Two Forms of Resentment: Jean Améry, Martin Walser and German Memorial Culture

Aleida Assmann.

After Martin Walser’s speech on the occasion of his peace prize awarded by the German booksellers in the Frankfurt Paulskirche in October 1998, a heated debate ensued that was afterwards documented in a publication of more than 600 pages. 1 Why then come back to this speech after all that could be said about it was printed in the collected volume? Sometimes it is the encounter with another text that opens up a new perspective. It was an essay by Jean Améry that had for me exactly this effect. In this essay I want to show how both texts critically reflect on the German social and political background of their specific decades.

In the middle of 1960s, a volume of essays by Jean Améry appeared under the title Beyond Guilt and Atonement, in which, according to its subtitle,” one overpowered by the past makes an effort to master the past” [Bewӓltigungsversuche eines Überwӓltigen]. These attempts were written in a highly subjective style, situated between the genres of the essay and the confession. The Jewish-Austrian writer Hans Mayer was born in Vienna in 1912, he was active in the Belgian resistance and was subsequently persecuted, imprisoned and tortured by the Nazis. In his essays, Mayer, who after the war changed his German name into the French Améry, explored his post-Holocaust psyche and his status as a survivor. I shall concentrate on the essay entitled „Resentments,” in which Améry scrutinized his feelings when travelling and lecturing in postwar West Germany. 2 In his text, he emphasizes that his feelings of resentment did not immediately arise from the mind of a physically and psychically wounded Holocaust survivor. Instead, he claims that this feeling was generated only later under specific socio-political circumstances. As long as post-war Germany had been held in general contempt and treated as an outcast among the nations, this feeling had been unknown to him. It arose only with the sudden transformation of West Germany from a country of collective guilt, ruins and rural fields of potatoes to a new political force and dignified nation in the Western union of the cold war. Instead of the effects of a „second treaty of Versailles” after World War II, Améry witnessed the defeated nation’s unprecedented rise to „economic, industrial and military power” (108). Together with this new rise to power arose Améry’s resentment, which he tries to render account of in his essay.

To render account means for Améry to justify a feeling that Nietzsche had linked to infamy and vileness and which psychologists tend to describe as pathological. The whole thrust of his argument aimes at presenting resentment in a new light and to present it as a paradigm of moral feeling. He stages himself as ostentatiously obstinate, recalcitrant, out of step with his time, as he experiences himself as a more and more isolated instance of moral consciousness in a morally indifferent world. He recognizes himself to be part of a dialectical process: the more ready the perpetrators are to forget their past, the heavier it weighs on his shoulders, and the more determined is he to hold on to it. It is this situation in which Améry redefines resentment as „a source of emotion that is part of every authentic morale” [Emotionsquelle jeder echten Moral]. Améry comes to discover that he had been in tune with a general consensus only for a very short period of time. When German post-war society dismissed its memory and returned to business as usual, Améry found, to use an old English term, as a solitary „remembrancer” under the weight of accumulated guilt and its moral responsibility.
Améry observes that the political rehabilitation of Germany is accompanied by a new sense of time. This sense of time, which Améry calls „natural,”„biological” or „social” time, is oriented towards forgetting. It is the time in which life goes on, wounds are healed and grass eventually covers everything. This shape of time enforces the law of life, not of truth. Its opposite is „moral” time, on the other hand, where there can be no forgiving and forgetting, but only a remorseless return to the crimes and the wish for their public acknowledgement.

Twice in his text, Améry adopts the pose of a modem Shylock. There is another figure in Shakespeare, however, to which Améry’s text bears an even greater resemblance: Hamlet who, at the end of the first act, receives from the ghost of his murdered father the injunction to revenge his death. At that time, Hamlet is surrounded by a court that is busy covering up the crimes of the past by the same veil of naturalness and normality. By his black clothes and his resilient behavior Hamlet shows that he is at odds with this world. In trying to make him comply with the new standards of the court, his mother admonishes him by holding up to him the law of nature as an ultimate value:

Thou know’st ‘tis common- all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to ernity. (I, 2, 72-74) 3

This admonition is then taken up and amplified by his uncle, the new king, who, in the course of his speech, changes from a consoling to a reprimanding to a threatening tone:

But you must know your father lost a father,
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow. But to persevere
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness. ‘Tis unmanly grief.
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven, (...)
‘tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
Io reason most absurd (I, ii, 89-103)

