Events / “The Antisemite as Intellectual and Storyteller” with Dr. Saskia Fischer (Leibniz Universität Hannover)

“The Antisemite as Intellectual and Storyteller” with Dr. Saskia Fischer (Leibniz Universität Hannover)

September 19, 2023
5:15 pm - 7:00 pm

440 Williams Hall

Poster advertising Saskia Fischer's lecture

















The latest novel by contemporary German Jewish author Maxim Biller, Der falsche Gruß (The False Salute), published in 2021, tells the story of Erck Dessauer, a modern antisemite who is not a violent tyrant but rather an intellectual and a storyteller. Biller’s novel — in clear reference to Martin Walser’s highly controversial novel Tod eines Kritikers (Death of a Critic, 2002), the latter of which many perceive as an antisemitic book (Lorenz 2005) — shows this antisemite where he/she is perhaps least presumed to exist: in the allegedly enlightened and progressive world of literature. Biller’s novel offers a critical approach to antisemitism and the arts. The protagonist, Erck Dessauer, becomes a celebrated star in the press for having written a (dubious) biographical novel; Dessauer tells the story of a Soviet Jew who helped expand Stalin’s gulag system and conceived of a perfidious mass extermination method for it, which in turn (according to Dessauer) served as a model for the Nazis. In other words, to put it bluntly, it was a Jew — according to the book written by Biller’s protagonist — who actually “invented” the Holocaust. Biller’s critical and satirical novel, in telling the origin story of an antisemitic storyteller who receives high praise in the German feuilleton, also holds up a critical mirror at German intellectualism: by virtue of the fact that Biller’s (invented) literary critics are so enthusiastic for the “well-told” fiction that the Jews themselves invented the system for their own mass extermination, and that these critics suddenly worship an antisemitic author as if he were a figure of salvation, seems to point towards modern Germany’s ever-subliminal, central need for guilt defense.

To what extent is German society and, in particular, its cultural scene antisemitic? And what role do the arts play in all this? Do they reveal or conceal antisemitism? Moreover, following Biller’s observations in his novel, aren’t antisemites first and foremost artists and storytellers themselves? These are the troubling issues that Biller’s book illuminates and discusses. Antisemitism and the arts are not mutually exclusive. The consequences resulting from this — not just for modern democratic societies and their relationship to antisemitism, but also for art itself as a presumed medium of tolerance and humanitarianism — are the focus of my lecture.

Saskia Fischer has been a research associate at Leibniz University Hannover (Germany) since 2020. She studied Literary Studies, History, Philosophy, and Art History in Leipzig and Bielefeld and received her Ph.D. from the University of Bielefeld in 2016. She coordinated the research group “Felix Culpa? Guilt as a Culturally Productive Force” at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF), Bielefeld. She is the recipient of several fellowships, among others from the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service), the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the Holocaust Educational Foundation at Northwestern University, and the Klassik Stiftung Weimar. Furthermore, she is a Young-ZiF Fellow at the Center for interdisciplinary Research, Bielefeld, a member of the WAG Postdoc Network for Jewish Studies of the Leo Baeck Institute Berlin and part of a research project on representations of right-wing extremism and violence in literature, funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). She has published widely, e.g., Ritual und Ritualität im Drama nach 1945: Brecht, Frisch, Dürrenmatt, Sachs, Weiss, Hochhuth, Handke (Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2019), Lagerliteratur: Schreibweisen, Zeugnisse, Didaktik (Berlin/Bern: Peter Land Verlag, 2021; coedited with Mareike Gronich, Joanna Bednarska-Kociolek), and Guilt, Forgiveness, and Moral Repair: A Cross-cultural Comparison (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022; coedited with Maria-Sibylla Lotter). Her newest book projects are called Figurations of Antisemitism in European Literature (working title) and Revisiting Revenge: Retributive Emotions, Justice, and Moral Repair (coedited with Fabian Bernhardt, Maria-Sibylla Lotter). More information can be found here.