Illustration Ragni Svensson.

Peer-reviewed articles the significance of the holocaust die ästhetik des widerstands

Peter Weiss' descriptions of the agony and torture associated with the genocide against the Jews, of the survivors’ experiences of violence, death and war, contribute substantially to breaching the taboo of the Shoah, and hence to coming to terms with the past. By invoking the dead through memory, making them speak and thus overcome death in his works, the author confronts his guilt complex and mortal fear.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Pages 15-21, Vol 1 2011
Published on on april 8, 2011

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“Since early Oct. 71, ideas for novel. At the same time worked on Hölderlin after experience in theater.”1 The first entries on Hölderlin in Weiss’s notebooks date from April, 1970. The two-act play makes no mention of the Holocaust, but contains two minor passages on death in war, and numerous sections on the theme of violence and death. Several forms of death occur continually in these sections, including beheading, stabbing, shooting, dismemberment, and crushing.

While editing Hölderlin, which had premiered in 1971, Weiss began, in March, 1972, to draft the first outlines of Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (ÄdW), which would become an amalgamation of passages illustrating violence, war, and the Holocaust. The immense importance of this theme is further underscored by the fact that there is not a single natural death in the entire ÄdW: death in this novel always occurs by violence.2 Political universalism, which Weiss had advocated and practiced since his speech “I Come Out of My Hiding Place”, becomes secondary in ÄdW to a plot that mainly examines the European state of affairs. The themes of violence, war and the Holocaust are dominated by the Second World War, the menace of its approach, and the monstrous events and incomparable atrocities that accompanied it.3 In the first volume of ÄdW, published in 1975, those unfathomable events appear only occasionally. Although Weiss describes the war scenes in particular detail compared with the subsequent volumes of ÄdW, racial persecution remains largely in the background — but is nonetheless forcefully described.4 Thus, at one point for example, Weiss describes several “men in black” who “drive prisoners before them”.5 Their brutality — doubtless that of SS men — is expressed in the blows they administer “with an iron rod”, in their mercilessness towards the victims who lie “torn, blood-drenched, thrown in rows, in heaps, on the ground”.6 Anti-Semitism also appears in another passage in the first volume of ÄdW, namely in the arrest of the anarchist Marcauer. She is the first to be arrested and eliminated because of critical remarks about the decisions of a political party. It can be no coincidence that she is of Jewish origin.

The identification of the narrator’s mother with the Jewish people, which is crucial for subsequent plot events, is no less striking. For “after she had been called a Jew several times because of her dark hair, [she had] now declared herself a Jew”.7 The mother’s adoption of the Jewish fate becomes her destiny. As early as 1937, the first-person narrator experiences the consequen-ces of her choice during one of his visits in Warnsdorf:

At the edge of town […] I heard the cries and laughter of a group of children and adolescents. At first I thought they were playing war, and I walked past them slowly, but then I noticed that a person lay between them in the gravel, emitting rasping sounds, and as I came closer I saw that it was Franz Eger, who was derided as a village idiot or a yid, a harmless, mentally retarded day laborer. He rolled with cramps, his face covered in blood, foaming at the mouth, back and forth between the adolescents, who kicked him and hit him on the head with sticks. Pushing his tormentors apart, I picked him up and carried him to the nursery […], where help came. He died, as I later heard, from his injuries.8

 The narrator only later becomes aware of the significance of this pogrom, when he observes developments in Germany from Denia, Spain: “Only now, from the outside, did we understand that the disfiguring sores of a plague had at once penetrated deep into the people’s being.”9 The murder of Franz Eger becomes a synonym for a grim future, evidence that the “plague” of fascist racial ideology is relentlessly deforming people.10

The second volume of ÄdW was published in 1972. Compared with the first volume, its treatment of war is less intensive in quantity, but similarly concentrated in quality, although new thematic elements are added.11 In particular, Weiss focuses on the following themes: As in the first volume of ÄdW, the Spanish Civil War plays an important part, followed by the artistic representation of death in war — in this case, in Brueghel’s “Dulle Griet” and “The Triumph of Death”. A new theme is death in war in connection with Brecht’s Engelbrekt adaptation, which is also examined in regard to its historic associations and sources. In the second volume of ÄdW, Weiss places the whole theme of war, which he calls an “apocalyptic storm”, more and more in the context of the Second World War, which is at first only foreshadowed, but eventually breaks out. Although at first he calls attention only to the German arms industry and its mass production of weapons, and to the impending “war of annihilation” that this suggests, as the hostilities begin and progress, Weiss points to the many casualties of the Finnish—Soviet War, as well as to the great human losses incurred in the German occupation of Scandinavia.

The Shoah on the other hand is portrayed more abstractly than in the first part of the trilogy, almost as ambiance. By repeatedly mentioning the persecution of the Jews, discussing in detail their life-threatening situation, even in neutral Sweden, and continually using terms such as “Kristallnacht”, “mass murder” and “concentration camp” in the text, Weiss communicates an image of the anti-Semitic mood that is dominant on the eve of the Second World War not only in the Third Reich, but everywhere in Europe.12 The reader receives a lasting impression of the mortal danger that is omnipresent for Jews, and also for other “non-Aryans”. Weiss makes the pogrom-like mayhem and racist allusions concrete, lending an aura to the victims of Nazism, only once: in the first-person narrator’s febrile delirium, he condenses the expression of the unutterable — the Holocaust — in the figure of the narrator’s mother.

I didn’t know where my mother had gone, just now she had been holding my hand […] a terrible uncertainty arose about where I might have lost her, maybe she had been taken away, I only heard cries and wailing, people hurried past, there was a crash as if windows had been smashed, the crowd drove a woman before it, they had hung a sign around her neck with the legend Jidd, in Hebrew-style lettering, maybe it was my mother, I fought my way through the press, but the woman was no longer in sight.13

The narrator not only internalizes the mother’s voluntary Jewishness, which was already mentioned in the first volume of ÄdW, but goes a step further: through the use of alarm words like “taken away” (“verschleppt”) and “cries and wailing”, and by suggesting violence (“windows . . . smashed”) and race hatred, visualized in the form of the “Jidd” sign, the narrator underscores the danger of murder that any Jewish identification brings with it, and the uncertain fate of his mother in his delirious vision foreshadows the catastrophe of the Jewish people. Weiss’s description of the defamation and persecution of Jews, set against the sinister atmosphere of fear evoked by numerous associations suggesting mass murder, symbolizes the genocide perpetrated against the Jews.

