Martin Walser, among the last of a generation of acerbic, socially engaged novelists who dominated the German literary scene after World War II, died on July 26 in Überlingen, Germany, a city on Lake Constance, along the Swiss border. He was 96.
His publisher, Rowohlt, announced his death in a statement but did not provide a cause.
Alongside writers like Henrich Böll, Günter Grass and Siegfried Lenz, Mr. Walser wrote essays, plays and novels that skewered what they saw as the complacent conservatism of Germany as it rebuilt itself into an economic powerhouse during the 1950s and ’60s.
“If one were to cite an example of historically conscious, committed writing in postwar German literature, who else would spring to mind than Martin Walser?” President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany wrote after Mr. Walser’s death.
Though he was lesser known in the English-speaking world than some of his contemporaries, Mr. Walser was critically and commercially successful in Germany, especially after the publication of “Ein Fliehendes Pferd” (“A Runaway Horse”) in 1978, widely considered his best work. In 1981, he received the Georg Büchner Prize, the highest literary honor in Germany.
“Ein Fliehendes Pferd,” just 150 pages long and which took Mr. Walser just two weeks to write, centers on Klaus and Helmut, two school friends who reunite in their 40s. At first friendly, the men become competitive over minor class differences magnified out of proportion by postwar German society.
At one point, Klaus declares that he is “so happy to see that Helmut had not become a bourgeois,” Mr. Walser wrote. “Helmut thought: ‘If I’m anything at all, I’m a bourgeois. And if there’s anything at all I’m proud of, it’s that.’”
While many in his cohort remained on the political left their entire careers, Mr. Walser, after aligning himself with the Communist Party in the 1960s, drifted toward the right. By the 2010s he was an outspoken admirer of Angela Merkel, the conservative chancellor, and said that if he were an American he would have voted for Donald J. Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
His willingness to speak his mind often got him in trouble. In a 1998 speech in Frankfurt, he railed against the way Germany’s shame over the Holocaust had been turned into a “moral cudgel,” a ritualized “historical burden” that too often descended into “lip service.”
The crowd gave him a standing ovation, save for the leader of the Central Council of German Jews, Ignatz Bubis, who remained seated alongside his wife. A few days later, Mr. Bubis accused Mr. Walser of “spiritual arson,” adding that while he did not believe Mr. Walser’s comments were antisemitic, they opened the door to others who were.
“Whenever someone who is counted among the spiritual elite of the nation makes such statements, they carry a weight of their own,” Mr. Bubis told The Jerusalem Post. “It is certain that right-wing extremists will refer to Walser.”
The two later made amends, but the debate fed a growing fissure in the recently reunified Germany, pitting those who believed the Holocaust must remain a defining feature of German society and those who wanted to move beyond it.
Mr. Walser had hardly recovered from the controversy when, in 2002, he got caught in another scandal, this time around his new novel “Tod eines Kritikers” (“Death of a Critic”).
The book, about the murder of a prominent book reviewer, was a thinly veiled attack on Marcel Reich-Ranicki, one of Germany’s leading literary critics, who had both defended Mr. Walser after the 1998 speech and savaged several of his novels. Mr. Reich-Ranicki was Jewish and a Holocaust survivor, and Mr. Walser larded his literary stand-in with a host of antisemitic tropes.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of Germany’s leading newspapers, refused to run an excerpt from the book, and denounced it in an open letter for “finishing off what the Nazis did not accomplish.”
The book was also roundly thrashed by critics; The Economist called it “a work of deep incompetence.” But proving the axiom that all publicity is good publicity, “Death of a Critic” still sold some 150,000 copies.
“There was no more honest writer in the old federal republic than him,” the newspaper The Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote after his death. “And none more impulsive.”
Martin Johannes Walser was born on March 24, 1927, in Wasserburg am Bodensee, Germany, a town on Lake Constance. His father, also named Martin, was an innkeeper and coal merchant who died when Martin was 10. His mother, Augusta (Schmid) Walser, was a homemaker.
As a teenager during World War II, Martin was conscripted into the Germany military to help operate antiaircraft guns. When he turned 17 he joined the Nazi Party. He later said that his membership was pro forma and that he had been unaware of it at the time, but several historians have challenged that claim.
After the war he studied history, literature and philosophy at the University of Regensburg and then the University of Tübingen, where he received his doctorate in 1951 with a dissertation on Franz Kafka.
He began writing short stories and essays while working as a journalist for Süddeutscher Rundfunk, a public radio station in Stuttgart. In 1953, the novelist Hans Werner Richter invited him to join Group 47, a loose collective of young, socially engaged writers that became a breeding ground for a generation of famed novelists, including Mr. Grass and Mr. Böll, both of whom won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Mr. Walser married Katharina Neuner-Jehle in 1950. She survives him, as do his children Franziska, Alissa, Johanna and Theresia Walser and Jakob Augstein. Information on other survivors was not immediately available.
Mr. Walser published his first novel, “Ehen in Philippsburg,” in 1957; it appeared in English three years later as “The Gadarene Club.” The book, about a young man from the country who tries to make it in a big city, lampooned postwar German society as crass and commercialized. It won the inaugural Hermann Hesse Prize, one of the country’s most prestigious literary awards.
Secure in his position as a rising literary star, Mr. Walser left Stuttgart and returned to Lake Constance, where, aside from a few visiting academic stints in Europe and the United States, he spent the rest of his life, and where he set many of his stories.
While “Ehen in Philippsburg” was a biting depiction of a shallow middle class, Mr. Walser’s later books took a more sympathetic, psychological approach. In a trilogy based around the character Anselm Kristlein — “Halbzeit” (“Halftime,” 1960), “Das Einhorn” (“The Unicorn,” 1966) and “Der Sturz” (“The Fall,” 1973) — he depicted Germans caught in a capitalist system that left them vulnerable and compromised.
In his novel “Swan Villa” (1982), about a lawyer-turned-real-estate-agent trying to sell a hot property, he compared the protagonist to “a man driving a motorboat with a hole in the bottom who has to drive fast to make the front half of the boat, where the hole is, rise and stay out of the water. The moment he slackened speed, he would sink.”
Mr. Walser was nothing if not prolific: He wrote more than 40 novels, along with dozens of plays, books of essays and poetry collections, and thousands of letters, all by hand. When he gave his papers to the German Literary Archive in 2022, they included 75,000 pages of handwritten drafts.
Writing, he said, was for him second only to food and water. “I wanted to write,” he liked to say, “I had to write. I have always written.”