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Martin Walser

Martin Walser at a book presentation in Aachen, Germany, in 2008
Born March 24, 1927 (1927-03-24) (age 82)
Wasserburg am Bodensee
Occupation Novelist
Nationality German
Period 1955–present
Notable work(s) Runaway Horse
Notable award(s) Peace Prize of the German Book Trade

Martin Walser (born 24 March 1927 in Wasserburg am Bodensee, on Lake Constance) is a German writer. He became famous for describing the conflicts his anti-heroes have in his novels and stories. In 1998 he was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in Frankfurt. He is the father of a daughter born in 1941, the writer-and-painter Alissa Walser.



Walser's parents were coal merchants, and they also kept an inn next to the station in Wasserburg. He described the environment in which he grew up in his novel Ein springender Brunnen (English: A Gushing Fountain). From 1938 to 1943 he was a pupil at the secondary school in Lindau and served in an anti-aircraft unit. According to documents released in June 2007, he became a member of the Nazi party on 30 January 1944,[1] though Walser denied that he knowingly entered the party, a claim disputed by historian Juliane Wetzel.[2] By the end of the Second World War, he was a soldier in the Wehrmacht. After the war he returned to his studies and completed his Abitur in 1946. He then studied literature, history, and philosophy at the University of Regensburg and the University of Tübingen. He received his doctorate in literature in 1951 for a thesis on Franz Kafka, written under the supervision of Friedrich Beißner.

While studying, Walser worked as a reporter for the Süddeutscher Rundfunk radio station, and wrote his first radio plays. In 1950, he married Katharina "Käthe" Neuner-Jehle. His four daughters from this marriage -- Franziska Walser, Alissa Walser, Johanna Walser, and Theresia Walser -- are all professional writers. Johanna has occasionally published in collaboration with her father.

Beginning in 1953 Walser was regularly invited to conferences of the Gruppe 47 (Group 47), which awarded him a prize him for his story Templones Ende (English: Templone's End) in 1955. His first novel Ehen in Philippsburg (English: Marriages in Philippsburg) was published in 1957 and was a huge success. Since then Walser has been working as a freelance author. His most important work is Ein fliehendes Pferd (English: A Runaway Horse), published 1978, which was both a commercial and critical success.

In 2004 Walser left his long-time publisher Suhrkamp Verlag for Rowohlt Verlag after the death of Suhrkamp director Siegfried Unseld. An unusual clause in his contract with Suhrkamp Verlag made it possible for Walser take publishing rights over all of his works with him. According to Walser, a decisive factor in instigating the switch was the lack of active support by his publisher during the controversy over his novel "Tod eines Kritikers" (English: Death of Critic).

Walser is a member of Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts) in Berlin, Sächsische Akademie der Künste (Saxon Academy of Arts), Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung (German Academy for Language and Poetry) in Darmstadt, and member of the German P.E.N..

Political Engagement


From Left to Right

Walser has also been known for his political activity. In 1964, he attended the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, which was considered an important moment in the development of West German political consciousness regarding the recent German past. He was involved in protests against the Vietnam War. During the late 1960s, Walser, like many leftist German intellectuals including Günter Grass, supported Willy Brandt for the election to the office of chancellor of West Germany. In the 1960s and 1970s Walser moved further to the left and was considered a sympathizer of the West German Communist Party. He was friends with leading German Marxists such as Robert Steigerwald and even visited Moscow during this time. By the 1980s, Walser began shifting back to the political right, though he denied any substantive change of attitude. In 1988 he gave a series of lectures entitled "Speeches About One's Own Country," in which he made clear that he considered German division to be a painful gap which he could not accept. This topic was also the topic of his story "Dorle und Wolf". In 1998, Walser was granted the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. His acceptance speech, given in the former Church of St. Paul (Paulskirche) in Frankfurt on 11 October 1998, invoked issues of historical memory and political engagement in contemporary German politics and unleashed a controversy that roiled German intellectual circles. Many accused Walser of political insensitivity at best and overt antisemitism at worst. (See below for more on the speech and controversy.) In 2007 the German political magazine Cicero placed Walser second on its list of the 500 most important German intellectuals, just behind Pope Benedict XVI and ahead of Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass.

Frankfurt Speech and the Walser-Bubis Debate

Walser entitled his acceptance speech for the prestigious Peace Prize of the German book industry Erfahrungen beim Verfassen einer Sonntagsrede (Experiences when writing the regular soapbox-speech)[3]:

Everybody knows our historical burden, the never ending shame, not a day on which the shame is not presented to us. [...] But when every day in the media this past is presented to me, I notice, that something inside me is opposing this permanent show of out shame. Instead of being grateful for the continuous show of our shame, I start looking away. I would like to understand, why in this decennium the past is shown like never before. When I notice, that something within me is opposing it, I try to hear the motives of this reproach of our shame, and I am almost glad, when I think I can discover, that more often not the remembrance, the not-allowed-to-forget is the motive, but the exploitation [Instrumentalisierung] of our shame for current goals. Always for the right purpose, for sure. But yet the exploitation. [...] Auschwitz is not suitable for becoming a routine-of-threat, an always available intimidation or a moral club [Moralkeule] or also just an obligation. What is produced by ritualisation, has the quality of a lip service [...]. The debate about the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin will show, in posterity, what people do who feel responsible for the conscience of others. Turning the centre of the capitol into concrete with a nightmare [Alptraum], the size of a football pitch. Turning shame into monument.

