Martin Johannes Walser, a renowned German writer, was born on March 24, 1927, in Wasserburg near Lake Constance, and he passed away on July 28, 2023, in Uberlingen. He gained fame for his ability to delve into the inner conflicts of the protagonists in his novels and short stories.
Early Life and Education
Martin Walser grew up in Wasserburg on Lake Constance, where his parents ran a station restoration and coal dealership, providing the backdrop for his childhood, later depicted in his novel “A Splashing Fountain.” He attended the Oberialschule in Lindau from 1938 to 1943, after which he served as a flank helper. During this time, he applied for membership in the NSDAP (Nazi Party) on January 30, 1944, and was accepted on April 20 of the same year. However, he strongly refuted having submitted an application for admission. He experienced the conclusion of World War II as a soldier in the Wehrmacht after his service in the Reich Labor Service.
After the war, Walser completed his education, graduating from Bodensee-Gymnasium in Lindau in 1946. He pursued studies in literature, history, and philosophy at the Philosophical-Theological University of Regensburg and the Eberhard-Carls-University of Tübingen.
Personal Life and Career Beginnings
In 1950, Martin Walser married Katharina “Kathe” Neuner-Jehle, and they had daughters named Franziska, Johanna, Alisa, and Theresia. He also had a son, Jakob Augustin, with Maria Carlsson, who was the partner and later the wife of Spiegel founder Rudolf Augustin. He was also the father-in-law of writer Sasha Anderson, who married his daughter Alissa, and actor Edgar Selge, who married his eldest daughter, Franziska.
During his student years, Walser commenced his writing career as a reporter and radio playwriter for the newly established Süddeutscher Rundfunk (SDR) in 1949. He also pursued his doctorate at Tübingen, completing a dissertation on Franz Kafka in 1951. Walser formed an integral part of the “Genius Group” at Stuttgart Radio along with Helmut Jedele and contributed to the broadcaster’s television division as a freelancer.
He directed radio dramas and participated in the scriptwriting for Germany’s first post-war TV film production in 1953, all while establishing connections within the literary world as a radio editor and writer.
Literary Success and Activism
Having been regularly invited to Group 47 gatherings from 1953, Walser gained recognition for his story “Templons Ende,” which earned him distinction. His first novel, “Ehen in Philipsburg,” was published in 1957 and achieved great success. Subsequently, Walser chose the path of a freelance writer, residing first in Friedrichshafen and later in Nussdorf on Lake Constance, with his family.
In the 1960s, Martin Walser actively campaigned, alongside left-wing intellectuals like Günter Grass, for the election of Willy Brandt as Federal Chancellor. He also attended the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt in 1964 and voiced opposition against the Vietnam War. During this period, some regarded him as a sympathizer of the DKP (German Communist Party), though he never officially joined the party. Notable friendships included figures like Ernst Bloch and Robert Steigerwald.
In 1988, Walser delivered a speech about his homeland, expressing his aversion to the division of Germany, which he considered a painful gap he could not accept. This sentiment became the foundation for his story “Doorle and the Wolf.” Despite Walser’s insistence that his stance had not changed over time, some observers speculated on a shift in the author’s viewpoint.
Later Life and Legacy
After Siegfried Unseld’s passing in 2004, a unique clause in his publishing contract allowed Walser to move from Suhrkamp Verlag to Rovolt Verlag, bringing along all his work. The controversy surrounding his novel “Death of a Critic” was partly responsible for this decision, wherein Walser criticized literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki as a person and as a symbol of a purportedly dishonest cultural landscape. Some critics accused him of playing with anti-Semitic clichés in this regard.
Throughout his life, Martin Walser was an esteemed member of numerous prestigious institutions, including the Academy of Arts in Berlin, the Saxon Academy of Arts, the Academy of German Language and Poetry in Darmstadt, and the PEN Center in Germany.
In 2005, the Munich Literature House held an exhibition entitled “Martin Walser: Nothing is True without its Opposite.” Additionally, Walser donated a significant portion of his manuscripts to the German Literature Archive in Marbach in 2007. Many of these manuscripts, including those for “Marriage at Philipsburg,” “The Unicorn,” and “A Splashing Fountain,” are now part of the permanent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach.
On the occasion of Martin Walser’s 90th birthday, ARD aired a 90-minute documentary titled “Mein Diesseits – Unterwegs Mit Martin Walser” (written and directed by Frank Hertweck). In the documentary, Denis Scheck joined Martin Walser to recount significant moments from his life, including visits to important places around Lake Constance, such as his birth house, now transformed into a ballet school.