Claudius admonishes the melancholic Hamlet, thereby disguising his crime as a natural death. I see Améry as a modem Hamlet who is equally at odds with the values of the society that he lives in. This is an excerpt from Améry’s soliloquy in the 1960s:

During the two decades that I have been rethinking what has happened to me, I have come to the conclusion that the kind of forgiving and for-getting that is now enforced under social pressure is unacceptable from a moral stance. Those who are easily and lazily forgiving are under the spell of a social, a biological, a natural sense of time. This natural sense of time which is rooted in the physiological process of healing has been adopted by the social imagination of reality. Because of its alliance to natural time, it is not only an a-moral but an anti-moral stance. It is the right and prerogative of humans, however, not to be in full accord with biological events, and to revolt against the disappearance of the past in the biological dimension of time. Let bygones be bygone - such a phrase may be true, but it is an offense against morality and the spirit. Ethical resistance always involves protest, it is a revolt against the real which is rational only insofar as it partakes of them oral. 4

In the postwar Federal Republic of Germany that was trying to forget its criminal past, Améry felt very much like the isolated Hamlet who was confronted with a world of crime and camouflage. Both find themselves as isolated individuals, carrying the load of memory and moral responsibility in a world of ‘vital forgetfulness’( Dolf Stemberger). „In a time that has proclaimed the collective innocence of the Germans,” writes Améry, his is the solitary moral voice that addresses the issue of guilt (120). With his plea for a continued connection with the past and an insistence on „linking the perpetrator to his crime” (116), Améry sees himself as an isolated instance of human morality that transcends the given societal norms (115). His sense of utter loneliness and exposure, which had defined his life as a victim in Nazi Germany, is to some extent uncannily repeated by his alienation from the busily thriving and forgetful society of the FRG. Unlike the ghost of Hamlet, however, Améry is not pleading for revenge as an alternative to easy forgiving and forgetting. He is first and foremost searching for a social context that will relieve him of his continuing experience as an alienated and isolated individual: „I want to be redeemed of this ongoing feeling of abandonment, „he writes (114). This abandonment could be overcome, he claims, as soon as his counter-humans would have been converted into co-humans. For Améry, such a conversion could only be achieved by re-addressing the crimes of the past and by tracking down personal liabilities. „Ethical man demands a sus-pending of time - which means, in our concrete case: pinning the perpetrator down to this crime. Only by acknowledging his guilt in a moral world exempt from the flow of time, may the perpetrator live together with the victim as fellow human beings” (116). In such a world of just juridical prosecution and a general moral acknowledgment of guilt, Améry’s alienation would lose its bitter sting of resentment and become a productive instigation for a new orientation of values.

Two decades after the Holocaust, Améry has sketched in the second part of his essay a few lessons for postwar Germans that were little heeded and less followed. He claimed a larger historical function for his personal resentment, for his protest against immoral forgetting and for his humane demand for what he called „temporal inversion.” „Would this claim be embraced by the Germans, it could acquire a historical meaning as an achievement in a moral development that was thwarted with the missed moment of a German revolution” (123). For him, the greatest problem and shame of the Germans lies in the fact that they had been unable to overthrow the regime of Hitler by themselves, but had, instead, to rely on allied forces for their liberation. This missed moment of a German revolution was belatedly made up for by the student’s revolt in the 1960s which, however, a decade later, was caught in the dead-end of terrorism. This generation violently broke with their fathers and mothers who had been active and supportive members of Nazi Germany and complicit with its criminal political projects. The belated German revolution, however, did not encompass the whole society, but split apart bourgeois families, effecting a deep rupture between the generations. The severing of familial bonds, and the unmasking of many a brown heritage that was firmly built into West German institutions such as courts, police, hospitals, and universities, however, has not led to the result that Améry had longed for. It did not bring about a broad social consensus about the necessity of a moral confrontation of Germans with their still very recent past.
What was it exactly that Améry had hoped for in the early 1960s? Let us look at the program that he delineated:

How, then, are those masses of corpses to be leveled that are heaped up betweent hem and myself? Surely not througha process of interiorization of guilt but, on the contrary, by actualizing the unresolved conflict and by a public contestation in the realm of historic praxis. (112)

Amdry claims that the twelve years of Nazi rule which, as he stresses, „for the likes of us, were really thousand years,” that this period of total negation of world and self be incorporated into German consciousness as a „negative possession.” Only on such a basis, Améry claimed, could the former perpetrators achieve a transvaluation of their former values and join the victims [Überwältiger und Überwältigte] „in a shared wish for temporal inversion and a moralizing of history” (124).

