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The King of the Republic of Letters

There are no more like him.

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The King of the Republic of Letters

There are no more like him. And if it still existed, it would go largely unnoticed. The self-confident intellectuality, the not infrequently narcissistic eloquence that Walter Jens displayed using all rhetorical waters, in our age of rudimentary digital communication they would at most evoke a smile because of their elaborateness. In the less favorable case, hatred of the elitist.

But Walter Jens, who was born in Hamburg on March 8, 1923 and died in Tübingen in 2013 at the age of ninety, was an intellectual authority that few had seen in Germany. His base station was and remained the University of Tübingen, which he arrived at in 1947. Here he was until his retirement, refusing any call to other institutions, professor of general rhetoric, a chair that was created especially for him. But this was just one of his many fields of activity.

He turned to literature early on. In 1950, with the novel “No. The World of the Accused” implemented the aesthetic character of his generation through Franz Kafka in an original way and then joined the legendary Gruppe 47. At the time, it was the shock troop of “young German modernist literature”, as Walter Jens put it in retrospect.

But he soon switched sides and served as the group's most accomplished speaker at meetings. That was saying something, because Hans Mayer and Joachim Kaiser, Marcel Reich-Ranicki and Fritz J. Raddatz also criticized the literary productions of Böll-Walser-Grass and Ingeborg Bachmann.

But Walter Jens was not only the most eloquent of them all, he was also educated in that solid, bourgeois sense like no one else here was. The intellectual foundation of Walter Jens was philology, classical philology to be precise. The graduate of the old-language “Johanneum” in Hamburg had done his doctorate on the Sophoclean tragedy, and he spent his entire life retelling, retranslating, and reinterpreting the canonical texts of antiquity.

And antiquity had taught him rhetoric, especially that Socratic method of pros and cons, of turning back and forth, which is so wonderfully extravagantly and sophistically exercised in Plato's dialogues. Hence this man's intellectual agility, his ability to empathize with the most diverse forms of thought, and ultimately his delight in speaking out on anything and everything.

Today he spoke (as a believing Christian) at church conferences and (as a convinced pacifist) at peace marches, tomorrow at an academy about Thomas Mann's novels or at the anniversary of the public transport company. And the day after tomorrow he will certainly spread the word about Bundesliga football matches again with delight.

His public appearances were legion. In his best days, i.e. in the 1970s and 1980s, there was hardly an issue of the weekly magazine “Die Zeit” in which he didn’t cover a topic relevant to the present. At the same time he, the exponent of left-wing intellectualism, cultivated his friendship with Marcel Reich-Ranicki from the conservative "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung".

And you must have seen the two of them, arm and arm, putting the copper building of Tübingen University in its place, which was bursting at the seams; how they threw balls at each other here and – do you call me Goethe, I call you Schiller – undoubtedly considered themselves to be the two decisive intellectual powers of the republic.

But one must also have seen Walter Jens with his wife Inge, how they walked to the Tübingen collegiate church for the evening devotion with music, the so-called motet, every Saturday that God allowed, greeting here and there, waving, nodding. King Wilhelm II of Württemberg and his wife, Queen Charlotte, could not have been more affable. No question, the many spectators who watched the procession from the side of the road thought: Here comes the royal couple from Tübingen! And as roommates you basked in its splendor; proud to have her in his midst.

Perhaps it is because of this activity, because of an enormously extensive, event-related productivity, that ten years after his death one cannot name a really resounding work that has survived. Published by Jens in book form, apart from the early novels, mostly anthologies with lectures, essays or those "imaginary monologues and imaginary conversations" that he loved so much (a literary genre that also goes back to antiquity).

Sure, there was his 1957 review of literary modernity, entitled Instead of a Literary History. It caused a sensation at the time and could also be used well in German lessons for the upper school. But it was more a collection of quotations, passage commentary.

A work in the full sense of the word actually came from Walter Jens – in 1977. It was entitled “A German University. 500 Years Tübingen Republic of Letters". But has it been noticed outside of Swabia?

If not, that would be a mistake, because there is absolutely no better cultural history of that biotope, which is still called the university today, but as a spiritual form of life has absolutely nothing to do with what Jens describes here and what he himself does embodied in such an exemplary way.

This book, to come to another problem with Walter Jens, owes almost the entire research work to his wife Inge. The books about Katia Mann or her mother Hedwig Pringsheim, later published under both authorships, are also products of Inge Jens, who subordinated herself to her husband during his lifetime in a way that would hardly be conceivable today.

Inge Jens later assured several times that she did this of her own free will, especially since Walter Jens had to encourage her to publish herself in the first place: her first editorial work, the correspondence between Thomas Mann and Ernst Bertram, had been offered to her husband, who passed it on to her.

This was the initial spark for the meticulous editing work that found its epochal expression in the publication of Thomas Mann's diaries. It was she who allowed Inge Jens to enter the Thomas Mann cosmos in a way that her husband never had.

Walters Jens was not very happy with the merger of the West and East Berlin Academies of Arts. Since he has lost some of the sympathies of real GDR dissidents; there was a wave of resignations. However, that was quickly forgotten when the harrowing details of his dementia became public.

The son Tilman made sure of that with his hair-raising thesis that the reason for this was that the father had kept secret his NSDAP membership. It is still unclear today whether Walter Jens even knew that he had been listed as a member. Inge Jens' comments were more sympathetic: she repeatedly emphasized that her husband still enjoyed life and was able to express this in many different ways when the illness had taken hold of him completely.

What remains of this man 100 years after his birth? Above all, perhaps, the memory of a time when it was still possible to lead a self-determined life as a universal intellectual based on the intellectual foundations of European culture and to be recognized and even admired as a public person - even by those who were Aspects question this life. If there are “influencers”, then such, please!

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