On April 29, 2022, Walser was the first to sign an open letter published in Emma magazine, addressed to Chancellor Scholz. The letter expressed opposition to arms deliveries to Ukraine amid concerns about the potential escalation into a Third World War in the context of the Ukraine conflict.
In July 2022, Walser bequeathed his legacy, comprising drafts, manuscripts, and translations of his narrative, dramatic, and essayistic works, along with 75 diaries, to the German Literature Archive in Marbach am Neckar.
At the age of 96, Martin Walser passed away on July 28, 2023, at his residence in Nußdorf, a district of Überlingen on Lake Constance.
A recurring motif in Walser’s literary works is the struggle with the challenges of life. His protagonists often find themselves ill-equipped to meet the expectations imposed by others or by their own selves. This inner conflict is a central theme found throughout Walser’s major novels. Interestingly, Walser distinguishes himself from the Anglo-Saxon literary tradition, where the advancement of the external plot holds greater significance, as he focuses on the inner turmoil that simmers within his characters.
Walser’s success extends to the theater as well. His debut play, “Der Abstecher,” saw over fifty productions in the 1960s. In “Eiche und Angora,” he artistically grappled with the era of National Socialism. This piece, described by Hellmuth Karasek as “playing with horror in a grotesque Swabian manner,” garnered both controversial criticism and international success. It was performed in Vienna, Zurich, Basel, Rotterdam, Skopje, and Edinburgh, and ran uninterrupted for over a year in Paris.
Marcel Reich-Ranicki praised the author in September 1963, stating, “Walser’s early stories are critical diagnoses and protests against a condition that hinders an individual’s development, causing them to wither and perish. This aspect remains true in Walser’s later prose as well. Employing different means, he consistently demonstrates the absurdity of existence where the courage of a bank robber becomes essential for any profession. And he does this with an awareness of his own powerlessness.”
Dispute with Deutsche Bank
In the lead-up to a legal case initiated by Hermann Josef Abs, the chairman of Deutsche Bank, against the East German historian Eberhard Czichon and his West German publisher Manfred Pahl-Rugenstein, regarding several false factual claims about Abs’ activities during the Nazi era, Martin Walser published an extensive review of the centenary commemorative publication of the bank on August 24, 1970, in Der Spiegel. In his review, he recommended Czichon’s book, justified the theory of state monopolistic capitalism, and criticized the commemorative publication for downplaying the bank’s democratically legitimized power, questioning, “Is Deutsche Bank naive?” The Deutsche Bank’s press department compelled a counterstatement.
On September 14, 1970, board member Wilhelm Vallenthin polemically responded with the headline “Is Martin Walser naive?” Countering Walser’s mockery of the bank’s continuity throughout the different German regimes in history, Vallenthin asserted that a bank is, by nature, a service-oriented enterprise that cannot simply cease its operations with a change of government. He considered Walser’s depiction as “pure Leninism” and deemed any possibility of reconciliation with him as futile.
Paulskirche Speech in 1998
On October 11, 1998, during his speech at the Paulskirche in Frankfurt, on the occasion of receiving the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, Walser’s rejection of the “instrumentalization of the Holocaust” sparked controversial discussions and protests.
“Everyone is familiar with our historical burden, the enduring shame that is constantly held against us, a burden we can never escape. Could it be that the intellectuals who hold this shame against us, in the act of reminding us of it, momentarily delude themselves into thinking they have, by serving in the cruel ministry of remembrance, somehow apologized and become closer to the victims than the perpetrators? A brief alleviation of the inexorable opposition between perpetrators and victims.
I have never imagined leaving the side of the accused. Sometimes, when I can no longer look anywhere without being attacked by accusations, I find myself trying to convince myself that the media has also developed a routine of accusing me. I have looked away from the worst film sequences from concentration camps at least twenty times. No reasonable person denies Auschwitz; no mentally sound person trifles with the horror of Auschwitz. Yet, when I am confronted with this past in the media every day, I feel something in me resisting this perpetual presentation of our shame.
Instead of being grateful for the constant display of our shame, I begin to look away. I want to understand why this decade presents the past more than ever before. When I notice something within me resisting, I try to listen for the motives behind the insistence on our shame and am almost relieved when I believe I can detect that, more often than not, the motivation is not just remembrance, the necessity not to forget, but the instrumentalization of our shame for current purposes.
Always for good, honorable purposes. Yet, still instrumentalization. Auschwitz should not become a routine of threats, a readily deployable tool of intimidation, or a mere obligatory exercise. What is achieved through ritualization is akin to the quality of lip service “
– Martin Walser: Speech at the Paulskirche on October 11, 1998.
The expressions in Walser’s speeches, perceived by some as linguistically complex, have often been interpreted in the following manner: Some people believe that the Nazi crimes are being misused to support political and financial demands against Germany. Furthermore, those who constantly focus on these crimes may feel morally superior to their fellow human beings.
