Neil H. Donahue

The Political Pathology of Amnesia in Postwar Germany:  Tilman Jens’ Demenz: Abschied von meinem Vater (2009)

When Tilman Jens in 2009 published a short, probing memoir, full of sadness and anger, about his famous father Walter Jens, the book critic for Die Zeit, Iris Radisch, declared her “Fassungsloses Staunen” and pleaded at the outset of her review: “Warum schützt den Vater niemand vor seinem Sohn?” She then assumed that role of defender in her own denunciation of what she described as Tilman Jens’s denunciation of his sick, ailing father, which takes the form for her of a stylized “Dämonisierung der Demenz,” turning the father’s illness into a political metaphor. She dismisses the work Demenz: Abschied von meinem Vater as a lamentable instance of filial “Denkmalsturz” that does not even belong in the ranks of other more noteworthy milestones in the post-1968 period of agonistic Auseinandersetzung with the father and the Nazi past, for which subgenre Christoph Meckel’s Suchbild: Über meinen Vater (1980) has served as the prototype.1  
 In a sort of warped parallel to a more recent work in that subgenre, Lars Brandt’s Andenken (2006), Radisch’s describes Tilman Jens’s work simply as a pathetic attempt to diminish the public figure of his father and thereby win him back after the fact as a daddy who should have shared more fully the childhood details of domestic daily life, –presumably instead of reading, writing, teaching, lecturing, and presenting himself in public (she oddly uses the word “zurückerobert,” with the intonations of invasion and conquest that resonate so darkly in German history). In sum, she condemns Tilman’s “ehrlose Entblöβung seines wehrlosen Vaters mit pseudopolitischen Girlanden.”

