It is at times like this that I really find myself missing Uwe Walter’s Antike und Abendland blog, for its insights into the world of post-war German Altertumswissenschaft. I’ve been watching a lot of German news lately, following the progress of the floods, and so heard about the death of Walter Jens at the age of 90. Not, I have to admit, a name that meant anything to me, but it became increasingly clear what an important figure he had been in the intellectual life of post-war Germany: professor of rhetoric at Tuebingen, member of the Gruppe 47 of writers, leading figure in the peace movement in the 1980s, guardian of democracy and the spirit of open debate (hence the nickname, ‘the little Voltaire of the Bundesrepublik’) – and classicist, as all the obituaries emphasised. His doctorate at Freiburg was on Sophocles’ tragedy, his Habilitation (at the age of 26!) was on Tacitus and Freedom; neither was ever published.
As with most figures of this generation – and this is where one really misses Uwe’s commentary – there are questions about his activities in the Nazi era (interestingly, emphasised more in the English than the German Wikipedia entry): he was registered as a party member from 1942 (but claimed, apparently, that he had never applied for membership, and that it must have followed automatically from his membership of the Hitler Youth; extended discussion of the issue in Die Zeit). He was excused military service as a result of severe asthma, and so continued with his studies with inevitably complex feelings:
What was to be done with an academic who had to spend quarter of his schooldays in sanatoria (and did this gladly: Kindersanatorium Schwester-Frieda-Klimsch-Stiftung, in Königsfeld in the Black Forest – a refuge, where I felt safe)? How would someone have been able to endure, who was excluded from heroism because he needed Bronchovydrin and Alludrin in high doses simply to be able to live – and who at the same time was grateful to his illness, because it saved him from marching and he never in his whole life had to take up a weapon?
It’s difficult to see the choice of Tacitus, let alone of the theme of Tacitus and freedom, as anything other than political, especially given the turn that his fictional writings took – but, not having read what Jens made of the topic, I can’t say any more. I cannot at the moment think of any reasonable excuse for spending time on further research, in the light of the number of different papers I’m supposed to be writing; what I really want is for someone to have already written a brief account of the topic…