However, it is emphasized that the complex of themes surrounding Auschwitz must not be reduced to a mere “moral cudgel,” precisely because of its profound significance. This speech was also seen as a response to Marcel Reich-Ranicki’s criticism of Walser’s book “Ein Springender Brunnen,” which, despite its setting in the Nazi era, did not mention Auschwitz.
In his speech, Walser also called for the pardon of the convicted GDR spy Rainer Rupp. Lars Rensmann viewed this as part of Walser’s promoted “national self-reconciliation” for Germans. Just as Walser wanted to draw a line under the remembrance of the Holocaust in his speech, he also wanted to see Rupp pardoned as a way to reconcile with the GDR.
Following Walser’s speech, applause was given by all attendees, except for Ignatz Bubis, the chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, his wife Ida, and Friedrich Schorlemmer. Bubis later accused Walser of wanting to “look away” and labeled the speech as “intellectual arson.”
He later retracted the latter statement. Walser was also criticized for being cited by right-wing revisionists who sought to block any discussion on this sensitive issue. In response, Walser argued that he had no intention of allowing any political instrumentalization of his “very personal view” and that he was merely expressing his subjective feelings.
In a meeting organized by FAZ in December 1998 with Bubis, Walser no longer directed the accusation of the “perpetual presentation of our shame” and a “cruel ministry of remembrance” against “opinion soldiers” and “the media.” Instead, he directed it (according to Matthias N. Lorenz) at the victim group itself.
He addressed Bubis, saying, “I was occupied in this field (the German Republic’s coming to terms with its past), while you were preoccupied with entirely different matters.” He also referred to Bubis’ statements on right-wing extremist and racist attacks in Germany in the early 1990s as “immediately tied to 1933.”
In a 2015 interview with Der Spiegel, Walser clarified that he did not mean the instrumentalization of Auschwitz in the German-Jewish relationship, but rather in German day-to-day politics, similar to how Günter Grass rejected German reunification or Joschka Fischer supported German intervention in the Kosovo War. He expressed regret for giving the speech and hurting Bubis with it.
In January 2017, Björn Höcke, the chairman of AfD Thuringia, delivered a speech at Dresden’s Ballhaus Watzke in which he said, “We Germans […] are the only people in the world who have planted a monument of shame in the heart of their capital city.” He then called for a “180-degree change” in remembrance politics. The speech triggered protests and strong reactions from the media and politics.
Detlef Esslinger wrote in Süddeutsche Zeitung: “This is precisely the difference to Martin Walser’s Paulskirche speech in 1998, to which Höcke aligns himself. Walser acknowledged our enduring shame back then before he criticized the culture of remembrance.”
The social and political scientist Samuel Salzborn stated in 2018 that Martin Walser had said something very similar in his Paulskirche speech, which Björn Höcke had now also formulated. However, Höcke had been rightly sharply criticized, while reactions to Walser’s speech had been more ambivalent.
Attitude towards Judaism
After the debates surrounding the Paulskirche speech, Martin Walser’s alleged or actual leaning towards the “conservative” side once again became a public topic when he appeared as a guest speaker at the CSU retreat in Wildbad Kreuth. In his 2002 novel “Tod eines Kritikers” (“Death of a Critic”), he criticized the literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki both as an individual and as a symbol of an allegedly dishonest cultural scene, leading to protests. Frank Schirrmacher criticized Walser for “playing with anti-Semitic clichés.” In response to the criticism, Reich-Ranicki commented in a Spiegel interview in May 2010:
“I do not consider him an anti-Semite. But it is important to him to point out that the critic who supposedly tormented him the most is also Jewish. He expects his audience to follow him on that. You see, there has never been an anti-Semitic line or remark from Grass, not a single one. And I certainly haven’t written only positively about his books.”
The cultural scientist Matthias N. Lorenz examined Walser’s body of work in his dissertation “Auschwitz drängt uns auf einen Fleck” (“Auschwitz pushes us into a corner”) focusing on the portrayal of Jews and the discourse surrounding Auschwitz. In his research, he documented the consistent presence of well-known anti-Semitic stereotypes. The suffering of Jews is often equated with the suffering of “Germans.” The portrayal of Germans as “losers of history” is frequently found: undignified, stigmatized, and stripped of their identity.
During the planning phase of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Walser made derogatory remarks, describing it as a “soccer field-sized nightmare in the heart of the capital” and a “place for laying wreaths.” However, after its completion, he expressed a positive opinion about the memorial.
Selected Works (Original Editions):
“Beschreibung einer Form. Versuch über die epische Dichtung Franz Kafkas.” Dissertation at the University of Tübingen, February 9, 1952 (DNB 480348650).
