Anti-Semitic Figures

Anti-Semitic Figures in German Literature since 1945

Matthias N. Lorenz

Anti-Semitism was the central ideology of National Socialism. The pseudo-biological justification of a ‘Jewish race’ functioned within society as a link to the so-called ‘national community’ through the exclusion of Jews, and in the political rhetoric of Nazi propaganda it repeatedly provided apparent justifications for measures in all areas of politics. No area in the National Socialist state remained untouched by this; cultural, social, economic and foreign policy, health, legal or educational systems were directed according to the anti-Semitic doctrine and contributed to the exclusion and ultimately the destruction of Judaism in Europe.

The anti-Semitic rhetoric proved so strong that anti-Semitic eliminationism continued even after the German Reich had already collapsed and the resources used for it were urgently needed elsewhere. And even four decades after the defeat in the war, in the historians’ controversy of 1986, Ernst Nolte, a professor of history who until then had been regarded as serious, was able to put forward the thesis in the leading German media that ‘Hitler’s deeds’ were actually only the response to a ‘declaration of war by the Jews’. Racist anti-Semitism, which radicalised centuries of Christian hostility towards Jews, was undoubtedly the central ideology of National Socialism, and it left its mark on contemporaries to a great extent and far beyond the defeat in the war.

Hardly any anti-semitic perpetrator figures

It is therefore all the more astonishing that German literature after 1945 in the West and East, and even after 1989/90, hardly ever features anti-Semitic perpetrators as characters and only rarely describes anti-Semitic deeds in concrete terms. It is true that the self-image of authors in both German states after the war was demonstratively anti-fascist, and the proclamation of a ” Stunde Null” (zero hour) after the total collapse testified to the clear cut that literature made with the recent past. But the bearers of the central resentment that was characteristic of the Nazi epoch, which had just ended and is still a negative image for the FRG today, and from which it was necessary to sharply distinguish oneself – these bearers of anti-Semitism remained largely invisible as literary figures; blind spots of a literature that, especially in Germany, actually saw itself as a critical authority observing society.

At least for the early post-war period, the idea of who was an anti-Semite was shortened to uniform-wearing Nazi criminals, which enabled the perpetrator collective to be separated into ‘good Germans’ and Nazi criminals in literature as well, and in this respect was part of a German victim rhetoric. From the 1960s onwards, the perspective broadened to include a social analysis of the mentalities and conditions that had made the Nazis possible. But even then, the focus was not on anti-Semitic structures, but on capitalism, for example in Peter Weiss’ Ermittlung (1965).

Dr. Saskia Fischer, Leibniz Universität Hannover, researches “Zur Figur des Antisemiten in der europäischen Literaturgeschichte“ (The Figure of the Anti-Semite in the History of European Literature).

The denial of ‘the anti-Semite’ is not only astonishing because it conceals a practice of the Nazi era that was carried out on a massive scale in all areas of society, but also because since then German literature has, according to its self-image, worked on remembering and coming to terms with National Socialism and the Holocaust. A symptomatic example of the paradox of remembering the Nazi era while at the same time distancing oneself from anti-Semitic persons is Alfred Andersch’s novel ‘Sansibar oder der letzte Grund‘ (Zanzibar or the Last Reason, 1957), a school classic of the Federal Republic of Germany’s ‘education after Auschwitz’: In the horizon of this novel, national socialist ideology proponents only appear in a nebulous distance as ‘the others’.

While Jewish authors such as Ruth Klüger, Edgar Hilsenrath and Wolfgang Hildesheimer openly faced the continuation of anti-Semitism after 1945 in their texts, one finds a great deal of omission and ambivalence in addition to superficial anti-fascist formulas in such diverse non-Jewish writers as Heinrich Böll, Peter Handke or even the ‘good, left-wing’ Arno Schmidt.

Prof. Dr Jan Süselbeck, Norwegian University of Science and Technology Trondheim, researches the emotional history of anti-Semitism

Even in 2002, Günter Grass still includes a supposedly anti-Semitic murder in his successful novella ‘Im Krebsgang‘ (The Crabwalk), but his reappraisal reveals that there was neither a Jewish victim nor a perpetrator with anti-Semitic convictions. Particularly indicative of the void of anti-Semitic persons, however, are those cases in which authors actually allowed them to appear once: In a twist, the anti-Semitism of the characters was attributed to the authors themselves, or else it was claimed that the German audience was not yet ready for it: this happened in the case of Edgar Hilsenrath’s novel ‘Der Nazi & der Friseur‘ (The Nazi & the Barber, 1971 in the USA), which subsequently failed to find a German publisher for years. Authors whose works attempted to highlight anti-Semitism found themselves publicly accused of being anti-Semitic, such as Reiner Werner Fassbinder, whose play ‘Der Müll, die Stadt und der Tod‘ (The Garbage, the City and Death) (1975) was stomped out by the Suhrkamp publishing house after being criticised accordingly and was shown on stage in Germany for the first time not until 2009.


Exceptions confirm the rule: the works of Elfriede Jelinek or Maxim Biller, for example. Overall, however, the ‘blind spot’ of anti-Semitic figures in literature after 1945 raises the question of what function this collective silence has in the discourse on remembrance of National Socialism. Here, German literary studies must clarify which aesthetic procedures and rhetorics were used in literary narratives of the society of perpetrators to neutralise the central ideology of the Nazi era, which culminated in the figure of the anti-Semite, largely without opposition. Literature as well as literary studies will have to examine themselves with a critical eye and question all-too-comfortable self-images.

The door between “us” and “the anti-Semites” is at least unsecured. Literary work on the anti-Semite is therefore, like any form of self-reflection, dangerous, discovering in itself at least traces of that which must be rejected at all costs. Normally, one resists this entanglement in evil by projection: it is not I but you who embodies it, which is why I resist evil (also in me) by denying it in me and fighting it in you. To demand that literature portrays anti-Semites means to self-reflexively thwart this projection. Literature would have to de-distance the entanglement in a resentment that is deeply ingrained in our culture and psyche, would have to work through it with comprehension as something that is its own and yet universally unacceptable. We will not understand anti-Semitism in depth as the anti-Semitism of others, but only as the anti-Semitism of all of us.

Dr. habil. Klaus Holz, General Secretary of the Protestant Academies in Germany, author of the standard work „Nationaler Antisemitismus. Wissenssoziologie einer Weltanschauung“ (National Anti-Semitism. The Sociology of a World-View).


Special thanks to Dr. Saskia Fischer, Prof. Dr. Jan Süselbeck and Dr. habil Klaus Holz for making themselves available for an interview.