Note: The following essay started as an exercise for a German course. I wrote the core of it in German, translated it back in to English, then added and revised quite a bit. I’m sharing the final version with you here.
“A long time ago, I suddenly realized that the country one belongs to is not, as the usual rhetoric goes, the one you love but the one you are ashamed of.” - Carlo Ginzburg
The war in Ukraine has left much of Europe speechless. Not so its writers. In the pages of national newspapers and magazines, novelists and essayists have been asking themselves: In such a moment of brutality, what is literature for?
For various reasons, when it comes to churning out the obligatory public responses, German authors, perhaps, find themselves in an especially tricky position. There’s the fact of the nation’s enduringly guilty historical conscience. There’s the Bundesregierung’s sluggish (from the American perspective) provision of military assistance, itself the product of a a guilty historical conscience; for nearly 80 years, Germany has been a nation of anti-conflict. Scholz is seen as waffling where other countries have been decisive, and a few weeks ago, Federal President Steinmeier was scandalously uninvited to Kyiv. Above all, there’s Germany’s dependence on Russian gas, the result of an appeasement energy policy going back decades, actively pursued by Schröder and Merkel at the explicit objection of Eastern Europe. For the past two months, German imports of Russian Flüssiggas have effectively funded Putin’s war.
Added to these historical and political entanglements, however, is a more generalized despair over the impotence of language and the imagination. If literature was powerless to prevent the war, many writers have expressed, it feels all the more useless today. What should a writer do in such a horrifying moment? Should she still write at all?
This is a debate I’ve followed with interest. As an American, my own geopolitical entanglement arguably leaves me just as implicated in Ukraine’s fate, considering the leading role the US has played in expansionary NATO policy. But if American writers are experiencing similar existential crises regarding the value of language or literature, our soul-searching is not being played out in major national newspapers and magazines. At least, not to the same extent. Maybe it’s because there isn’t the public interest for it. Maybe it’s because this kind of soul-searching isn’t something America expects its belle lettres to perform. Maybe it’s because war, to Americans, remains stubbornly ‘elsewhere’ and abstract; meanwhile, we busy ourselves with a regressive domestic politics bent on uninventing the wheel, with the apparent aim of making women and minorities feel ever less at home.
What does an American writer do, I wonder, living off Russian gas in Berlin while the US Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade? Turn off the heat? Result: nothing but a very cold apartment. Plus, I guess, this essay.
Back in March, I was struck by an article in Die Zeit that namechecked and reprimanded German authors who, in the early days of the war, called to “den Himmel schließen” ("close the sky"), or declare a no-fly zone, though most experts had warned this would trigger World War Three. Two assumptions behind this public scolding have stayed with me: 1) It is unacceptable to say stupid things in public, and; 2) It still matters what writers say. Sadly, both tenets seem weaker in the American context. That is, if they exist at all.
Maybe the gap between German and American literary culture isn’t as wide as I think: blame the rose-tinted glasses of Europhilia, or the friction of having to read with a dictionary in hand. Nevertheless, it’s instructive to watch writers respond to the subject of language and war in a country where literature – which receives enormous amounts of public funding – is closer to a public good. And which has the corresponding responsibility to do its thinking publicly.
That thinking, of course, has manifested in a wide range of responses. Some called for that no-fly zone. Others have left the country all together, unable to stomach living in a nation that’s cozied up to Russian gas. There are those who have made the admirable and arguably more productive choice to take on refugees. And then, of course, there are the persistent and self-appointed exceptions. Maxim Biller, for example, has written a thousand words about the decision to stay silent: he will write no more.
Biller has made his name as one of Germany’s most polemical writers and critics. For an Anglophone comparison, maybe think Bari Weiss or Andrew Sullivan—rather divisive, to say the least. The son of Russian-Jewish refugees from the Prague Spring, Biller’s family fled former Czechoslovakia for Germany when he was eight years old. He grew up in Hamburg, and since the 1980s has been giving the pages of German newspapers something to argue about. That is to say, he purposefully writes to get under your skin. Certainly his most recent article got under mine. That I haven’t been totally able to exorcise it makes it worth thinking through here. It offers an entrypoint, at least, in to broader questions of literature and war in Germany versus the United States.
One would naturally expect a former refugee from Russian aggression to have some strong opinions about the war in Ukraine. And so Biller does—packaged in the statement that he no longer wants to be a writer: “A few days before the war, I finished a book—my last,” begins his announcement in Die Zeit, published a little over a month ago. The renunciation stems from a shared disillusionment with fiction’s capacity to better the world. More specifically, his fiction. The war in Ukraine is fresh proof that his previous books have failed to make people think twice about whether they want to be a “weakling or a swine.” A world of swine we remain.
There is self-regard here, but also understandable despair; it is natural, and human, to feel ashamed of your own helplessness in the face of others’ suffering. This isn’t an emotion especially worth policing. Questions of self-regard and empathy aside, however, Biller and I have already parted ways. As previously discussed on this Substack, I don’t share the belief that fiction’s effects ought to manifest as direct, traceable, and measurable political and moral consequences in the real world. Nor do I believe fiction is an especially reliable handmaiden for peace. As that article scolding early calls to “close the skies” concludes: “It’s a blessing that, in the end, poets don’t decide on war and peace.” It’s a sentiment not unrelated to WH Auden’s famous maxim that “Poetry makes nothing happen.” Auden’s extension of this thought, not quite as famous, is also relevant here: Poetry is instead “A way of happening, a mouth.”
