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Volume 10, No. 1 - February 2000
More in this Issue...


Ernestine Schlant is not just Bill Bradley's wife. Like the Democrats' other aspiring First Lady, Tipper Gore, Schlant has a crusade of her own. But whereas Gore became famous for her censure of salacious rap lyrics, Schlant has aimed at a somewhat more obscure target: the dereliction of moral duty in the postwar German novel.

There hasn't been an academic in the White House since historian Woodrow Wilson, but Schlant is not only a bona fide professor--she's a member of the MLA. Currently on sabbatical from New Jersey's Montclair State University, Schlant has taught comparative literature for almost thirty years.

Born in Passau, Germany, in 1935, Schlant arrived in the United States in 1957. She quit her job as a Pan Am stewardess to earn a bachelor's, master's, and doctorate from Emory University, where her dissertation concerned the modernist Viennese novelist Hermann Broch. Her first book, The Philosophy of Hermann Broch (Francke, 1971), begins with the sentence: "The foundation of Hermann Broch's philosophical and literary works is ethical." The sentence strikes the keynote of her career: Ethics is all. She has co-edited an essay collection, Legacies and Ambiguities: Post-war Fiction and Culture in West Germany and Japan (Johns Hopkins, 1991), about the difficulty of accounting for the past when "the legacy of the war still constitutes one of the most vibrantly sensitive areas of intellectual life." By "legacy," Schlant means Auschwitz and Manchuria. Germany and Japan, Schlant insists, can only "accept themselves in the present because they have confronted their pasts."


There's the official Bill Bradley web site, of course, but you can also find an interview of Schlant by Christopher Lydon (requires Real Audio) and a Newsweek profile that reveals the role American poet Marianne Moore played in bringing Schlant and Bradley together.

In her latest book, The Language of Silence: West German Literature and the Holocaust (Routledge, 1999), Schlant continues her pursuit of the ethical, but this book is her most pointed: It accuses some of West Germany's most celebrated postwar authors of writing about the Holocaust era in inadequate and irresponsible ways. She alleges that they have suppressed their memory of genocide, remained trapped in clichés about Jews, failed to show proper remorse, and failed to mourn the past appropriately. Among those she takes to task are the Nobel Prize-- winning authors Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass. Unlike other political wives, Schlant has not nicefied her writing. It Takes a Village this is not.

Though in telling her life story Schlant may dodge issues controversial to voters, in her academic scholarship she feels free to pick a fight. When she and Bradley first met, in the early 1970s, Schlant was at work on a German translation of Kate Millet's polemical feminist classic Sexual Politics. (The German edition would bear the subtitle "The Tyranny of Men in Our Society.") And The Language of Silence has certainly proven her willingness to question the established authorities of postwar German fiction.

In the United States, The New Republic has called the book "vigorous, comprehensive, and troubling." But while reviewer Jeffrey Herf admires Schlant's comprehensive treatment of West German novelists, he argues that her severe moral judgments often impose demands that are inappropriate in the historical context of the postwar period. In Herf's opinion, Schlant fails to appreciate why writers born in the Nazi era chose to portray (or not to portray at all) the Jewish experience as they did. Reviews in Time and Newsweek, on the other hand, have applauded the book's independence. Arthur Hertzberg, onetime head of the American Jewish Congress, has praised The Language of Silence as a milestone of moral courage.

Meanwhile, the German press has been less cordial. Der Spiegel calls the book "a baffling, explosive account of German literature since 1945." Die Woche describes Schlant as unexpectedly harsh for a potential First Lady. It finds her particularly severe on her homeland when she credits American media--from the television miniseries The Holocaust to Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List--with pushing Germany to come to terms with its past. According to Die Woche, Schlant has said that "for a long time Germans have reappraised their past only as a passive reaction to American initiatives."

The German press has been most perplexed, perhaps, by her criticisms of Günter Grass. Schlant's book appeared just as the Nobel committee was praising the writer for rejuvenating German letters "after years of linguistic and moral destruction." Grass has often been harshly attacked in Germany--a Der Spiegel cover once featured a novel of his torn in two--but he's usually attacked for his overweening moralism. Rarely do critics accuse him of avoiding his moral duties, as Schlant has. She argues that Grass's style shows that he "does not demonstrate an affective concern with individual lives but rather an intellectual" interest. He offers "no expression of sorrow."

The German press has not hesitated to respond to Schlant's personal book in personal terms. "What drives this woman," asks Die Woche, "to strike so hard at her fatherland, which she exchanged forty-two years ago for a more carefree, open world?" According to American press accounts, as a young woman in postwar Germany, Schlant would sit by candlelight, since she had no electricity, dreaming of how to get to America. The story may strike a pleasant chord with Americans, but to some Germans it sounds like escapism, coming as it does from a scholar so concerned with remorse and the responsibilities imposed by history. Somewhat impudently, Die Woche has called Schlant's German background "a burden that she flew from when she left for New York as a stewardess hired by Pan Am."

Of course, a German past is not an obvious advantage for a potential First Lady. Schlant has often acknowledged that her father was a member of the German Luftwaffe; she always accompanies this acknowledgment with the statement that he was never a member of the Nazi Party. The delicacy with which she discusses her father's military career, according to Der Spiegel, suggests that the Bradley campaign understands the dangers of the past: "A Nazi in the family tree," Der Spiegel writes, "and 'Bradley for President' is finished."

On the campaign trail, Ernestine uses Bradley's name, but on academic turf--while promoting The Language of Silence, for example--she uses her maiden name and stands on her own authority as a literary critic. If urged by audiences to speak for her husband, Schlant almost always declines, or humbly presents her opinions as those of a common citizen. ("As for politics, well, I will try," she told one campaign audience.)

She did slip up once, early in the campaign, when she told an Elmira College audience that her husband opposed the death penalty. Like most Americans, Bill Bradley supports the death penalty. The reprimand from Bradley's handlers came swiftly, and she retracted her statement, adding, "The death penalty should be allowed against millionaire drug kings." Schlant's mistake is easy enough to understand. After all, in post-Holocaust Germany, the death penalty is politically inconceivable.

Mark Georgiev

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