But Walter Jens was the consummate public intellectual of his time. Though his myriad activities may well have cut into his private time with his family, Radisch, in her indignation, misses the point of Tilman Jens’s necessary attempt to clarify his father’s actions and inactions in light of revelations about his past in the Nazi period and their relation to the principles he had always declared and defended vigorously, vehemently and often, both in public and in private over decades. In his multifarious activities as professor of rhetoric, as classical philologist and translator, as literary critic, novelist, dramatist, enthusiastic debater, outspoken critic and public commentator in  news media (newspaper, TV, radio) on matters from theology to soccer (both sources of devotion, inspiration and sometimes fanaticism), and also in his role as cultural diplomat in German literary-political affairs (head of German PEN after reunification), Walter Jens embodied more fully and broadly than any other single person in the postwar period the principles of the Gruppe 47 that he had belonged to, and of the traditions of the Enlightenment that he venerated and espoused, as public citizen. He was an energetic member of the Gruppe 47 that reestablished a literary community after the Second World War based on explicit principles of candor and commitment to an open society and a literature that reflected that openness, rather than its opposite of abject obedience to state ideology or abstruse evasiveness (as in the literature of Inner Emigration; see Donahue/Kirchner, Flight of Fantasy). His response to the recent past of Nazi totalitarianism as a warning for the future emerged first in his postwar novel Nein: Die Welt der Angeklagten (1948), which presented a dystopian vision of a society with its ideological machinery of systematic persecution, based both on both George Orwell’s 1984 as well as on the (at the time) not yet canonical work of Franz Kafka. His history of literary modernism Statt einer Literaturgeschichte recovered the traditions of German and European modernism, so long suppressed, as sources of critical inspiration for both readers and writers in the postwar period.  
 Like other books in the post-68 tradition of Väterliteratur, such as Bernhard Vesper’s Die Reise (1977), Meckel’s Suchbild (1980), and Niklas Frank’s Der Vater: Eine Abrechnung (1987), or even Meckel’s second contribution to the genre with his counterpart Suchbild: Meine Mutter (2002), Wibke Bruns’ Meines Vaters Land (2004), Ulla Hahn’s Unscharfe Bilder (2005) and Ute Scheub’s Das Falsche Leben Eine Vatersuche (2006), to name but a few, Tilman’s Demenz conflates the personal and the public, the private and the historical, –though he does so consciously and deliberately in order to measure the former, the personal, against the latter, the public-historical, as his father had always advocated and done, — until the moment in question. The book centers upon the moment in 2003 when it became public for the first time that Walter Jens had once joined and belonged to the Nazi Party in 1942, which fact would be noted in the new Germanisten-Lexikon, then in preparation. Rather than to acknowledge and explain, his father denies, equivocates and evades, claiming not to remember, before eventually conceding that he may have signed some scrap of paper (einen Wisch) at some point. His father had spent his career presenting himself as a “Gedächtnis-Virtuose” (58), as a “Gedächtniskünstler” (14) whose “einst so phänomenale Gedächtnis” (13) could summon up details from childhood or long passages of literary texts for declamation, as I once myself heard him do, reciting a long passage of poetry he had heard that morning at a Rigorosum at the Mittagstisch in his home before his Assistenten at the time, who was apparently a regular guest, myself – a visiting graduate student working on a dissertation, his wife Inge and the Swabian Putzfrau.2 His extraordinary memory and public principles of confrontation for the sake of clarity now capitulate before the recognition of his own selective memory gap, which he shared with so many others in the postwar period that he had helped to define and whose attempts at Vergangenheitsbewältigung he encouraged and whose failings in that regard he castigated. Instead, at various points of autobiographical reflection, his past was, like so many others, stylized into an antifascist posture of inner antipathy toward the regime, sympathy for its victims and the good fortune in this one regard of asthmatic disqualification for military activity. 
 What Walter Jens failed to remember or confront in his own past, and chose to elide in his self-presentation, was not only his Party membership (as of September 1, 1942; No. the 9265911), which must have signaled at least some momentary need, desire or willingness to comply, since membership was not casual or automatic, but also an article entitled “Die Epik der Gegenwart: Betrachtung unserer gegenwärtigen Dichtkunst” (April 1943) in a student newspaper or newsletter of a group called Kameradschaft Hermann von Wissmann (named after the Reichskommissar of German East-Africa [Tanzania]), in which a young W. Jens praises Erwin Guido Kolbenheyer and advocates a “Hinwendung zum ewigen Deutschtum” and a “starke Bindung an das Volk” in opposition to “Entartungsliteratur.” He even intones there, according to his son’s excerpts, that “Ohne ein tiefes Bekenntnis zum Völkischen ist Dichtung unmöglich.” Though membership in the Party cannot be dismissed as a passive circumstance, the article, even as juvenilia, shows voluntary, outspoken advocacy of Nazi doctrine, whereby he even condemns such figures as Thomas Mann and Alfred Döblin, whose works he did so much after the war to elevate and celebrate, as in his influential Statt einer Literaturgeschichte (1957).