Insofar as we still long for literature to directly affect the real world, it is worth remembering that this “happening” is itself ambiguous: language—a mouthpiece—can happen for evil or for good.
There is something more complicated, however, in Biller’s own scolding of some of the German media’s more hyperbolic responses; audience naivete soon emerges as a secondary reason to quit. He has no patience for those who insist that Zelensky embodies not only a hero, but the “dirty renaissance” of the “macho figure.” Nor for climate activists who claim that, were Germany not so dependent on Russian gas, there would be no war. Nor for those who see in the German acceptance of Ukrainian refugees nothing but the racism previously shown toward those fleeing Syria and the wider Middle East. These writers have never bothered, Biller presumes, to imagine what it’s like to be blown up by a Russian bomb. He, however, knows the fear firsthand; like many Czech schoolchildren, he once feared being shot by a stray bullet or “crushed by Russian tanks” on his way to class.
Why write more books for such naive and unimaginative people, he asks, who live in a “present without a past,” and who have lost their “sense for good and evil”?
The above arguments, so summarized, certainly show signs of naivete or—like Biller himself— exaggeration. Then again, one wonders why he seems to have counted these same naifs among his target readers before the war, if they are so suddenly and obviously proving themselves idiots. But I suppose that’s the point: We were hopelessly unimprovable all along.
Biller’s critique pulls another question into the fore, however, that I find more difficult to dismiss or ironize, and which is perhaps why I continue to return to articles like his with unhealthy fascination: Where does the authority to write at any moment come from, whether in wartime or in peace? The contrast between Biller’s own authority—the authority of a writer who has survived extremes—and that of the activists he mentions is clear, as is the implied intimacy between literature and suffering. (Without the “school of totalitarianism” he attended as a child, Biller says, he would never have learned how to become writer—nor would Europe have ever produced many of its greatest novels.) There is something in this suggested intimacy that I’d like to contradict. And yet, I’m not sure I can—or not so neatly as I’d like.
These are the darker, quieter, and more anonymous vibrations rippling across the European consciousness, at least on the wavelengths I have access to: The stakes have been raised; life has sharpened at the edges. There is a heightened sense of responsibility, the sense that the way we conduct ourselves – that what we write or do or say – matters more than it did before. There’s a dark side to that sharpened sense of responsibility. It makes you wonder: Are there those of us, perhaps especially those of us who are men, who need war to feel like they are living fully? Do we seek it? Is this why violence eternally returns? I’m reminded of the young nationalist Thomas Mann, who initially welcomed the First World War as a "purification" and "liberation." I’m reminded of the enduringly controversial Ernst Jünger, whose nostalgia for wartime and old codes of chivalry runs through his entire oeuvre; the role of the soldier delineates a clear path to honor. From the perspective of the Ausländerin, I feel naive enough to ask: Must the contemporary European author always turn to the violence of the past to find object lessons worthy of the present? Is that how she was supposed to prevent the war in the first place? If not, must she always look for violence in order not to forget that she is still alive? Is that how she maintains and refines her sense of good and evil? It’s hard to say. The modern world has never not been at war, over the past century often American- or German-made. Who knows what our literature would look like without it.
I am focusing on literature and writers here, but this crisis of faith in the powers of language reflects, maybe, a broader rift between the American and German attitudes toward international conflict in the post-war era. The war in Ukraine has caused a "crisis of pacifism," as a German friend cogently put it. It is shocking now for Germany to deliver "heavy weapons" or increase national military spending, set to reach the NATO earmark of 2% of GDP by 2024. (That American presidents, above all Trump, have been pressuring Germany increase military contributions in recent years frames the spending hike as a concession to American interests.) These are historic shifts. They are also historically fraught. Military interventionism in the American context, by contrast, has been a way of life since 1945.
Placing this crisis of faith in language in broader national contexts perhaps explains my, if not surprise, then fixation, on the European disappointment with literature having once again failed to prevent a war. I was born in in the United States in 1990. Who could possibly look back on the past thirty years of American foreign policy and believe, truly, that literature would have stopped us? The margin of American exceptionalism has always been as narrow as this: I can more or less tell the American president that he is a war criminal to his face, and nothing will happen. This is a meaningful – in many parts of the world, exceptional – use of language. But it has rarely prevented us from starting wars.
I can't seem to deny – though I'd rather that I could – that there's something in people that's always looking for a fight. Nor would I say there’s no connection between overcoming difficulties and the gift for rediscovering beauty amid the rubble. (Per Auden: Poetry’s role is to “survive.”) But it seems a secondary crime is this: for those of us in relative safety to have forgotten, before the war in Ukraine, that we were already living in a world consumed by violence. There was enough suffering to nullify the written word long before war struck closer to home. The work of the writer, maybe, is to be forever demonstrating the limits of language by stretching it right to the boundary of what can be known, or imagined, or explained—and in doing so, to inscribe a different kind of silence.
It’s possible Biller agrees, but I guess we’ll never know. At the very least, he won’t be writing any books about it.