German Anti-Semitism Debate becomes a War of Words | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 31.05.2002
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German Anti-Semitism Debate becomes a War of Words

Key German literary figures say Martin Walser's novel about the murder of a Jewish book-reviewer, 'Death of a Critic', is based on hatred, adding a new dimension to the national debate about anti-Semitism.


German author Martin Walser

The furore surrounding German author Martin Walser's novel 'Death of a Critic' has deepened, with several key German literary figures joining the work's numerous critics.

Walter Jens, Ralph Giordano, Günter Kunert and Hellmuth Karasek this week said Walser, whose manuscript is about an author who murders a Jewish book-reviewer, was probably motivated by a desire for revenge against the Jewish-German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki. Reich-Ranicki was especially known for hosting the literary programme "Das Literarische Quarttet" on television.

Reich-Ranicki (photo) this week spoke out publicly for the first time about the text, describing it as "a patently anti-Semitic outburst". He said the book was "atrocious literature", and the worst writing Walser had ever produced. The Berlin-based Action Against Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism has called the book "an unprecedented mockery of Holocaust survivors".

Marcel Reich-Ranicki

Literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki is the subject of Martin Walser's novel about the murder of a Jewish-German book-reviewer, 'Death of a Critic'.

The book's publisher, Suhrkamp, says it contains no underlying tone of anti-Semitism. Walser has repeatedly rejected accusations that his novel is a murder fantasy. He says the work is about "the use of power in the television age, seen from the point of view of the author".

But the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which refused to prepublish excerpts from the novel because of the anti-Semitic clichés it contains, has received widespread support from the rest of the German media. Most newspaper editors agree that the character is clearly based on Reich-Ranicki and say Walser's book is slanderous. Publisher Bernd Lunkewitz has accused Walser of deliberately provoking "a sensation to increase sales".

Is Walser the Möllemann of German literature?

The controversy surrounding Walser's yet-to-be-published novel adds a new dimension to a national political and media debate about anti-Semitism, sparked by controversial remarks by the deputy leader of the liberal democratic party (FDP) Jürgen Möllemann.

Möllemann accused the vice-president of the Central Council of Jews, Michel Friedman (photo), of fuelling the spread of anti-Semitism in Germany with his "intolerant, hateful style". His comments raised the stakes in a national political debate on whether the FDP was moving to the right, prompted by an earlier accusation Möllemann had made against the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Michael Friedman

Michel Friedman, Vice-president, Central Council of Jews in Germany sticks his neck out

On Thursday night Friedman, appearing on television, hit back at Möllemann and his party, saying they were giving rightwing populism a respectable face in Germany.

Ignorance a form of denial?

Anti-Semitism among the wider German population was the subject of a survey of more than two thousand university students in the German town of Essen earlier this month. The study found that one third supported an end to debates about Nazi war crimes and the Holocaust. Of those, more than sixty percent said they were in favour of a 'healthy national pride'.

The authors of the study, Essen University researchers Professor Klaus Ahlheim and Bardo Heger, say the results show a kind of 'secondary anti-Semitism' exists among German students. Although only a tiny minority of respondents said they would not support the appointment of a Jewish German president, seventeen percent said Jewish people used their history to their advantage. And one fifth said that Jews took advantage of Germany's bad conscience.

Ahlheim and Heger say most respondents who said they were tired of being confronted with the past had a very poor knowledge of history. Nearly a third of respondents did not know the year the Second World War began. Seventy-seven percent were unaware what was discussed at the Wannsee Conference, where the so-called 'Final Solution' to exterminate Jews was mapped out.

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