A first step towards a fulfillment of Amérys claim for a moralizing of history was realized only 20 years later by the debate of the historians. In this professional debate, certain values and methodological rules were established as to how to deal with the Holocaust in historical research and discourse. Since that time, we are speaking of a „temporal rift” [Zeit-bruch] and of the Holocaust as the signature of the twentieth century. Some of Améry’s more pragmatic ideas, however, were not realized. Not only had he, just like Thomas Mann, called for a total destruction of everything printed in Germany between 1933 and 1945, he had also recommended that Hitler’s Autobahnen be dismantled. We can only speculate what Améry would have thought of today’s memorial culture in Germany with its remembrance days, monuments and the historical preservation of the sites of atrocity. Would he have accepted it as the kind of „public contestation in the realm of historic praxis” that he had advocated?

When Martin Walser delivered his speech in the Paulskirche at Frankfurt on the occasion of his peace award in 1998, he spoke at a very dif-ferent historical moment. 5 While Améry’s essay was written at a time when postwar West Germany was still characterized by what the sociologist Hermann Luebbe called „communicatives ilence,” Walser’s speech was written against the backdrop of a flourishing culture of public memorialization of the Holocaust. He reacted against what he saw as an exaggerated and coercive presence of memory in media and monuments. If Améry pronounced his veto against the social milieu of a general forgetting, Walser, thirty years later, pronounced his veto against a milieu of intensive public memorialization.

There are striking parallels and differences between the two texts. Walser’s speech might also have been entitled „resentments”, because it is precisely what he, „trembling with audacity,” was airing in his Sunday morning speech. Like Améry’s, Walser’s auscultation of his resentments is also couched in a highly subjective literary form straddling the genres of essay and confession. 6 But most of all, it is the Hamlet-like pathos of facing, as an isolated individual, an alien atmosphere of social conformity and public opinion that connects both texts.

„Guilt” and „shame” are the key words of Walser’s speech. He defines guilt as a moral issue that can be addressed only on the level of an individual conscience. W hile Améry argued against an interiorization of guilt, Walser contends that it can only adequately be dealt with in this private shrine and must not be delegated to a public agent nor projected into a social arena. While he clearly limits the term guilt to the private sphere, he as clearly links the word shame to the public sphere. Whenever Walser uses the word shame, he switches from the private „I” to the collective „we” of the nation. While he accepts the issue of moral guilt on the level of individual consciousness, he passionately rejects a historical guilt that involves the Germans as a nation. While conceding the necessity of individual self-scrutiny vis à vis the German past, he vehemently negates the use of public and collective forms of debate and symbols. With this sharp distinction between issues of private conscience on the one hand and those of public honor on the other, Walser has inverted the position that he had pronounced in two essays on Auschwitzi n 1965 and 1979. 7 In these texts, Walser had explicitly argued against a disconnection of Germans from their Nazi past, against splitting it off and delegating it to a small group of criminals, pleading for its general acknowledgement and integration into German historical consciousness and national responsibility. In the earlier texts he had argued that integrating Auschwitz into German identity was a task that transcended the capacity of the isolated individual and required a collective, national we. This guilt, he had once claimed, can only be accepted, remembered and borne as a shared burden. 8

In his 1998 speech, however, Walser spoke no longer of national memory but of national shame. With his neat distinction between accepted private guilt and rejected national shame, Walser delegated the historical guilt of the Germans to private consciousness. In interiorizing the guilt, he let it „seep into the drain of privacy” (Lutz Niethammer). The strategy at work is quite obvious: Walser’s rhetoric aims at relieving the German nation of its burden. As has often been noted, this strategy is to be seen in the context of 1989 and the consolidation of a new German state. Long before its political realization, Walser was among the few who had eagerly anticipated this turn of events in the 1980s and had espoused the national perspective as a central orientation of his values. In the light of his long-term commitment to German reunification, some of his utterances in the peace-speech of 1998 gain a new momentum. Karola Brede, who has studied Walser’s speech in the context of his national discourse, has put forth an argument that accounts for Walser’s argumentative strategy:” Before the historic turn of 1989, the solution of the German national problem lay in the reunification of the divided Germany. After this turn, the solution lay in a removal of the historic guilt from collective conscience.” 9 This we may identify as the first resentment in Walsers speech.