In the wake of the first revelation of the Lexikon, the article from his student days was found by chance in a private archive and sent to the author; one could still wonder if others exist. Son and journalist Tilman confronts and contextualizes the contradictions that his father both tried to evade and ended up multiplying as he sought to explain and equivocate in ways that he had always excoriated in others. His father’s hypocrisy appeared strikingly at odds with his civil courage and integrity in public and private life in the postwar period. In trying to separate himself at age 80 from a Nazi past that has come back to haunt him, “flüchtet mein aufrechter Vater” notes Tilman “in ein ach-so-deutsches Doppelleben” (71).  Tilman does, as son and as journalist, what his father had taught him to do and follows his example by examining the contexts and putting to question the possibilities of explanation, even creating opportunities for explanation, both public and private, which only lead however to further prevarications and retractions: “Er macht dicht, er beginnt sich einzumauern, er will sein Gedächtnis nicht mehr strapazieren” (78). With that refusal, Walter Jens enters, for son Tilman, into the ranks of so many others from Günter Grass to Siegfried Lenz to Hans-Dieter Genscher from the same generation that either refused to address or tried to hide or elide their involvement or Party membership: he cites the volume Jahrgang 1926/27 by Alfred Neven Dumont to expand his father’s symptomology into a collective historical amnesia or dementia shared by so many: “die Symptome politischer Demenz” (87), as I had done in a more limited fashion in my study Karl Krolow and the Poetics of Amnesia (Camden House, 2002), in which I interpreted that poet’s long and prolific career as poet and commentator in relation to, for the first time, his writings before 1945 and information (with transcripts) that I found (in Hannover at the Niedersächsisches Staatsarchiv) in the file from his denazification hearings, which I was the first person to sign out and read since it was filed in 1947 (not surprisingly, since no one had looked, no single reference to those hearings or to his Party membership appeared in any prior secondary literature or personal information on Krolow). Such knowledge inevitably changes how we read and understand his later works. Karl Krolow remained, however, decidedly and consistently apolitical and opportunistic before the war and after, pursuing his career as a poet (though the context had changed dramatically), whereby Walter Jens, to his credit, had stepped into the public realm and taken others to task with self-righteous outrage. Tilman Jens notes of his father’s Gruppe 47 generation that the public fight against the legacy of fascism and for the right of expression in a new democratic state was “der Leim, der eine ganze Generation von Dichtern und Denkern zusammenhielt . . . Die unbequemen, bohrenden Fragen wurden der Gesellschaft gestellt, nicht aber sich selbst” (90). He employs the metaphor of illness for the localized failure to remember and acknowledge one’s own entanglement in Nazi ideology,3 but in the case of his father, it’s not just a metaphor.

Along with the revelations of his Nazi past, Walter Jens also begins to suffer at the same time from Alzheimer’s; the trajectory of his Vergangenheitsbewältigung converges in dramatic fashion with the onset of his illness: two pathologies coincide, leading to what Tilman calls “gnädiges Vergessen” (123), suggesting that in this case the clinical pathology provided his father with a parallel resolution to what Helmut Kohl memorably called “die Gnade der späten Geburt” or a circumstance that relieves one of culpability or in this case at least, consciousness thereof.  Contrary to Radisch’s blistering condemnation of Tilman Jens’s use (“so abwegig”) of the trope of dementia, his book does not conflate or confuse the two, much less suggest that the one causes the other. Rather he notes simply and sadly how the physical pathology, clinical amnesia, translated the metaphor that characterizes many of his father’s generation into a harsh reality in his individual case; he notes how the prospect of such a debility had horrified a man who otherwise committed his postwar life to a community of open, continuous discourse and exchange of ideas, and who could not and did not wish to imagine, much less experience, an “Entmündigung” contrary to all his Enlightenment ideals; and he notes how the revelations of his father’s Nazi past seemed to undermine his will to fight against the symptoms and reinforced his sense of increasing distance and isolation. Tilman Jens examines these two matters about his father in banal, sometimes sordid and unadorned detail that would seem to some readers (and critics) rather too painful, indelicate, unsentimental and unwelcome, but that in fact fulfill his father’s spirit of clarity and confrontation, as he himself would not and then could not do in this painfully personal instance. Tilman Jens’s candid account punctures two taboos at once in talking frankly about the Nazi complicity of a parent, and also, -what is far more common-, the mental disintegration of a parent, his once so lucid father. Yet another consideration, which Radisch ignores entirely, also informs the narrative.

