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.

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.

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.

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