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Writers! Break free of your routine!

Author Eva Menasse on why German writers should speak their minds in the current election campaign.

Is it inadmissible or presumptuous for writers to express themselves publicly on politics? The bored routine with which the question "are the intellectuals political enough?" is tossed around in the cultural pages at regular intervals does more to confirm the thesis than confute it. Because so much in this country functions in a paradoxical way. People like to complain vociferously about what's missing, then vehemently condemn it as soon as it appears on the horizon. The reform of the social state is just one example.

But let's stick to the facts. The task of the writer is to depict the world. The writer perceives the world he lives in in his own individual way. He observes the relationship between people and the powers that effect them. He digests these impressions, pours them out in language and stories, and gives them back to the world. And now the writer, of all people, should remain silent on politics? Should that area be left entirely to the businesspeople, stock market analysts, unionists and other experts?

Unfortunately the term "writer" is still a much-despised honorary title, one that many people would love to stop from being handed out so readily. Not everyone should be entitled to it just because they've written "one thing or another". Is someone a writer after their first novel? Or their tenth? It's only when you've been dead for at least ten years and people are still reading you that you can be absolutely sure you were in fact a writer.

In an environment where it is considered presumptuous to come out publicly with a novel or a book of poetry, it seems downright suicidal to express yourself politically as an author. That's something critics won't forget when they review your next book! German authors have learned this lesson well. When Günter Grass went out looking for authors who were willing to sign a statement of solidarity with the SPD – Green Party coalition, what he got in return was a stream of timid squeaks: My name and a political party? Sorry!

As far as I know, none of the writers backed up their refusals with specific political reasons, or said something like: no thanks, I'd rather represent the conservative CDU – FDP coalition. And in fact there's still no list of pro-CDU writers. In case anyone is planning on it, my advice is: you'll hardly find any more than fifteen numbskulls ready to sign the thing, so don't be disappointed!

Unfortunately, the coy and occasionally opportunistic reserve on the part of writers is a symptom of the sad state of things. Germany is tired, so tired it can only lament and lie low in fear. Almost no one is willing or able to take a stand, and the few who do, arouse much suspicion. In such a situation you have to thank heaven for someone like Günter Grass who, at almost 78, keeps doing what he always thought was right: publicly standing up for his political convictions even if that means taking a thrashing for it. That should serve as an example to younger authors.

A statement of solidarity by a handful of writers is, I know, well-nigh feckless. Yet if the resounding majority of writers hadn't refused to have anything to do with it, Grass' list (or for that matter a CDU list) could well have provided a sign that not everybody had purchased comprehensive intellectual coverage according to the motto: keep your mouth shut and you'll do nothing wrong.

In its present form, the list shows once more that the German paralysis has struck even the proverbially free spirits. Once you've counted Thomas Mann, Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass, the list of politically engaged German writers ends abruptly. That won't stop the bored and routine debates on the subject from taking place in the feuilletons. But only when the elections are over and no one can do themselves any harm.


The article originally appeared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on August 27, 2005.

Eva Menasse was born in Vienna in 1970. She lives in Berlin, where she works as a journalist and writer. Her latest book is "Vienna" (2005). She belongs to the supporters of the statement of solidarity with the SPD – Green Party coalition that was initiated by Günter Grass.

Translation: jab.

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