Tilman’s examination of the circumstances of his father’s converging amnesias also describes the other side of the equation: the difficult circumstances of continual care for the spouse: “Er zuckt mit den Schultern, die grau-blauen Augen fixieren nichts mehr, sie schauen ins Leere. Manchmal aber wird er wütend, presst eine schmerzverzerrte Grimasse ins schmal gewordene Gesicht. Er ballt die Fäuste, noch einmal ein Aufbäuman der Vitalität. Er schreit, haut und spuckt um sich. Die Verzweiflung mobilisiert ungeahnte Kräfte. Wenn er trifft, hat meine Mutter am nächsten Morgen blaue Flecken. Mit über 80 ist auch sie eine Frau, die geschlagen wird. Häusliche Gewalt steht am Ende dieser Vorzeige-Ehe” (10). Tilman also tells the story of his mother Inge Jens and dedicates the book to her, who had always managed to maintain her own career as scholar and editor (“eine in ihrer Eigenständigkeit selbstbewusste und souveräne Frau” 24) with important studies of Expressionist prose, of the Prussian Academy of Arts during the Weimar Republic, of Katia Mann, and of Katia’s mother, and with her invaluable editions of Thomas Mann’s correspondence, despite the overwhelming public brilliance, influence, authority and recognition of her husband. Even in his waning months, overcome with depression and medications, reluctant to speak in public, he calls on his wife to fill in for him at times on public occasions, but then manages in the end: “Meine Mutter weiβ nicht, ob sie lachen oder weinen soll. Er schafft sich durch den Text, kaum ein Versprecher, die bewährte Droge Publikum zeigt Wirkung. Aber wer von denen, die ihn hier erleben, […], scheinbar souverän, . . . wird sich vorstellen können, was sie durchmacht, wenn keine bewundernde Zuhörerschaft zugegen ist. Wie haben sich daheim, . . . die Wut- und Verzweiflungsausbrüche gehäuft” (36). Yet she continues her own career as best she can, refusing to be eclipsed by his illness any more than earlier by his fame, despite his mounting claims on her attention, and his skepticism and jealousy about her projects: “Meine Mutter schreibt allein. Nicht nur ohne ihn, sondern letztlich auch gegen ihn. So jedenfalls muss er es empfinden. Sie macht die Tür ihres Arbeitszimmers hinter sich zu. [. . .] Er muss zum ersten Mal in seinem Leben gehorchen, sich, fast 82jährig, in eine ungewohnte und schmerzhafte Rolle fügen” (38). Even his doctors recommend to her that she drop her projects: “Die Umverteilung der Rollen, die Degradierung meines Vaters zum Zuschauer eines Schaffensprozesses, werde die Aussicht auf Heilung ernsthaft trüben. [. . .] Inge Jens aber ist Frau Walter Jens zu diesem Zeitpunkt schon über den Kopf gewachsen. Sie bleibt eisern und macht das, was mein Vater in vergleichbarer Situation auch getan hätte: Sie schreibt weiter. […] Jetzt ist es sie, die beim Schreiben durchatmet” (39). Tilman also tells the story, in the microcosm of his own parental home, of the changing roles, the gender dynamics, in the highest levels of German Bildungsbürgertum, and of his mother’s quietly heroic refusal to surrender her own identity as an intellectual and writer to her husband, whether healthy or ill, while also accepting with full support his multifarious activities, his fame and then his illness. In the same year as Demenz, Inge Jens published her own memoirs Unvollständige Erinnerungen (Rowohlt, 2009), which became a Spiegel-Bestseller, where she confronts her own past and feels obliged “die Strukturen meiner Lebensführung zu überdenken” (10); suddenly with her husband no longer present as a partner, her position has changed: “Die unerwartete Gegenwart hat mich […] veranlasst zurückzublicken,und ich habe mit Erstaunen bemerkt, dass dieses Zurückblicken Kräfte freisetzt, die mir auch einen neuen, anderen, freieren Umgang mit dem Hier und Jetzt ermöglichen” (11-12). On its own or in conjunction with his mother’s book, Demenz tells the story of their combined coming-to-terms with both the revelations of the father’s past, a secret withheld from both spouse and child, and the demands of his protracted illness, – rather more hands-on Denkmalpflege than melodramatic Denkmalsturz, to return to the complaint by Iris Radisch, who omits this aspect of the work. Though the book necessarily and insightfully centers upon the father and the circumstances of his two amnesias, it also describes the secondary effects of those circumstances on the lives of others, – of what happens, the emotional and physical disruption and distress, caused by the loss of memory of both kinds. Demenz appears, directly for the author and indirectly for his mother, as a work of profound and necessary Gegenwartsbewältigung.4


Brandt, Lars. Andenken. München: Hanser, 2006.

Donahue, Neil H. Forms of Disruption: Abstraction in Modern German Prose. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1993.

