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The Debate on National Identity and the Martin Walser Speech: How Does Germany Reckon with its Past?

From: SAIS Review
Volume 19, Number 2, Summer-Fall 1999
pp. 257-266 | 10.1353/sais.1999.0036

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SAIS Review 19.2 (1999) 257-266

Speech Review

Reckoning the Past

The confrontation between the well-known author, Martin Walser, and the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Ignatz Bubis, that was sparked by Walser's 1998 speech "Experiences While Drafting a Soap Box Speech" (Erfahrungen Beim Verfassen einer Sonntagsrede), provoked a major debate among intellectuals and the German public at large. By challenging the concept of public remembrance of the Holocaust and the Third Reich, Walser questioned the legitimacy of one of the paradigms of the Bonn Republic as well as integration into the West. This was a response to the extreme nationalism of the Third Reich that has characterized German politics since 1949. Walser's outburst received much applause in the wider German population, and must be seen in the far larger context of the emergence of what is sometimes called the "Berlin Republic" and the search for a shared national identity after German unification. This process has implications that reach far beyond Germany, for the wide acceptance of Walser's arguments must be of concern to anyone interested in the future of the European continent.


Must "recipients of the Peace Prize necessarily be peaceful people?" Frank Schirrmacher, the doyen of Germany's cultural elite and publisher of the cultural section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany's well-respected daily newspaper, asked the audience when introducing Martin Walser. Walser received the most prestigious German literary award, the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers Association (Friedenspreis des deutschen Buchhandels), on October 12, 1998. In his address from the pulpit of the historic Paulskirche, Walser lamented that Germany continued to be confronted with its Holocaust guilt, a "moral stick" used to beat the German people. He condemned the "instrumentalization of Auschwitz" for contemporary purposes as "a permanent exhibit of our shame," and, while not questioning the fact of Nazi-era crimes, Walser argued for the self-internalization of the Holocaust's remembrance and its expulsion from public memory. The audience endorsed the speech with a standing ovation. Ignatz Bubis and his wife were the only guests to remain seated. At the doorstep of the Paulskirche, Bubis condemned Walser for promoting right-wing extremist thoughts. Responding to Walser on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of "Kristallnacht," Bubis accused the author of "spiritual arson." Jewish intellectuals and community leaders criticized Walser for having opened the door to right-wing extremists and revisionists who could now justify their thoughts with his opinions.

Over several months, more than a thousand articles comprised the so-called Walser-Bubis debate. Among the participants were many renowned personalities, including Germany's president, Roman Herzog, and Klaus von Dohnanyi, a descendant of members of the anti-Hitler resistance and former mayor of Hamburg. Herzog referred to Bubis as a "German patriot," while von Dohnanyi criticized Bubis for his accusations against Walser and said that "the Jewish citizens of Germany have to ask themselves if they would have behaved more bravely than most Germans, if after 1933 'only' handicapped, homosexuals, or gypsies had been deported."

Walser kept silent for weeks and refused to meet Bubis until he would "take back the allegation of spiritual arson." The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung arranged a moderated conversation between them on December 14, 1998, at the end of which Bubis stated that he would drop his accusation of "spiritual arson." However, Bubis remained insistent in his view that the writer, "perhaps unintentionally," opened a door for others by breaking a taboo. The participants concluded that a "common language of remembrance" for the victims and perpetrators, and their descendants, needs to be found. They agreed that, as long as remembrance of the Nazi past is seen by many Germans as only an "exhibition of their shame," a shared national identity that incorporates the Nazi past and is expressed in a common language of remembrance will not emerge.

Bubis, often called the "conscience of the German people," received much criticism from all sides of the political spectrum, and it took some time before people came to his defense against the criticism of Dohnanyi and others that he had misunderstood Walser. It was Bubis who instinctively felt the intention of...