The narrator also links his own fate with that of the Jewish people. Thus he recounts a few pages later: “I ran anyway […] until I found a wagon with a sign that told me my destination […] it had already been determined where I was to go; I had merely forgotten the name of the city.”14 The allusion to Auschwitz as the “destination” (“Bestimmungsort”), a term Weiss had used before in Meine Ortschaft, demonstrates how strongly the author associates autobiographical details with his first-person narrator. In the third volume of ÄdW, it is not the narrator, but his mother who foresees the destruction of the Jewish people. Weiss anticipates this scene in the notebooks: ”But my mother had another power that I was not able to describe at this time.”15 And the notebooks contain clearer, more drastic descriptions of the Shoah. Weiss recounts, for example, the brutality of a Catholic priest who beats Jewish children seeking help; the expulsion, expropriation, torture, and murder of Jews from Poland and Czechoslovakia; and victims forced to “dig their own graves”.16 At the same time, Weiss presents the first precise characterization of the narrator’s mother: her sensitivity and prudence, her integrity and rationality, her lifelong struggle against social injustice and political delusions and the related desire “to preserve a kind of purity”, her solidarity with victims, her deep resignation in the face of the overwhelming Nazi terror.17 The narrator’s mother suffers a psychological shock, becoming physically numb and mute, as described in detail as a central theme of the third volume of ÄdW. This effect follows a conception that Weiss anticipated in his notebooks:18

My mother’s face, big, blunt, worn down by the images hammering against it, a brittle, crumbling, eyeless, stone mask — where had I seen it — this silent cry, these outstretched hands beside it, just a lump, without fingers, protruding from the earth — her son fell under the snake’s bite — 19

His “mother’s face” reminds the narrator of the frieze on the Pergamon Altar, of the Earth-mother goddess Gaea, and of her dying son Alcyoneus. In the “stone” face of the gigantic goddess, the narrator discovers the reflection of his mother and a revelation of her premature, unexpected death. Her departure from chronological time — her paralysis, which connects her in a symbolic way with the mythological Gaea — reflects an inner petrifaction that begins to express itself outwardly:

Seeing mother again. She stares straight ahead blindly. Eyes wide open, mouth open. Face of shock. She sees one great catastrophe — no words for it yet.20

The mother’s will to live is overcome by the unnamable “catastrophe”, which is inconceivable in words or in rational thought, although its facts are identifiable with the atrocities of the Second World War, and also with the genocide of the Jews. Her petrifaction — her complete withdrawal from life — becomes a metaphor for the capacity of communication that is lost in the face of horror.21 The mass annihilation that is systematically connected with her character especially in the third volume of ÄdW makes her a symbolic figure “that bears all of human suffering, and is broken by it”.22

Suffering, death and mortal fear, pain and destruction especially dominate the third and last part of ÄdW, published in 1981. Of the three volumes, the third describes most forcefully the destruction of war, its terrible devastation and countless victims. In the third volume of ÄdW, Weiss develops the subject of war in a very different way, as a survey demonstrates: In one detailed passage, he defines the history of humanity as one of death and war in which progress means more modern ways of dying. Weiss further underscores the recurring theme of death in war and its accompanying devastation by mentioning numbers of war victims. Calling the war a “massacre”, he also sets it in relation to the First World War, which he characterizes, like the Second, as a “war of annihilation”. The high losses in the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union, already mentioned in the second volume of ÄdW, are again the topic of political discussions. The descriptions of war culminate and end in the explosion of the atomic bomb over Japan, which magnifies the notion of death in war exponentially.23

The Holocaust theme too is developed most forcefully in Volume III — mainly through the character of the narrator’s mother. Weiss takes up the thread of the plot that was closely intertwined with her character in the first two parts of the novel, and continues it, stylizing the mother into a medium for the representation of violence, death and destruction, and presenting the perfectly organized mass murder to the reader indirectly, through her dying visions.24 This significant association originates in the mother’s identification with the victims of expulsion and persecution, which is the initial event of her seven-day imprisonment in a jail in Ostrava during her flight through Eastern Europe:

My mother felt the dense warmth, she was one of these sweating bodies, she gripped one of the hot hands, grasped its fingers, and as the hands clutched each other, her face pressed against a damp cheek. Arms, breasts, hips, shaggy beards, a mass of limbs, pounding hearts, rushing breaths, and the fact that she was amidst them gave her strength. The foul emanation was a flourishing to her, she drew in the smell deeply, she lived in this organism, she would never want to leave this enclosure, a separation would be her downfall, her destruction.25

Die Ermittlung contains a precursor to this passage in ÄdW. There Weiss tells of a girl who is pulled out of a heap of bodies by a male prisoner. Asked why she is lying among the dead, she answers, “I can’t be among the living anymore”.26 The parallel between the narrator’s mother and this young woman is evident: both feel closer to the dead than to the living.

However, the narrator’s mother’s “separation” from the “sweating bodies” is predetermined; her security is transitory. While the Jewish merchants and tradesmen, women and children are deported to a camp, her German ethnicity saves her from the gas chamber. The mother’s feeling of belonging, and most of all her quality as an eyewitness to the industrialized killing, evoke a feeling of impotence, grief, and shock in her: “She had been a witness […] she had seen how they [the Nazis] counted on their fingers, ever faster, how their hands made signs, all through the night.”27 The genocide, ceaselessly advancing, taking on inconceivable dimensions, is recorded not only with bureaucratic correctness, but also with mathematical precision. The ever faster counting on fingers is no longer sufficient for the tremendous “numbers that so confuse […] with their inexhaustible quantities, these numbers of people who, across all the landscapes of the earth, migrated towards their death”.28 The knowledge of the endless genocide, the incessantly rising numbers of victims that remain abstract because they “became more shapeless […] than millions”29 weighs so heavily on the mother’s psyche that she can only process what she has experienced — her unique, traumatic experiences of inconceivable horror — as a vision, in a kind of “psychic mimesis”30:

[L]ittle mounds were thrown up everywhere and burst, and heads popped up out of them, and shoulders, and torsos, out of which arms stretched upward, drawing hips and legs after them, she [the mother] wept over all of this, over the countless people who, as far as the eye could see, rose up out of the earth, […] the faces pale, the skin torn, often not distinguishable whether it was flesh or cloth, and all of them were alive […] who rose up into the air out of the inside of the earth, who had removed themselves, all these exposed or barely clothed women, these naked children with their protruding ribs, their thin little legs, the men full of black spots, their rags fluttering around them.31

Their state of their bodies and clothes suggests that the people described here are concentration camp prisoners who were gassed to death. In the hope of divine justice, the narrator’s mother sees in her hallucination the resurrection of all the victims of senseless murder, the return to life of all the victims of persecution killed in malice. She who had seen fascism from the beginning as a deadly “plague”32 cannot put the Holocaust into words. It is this fact, the Holocaust that cannot be verbalized, that leads to her death. That the consequence of her silence can only be death is clear if we recall Weiss’s text “Laokoon oder Über die Grenzen der Sprache”, in which he writes: “To be outside a language meant to die.”33 After her death, the narrator confirms that his mother was aware of the danger of Nazism early on: “One day it would be possible to describe what had happened to my mother, she saw it all coming, while we only experienced her falling mute, she must have known already what was in store for us when the masses were cheering the murderers.”34 As the genocide casts its spell over the mother, making her literally “speechless” and hence a successor to Hölderlin, the genocide itself becomes the “unspeakable”.35 Weiss himself indicates in the notebooks that Hölderlin, silent in his tower, can be seen as a precursor of the narrator’s mother.36 The mother’s lapse into silence — in the mental disorder that Weiss had previously conceived in his notebooks37 — is revealed as an alternative to the verbalization of terror, as a counterexample to Dante. Whereas the wanderer in Hades survives unharmed the confrontation with the terrible, and even sets his experiences down in writing, the narrator’s mother is paralyzed in speechless horror after her ingenuous look into the face of the Medusa — a human reaction often portrayed in Brueghel’s paintings.38 Like the writer Karin Boye, the mother is overwhelmed by pain; she cannot stand the inconceivable horror; she cannot accept her own failure. In Boye’s case, “failure” refers to her initial enthusiasm for Nazism; for the narrator’s mother, the unbearable failure is her powerlessness, the fact that she did not help the victims of persecution, did nothing to save them when it was possible.39 In the face of horror, Boye and the narrator’s mother remain steadfast in the sense that they do not switch off their consciousness, but in confronting the ultimate experience of death they lose their anesthesia. Like the painter Géricault, who gave up the “cold” vision that was necessary for his aesthetic production, Boye and the narrator’s mother also succumb to what they observe, and they too die a delayed death. In the political context, the delayed moment of death allows a remembrance of those who died before. The last moment before the catastrophe, held and drawn out to eternity, is saved from oblivion. The postponement of death can thus be seen as an artistic technique employed in support of Mnemosyne.

The character Lotte Bischoff also knows the “pain of parting”40 and loss. Unlike Géricault, Boye, and the narrator’s mother, Bischoff resists the terror and takes action to interrupt the continuity of the catastrophe. Her resistance symbolizes hope; her survival guarantees remembrance: thanks to her memory, the dead are not forgotten. The narrator too wants to commemorate all events and all of his departed friends, namely through the novel he plans to write. Towards the end of the third volume, he outlines the project in more detail:

They [the fallen resistance fighters] had concealed themselves using codes and assumed names. If I were to describe what I experienced among them, they would retain that obscurity. In writing, I would try to make them more familiar to me. […] By my writing I would make them speak. I would write what they never told me. I would ask them what I never asked. I would given them, who went in secret, their true names again. […] Day and night they would accompany me.41

Thus, in contrast to his mother, the first-person narrator deals dynamically and practically with his memories. She stops, mute, freezing her memories, but he practices remembrance actively in the form of literature. In doing so, he also becomes a bearer of remembrance, analogous to Lotte Bischoff. Yet the two main characters cannot be the medium that illustrates the Shoah, since they would then be destroyed by it. And they must survive — like Dante in the Divine Comedy — to bear witness to their experiences. Hence Weiss assigns the part of suffering and dying to the narrator’s mother. By splitting the experience of death, so that the narrator evokes the aspect of anesthesia while his mother evokes the aspect of empathy and compassion, Weiss illustrates Dante’s “method of duality”.

The memory bearer Bischoff keeps all the names and dates of her comrades-in-arms in a little “notebook that she always buries again under the raspberry bushes”42 to keep it safe from the war and the Nazis. Like the memorial plaque that Bischoff imagines, which would list all the names of those murdered to save them from anonymity, the fact that she wants to work as a teacher after the war in order to teach her students about the full meaning of the murdered resistance fighters, to anchor them in the students’ memory, underscores yet again her functional significance in Weiss’s work of remembrance. For Bischoff, Mnemosyne has a positive value, as the knowledge of the past is a fundamental requirement for a better future: “But if she wanted to face the past, she wanted to do so of her own volition; she didn’t want to be half senseless and overwhelmed.”43 Bischoff remains free in spite of her sinister memories, whereas the narrator’s mother is absorbed by her memory to the point of physical paralysis.44 Thus Weiss lets two very different female characters bear the main burden of his literary work of memory: Lotte Bischoff, the unassuming communist who keeps the memory of the murdered political activists alive, and the narrator’s mother, dying under the shock of what she has witnessed, who recalls and remembers the Holocaust and its victims in her visions. These two protagonists transform ÄdW into the author’s intended space of memory. Yet it is only Lotte Bischoff, not the narrator’s mother, who benefits from the “rescuing” function of memory — a conceptual construct that Weiss borrows from Walter Benjamin.45 The mother’s memories of the dead, based on her identification, become a trauma. The closeness of the connection Weiss feels to the narrator’s mother, the extent to which she embodies his own responses to the Shoah — horror, shock, grief, incomprehension — is illustrated by Weiss’s reaction in an interview with Burkhardt Lindner in which he refuses to give further information on his conception of the characters: “To me, the character of the mother and that of the father are figures that I don’t want to analyze at all.”46 Withdrawal is an expression of deep compassion, and after all, Weiss projects into his female protagonist the same emotional ties to the victims, the same identification with the Jews that he had been unable to attain. In this way, the narrator’s mother allows Weiss to achieve two things: first, a deferred identification with his own Jewish heritage on a literary, fictional level, and second, a written form of the “cold” view, manifested in the representation of the Holocaust.47