“Ein Flugzeug über dem Haus und andere Geschichten.” Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1955.
“Ehen in Philippsburg.” Novel. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1957, ISBN 978-3-499-10557-9.
“Halbzeit.” Novel. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1960. (First volume of the Anselm-Kristlein Trilogy)
“Die Alternative oder Brauchen wir eine neue Regierung?” (as editor). Rowohlt Taschenbuch, 1961.
“Eiche und Angora. Eine deutsche Chronik.” Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1962.
“Lügengeschichten.” (= es. 81). Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1964.
“Erfahrungen und Leseerfahrungen.” (= es. 109). Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1965.
“Drei Stücke.” Aufbau-Verlag, Berlin/ Weimar 1965.
“Das Einhorn.” Novel. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1966 (Second volume of the Anselm-Kristlein Trilogy, topped the Spiegel-Bestsellerlist from October 3 to October 16, 1966).
“Heimatkunde.” (= es. 269). Essays and Speeches. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1968.
“Fiction.” Short story. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1970.
“Die Gallistl’sche Krankheit.” Novel. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1972.
“Der Sturz.” Novel. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1973, ISBN 3-518-04627-6. (Third volume of the Anselm-Kristlein Trilogy)
“Jenseits der Liebe.” Novel. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1976, ISBN 3-518-04619-5.
“Ein fliehendes Pferd.” Novella. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1978.
“Seelenarbeit.” Novel. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1983, ISBN 3-518-37401-X.
“Das Schwanenhaus.” Novel. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1982, ISBN 3-518-37300-5.
“Selbstbewusstsein und Ironie. Frankfurter Vorlesungen.” (= es. 1090). Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1981, ISBN 3-518-11090-X.
“Gefahrvoller Aufenthalt.” Stories. Verlag Philipp Reclam jun. Leipzig 1982.
“Brief a Lord Liszt.” Novel. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1982, ISBN 3-518-04632-2.
“Liebeserklärungen.” Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1983, ISBN 3-518-04521-0.
“Brandung.” Novel. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1985, ISBN 3-518-03570-3. Licensed edition for Aufbau-Verlag, Berlin/ Weimar 1986.
“Meßmers Gedanken.” Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1985, ISBN 3-518-03222-4.
“Geständnis auf Raten.” (= es. 1374). Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1986, ISBN 3-518-11374-7.
“Die Amerikareise.” Attempt to Understand a Feeling (with André Ficus). Kunstverlag Weingarten 1986, ISBN 3-8170-3001-0.
“Dorle und Wolf.” Novella. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1987, ISBN 3-518-02668-2.
“Jagd.” Novel. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1988, ISBN 3-518-40130-0.
“Über Deutschland reden.” (= es. 1553). Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1988, ISBN 3-518-11553-7.
“Die Verteidigung der Kindheit.” Novel. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1991, ISBN 3-518-40380-X.
“Ohne Einander.” Novel. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1993, ISBN 3-518-40542-X.
Awards and Honors:
1955: Group 47 Prize
1957: Hermann Hesse Prize
1962: Gerhart Hauptmann Prize
1965: Schiller Memorial Sponsorship Prize
1967: Lake Constance Literature Prize of the City of Überlingen
1980: Schiller Memorial Prize
1980: Medal of Merit of the State of Baden-Württemberg
1981: Georg Büchner Prize
1981: Honorary Prize of the Heinrich Heine Society
1984: Honorary Citizenship of his hometown Wasserburg am Bodensee
1987: Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (Großes Verdienstkreuz)
1990: Great Literature Prize of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts
1990: Carl Zuckmayer Medal
1990: Ricarda Huch Prize
1992: Friedrich Schiedel Literature Prize
1992: Admission to the Order Pour le mérite for Science and the Arts
1993: Franz Nabl Prize
1994: Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany with Star (Großes Verdienstkreuz Mit Stern)
1994: Dolf Sternberger Prize
1995: Bavarian Maximilian Order for Science and Art
1996: Friedrich Hölderlin Prize of the City of Bad Homburg
1997: Wilhelm Heinse Medal
1998: Peace Prize of the German Book Trade
1999: Author of the Year 1998 (Chosen by German booksellers)
2002: Julius Campe Prize
2002: Alemannic Literature Prize
2005: Oberschwaben Art Prize
2006: Finalist for the German Book Prize: Angstblüte
2008: Corine Honorary Prize of the Bavarian Prime Minister, for his life’s work
2009: Weishanhu Prize from The People’s Literature Publishing House China
2010: Prize of the German Society for contributions to German and European unification
2015: International Friedrich Nietzsche Prize for his life’s work