His partner in the debate following the speech, the head of the Ger-man Jewish community Ignatz Bubis, alerted Walser to the fact that he continuously spoke of shame, but never of crimes. Indeed, the words crime and responsibility are conspicuously absent from Walser’s vocabulary. Terms such as crime, historical guilt, public conscience and political responsibility are part of a discourse from which Walser not only distances himself, but which he has made the very target of his resentment. He feels coerced and oppressed by the moral pressure of this discourse in a similar way that Améry found himself coerced and oppressed by an amoral society that was ready to forget. Walser’s language is replete with terms charged with the defiance of his resentment such as „soldiers of opinion” [Meinungssoldaten] or the „cruelly forced labor of memory” [grausamer Erinnerungsdienst]. His newly coined word „Erinnerungsdienst” replaces Freud’s term „Erinnerungsarbeit,” shifting its meaning from a subjective and therapeutic to an externally imposed and oppressive activity, stressing the coercive character of public memorialization and its lack of voluntary commitment. The burden of such external obligation, its pressure exerted on the individual who is thereby deprived of an autonomous self, memory as a yoke that is to be shaken off - a second resentment articulated by Walser.

With his audacious revolt against moral pressure, his violation of taboos and his invective against the superior moral status (Instanzenhaftigkeit) of certain public figures such as Jürgen Habermas, Günter Grass or Ignatz Bubis, Walser - and this is a third resentment - wants to pave the way for a new German normalcy. Normalcy, in this case, implies the aim of giving back to the Germans the status of moral integrity and sovereignty, liberating them from the image of an only superficially adapted Ex-Nazi, of a criminal that always in danger of relapsing into his former habits. „Germans have to prove that they are human, they are not automatically credited with such a status.” 10 Many Germans experienced Walser’s speech as „liberating” because he publicly vented their resentments. Moreover, he reactivated in a rhetorically effective way a form of discourse that presented the Germans once again as victims of history.

In concluding, I want to compare Améry’s and Walser’s resentments, focussing on three specific points.

1. The changing concept of the public. Both texts reflect and comment on different phases of the history of German memorialisation after the Second World War. Améry addresses a public in the 1960s in which the perpetrators and bystander so f the National Socialist state are still forming a dominant part of the population. Walser, on the other hand, who was born in 1927, belongs to a diminishing part of the German population that still maintains a experiential connection to the Nazi past. As this group of witnesses was growing smaller and smaller, the mediated memory of the Holocaust was inversely becoming stronger and stronger. By the 1990s, the memory of the Holocaust was inscribed onto material carriers such as books, photographs, films, monuments, installations; it was transformed into information stored in libraries, archives, museums. Whatt he two essays reflect most of all, is a structural change of the public, a „Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit.” Améry has a positive, perhaps even utopian vision of the public which he conceives as a moral instance. For him, the public arena is not a matter of media but of moral consciousness, of collective awakening into responsibility. Walser, on the other hand, has a very negative view of the public arena which is con-trolled by the politics of the media that impose their images, values and opinions on individuals. For Améry, it is an arena with the potential of liberation, while for Walser, it is a force that is falsifying and alienating.

2. The attitude towards moral perception. The target of Améry’s resentments was the political atmosphere of West Germany of the early 1960s that was still largely stifled by a complicit silence and a general aversion to address in a social debate the memory of the Nazi past and its impact on German historical consciousness. His isolated and untimely voice articulated the hope for a belated German revolution that would shake off the shackles of a paralyzing complicity with the Nazi past and counter the social and biological drive towards forgetting. He hoped for a temporal inversion, i.e. a return to the past with a reversed moral perception, that could open up a moral space in which a human encounter between perpetrators and victims, Überwältiger und Überwältigte would become possible.

3. The problem of shared remembering. Améry’s vision was that of a common moral space shared by the non Jewish Germans and German Jews. Walser pursued the exactly opposite goal. He anxiously took heed of the borderline between culprits and accusers:

Could it be that the intellectuals who are all the time presenting to us our shame, could it be that they, in presenting it to us, might be trapped for one second in the illusion that they who have once more exerted themselvesin the forced labor of cruel memory, that they had hereby somehow acquitted themselves, and may even have been, for one moment, closer to the victims than to the perpetrators? Enjoying thereby a momentary allevitation of the inexorable polarity of perpetrators and victims. I, for my part, have never held it possible to leave the side of the accused. 11