Although Weiss’s mental engagement with the Shoah finds expression primarily in the narrator’s mother, ÄdW also contains numerous other passages that describe the genocide, sometimes intensively and in detail, sometimes superficially and selectively. For example, Weiss repeatedly drops the names of concentration camps and death camps,48 mentions the “annihilation of people” and “mass murders”49 in the East, and the anti-Semitism that has persisted since the Middle Ages.50 Occasionally these passages refer simply to “the camp” without further geographical information, or use the Polish place name “Oświęcim” for the Auschwitz death camp. More detailed passages deal with the persecution of the Jews and their treatment during the transport:

[N]ow, on a Sabbath, soldiers rounded up the Jews, the Rabbi did not interrupt his prayer of consecration, the soldiers knocked the Torah out of his hands, he went on singing, the men’s broad-brimmed black hats were knocked off, they were dragged to the ground by their hair, and the singing went on, they were thrown onto a truck, men and women, old people and children.51

Another passage that forcefully describes the maltreatment of the Jews reads as follows:

The inhabitants had indifferently turned away from their victims, who were being driven onto the trucks with rifle butts, these worried victims, with their miserable bundles, these bewildered old people, these women’s white faces, these children who no longer dared to cry, and the indifference had never looked to him [the Swedish engineer Nyman, who is recounting his experiences in Germany] like apathy, but only a sign of a general convention. 52

Overnight, the victims become the “lowest of the low, […] robbed of any claim, of any dignity, existing only in a world of loading yards, transport routes, transfer points and transit camps”,53 they go unsuspecting to their destruction, subjecting themselves to that murderous, contemptuous violence that defies all rationality, all logic. Their complete subordination to the situation — leaving aside some exceptions — their lack of resistance to the Nazi killing machinery “that divided them up, separated them from one another, counted them, destined them to slower or faster elimination”,54 is particularly fatal in that it scars them, mentally and physically. In the eyes of the perpetrators they have “already become numbers”55; in the face of their fate they become dull both inside and out:

These people, who still carried with them memories of their own lives, were already beginning to stumble like blind people, in the eyes of hidden observers they were nothing more than a herd to be slaughtered off as cheaply as possible. These streams that advanced, creeping, shuffling eastward through the flourishing landscapes […], rolling […] towards the flood.56

In a few sentences Weiss communicates an impression of the change taking place in the Holocaust victims. The loss of their earlier lives, their identities, their concept of the world, even their memories, which they conserve at first, before they fade after a short time through the experience of death and torture — their loss leads to a dehumanization of unknown proportions that shapes day-to-day life in the Third Reich. The eyewitness report of the engineer Nyman, who has returned from Germany to Sweden in 1941, illustrates the shock with which outsiders react to the racism that is tangible everywhere and expressed without restraint:

The division between the perpetrators and their acts was most clearly visible to him, he said, when he met one of the outcasts who was walking along like a sleepwalker, the identifying sign over his heart, staring straight ahead, below the curb, dragging his own death along with him in a wave of indifference; he felt as if the earth must open up, but everything went on as usual, on the pavement […] they all stuck together, didn’t let anything disturb them, this one person wandering around here was just a shadow, nothing to do with them.57

The years of harassment wear the victims down until they await their own death, their impending liquidation, indifferently. The inconceivability of the fate that is reserved for them transforms them into fatalists incapable of action, into living dead.58 In his notebooks, Weiss explains how a large part of the Jewish population was transformed into living dead as follows:

[W]hen one has been so degraded, deprived of oneself, of everything that was of value to one, when one is so worn down, so utterly fatigued, then one not only longs for death, then one no longer asks, then one only follows the last, the very last impulse, finally to come to rest —. 59

In the character of the writer Karin Boye, Weiss illustrates how non-Jews “cannot fully grasp how far the persecution of the Jews goes”.60 Her incomprehension in regard to the effect of the anti-Semitism propagated by the Nazis is based on the conviction “that a racial idea cannot attain dominance over people’s thinking to drive the majority into senselessly hounding a minority.”61 Only later does she recognize the danger that the fascists and their racial doctrine represent.

Finally, Weiss’s most detailed and most forceful treatment of the Holocaust is his description of the mass murder carried out in assembly-line fashion. Here again, he presents the events as reported by the Swede Nyman. Having learned of the mechanical “extermination […] of the Jewish race” from Count von Seydlitz,62 the engineer Nyman becomes a medium, like the narrator’s mother before him, transposing violence, death, and destruction. Nyman’s resolute account of the details entrusted to him, the bluntness of his almost ruthless description of the smoothly functioning genocide, recalls the execution scenes in Plötzensee:

[T]hey are led into sealed wagons, after their clothes have been taken from them […]. The people stand in them packed together […]. Their faces stretch upward, where a little hatch is opened. Close together, these white, upturned faces, their eyes wide open in fear. The children hang on their mothers. […] The can [of poison] is emptied over them. A cloud of gray dust. They begin to cough, clutch at their throats, gasp for breath, they climb on one another, claw at the walls, a press of bodies, turned blue, in convulsions, splattered with vomit, with excrement, that goes on for up to five minutes, another quarter of an hour is allowed, then the ventilation begins, they lie so entangled that they have to be broken apart with bars.63

Unlike the mother’s dying visions, Nyman’s account is extremely concrete. He presents his listener — and the reader — the minute details of the gassing process, elucidating the infernal system that has replaced the previous “random slaughter”,64 making a genocide possible on a scale beyond anything that has gone before. We already know from the play Die Ermittlung that mortal fear and the physical suffering of the victims plays a key role: in that work Weiss already focused sharply on the victims’ state of mind just before their death. Indeed Weiss seems to have taken the text of the play as his guide in writing Nyman’s account, for he mentions both the gas Zyklon B, developed by the “Deutsche Gesellschaft für Schädlingsbekämpfung” (German Pest Extermination Company),65 and the connection between mass murder and industry, which went hand in hand in the Third Reich. Most of all, the “industrial” genocide, for which the whole society is responsible, is incessantly shocking to Weiss. Accordingly, his treatment of the Holocaust closes with this theme:

Krupp, IG Farben, and many of the largest industrial firms had built factories beside the camps in which those inmates who had strength left were to be utilized right up to the end. They were integrated in the national economic plan in that everything they had, even their hair and their gold fillings, was taken from them.66

Motivated by his half-Jewish status, Weiss begins to examine his Jewish roots in his autobiographically tinted writings. From the beginning, his interest is in a secularized Jewishness; he is never really interested in the religious issue. Fluchtpunkt contains Weiss’s first explicit declaration of being Jewish, yet without truly feeling like a Jew. Although the images and writings presented above bear witness to an inner discussion and evaluation both in regard to his own Jewish identity and in regard to his general relation to Judaism, this inner debate leaves no deep artistic traces until 1961–1962. The author does not document his own position until Fluchtpunkt. After a visit to Auschwitz, Weiss realizes that no identification with his Jewish origins is possible. The text Meine Ortschaft, written shortly after the tour of Auschwitz, becomes a literary testimony to a failed attempt at belonging. In the knowledge that he does not belong, and driven by his universalist political commitment, which has begun in the intervening years, Weiss modifies the aesthetic agenda of his representations of the Holocaust. From this point on, the focus is on the continuity of the fascist structures in post-war German society and the industrial exploitation of the victims. From Inferno to Die Ermittlung and ÄdW, Weiss denounces economic interests behind the mass murder again and again. His descriptions of the agony and torture associated with the genocide against the Jews, of the survivors’ experiences of violence, death and war, contribute substantially to breaching the taboo of the Shoah, and hence to coming to terms with the past. Yet without the poetic method of Mnemosyne, Weiss’s historic treatment — in particular Die Ermittlung — would have been unthinkable. By invoking the dead through memory, making them speak and thus overcome death in his works, the author confronts his guilt complex and mortal fear.67 The mnestic technique is thus a concealed focus of Weiss’s artistic concept, as a technique of representation that serves to pass on history, that fosters the verbalization of the “cold” gaze, and that gives the victims their names again:

These dead leave no written testament, and rarely a name; we cannot pay them our last respects, we cannot console their widows and orphans. […] We can only finish dreaming their dreams.68 ≈

Die Ästhetik des Widerstands. Vol. I [1975],
Vol. II [1978], Vol. III [1981]. Frankfurt 1988.

Die Ermittlung. [1965]. Frankfurt 1991.

Fluchtpunkt. [1962]. Frankfurt 1973.


Inferno: Stück und Materialien. Frankfurt [2003].

Nb I
Notizbücher 1960–1971 (2 vols.). Frankfurt [1982].


Notizbücher 1971–1980 (2 vols.). Frankfurt [1981].

“Meine Ortschaft” in: Rapporte. Frankfurt 1991.

R 1
Rapporte. Frankfurt 1991.

St II/2
Stücke II, vol 2: Hölderlin, Trotzki im Exil,
Der Prozeß. Frankfurt [1977].


