Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at The (New York) Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.
Accusations of Anti-Semitism Roil Germany's Literary, Political World
This article is reprinted with permission of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) and may not be reproduced without its permission. For more information about JTA, visit www.jta.org.
BERLIN, June 3 (JTA) -- Issues of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism have exploded again in Germany.
Even before it reaches the bookstores, a new novel by author Martin Walser is sending shockwaves through the German media because of accusations that the novel contains anti-Semitic stereotypes.
If the current crisis were merely literary, one could simply close the book on it. In fact, the stir over the latest work by one of Germany's most famous modern writers--and a controversy involving anti-Semitism at the political level fueled by comments made by a leader of the Free Democratic Party--highlights the unresolved nature of anti-Semitism in Germany, as well as concern over growing anti-Semitism in recent months.
Walser's book, Death of a Critic, concerns a writer suspected of killing a prominent critic and a narrator who investigates the case.
The storm began last week when the publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper decided not to serialize Walser's novel, and instead printed an open letter to the author. The newspaper has serialized several Walser novels in the past. In his letter, which quickly turned into a front page scandal, the newspaper's publisher, Frank Schirrmacher, called the book an "execution," a "document of hate" and "revenge against Marcel Reich-Ranicki," a Jewish Holocaust survivor and literary critic who is believed to be the role model for the book's character of Andre Ehrl-Konig.
It's not the first time Walser has gotten into trouble for controversial remarks In 1998, when accepting Germany's highest literary award, Walser created a storm when he said it was time to stop using the Holocaust to criticize Germany. Several critics and observers have expressed shock and bewilderment at excerpts of the book published in various newspapers. Some say Walser cynically exploits anti-Semitism to sell books.
"I'm not concerned; I am appalled," said Henryk Broder, a Jewish journalist who frequently wrestles with themes of anti-Semitism in his columns for Der Spiegel. Walser is "a gangster. He is a crook," Broder told JTA. "He is very coolly speculating on the current mood."
Alfred Schobert, a researcher at the Duisberg Institute for Linguistics and Social Research, told JTA he is disturbed by references in the book to the "Jewish critic" being fond of little German girls, calling it a stereotype that appears in Hitler's Mein Kampf.
"I am disgusted by the whole procedure of presentation of a novel by a scandal. I think it will be a best seller because of all the criticism," Schobert said. "And that breaks the taboo of making money through anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism sells. It sells like sex."
For his part, Reich-Ranicki at first remained silent. He then told Die Welt newspaper that he found the novel "deeply shocking, offensive and hurtful." He also said it was a miserable work by "an author who has lost control of himself." He then asked the book's publisher, Suhkramp, not to print the book because of its anti-Semitism, according to the German Press Agency. The publisher was weighing its decision early this week.
Walser has threatened to sue the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung for revealing the plot before publication.
"I never, never thought that now this book would be related to the Holocaust," he said in a TV interview. He said the book was about a writer's experiences in the TV age. He said he modeled his main character after Reich-Ranicki because of his use of the TV medium, and "not because he is a Jew."
If the literary benefits of playing the anti-Semitism card are unclear, so are the political benefits. The vice president of the mainstream Free Democratic Party, Jurgen Mollemann, recently came under fire when he charged that Michel Friedman, a vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, is partly responsible for growing German anti-Semitism by labeling all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.
"What Mollemann does in politics, Walser does with literature," Broder said. "With the same chutzpah, the same attitude of being the victim."
Mollemann, who has expressed sympathy for Palestinian suicide bombers, later apologized for his remarks. But Paul Spiegel, the president of the Central Council, said Mollemann's apology fell far short of what is necessary. "Your clarification, as you call it, contains neither the tone of an apology nor the words, 'I am sorry,'" Spiegel wrote in an open letter.
A poll released last Friday showed that 40 percent of party members--and 28 percent of the general public--agree with Mollemann that Friedman's personality increases anti-Semitism.
Last Friday, the Free Democrats unanimously condemned Mollemann's statements in a declaration that Mollemann himself signed.
On Monday, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder warned that Mollemann's anti-Israel commentary "must be stopped because it damages Germany in an international context."
Schroeder's Social Democratic Party approved a motion at its party congress, declaring that the Free Democrats could not be considered a potential coalition partner following September's national elections as long as the party follows an anti-Israel line.
Friedman was a guest at Sunday's Social Democrat party congress. Meanwhile, one German Jewish leader quit the Social Democratic Party over what he calls political indifference to anti-Semitism and insensitivity to the experience of Jews in Germany. In an open letter to his fellow Social Democrats, Reinhard Schramm, vice president of the Jewish community of the former east German state of Thuringia, said that while the SPD is not an anti-Semitic party, it has become acceptable in all the main German political parties to tolerate anti-Semitism. In his own party, that tolerance included Schroeder's recent public discussion about national identity with Walser, who in 1998 called Auschwitz a "moral cudgel" being used against Germany.
None of the democratic parties, Schramm said, had sufficiently distanced themselves from clear signs of anti-Semitism in the press and in politics. His letter appeared June 3 in a Jewish community newsletter. While he made it clear that not all politicians were irresponsible, Schramm told JTA that "the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has led to an atmosphere that brings out hidden anti-Semitism. All the parties have done too little" to counter this trend.
The negative atmosphere had been building since talks began some twelve years ago on creating a national Holocaust memorial in Berlin, and has peaked now with one-sided criticism of Israel, he said.
The head of the Social Democrats in Thuringia, Parliament member Christoph Matschie, told JTA that he had spoken with Schramm and asked him to meet to discuss his concerns. Schramm said he may accept the invitation.
"We are sensitive," Matschie said, recalling a statement issued by all democratic parties in Thuringia condemning an arson attack on the Erfurt synagogue in 2000. "But one has to ask about whether it is enough. And what" Schramm "did has prompted us to think about it more." Wolfgang Nossen, president of the Jewish Community of Thuringia, said he agreed with Schramm about growing indifference to anti-Semitism in German society.
"People have stopped being ashamed of their anti-Semitism," Nossen said. Recently, he said, "I got a call from an old woman. She said, 'I will not see or speak with Jews. You Jews are worse than we were.'"
"But I also get positive calls," Nossen said, adding that he was upset that Schramm had used a Jewish community newspaper to express his views.
Schramm said his views did not represent the Jewish community, but that his position in the community might make politicians heed his words.