include memorializing "its heroes and its dead, including the victims of war."

Kiefer is only the third German-born recipient of the prize since Martin Walser. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas and the sociologist Wolf Lepenies preceded him (in 2001 and 2006), and they were both safe bets. The organizers pray that Kiefer is, too.

There is some risk since Kiefer, like Goethe in Elective Affinities, believes in the shaping power of myth, and locates memory "not only in our head, but deep in our cells." This could easily morph into an exculpatory strategy. As Kiefer delivers his acceptance speech in the Paulskirche, representing Germany's public conscience, the organizers will sit with baited breath. When the applause erupts, they will scan the room for signs of dissent. If there are none, they are safe for another year.

Susanne Klingenstein is a lecturer in the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.