  1.  Nb II, p. 41.
  2. On death in war, see St II/2, pp. 335, 389. On death by vio-
    lence, see ibid., pp. 279, 287, 291ff., 295, 327, 342, 364, 368, 370, 377f., 385. On Weiss’s Hölderlin notes, see Nb I, pp. 723–733, 739–777; Nb II, pp. 10–13, 20, 27ff., 32–36, 39.
  3. This essay is devoted specifically to a detailed examination of those passages that refer to the Holocaust. Space does not permit an analysis or interpretation of all passages on the theme of violence. A separate study would be necessary to deal adequately with the great number of such passages. The passages on war in ÄdW are likewise so numerous that they can only be mentioned summarily in footnotes.
  4. The war scenes in the first volume of ÄdW can be classified as follows: Besides general observations on death in war (pp. 43f., 48, 72, 329), death in the Spanish Civil War is mentioned most frequently (pp. 156, 206, 234, 245, 269, 279, 281, 285, 300, 304, 306, 320). But Weiss also includes descriptions of death in war as represented in works of art, such as Picasso’s  “Guernica”, Rousseau’s “War”, Goya’s “Execution of the Rebels”, and the Arezzo frescoes (pp. 84ff., 332–337, 340, 345 f, 348f.). There are analogous passages in the notebooks which mention or supplement the passages in ÄdW: For general statements about death in war, see Nb II, pp. 52, 54, 163. On death in the Vietnam War, see ibid., pp. 90f. On death in the Spanish Civil War see ibid., pp. 129, 333. On representations of war in art, such as Rousseau’s “War”, Vereshchagin’s “Apotheosis of War”, and the Mamayev monument, see ibid., pp. 184, 345, 356f. On the war dead in Russia, see ibid., pp. 354, 358f., 378.
  5. ÄdW I, p. 94.
  6. Ibid. The passage ends with the words: “No denial could dissolve the heaps of dead on the field” (ibid., p. 95).
  7. Ibid., p. 189. Magnus Bergh sees the mother’s voluntary Jewishness as a central motif: “What in reality was a concealed Jewish heritage on his paternal side is transformed in the novel into an affirmed Jewish maternal heritage — and one that results from a free, existential choice” (Magnus Bergh, “Die Kristalle von Peter Weiss: Ein verborgenes Muster in der ‘Ästhetik des Widerstands’ und in den autobiographischen Texten”, in Michael Hofmann et al. (eds.), Peter Weiss Jahrbuch, vol. 12, 2003, p. 61). Michael Hofmann interprets the mother’s solidarity will all the victims of persecution as an alternative to the narrator’s father’s rational-universalist concept. As the principal female character, the mother illustrates, in Hofmann’s words, “that the memory of the Shoah must be fashioned not by the means of rational, didactic discourse, but by the poetic, literary realization of existential experiences” (“Antifaschismus und poetische Erinnerung: Überlegungen zu Peter Weiss’ Ästhetik des Widerstands”, in Rainer Koch et al. (eds.), Peter Weiss Jahrbuch, vol. 3, 1994, p. 126). For Gwang-Hun Moon, the fact that the narrator’s mother identifies absolutely with all the victims of persecution is the most prominent evidence of her “moral-ethical” character (Gwang-Hun Moon, “Schreiben als Anders-Lesen”: Avantgardismus, Politik und Kultursemantik in Peter Weiss’ Roman “Die Ästhetik des Widerstands”, Frankfurt 1999, p. 245).
  8. Ibid. A notebook entry indicates how incomprehensible anti-Semitism is to Weiss: “What are the Jews really? I have no idea. Differences from others are attributed to them” (Nb II, p. 58). In this context, Berthold Brunner correctly states: “Again and again the author, as the notebooks show, examines what the attribute ‘Jew’ means; Peter Weiss has never really adopted the appellation for himself” (Berthold Brunner, “Peter Weiss und das ‘Inferno’: Über ein unveröffentlichtes Stück, die ‘Ermittlung’ und das Verhältnis zu Nachkriegsdeutschland — eine Auseinandersetzung mit den Interpretationen von Christoph Weiß”, in Michael Hofmann et al. (eds.), Peter Weiss Jahrbuch, vol. 11, 2002, p. 71).
  9. Ibid., p. 301.
  10. At the same time, it deforms the terminology of their lan-guage. On the effects of Nazism on the German language, see Nb II, p. 72.
  11. In the notebooks, Weiss mentions the theme of war — while writing the second volume of ÄdW — in only one relatively unimportant passage (Nb II, p. 409), in which he briefly summarizes the experiences of a war veteran.
  12. These passages are found on the following pages in ÄdW II: On the persecution of Jews, pp. 55, 90f., 113f., 136, 320; on the situation of Jewish families in Sweden, p. 91; on the Kristallnacht pogrom, p. 90; on “mass murder”, p. 55; on “concentration camps”, pp. 250, 324.
  13. ÄdW II, p. 76. Drafts of this scene are also found in the notebooks: see Nb II, pp. 474, 478. Magnus Bergh shows that this dream is a covert allusion to the Rue des Rosiers in Paris, and sees that “Jewish street” as a “concealed center” of the first-person narrator (Magnus Bergh, op. cit., p. 62). See also Magnus Bergh, “Wofür wir keinen Namen hatten: Der geheime Teil von Peter Weiss’ Autobiographie in der Ästhetik des Widerstands”. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, March 4, 2000, p. 4.
  14. ÄdW II, p. 77.
  15. Nb II, p. 403. On the mother’s voluntary Jewishness and her feeling of belonging, see ibid., p. 597.
  16. Nb II, pp. 459, 566, 600. Weiss includes some of these notebook entries in the third volume of ÄdW: see ÄdW III, pp. 15f. In this connection, Weiss’s comments on the very different treatment of the Nazi period in East and West Germany are also interesting: see Nb II, p. 642.
  17. Ibid., pp. 576f.
  18. Julia Hell argues persuasively that the physical effects of the narrator’s mother’s experience of the Holocaust are a representation of historic experience: “The mother’s knowledge is a bodily knowledge produced in an act of identification. [...] What Weiss establishes here is [...] a nexus between writing, body, and voice whereby the body of the Jewish mother functions as the site of authenticity, as the very guarantee of authentic historical knowledge.” Julia Hell, “From Laokoon to Ge: Resistance to Jewish Authorship in Peter Weiss’s Ästhetik des Widerstands”, in Jost Hermand & Marc Silberman (eds.), Rethinking Peter Weiss, New York 2000, p. 35.
  19. Nb II, p. 568. A very early note dates from 1972: “The mother ends up in severe psychosis, imagines she’s a Jew, in the concentration camp, dies insane” (ibid., p. 163). On the development of the narrator’s mother in the notebooks, see Michael Hofmann, op. cit., p. 130ff.
  20. Nb II, p. 596. As early as February 1975, Weiss writes from the point of view of the first-person narrator of ÄdW about the narrator’s mother’s physical state: “Earlier, my mother used to succumb to apathy at times” (ibid., p. 403). Because the narrator’s mother — in spite of her aphasia and paralysis — occasionally communicates by a minimal form of body and sign language, Gwang-Hun Moon sees her body as a “memorial” and “reflection” of the traumas she has experienced: see Gwang-Hun Moon, op. cit., pp. 238f., 250–254.