While Walser pronounces a politically correct argument he is at the same time using this argument as a protective shield against integrating the suffering of the victims into his memory. With his stance of a rigorous self-control in watching the borderline between non-Jewish Germans and German Jews, Walser’s position is in sharp contrast to that of Ignatz Bubis, president of the Jewish Community in Germany who took offence with Walser’s speech. Bubis never tired of emphasizing the importance of embracing memory as a common task for both groups in and outside Germany. Throughout the dialogue organized by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a few weeks after Walser’s speech, Bubis’s attitude was that of pleading and hoping for a common orientation, while Walser presented himself as chilly, proud, and obstinate. When at some point in the conversation Walser said: „The majority of the Germans has not yet found a shared language of memory,” Bubis responded with relief and great emphasis: „We must indeed find a way for a shared remembering. If this sentence had occured in your text, everything would have been quite different!” 12

There is yet another way in which Walser has rejected Bubis’s plea for a shared remembering. Throughout his writing, Walser stresses a polarity between memory and knowledge which he wants to keep separate by all means. He frequently emphasizes that he is unable and unwilling to connect his Nazi-time memories with his hindsight knowledge. This may of course be a legitimate literary strategy or even an understandable aim in distinguishing” authentic” memories from retrospectively adapted ones. In Walser, however, this attitude has clearly transcended those aims and acquired the effect of repudiating any ex-post view on the Nazi past altogether which would compel him to revise his own experiences in the light of new knowledge and values.

Thirty-five years after Améry’s text, his concept of a shared moral space has begun to be realized in a publicly debated and politically sup-ported memorial culture dedicated to the establishment and maintenance of a memory of Nazi atrocities and the suffering of its victims. Has this development brought about the moral and „anamnetic solidarity” (Jean Baptist Metz) that Améry had hoped for? In spite of official efforts and declarations, Walser’s resentments show that the memorial culture of the newly unified Germany is still a far cry from Améry’s vision. With his hyper-correct plea for an apartheid between perpetrators and victims, with his emphatic rejection of externally imposed rules for remembering, and with his self-righteous attitude of personal defiance and national pride, Walser has become a powerful mouth-piece and magnifier of German resentments.

My intention was to show that Améry’s essay is worth re-reading today and that his resentments may serve as an antidote against those of Walser. Améry affirms that Germans may absorb and integrate the manifold experience of Jewish suffering into their memory without thereby sneaking out of their historically burdened identity. Walser’s insistence on a neat distinction between Jewish memory and non-Jewish German memory has the repressive effect of prolonging a paralysis of memory. Améry’s vision, on the other hand, of an anamnetic solidarity can challenge Walser’s self-complacent hyper-correctness and remind us Germans of the moral grounds of our memorial culture.



1 Frank Schirrmacher, ed., Die Walser-Bubis-Debate. Eine Dokumentation (Frankfurt/Main:Suhrkamp, 1999)

2 Jean Améry, “Ressentiments,” Jenseits on Schuld und Sühne. Bewältigungsversuchte eines Überwältigen (Munich:Szczesny, 1966) 102-129.

3 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Norton CriticalE dition, ed. V. Cyrus Hoy (New York und London: Norton, 1963) 9, 10.

4 Améry, “Ressentiments“, 116.

5 Martin Walser, “Erfahrungen beim Verfassen einer Sonntagsrede” (11. 10. 1998), in Schirrmacher, ed., Die Walser-Bubis-Debatte 7-17.

6 In a way, the very opposite was true. Walser's solitary stance was backed up by a large segment of the German population, and he later claimed to have received more than 1000 supportive letters.

7 Martin Walseer, “Unser Auschwitz” (1965) and “Auschwitz und keine Ende” (1979), in Walser, Ansichten, Einsichten. Aufsätze zur Zeitgeschichte, Werke, vol. 11, ed. Helmuth Kiesel (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1997).

8 "Wir [...] müβten zugeben, daβ wir das, was wir als Geschichte haben, als einzelne nicht tragen künnen." Walser, “Auschwitz und keine Ende,” Ansichten, Einsichten 634.

9 Karola Brede, “Die Walser-Bubis-Debatte. Aggression als Element öffentlicher Auseinandersetzung,“ Psyche 54 (März 2000): 209

10 Ignatz Bubis and Martin Walser, “Wir brauchen eine neue Sprache für die Erinnerung,“ Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (14 Dec. 1998).

11 Walser, Erfahrungen beim Verfassen einer Sonntagsrede (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1999) 17.

12 Bubis and Walser, „Wir brauchen eine neue Sprache für die Erinnerung.“