Speaking the Unspeakable in Postwar Germany: Toward a Public Discourse on the Holocaust

Book Details

In Speaking the Unspeakable in Postwar Germany, Sonja Boos analyzes canonical speeches from the 1950s and 60s by Hannah Arendt, Theodor W. Adorno, Ingeborg Bachmann, Martin Buber, Paul Celan, Uwe Johnson, Peter Szondi, and Peter Weiss, to demonstrate how these speakers both facilitated and subverted the construction of a public discourse about the Holocaust in postwar West Germany. As a complement to Boos’s book, Signale provides free public access to the original audio recordings of a selection of the speeches. The recordings are in German, but each is accompanied by an abstract in English. All of the speeches have been published in German and in English translation; in some cases, we are able to make these published texts freely available as well. Each of the featured speakers (Arendt, Adorno, Bachmann, Buber, and Celan) is also profiled here.

The original audio recordings of the speeches illuminate the process by which a set of writers and intellectuals, instead of trying to mend what they perceived as a radical break in historical continuity or corroborating the myth of a “new beginning,” searched for ways to make this historical rupture rhetorically and semantically discernible and literally audible. Problematizing the very premise of public speaking in light of a breach in tradition that had yet to be fully understood, these public speakers unfailingly resisted conventional modes of aesthetic and rhetorical representation. For these speakers, nothing was a given when it came to postwar Germany: not the notion of “public” nor the genre of “speech” nor even “speaking” itself. Hence nothing in their speeches conforms easily to a given tradition. To the contrary, their public speeches are exceptions, experimentations, sometimes even accidents. For what could one possibly say when addressing those responsible for the Second World War and the Holocaust? How could one encounter a people that until recently had embodied the fearsome and contemptible enemy? How could one properly speak in the language of persecution and genocide? And most importantly, how could one address any of these questions if they were persistently ignored, dismissed, and denied by the German public?

With the exception of Theodor W. Adorno (1903–69), who returned to Germany in 1949 and resumed his teaching duties at Frankfurt university soon after his arrival, the speakers featured here—Hannah Arendt (1906–75), Martin Buber (1878–1965), Ingeborg Bachmann (1926–73), Paul Celan (1920–70), and Peter Weiss (1916–82)—visited Germany only sporadically. During these visits, their native language—enunciated, resisted and reappropriated in the presence of a live audience—implicates both the speakers and their addressees in often bizarre events of misguided and failed communication. Hence the breach in tradition caused by the war and the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people strongly and repeatedly manifests itself as a crisis of language, so that the questions of how to speak, how to speak in German, and how to speak to the German public are conveyed and enacted in the rhetorical structure, composition, and delivery of the speeches at hand.

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