  21. In her study of the play Die Ermittlung, Marita Meyer finds that the mimetic reaction of silence, falling mute, is a behavior specific to women, which Weiss developed — according to Meyer’s plausible thesis — in Die Ermittlung and later perfected in the figure of the mother in ÄdW (Marita Meyer, Eine Ermittlung: Fragen an Peter Weiss und die Literatur des Holocaust, St. Ingbert 2000, pp. 70ff., 170). Jens Birkmeyer very aptly compares the mother’s speechlessness with the attitude of Laocoön: “Like Laocoön, the mother has given up her voice under the crushing burden of the outward dangers, yet the stifled cry of desperation is preserved in the silent, deathly world of images” (Jens Birkmeyer, Bilder des Schreckens: Dantes Spuren und die Mythosrezeption in Peter Weiss’ Roman “Die Ästhetik des Widerstands”, Wiesbaden 1994, p. 284).
  22. Nb II, p. 635. To Gwang-Hun Moon, the narrator’s mother not only develops “into a symbol of humanity suffering under fascism, but also of oppressed women, who have been destroyed for millennia by the violence of the patriarchal system, and hence for the whole ‘history of humanity’ as ‘a history of murder’” (Gwang-Hun Moon, op. cit., p. 248). For Ingeborg Gerlach, it is primarily the women in ÄdW who realize the “full extent of the terror” (Ingeborg Gerlach, “Über die politische Verbindlichkeit von Literatur: Die Kontroverse zwischen Weiss, Enzensberger und Johnson, und was daraus wurde”, Diskussion Deutsch, 15:79 [1984], p. 513). Alfons Söllner sees the death of the narrator’s mother as a logical consequence. Because the Holocaust “cannot be expiated, the rescue of the mother cannot succeed; her later death functions as a vicarious, symbolic act of atonement for real crimes that cannot be atoned for” (Alfons Söllner, “Kritik totaler Herrschaft: Rationalität und Irrationalität in Peter Weiss’
    ‘Ästhetik des Widerstands’”, in Christa Bürger (ed.), Zerstörung, Rettung des Mythos durch Licht, Frankfurt 1986, p. 191). In the diary text Gespräch in einem Raum, the mother of the protagonist Jörn also dies a postponed death. The process of her death is strongly reminiscent of that of the narrator’s mother in ÄdW (Peter Weiss, “Gespräch in einem Raum”, in Michael Hofmann et al. (eds.), Peter Weiss Jahrbuch, vol. 7, 1998, p. 15ff.). On the function of memory as “memory of suffering”, see Ulrich Engel, “‘Gedenke dessen, was sie dir in Auschwitz angetan haben’: Peter Weiss’ Oratorium ‘Die Ermittlung’ und Luigi Nonos Komposition”, in Michael Hofmann et al. (eds.), Peter Weiss Jahrbuch, vol. 12, 2003, pp. 94f.
  23. There are sections in the notebooks that recall, augment or, as in the case of the Vietnam War, anticipate the themes of these passages in ÄdW: on numbers of war victims, see Nb II, pp. 658, 816, 867, 894; on the war of annihilation in Vietnam see ibid., pp. 822, 826, 830, 832f.; on death in the war see ibid. pp. 856, 894. The notebook passage illustrating death in war (Nb II, p. 856) is used in a modified form in ÄdW (ÄdW III, p. 130).
  24. The narrator’s mother’s dying visions reflecting the Holocaust are thematically associated with sand and snow, elements of death: see ÄdW III, pp. 7, 10f., 18, 124. Weiss describes the mother’s illness, her mental disorder and her accompanying physical deterioration in detail and through multiple points of view, including those of the first-person narrator, the father figure, Hodann and Karin Boye: see ÄdW III, pp. 7–22, 129–134.
  25. ÄdW III, p. 12. On the initial experience of the narrator’s mother in Ostrava, see also Nb II, p. 763. Michael Hofmann attributes primary importance to the warmth that the narrator’s mother feels among the victims of persecution. He sees the physical experience as the expression of a “sensual experience”, namely one of belonging: ”[T]he mother identifies herself physically with her fellow sufferers, and links her own existence and identity to that of the other members of this group” (Michael Hofmann, Ästhetische Erfahrung in der historischen Krise: Eine Untersuchung zum Kunst- und Literaturverständnis in Peter Weiss’ Roman “Die Ästhetik des Widerstands”, Bonn 1990, p. 245).
  26. E, p. 40.
  27. ÄdW III, p. 130. On the narrator’s mother as witness, see ibid., p. 32. Martin Jürgens and Peter Kamp see the “labor of remembering”, as performed for example by Lotte Bischoff, the narrator’s mother or the narrator himself, as an expression of a “capacity for perception” that remains “irreconcilable” in ÄdW because of the horrors described in the novel (Martin Jürgens and Peter Kamp, “Der spanische Bürgerkrieg in Peter Weiss’ Ästhetik des Widerstands”, in Internationale Peter-Weiss-Gesellschaft (ed.), Ästhetik, Revolte und Widerstand im Werk von Peter Weiss: Dokumentation zu den Peter-Weiss-Tagen in der Kampnagel-Fabrik Hamburg [November 4th-13rd, 1988] Mit Ergänzungsband, pp. 141, 150). Marita Meyer states: “What has mortally wounded the mother in innermost being is, even more than the suffering of the victims, the inhumanity of the perpetrators. These perpetrators take pleasure in causing suffering” (op. cit., p. 84).
  28. Ibid., p. 47.
  29. Ibid., p. 14. Hodann later discusses the generally “incomplete” numbers of victims (ibid., p. 246). On numbers of victims, see also Nb II, pp. 684, 790.
  30. Söllner, Alfons. “Widerstand gegen die Verdrängung; Peter Weiss und die deutsche Zeitgeschichte”, in Gunilla Palmstierna-Weiss & Jürgen Schutte (eds.), Peter Weiss: Leben und Werk, Frankfurt 1991, p. 272.
  31. ÄdW III, p. 36. On the mother’s vision of resurrection, see Ulrich Engel, Umgrenzte Leere: Zur Praxis einer politisch-theologischen Ästhetik im Anschluss an Peter Weiss’ Romantrilogie „Die Ästhetik des Widerstands“, Münster 1998, pp. 267f. On the narrator’s mother’s apathy caused by the confrontation with terror, see also Nb II, p. 792.
  32. Ibid., pp. 15f.
  33. R 1, pp. 182f.
  34. ÄdW III, p. 135. On the narrator’s mother’s prescience, see also Nb II, pp. 763, 782, 793, 808, 855.
  35. ÄdW III, p. 19. On the “unspeakability” of the genocide, see ibid., pp. 32, 148f.
  36. Nb II, p. 790.
  37. See the remarks on the second volume of ÄdW above.
  38. The speechlessness and shock of witnesses in the face of horror is apparent in Brueghel’s painting “The Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem”.
