Photograph of Walter Jens (center) by Kriscom on Wikimedia Commons

Walter Jens’s Tragedies

Michael H. Kater

Walter Jens was the first among a group of young West German novelists who attempted to come to grips with the Third Reich. As a twenty-seven-year-old, in 1950 he concocted a dystopian plot in a novel reminiscent of Franz Kafka, Nein – Die Welt der Angeklagten (No – the World of the Accused). In a fictional town, called Braunsberg after the brown-uniformed Nazis, the writer Walter Sturm is summoned to an interrogation by an authoritarian regime leader. On his way, in the state building, he is shown citizens being tortured, one man standing in a narrow cell with water over his knees. It is explained to Sturm that once the man loses his balance he will fall upon shards of glass. Such fiendish scheme was reminiscent of torture methods once used at Auschwitz. As Sturm is led to meet a Supreme Judge, it becomes clear to him that any citizen, regardless of his past, can become a victim, but then he learns that victims could, alternately, also be perpetrators or judges. Nobody is free, everyone must spy and be spied upon. Finally, the Supreme Judge tells Sturm he has chosen him as his successor, because he himself must retire. Sturm refuses and is summarily shot.

Jens was a literature scholar, with a PhD in Sophoclean tragedy, who eventually became a professor of rhetoric at the University of Tübingen. While there in the early 1960s, he befriended similar-minded intellectuals of the liberal left who became, like him, concerned with probing the Nazi past, helping to develop democracy in West German politics and society: chief among them Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll, and Martin Walser. Jens’s lectures were renowned, treasured by many students in the process of developing resentment against their fathers for having participated in the Third Reich and now suppressing it. One of these was Gudrun Ensslin, daughter of a Lutheran pastor from Stuttgart, whom Jens advised to complete her studies of German literature in West Berlin. There she met up with a beguiling, would-be revolutionary drifter called Andreas Baader, with whom, in 1968, she torched a Frankfurt department store. This was when a university student revolt was well on the way, sweeping all of West Germany. After its failure and having declared that all parents were part of the Auschwitz generation, Ensslin turned into a core member of the terrorist Red Army Fraction, popularly known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. She met her death in 1977 by self-strangulation as an inmate of a Stuttgart penitentiary cell, where, after trial, she had been serving a life sentence.

Walter Jens, like his novelist friends, never condoned the Red Army Fraction, although he was sympathetic to its underlying causes. He continued to be a pillar of the left-liberal establishment in the Federal Republic, and intellectually presided over the reunification of the two Germanys in 1990. His foremost task then was fusing the West German and formerly East German academies of science and the arts, which he accomplished, against many in the Bonn republic who would not acknowledge outstanding East German writers such as Christa Wolf. But in 2003 it came to light that Jens had joined the Nazi Party as a university student himself, in 1943. He had published passages against modernism, expressions of art the Nazis censured. Some of its writings he had called “the poetry of decay, the lowest instincts,” including in his condemnation the famous novel of the Jewish author Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz.[1] He also had written that novelist Thomas Mann, who had fled the Third Reich, was far removed from the people, having long ago fallen prey to ossification. “Race-alien voices are gaining the upper hand in so-called Expressionism.”[2] When confronted with these findings, Jens was evasive, avoiding a confession.

In 2004 it was made public that the famous professor had fallen ill with Alzheimer’s disease. This compounded a family drama with, ultimately, tragic results. In 2009 Tilman Jens, a journalist and one of Walter Jens’s two sons, published a book, Demenz: Abschied von meinem Vater (Dementia: Parting with my Father) in which he claimed that his father had fled into dementia in order to escape accounting for his Nazi past. When critics everywhere deplored this, Tilman published a follow-up volume in 2010 defending his action. What would motivate a son to humiliate his father so? As Tilman’s mother, the doctor of German literature Inge Jens later revealed, Tilman always suffered under his father, in the manner the author Klaus Mann did under his, Thomas Mann, the Nobel laureate. Since his birth in 1954, Tilman’s father Walter had declared his son “wholly unintellectual,” causing him to become a mere journalist.[3] Against his father as the unattainable standard, Tilman drove himself to excel in other ways, reaching the top of his profession. But then, perhaps excessive alcohol consumption made his wife run away with a policeman in 1983, which worsened the reporter’s alcohol problem. In March 1984, he heard of the death of the novelist Uwe Johnson, a much younger friend of his father’s, on the Isle of Sheerness. He learned that Johnson, too, had been left by his wife, Elisabeth; whether he knew that she had forsaken Johnson on account of a former lover, a Czech musicologist, whom Johnson imagined to have spied on him, is not clear. Tilman Jens decided to explore that suicide, which had been through an over-consumption of wine, to write a story for Der Stern, West Germany’s foremost illustrated magazine.  Without being authorized by its editors, he broke into the house on the British island, empty save for shards of glass from wine bottles, and absconded with the author’s notebook, from which he then published intimate passages in Der Stern. His unethical methods having been found out, he was fired by the magazine.

Walter Jens succumbed to his illness in 2013. Tilman Jens struggled on, a broken man. He contracted diabetes, the severity of which caused him so much pain that he killed himself in 2020. The circumstances of his father’s complicity with Nazism remained unresolved; inter-generational conflict had spawned both the West German student revolt and the resulting left-wing terrorism, and had created cleavages in Walter Jens’s own family.

[1] Tilman Jens, Demenz: Abschied von meinem Vater, 2nd edn (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2009), 62.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Inge Jens quoted in Willi Winkler, “Der Sohn: Zum Tod von Tilman Jens,” Die Zeit, August 2, 2020.

Michael H. Kater is Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of History at York University, Toronto, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He is the author of Culture in Nazi Germany, Weimar: From Enlightenment to the Present and Hitler Youth. Kater’s latest book, After the Nazis: The Story of Culture in West Germany, is an insightful history of West German culture as it emerged from the darkness of the Third Reich.

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