Author rejects ‘anti-Semitic’ charge

BBC, Aug. 2, 2002
By Tristana Moore
BBC correspondent in Berlin

Few countries have done more to atone for their past than Germany.

But decades after the Holocaust, a new controversy has emerged over a book, which has been accused of containing anti-Semitic clichés.

Death of a Critic, by Martin Walser, is now a number one bestseller in Germany, yet the novel has sent shockwaves through the literary world.

The main character in the book is a Jew who is based on one of Germany’s leading critics, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a survivor of the Holocaust.

In the novel, the author, Martin Walser, turns Mr Rainicki into a figure of ridicule.

The trouble started when the prestigious Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper refused to serialise the book.

“It’s offensive, it’s a document of hate. The author Martin Walser uses anti-Semitic language without care.

“He also is criticising one of my previous colleagues at the newspaper, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who is the only member of his family to have survived the Second World War,” says Hubert Spiegel, the literary editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

I went to meet Martin Walser at his home in Uberlingen, in southern Germany.

Mr Walser told me he could not understand what all the fuss was about and rejected any accusations that he was anti-Semitic.

“There is no Jewish character in my novel. The fact that the protagonist is Jewish is irrelevant. It has only been given significance by the media,” Mr Walser said.

In the book, Mr Walser has parodied Mr Reich-Ranicki and has him murdered, at least apparently, by a writer.

Mr Reich-Ranicki himself, who lived through World War II, has attacked the book for “its anti-Semitic outburst, which really is blatant”.

“It is a mystery to me how anyone could say I am anti-Semitic. Like a hero in a Kafka novel, I have asked people to try to find out the reason.

“And then I discovered an uncomfortable rumour – that this scandal was deliberately started by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,” Mr Walser said.

When I told him that the newspaper had described his book as a “document of hate”, Mr Walser became angry.

He sighed and put his hands through his hair. “Hate is never a motivation for writing,” he said.
“Love is the motivating force. I can only write out of an experience of love. This novel which I have written is in actual fact an unhappy love story about an author’s relationship with his critic.”

Mr Walser said the attack on the critic, Mr Reich-Ranicki, was not because he is Jewish.

He claims the book has more to do with the fact that Mr Reich-Ranicki has misused his power as one of Germany’s leading literary critics.

“I only used the word ‘Jew’ twice in the novel. My book is not anti-Semitic.”

But Annette Vogt, from Berlin’s Max-Planck Institute disagrees. “It is dangerous to use anti-Semitic clichés,” she says.

So the debate rages on – some commentators claiming that Martin Walser is just testing how far he can go with the theme of Germany’s past.

But it comes at a difficult time. There is a definite sense that the country must draw a line beneath a debate about the role of ordinary Germans in the Nazi persecution of the Jews.

Yet there are also suggestions that anti-Semitism is creeping back into public life. The publication of a novel can easily re-open old wounds.

“There is a climate of political correctness in Germany,” says Mr Walser.

“I have to live here, but it is difficult. It is still virtually impossible to express your own feelings about the past. For me, as a writer, that is terrible.”


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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday August 5, 2002.
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