At first the speech did not cause a great stir. Indeed, the audience present in Church of St. Paul received the speech with applause, though Walser's critic Ignatz Bubis did not applaud, as confirmed by television footage of the event.[4] Some days after the event, and again on 9 November 1998, the 60th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom against German Jews, Bubis, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, accused Walser of "intellectual arson" (geistige Brandstiftung) and claimed that Walser's speech was both "trying to block out history or, respectively, to eliminate the remembrance" and pleading "for a culture of looking away and thinking away".[5] Then the controversy started. As described by Karsten Luttmer:[6] Walser replied by accusing Bubis to have stepped out of dialog between people. Walser and Bubis met on 14 December at the offices of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung to discuss the heated controversy and to bring the discussion to a close. They were joined by Frank Schirrmacher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Salomon Korn of the Central Council of Jew in Germany. Afterward, Bubis withdrew his claim that Walser had been intentionally incendiary, but Walser maintained that there was no misinterpretation by his opponents. Later, in 2002, Walser published a roman à clef entitled Death of a Critic in which a literary critic seems to have been abducted and murdered. The central figure in the novel had strong resemblances to Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Germany's leading literary critic, an opponent of Walser, and well-known Jewish intellectual. As a result, the novel reignited the earlier controversy over possible antisemitism on the part of Walser, and Walser lost the support of his earlier support Frank Schirrmacher.


Works of Walser's that have been translated into English include:

  • Halftime: A Novel (1960)
  • The Gadarene Club (1960)
  • Oak Tree and Angora Rabbit: A Play (1962)
  • Rabbit Race (1963)
  • Runaway Horse: A Novel (1978)
  • Swan Villa (1983)
  • The Unicorn (1983)
  • Beyond all Love (1983)
  • The Inner Man ("Seelenarbeit") (1984)
  • Letter to Lord Liszt (1985)
  • Breakers (1988)
  • No Man's Land (1988)
In German
  • Dorle und Wolf: Eine Novelle (1987)
  • Jagd: Roman (1988)
  • Über Deutschland reden (1988)
  • Die Verteidigung der Kindheit: Roman (1991)
  • Das Sofa (written 1961) (1992)
  • Ohne einander: Roman (1993)
  • Vormittag eines Schriftstellers (1994)
  • Kaschmir in Parching': Szenen aus der Gegenwart (1995)
  • Finks Krieg: Roman (1996)
  • Deutsche Sorgen (1997)
  • Heimatlob: Ein Bodensee-Buch (with André Ficus) (1998)
  • Ein springender Brunnen: Roman (1998)
  • Der Lebenslauf der Liebe: Roman (2000)
  • Tod eines Kritikers: Roman (2002)
  • Meßmers Reisen (2003)
  • Der Augenblick der Liebe: Roman (2004)
  • Die Verwaltung des Nichts: Aufsätze (2004)
  • Leben und Schreiben: Tagebücher 1951–1962 (2005)
  • Angstblüte: Roman (2006)
  • Der Lebensroman des Andreas Beck (2006)
  • Das geschundene Tier: Neununddreißig Balladen (2007)
  • Ein liebender Mann: Roman (2008)


  1. ^ Die Welt: Dieter Hildebrandt soll in NSDAP gewesen sein 30 June 2007
  2. ^ Der Tagesspiegel: Gemeinsam in die NSDAP 22 July 2009; Wolfgang Benz, ed.: Wie wurde man Parteigenosse? - Die NSDAP und ihre Mitglieder (Frankfurt: S. Fischer Verlag, 2009).
  3. ^ "Jeder kennt unsere geschichtliche Last, die unvergängliche Schande, kein Tag, an dem sie uns nicht vorgehalten wird. [...] wenn mir aber jeden Tag in den Medien diese Vergangenheit vorgehalten wird, merke ich, daß sich in mir etwas gegen diese Dauerpräsentation unserer Schande wehrt. Anstatt dankbar zu sein für die unaufhörliche Präsentation unserer Schande, fange ich an wegzuschauen. Wenn ich merke, daß sich in mir etwas dagegen wehrt, versuche ich, die Vorhaltung unserer Schande auf Motive hin abzuhören und bin fast froh, wenn ich glaube, entdecken zu können, daß öfter nicht mehr das Gedenken, das Nichtvergessendürfen das Motiv ist, sondern die Instrumentalisierung unserer Schande zu gegenwärtigen Zwecken. Immer guten Zwecken, ehrenwerten. Aber doch Instrumentalisierung. [...] Auschwitz eignet sich nicht, dafür Drohroutine zu werden, jederzeit einsetzbares Einschüchterungsmittel oder Moralkeule oder auch nur Pflichtübung. Was durch Ritualisierung zustande kommt, ist von der Qualität des Lippengebets. [...] In der Diskussion um das Holocaustdenkmal in Berlin kann die Nachwelt einmal nachlesen, was Leute anrichteten, die sich für das Gewissen von anderen verantwortlich fühlten. Die Betonierung des Zentrums der Hauptstadt mit einem fußballfeldgroßen Alptraum. Die Monumentalisierung der Schande." Full text in German
  4. ^ Eshel, Amir: "Jewish Memories, German Futures: Recent Debates in Germany about the Past", page 12. 2000. (PDF-File, 6 MB)
  5. ^
  6. ^ Reaktionen

External links


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