Dumont, Alfred Neven, ed. Jahrgang 1926/27: Erinnerungen an die Jahre unter dem Hakenkreuz. Cologne: Dumont, 2007.

—-. Karl Krolow and the Poetics of Amnesia in Postwar Germany. Rochester, NY: Camden House / Boydell & Brewer, 2002.

“Suchbilder: Looking for Christoph Meckel.” In: Aesthetics and Politics in Modern German Culture: Festschrift in Honour of Rhys W. Williams. 103-115. Eds. Brigid Haines, Stephen Parker, Colin Riordan. Bern: Peter Lang, 2010.

—-, and Doris Kirchner. Flight of Fantasy: New Perspectives on Inner Emigration in German Literature, 1933-1945. New York and London: Berghahn, 2005.

Jens, Inge. Unvollständige Erinnerungen. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 2009.

Jens, Tilman. Demenz. Abschied von meinem Vater. Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2009.

—-. VATERmord: Wider einen Generalverdacht. Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2010.

Jens, Walter.—-. Nein. Die Welt der Angeklagten. Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1950. Reissued with modifications: Knaur, 1968.

—-. Statt einer Literaturgeschichte. Pfüllingen: Verlag Günther Neske, 1958.

Iris Radisch. “Der Mann seines Lebens: Tilman Jens verklärt und denunziert seinen an Demenz erkranten wehrlosen Vater Walter Jens.” Die Zeit 9 (February 19, 2009).


1 For a discussion of that text and its influence on the recent wave of confrontational texts, including Meckel’s parallel piece describing his mother, see my article “Suchbilder: Looking for Christoph Meckel.”


2 I had been invited by Inge Jens, while on my Fulbright year in Tübingen, where I was doing research (1983-85) with the sponsorship and guidance of Professor Richard Brinkmann on the topic of Expressionist prose and its relation to the Modernist canon (which later appeared as Forms of Disruption: Abstraction in Modern German Prose). Inge Jens had written her dissertation on Expressionist prose, which at the time remained unpublished but which I could access in Tübingen and in Marbach National Literature Archive, where I spent much time. Professor Brinkmann suggested that I contact her directly, which I did, whereupon she graciously invited me to the midday meal to also meet her husband, who energetically welcomed me into their home and the conversation with a remarkable and highly unusual (compared to general relations between professors and students) animation and lack of formality, which I greatly appreciated. Inge Jens regaled me with stories of how their best man Ernst Rowohlt, the publisher, had provided her with his own copies of pertinent works that at that time, not so long after the war, were still not readily available. Her study was thus, with distance, the first postwar attempt to systematically address the topic, as I indicate in my epilogue to Forms of Disruption entitled “Honorable Menschen” (229-237). For the record, I have had no contact with her since that time. My own brief personal connection to her, Walter and Tübingen at that time is perhaps not irrelevant (and enhanced my curiosity about this issue), but remains nonetheless tangential to my larger, well-documented interest in the literary history of the postwar period in Germany.


3Also known of course as Waldheimer’s disease, after Kurt Waldheim, the Austrian Secretary-General from 1972-1981, who was elected President of Austria in 1986, but who selectively forgot to mention his service in the Wehrmacht under the Nazis until 1945)


4 One year later, in 2010, Tilman Jens published his Vatermord: Gegen einen Generalverdacht to respond to Radisch and other critics (turning back to the “Schauprozess um mein Buch” 110) by reviewing that motif in literary and cultural history and differentiating his own work in Demenz, where he also had tried, very laudably in my view, to break “das Tabu der Demenz und der leider sehr konkreten Veränderungen, die das Leiden mit sich bringt” (114-115). He also reinforces his narrative with citations from scientific research in cognitive psychology on the pathology of senile dementia, and clarifies more precisely the chronology of his father’s decline in relation to the revelations about his NSDAP past (see 132) as well as his own relations to his father. Though useful in general, and apparently necessary as a response to his many critics, the often expansive contextualization he provides there as addendum does not have, understandably, the dramatic force and urgency of his original account.

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