In a provocative book published recently in Germany, a Hamburg scholar named Klaus Briegleb appeared to take on the entire national literary establishment for indulging in self-censorship of the most dangerous kind. Titled Neglect and Taboo: How Anti-Semitic Was the Group 47?, the book puts forth a kind of conspiracy theory about the writers who laid the intellectual foundations of West Germany after the war. By setting the ground rules for the new literature, Briegleb argues, these members of the so-called Group ’47–among them Hans Werner Richter, Alfred Andersch, Heinrich Böll and a younger generation including Günter Grass and Martin Walser–banished the Nazi past to silence, even as they purposefully nurtured its democratic opposite.
For a group often associated with the anti-Fascist left, the notion seems farfetched. Grass, for one, has for decades invoked Auschwitz as an ever-present reality in German life. But Briegleb’s polemic nonetheless stirred up considerable interest as a counterpoint to a far larger debate about the role of taboos in literature–one that is traceable to W.G. Sebald, most known in the United States for his novels Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn. In 1997, Sebald gave a series of lectures on “Air War and Literature” in which he contested that, indeed, German writers had remained virtually mum about certain aspects of the Nazi years. His primary concern, however, was not German guilt but German suffering–namely the deaths of some 600,000 civilians during the Allied bombardment, which he argued had never been adequately rendered in prose:
There was a tacit agreement, equally binding on everyone, that the true state of material and moral ruin in which the country found itself was not to be described. The darkest aspects of the final act of destruction, as experienced by the great majority of the German population, remained under a kind of taboo like a shameful family secret, a secret that perhaps could not even be privately acknowledged.
Even before their 1999 publication in German–and now in English in the posthumous volume titled On the Natural History of Destruction–Sebald’s lectures were received as a general indictment of late-twentieth-century German writing. “Was there and is there for writers a ban on representation, a story-telling taboo, that must finally be overcome today?” wrote Volker Hage, the chief book critic of Der Spiegel, in a much-discussed essay on Sebald a few months after the lectures. After conducting his own literary survey, Hage decided there was, and concluded that what was needed was little short of a revolution: “Could it be that German postwar literature will truly only begin at the end of the century, at the turn of the millennium?”
To Group ’47 veterans like Grass and Walser, Hage’s call has proven irresistible, or at least prophetic. Walser, who is as known for his taboo-breaking statements as his excellent fiction, led the way, first with an autobiographical war novel, A Bubbling Spring (a metaphor of the author’s discovery of language), and then, this past summer, with a hugely controversial contemporary satire, Death of a Critic. A Bubbling Spring is set in rural southern Germany and describes–without mentioning the Holocaust–a civilian youth’s experiences during the Nazi period; Death of a Critic takes aim at a leading real-life German critic, who is Jewish, breaking a supposed taboo on the negative or ironic portrayal of Jewish characters in German fiction.
Grass, in turn, has taken up the issue of German victims with calculated effort in Crabwalk, a 200-page novel based on the Russian torpedoing of the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff in early 1945. Though the Baltic Sea tragedy caused more than 9,000 civilian deaths and ranks as the worst naval disaster of all time, it had been all but banished from German memory: “No one wanted to hear the story,” Grass’s narrator says. “For decades, the Gustloff and its awful fate were taboo.”