Readings from The Electric Chair

The 60th Anniversary of a Post-War Literary Guild Unites German Greats

On Sept. 10, 1947, Hans Werner Richter invited the young writers of German post-war literature to discuss the founding of a literary magazine and to present and discuss their work with colleagues. A modest beginning, this was the founding of the Gruppe 47, which united the most important literary minds in a tormented country whose recent past had left Europe with 10 million dead and whose intellectual life had been twisted to fit the ideology of the time, spreading racial propaganda and destroying the reputation and heritage of one of the greatest cultures in Europe.

At the time, Germany’s literary circles were standing on the edge of an abyss. The denazification process had filtered out the ideological elements in literary establishment, but it had also left cultural traditions scarred and uncertain. What direction was it to take? Had the corrupt elements been successfully purged? The situation was a contradiction in itself, political sensitivities that were thin skinned, perversely obliged to reapply the values of censorship to anything overtly provocative.

Yet the point of literature is to provoke thought, and navigating these hazards, and even writing at all seemed at times nearly impossible. German literature had to remove its edge, but most of all, its characteristic inwardness that had produced the immaculate works of Goethe, ETA Hoffmann, or even Herman Hesse.  Anything that exalted the national – or anything inherently German – was seen as a rehabilitation of National Socialist notions. And it was a preventive action that was all too understandable.

And thus, the founding of the Gruppe 47 was one of the most important cornerstones of European literature, giving the German cultural setting a new direction, proclaiming a new standard for German literature. It came to an abrupt end exactly twenty years later. A meeting at the Pulvermühle (Powder Mill) – a location whose name implied the impending explosion in German literature – in 1967 was to be its last regular one.

The Gruppe 47 was a liberal organization, its idea being to raise the ideal of democracy in the post-war world. Yet its political agenda was not at the center of its meetings; political discussion was banned from the ceremony and allowed only after the official meeting. The development of a new literary standard was only possible by ridding it of the burden of post-war politics and thus inhibiting any conflicts that would undoubtedly have dominated if politics had been at the center of its thinking.

The group met twice a year in the early period, as a forum for writers to present unpublished works on the “electric chair” – as the chair from which the readings were given was called, with a grant given to the writer voted as having the greatest potential. The chair was the fear of many writers. The Gruppe 47 helped promote many authors who might have otherwise remained in obscurity. In 1958, a young and widely unknown writer read a manuscript that told Oskar Matzerath who was bent on remaining a child. The writer, puzzled by the hype that met his work, read in such a determined tone that it was to give Germany’s literature a new standard. The Tin Drum turned into one of the greatest syntax innovations in twentieth century German Literature, and Günter Grass established himself as the conscience of Germany, a position that not even his revelation of serving as a young SS trainee managed to diminish.

In the late forties, early fifties, German literature was branded by a separation that had occurred between exiled literary figures who had declined to return and the ones of the Innere Emigration camp, the writers who felt it was their obligation to stay in Germany physically while deviating from the National Socialist ideology and resisting it intellectually. Additionally, the denazification process had brought Der Ruf, a magazine run by Richter and published by Alfred Andersch, that brought a spark of hope but that folded in 1949 due to explosive content. Thus Sept. 10, 1947 was a continuation of Der Ruf and a much-needed life saver thrown to the drowning German literary world.

But Grass’s confession was not the first instance of skeletons in the closet, and even in its ascendancy, the Group was speckled with controversy. Günther Eich and Freia von Wühlisch had surprises in store for them after incriminating material about their past was found. Eich’s NSDAP membership application reappeared and brought controversy. Von Wühlisch, on the other hand, fell from grace when her dissertation revealed a zealous effort to defend the nationalist ideology. Indeed von Wühlisch’s claims that the Jewish conspiracy had already spread out to the colonial territories were considered exaggerated even by the university lectors at the time.

Debate continues as to whether Paul Celan’s abrupt departure from the Group in 1952 was an indicator of the fact that Germany’s literary elite had not yet managed to dismiss the remnants of the NS past. Perhaps it was the way Celan, a concentration camp survivor whose parents died there of typhoid and exhaustion, read the Todesfuge, a piece that for him held a great emotional value – using a ceremonial tone that was incompatible with the sober and critical outlook of the Group. Celan felt the critique as a personal attack on his work and left the session the next day, never to return. The group was anchored in Realism, and Celan’s pathos was ripped apart by his colleagues. Branding the Gruppe 47 as Anti-Semitic though would be unjust. Wolfgang Hildesheimer, Ivan Nagel and Peter Weiss, to name just a few Jewish authors and critics, were all part of the Group and never experienced any complications.

Not all were welcome, though. As Günter Grass noted in an interview commemorating the sixtieth anniversary this October, Thomas Mann and many of the expatriates were never invited. “If a Thomas Mann, or someone [of his caliber] would have been invited, a hierarchy would have been established. In this way, there was a certain equality amongst the young writers.”

As the years passed, the goal of sharing insight and debate was replaced by a more competitive tone, and status seemed to take precedence over creativity and literary expression. Originally conceived as a platform for writers by writers, it became clear that equality could only exist in theory. The debates turned from objectivity to personal interest, and a guest lecture by representatives of the Group in 1966 in the US at Princeton saw an assembly of inflated celebrities walking the red carpet rather than a group of minds united for the benefit of art.

A young Peter Handke invoked the beginning of the end at Princeton, speaking out of turn and proclaiming the death of the Group’s core Realism.

“Descriptive impotence! (Beschreibungsimpotenz)” Handke called it.  The group’s agenda  had been lost to personal interest, its polemics caught in petty provocations and personal vendettas. The Pulvermühle demonstrations showed, it was time for the 47ers to make space for a new generation. After all, the democracy had been “raised.”

In 2005, Günter Grass sent out invites to young German literaries for a scheduled meeting in Lübeck. And they came. Immediately, gossip about a resurrection of the Gruppe 47 spread throughout the literary world, yet Grass played this down, defining it as a workshop rather than a ceremonial event. Going into its third year, the Lübeck 05 group is following the same principles of a literature forum that is only to be accessible to the writers. First, the debates are held behind closed doors, and later the ceremony can progress. But the Gruppe 47 will never be achieved. Grass himself wants to spare the young writers the “electric chair” ordeal.

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