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German writer Martin Walser dies aged 96

July 28, 2023

Famous German novelist and contentious intellectual Martin Walser, author of "A Runaway Horse," has died at the age of 96.

Deutschland Schriftsteller Martin Walser im Alter von 96 Jahren gestorben
Image: Patrick Seeger/dpa/picture alliance

An illustrated collection of texts by Martin Walser was published in March 2021, shortly before his 94th birthday, under the German title Sprachlaub (literal translation: Leaves of language). In the work, the author poetically addressed his approaching death: "I do not defend myself," he wrote, "I am thoughtful and want to live until the last evening."

Alongside Heinrich Böll, Günther Grass and Siegfried Lenz, Martin Walser, who died on Friday at the age of 96, was one of Germany's most important postwar authors.

For Walser, life meant writing above all. He remained true to himself until his death — as a hardworking, productive and renowned novelist. With his numerous novels, short stories and plays, he left behind an impressive literary oeuvre. He was also known for taking part in Germany's social debates. 

Beginnings as a journalist

Martin Walser was born on March 24, 1927, in the Bavarian municipality of Wasserburg, a resort town on the shore of Lake Constance. His parents were Catholic coal merchants and innkeepers.

Martin Walser
Walser's books revealed the hypocrisies of the conservative post-war middle classImage: Felix Kästle/dpa/picture alliance

Soon after the end of the Second World War, in the last days of which he served as a young soldier, he began to study literature, philosophy and history in Regensburg in 1946. While still a student, Walser worked as a reporter for the then newly founded public radio station Süddeutscher Rundfunk and also wrote radio plays. He wrote his dissertation at the University of Tübingen on the writer Franz Kafka.

Universal themes set in small-town Germany

Many of the stories of his novels were set in provincial southern Germany and were thus representative of West Germany's postwar society. His books revealed the hypocrisies of the conservative middle class.

At the same time, a wide range of universal experiences were depicted in the seemingly idyllic provincial settings of the novels. For Walser, writing was a form of grasping the world. "I write," he once said in an interview, "therefore I am!"

Walser was a prolific writer, publishing at times a new book every year. His first novel, Ehen in Philippsburg (1957), which came out three years later in English under the title The Gadarene Club, was a satirical portrait of West German postwar society at the time of the so-called Economic Miracle.

It was followed by many other works, including his bestselling book, Ein fliehendes Pferd (English: A Runaway Horse), published in 1978.

'Runaway Horse' by Martin Walser

If he never achieved the international fame of his colleague Günter Grass with The Tin Drum, Walser nevertheless left his mark with a series of novels that reflected the West Germans' soul and inner struggles in the 1960s and 70s.

At the center of controversies

Walser disliked literary critics, especially those who did not appreciate his work. Among them was Germany's "literary pope" Marcel Reich-Ranicki (1920-2013), the influential literary editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, who recognized the author's diligence but criticized his lack of imagination. Walser attempted to settle accounts with his 2002 novel, Tod eines Kritikers (English: Death of a critic). That however backfired, as the author was accused of anti-Semitism in his depiction of the critic.

Martin Walser
'People are always more interesting when they are losing than when they are winning,' Walser said about literatureImage: Patrick Seeger/dpa/picture alliance

His acceptance speech for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1998 had led to controversy. He had criticized the fact that Germans were confronted with "a never-ending shame," he said, referring to the atrocities committed by the Nazis. "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 our shame," he added. The Peace Prize winner saw in the "monumentalization of shame" the risk of turning remembrance of the Holocaust into a "lip service" ritual.

The speech was met with severe criticism — in particular from Ignatz Bubis, who was at the time the chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany and accused Walser of "spiritual arson." The two men managed to settle the dispute shortly afterwards.

 Martin Walser at a podium
Walser's 1998 Peace Prize speech was met with severe criticismImage: Arne Dedert/dpa/picture-alliance

'Failure' as a central theme

Along with the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the renowned Georg Büchner Prize (1981) and the International Friedrich Nietzsche Prize (2015), which he received for his life's work, were among Walser's most notable awards.

Even though he perhaps hoped for more recognition from critics, Walser could always count on his numerous readers, who enjoyed his novels featuring broken heroes. His stories were often about people having a hard time living up to the requirements of society — or to their own expectations, facing internal dilemmas.

Failure is a theme at the center of many of Martin Walser's novels. As he once said, "I think that world literature is about losers. That's just the way it is. From Antigone to Josef K. — there are no winners, no champions. And furthermore, anyone can confirm that in their circle of acquaintances: People are always more interesting when they are losing than when they are winning."

Edited by: Andreas Illmer