Vergangenheitsbewältigung

The Günter Grass circus is keeping the German papers busy. Ever since Grass announced in an interview that he been a member (if only for six weeks during which he didn’t use a gun once) of the Waffen SS, every German intellectual of note has added his 1 cent’s worth. (see my blog entry for 14 August). It would seem (an accurate tally would be impossibly boring to do) that the vast majority of commentary is of the negative sort. What is easy to see, however that the much vaunted process of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” (overcoming the guilt/trauma of the past, i.e. of the Nazi years) is far from accomplished. And how could it be? Said guilt cannot be “beweltigen,” — overcome, overwhelmed, overpowered. (the first entry in Grimm’s dictionary reads: BEWÄLTIGEN, superare, opprimere, überwältigen, früher auch bewaltigen und begewaltigen, begeweltigen: frawen bewaltigen und schwechen. Plut. 9; wie das der graf Savari ein herre disz künigreichs (als) ein ehgemahel euwer tochter sich eintringen und bewaltigen wöll. Hugoschapler 16).

How misused this so-called process of “Vergangenheitbewältigung” has been over the years was clear to Paul Celan in the fifties already, when he withdrew his famed “Todesfuge” from being anthologized and used in schoolbooks as the poem was being misued in exactly that process of claiming an overcoming of the nazi past. I have spoken on this in detail elsewhere. But I would like to juxtapose the 6 weeks of juvenile errors by Grass just before the end of the war (six weeks that were followed by by 60 years of serious and honest literary and political work) to the postwar years in Germany during which ex-Nazis and nazi sympathisers were to be found everywhere at work in Germany. here is how Wolfgang Emmerich describes this situation in Germany during those years, in his book on Celan:

Right after the foundation [of the new German state] in 1949 a law exempting Nazi criminals from punishment was enacted, and in 1950 the denazification program set up by the allied forces was terminated. In 1951 thousands of ‘state workers’ — judges, public prosecutors, policemen, army officers, teachers, professors — were allowed by law to reintegrate public service. Consequently the legal system, the administration and education were tilted for another two decades towards assuaging and repressing the Nazi past. … Worse happened: the reemergence and rise of the NS-elites who had taken part in the preparation of mass crimes… hundreds of men who had for example been Gestapo heads and commando leaders. To begin with they joined together socially, in the main undisturbed by the justice system, as “circles,” “regulars” or “clubs,” until many of them managed to regain posts of responsibility in the economy and the legal system. Besides this opportunism, there came provocation: In 1960 already the police recorded over 600 cases of swastika and slogan graffiti, mainly on synagogues. (Wolfgang Emmerich, Paul Celan, p. 106. Rowohlt, Reinbek by Hamburg, 1999)

Listening to the self-serving hoopla in the current Grass “scandal,” one can’t help but wonder if it isn’t in part at least a result of an incomplete and faked “overcoming of the past” — especially with Emmerich’s facts in mind. signandsight has translated a survey of the reactions in the German press and I don’t want to quote them at length, but you can check them out here. In my first mention of this “literary” event I had suggested that Grass — not one to shy away from a good publicity stunt — had possibly used the interview and confession to give his about-to-be-published autobiography Peeling the Onion a headstart. And that the book got: it sold an estimated 130,000 copies out of an initial print run of 170,000 on the first day. Nor am I the only one to have thought this a possibility: today I came across an interview in Welt am Sonntag with poet Durs Grünbein who had this to say regarding Grass’s confession:

“Darwinian struggle for maximum attention – that’s the context in which I see Grass’ revelation. It has a function: to make his book the most important one of the season.”

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2 Responses

  1. Volker says:

    Sorry, but it is “bewältigung” not “überwältigung”. Two different meanings.

  2. Pierre Joris says:

    Thanks, my mistake — have corrected it. Though the sense of power / gewalt is also there in bewaltigen, cf the Grimm definition I now quote.

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