  39. ÄdW III, pp. 28, 31. In regard to Boye and her early error in cheering Nazism, Christa Bürger writes: “This alone, the fact that it also recognizes the suffering of those who had been seduced, indicates the importance of mourning in Die Ästhetik des Widerstands” (Christa Bürger, “Arbeit an der Geschichte”, in Karl Heinz Bohrer (ed.), Mythos und Moderne: Begriff und Bild einer Rekonstruktion, Frankfurt 1983, pp. 503). On the relation between Karin Boye and the narrator’s mother, see Carol Poore, “Mother Earth, Melancholia, and Mnemosyne: Women in Peter Weiss’s ‘Die Ästhetik des Widerstands’”, The German Quarterly, vol. 58:1, Winter 1985, pp. 73f., 81, and Manon Delisle, Weltuntergang ohne Ende: Ikonographie und Inszenierung der Katastrophe bei Christa Wolf, Peter Weiss und Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Würzburg 2001, pp. 155ff.
  40. ÄdW III, p. 231. The full passage reads: “For this parting [i.e. from loved ones] there was no consolation. And at this parting, no fault, no guilt could endure. Only the pain remained.”
  41. ÄdW III, pp. 265f.
  42. ÄdW III, p. 223. On the stone memorial plaque and its mnestic function, see Alexander Honold, “Das Gedächtnis der Bilder: Zur Ästhetik der Memoria bei Peter Weiss”, in Alexander Honold & Ulrich Schreiber (eds.), Die Bilderwelt des Peter Weiss, Hamburg 1995, pp. 107f. On the significance of Lotte Bischoff as a conservator of memories, see Dietmar Ebert, “Die ‘Divina Commedia’ in der Ästhetik des Widerstands: Eine neue Kultur an der Grenzscheide zweier Epochen?”, in Internationale Peter-Weiss-Gesellschaft (ed.), Ästhetik, Revolte und Widerstand im Werk von Peter Weiss, p. 92. On the importance of names and lists of names in ÄdW, see Marita Meyer, op. cit., p. 31; Stephan Meyer, Kunst als Widerstand: Zum Verhältnis von Erzählen und ästhetischer Reflexion in Peter Weiss’ “Die Ästhetik des Widerstands”, Tübingen 1989, pp. 195–198; Karen Hvidtfeldt Madsen, Widerstand als Ästhetik: Peter Weiss und Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, Wiesbaden 2003, pp. 166–169; Jörg Drews, “‘Echte Trauer: Was ist das?’ Die Namenlosen, die Namhaften und die Unnennbaren in Peter Weiss’ Die Ästhetik des Widerstands”, in Protokolle, vol. 1, 1987, pp. 107–113, 121, 124f.
  43. Ibid., p. 71. On Mnemosyne, the “mother of the arts”, see ÄdW I, p. 77; ÄdW III, p. 134.
  44. The following statement by the narrator illustrates how oppressive the memories of the Shoah are for the narrator’s mother, and how different these memories are from “ordinary” life experiences: ”[M]y mother drifted through images that were unable to elicit from her even a sound of dismay, so remote was she from the memory of ordinary things” (ÄdW III, p. 16).
  45. Benjamin develops his historical definition of “memory” in his theses on history, and in particular in Thesis VI on page 695 (Walter Benjamin, “Über den Begriff der Geschichte”, in Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, I:2, Frankfurt 1974, pp. 691–704). See also the essay “Erinnern” by Detlev Schöttker, in Michael Opitz & Erdmut Wizisla (eds.), Benjamins Begriffe, Frankfurt 2000, pp. 206–298.
  46. “Zwischen Pergamon und Plötzensee, oder Die andere Darstellung der Verläufe: Peter Weiss im Gespräch mit Burkhardt Lindner, Mai 1981”, in Rainer Gerlach & Matthias Richter (eds.), Peter Weiss im Gespräch, Frankfurt 1986, p. 279.
  47. Note that this identification is a literary, fictional one, not the emergence of a Jewish consciousness. As Irene Heidelberger-Leonard writes, it cannot be called an “act of his own choice” in the direction of Judaism, for Weiss had excluded the possibility of a Jewish identification since his text “Meine Ortschaft”. In view of Weiss’s forsaken Jewish identification, the narrator’s mother is not an alter ego of the author; she does not function as a proxy (cf. Irene Heidelberger-Leonard, “Peter Weiss und sein Judentum: Die ‘Ermittlung’, die ihrer Ermittlung harrt”, in Michael Hofmann et al. (eds.), Peter Weiss Jahrbuch, vol. 11, 2002, p. 48).
  48. ÄdW III, pp. 12f., 55, 144, 197, 229, 232, 237. Berthold Brunner sees the “regular arrangements of the camps and their barracks” in Angkor Wat as architecturally related to the Nazi concentration camps: in his opinion, the parallel is based on a totality that is inherent in the two systems (Berthold Brunner, Der Herakles/Stahlmann-Komplex in Peter Weiss’ Ästhetik des Widerstands, St. Ingbert 1999, pp. 364f).
  49. Ibid., pp. 240, 244.
  50. Ibid., p. 48.
  51. Ibid., pp. 16f.
  52. Ibid., p. 118.
  53. Ibid., p. 14. On foreign attitudes towards the anti-Semitism that was dominant in the Third Reich, see Nb II, p. 806.
  54. Ibid., p. 11.
  55. Ibid. The numbering system of the Nazis is reflected even in the dressing rooms before the gas chambers: “Outside, numbered benches, for taking off their clothes and shoes” (ibid., 120).
  56. Ibid.
  57. Ibid., p. 118. The “identifying sign over his heart” (Merkmal über dem Herzen) refers to the yellow star that Jews were required to wear.
  58. Michael-Joachim Kanning characterizes the narrator’s mother too as one of the living dead. In regard to her physical condition she may well be so described, yet her mental state is by no means comparable with the that of Heilmann or the other Plötzensee prisoners sentenced to death since, overwhelmed by the experience of death in the genocide carried out against the Jewish, she has no will to resist death. Her voluntary acceptance of the Jewish fate, which was not assigned to her, also distinguishes her from the Holocaust victims (Michael-Joachim Kanning, “Das Todesmotiv in der Ästhetik des Widerstands von Peter Weiss”, in Internationale Peter-Weiss-Gesellschaft (ed.), Ästhetik, Revolte und Widerstand im Werk von Peter Weiss, pp. 195–199).
  59. Nb II, p. 806. The entry closes with the prahse: “were already living corpses” (ibid.).
  60. Ibid., p. 28.
  61. Ibid. In another passage, Weiss again emphasizes Boye’s ignorance of the Nazis’ plans for racial annihilation (ibid., p. 31).
  62. Ibid., p. 119.
  63. Ibid., pp. 119f. Weiss has his first-person narrator state just a few pages later that the reports about the victims’ agony are almost unbearable (ibid., p. 125). Christian Bommert explains the “paralyzing” effect of Nyman’s report on the narrator’s mother (Christian Bommert, “Die komplementären Erkenntniskräfte Verstand und Phantasie (ratio und imaginatio)”, Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift, Vol. 36:3, 1987, p. 371 [Alltag-Kunst-Proletarische Subjektwerdung, Kolloquium über “Die Ästhetik des Widerstands”, anläßlich des 70. Geburtstages von Peter Weiss, 11./12. Juni 1986 an der Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena]).
  64. Ibid., p. 119.
  65. Ibid., p. 120.
  66. Ibid. See also Nb II, p. 889
  67. For Weiss, commemoration of the dead is closely connected with his guilt complex. He invokes the dead in his literary works in order to encounter them and, if possible, to ask them for pardon. On the reconstruction of the dead in literature, see Marita Meyer, op. cit, p. 90.
  68. Hannah Arendt, Nach Auschwitz: Essays und Kommentare, vol. 1, Berlin 1989, p. 142.
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