Even decades after he had given up his political activism in favor of science, almost every conversation with Willi Jasper ended with the statement: “Something has to be done!” Whether it was about social policy, cultural life or the right to asylum – his appeal was always only partly addressed to his counterpart. He himself complied with his request to the end by working through countless books, essays and articles on the question of what the task of an intellectual actually consists of. Even in his last book “Faust or Mephisto” he unmistakably called for a “free and accommodating spirit”.
Willi Jasper therefore repeatedly turned to personalities who at least came close to this ideal: Ludwig Börne, the Goethe despiser and opponent Heinrich Heine, for example, but also the “enlightener and Jew friend” Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and of course Heinrich Mann, to whom he gave his first in 1992 dedicated a large monograph. In his argument with Thomas Mann, Jasper recognized less a “fraternal quarrel” and more a prototypical intellectual debate. While Thomas “entered the power-protected and aesthetically refined inwardness”, Heinrich for Jasper was a representative of “literature as a public-political practice” who has often been reviled to this day.
Jasper continued his approach to sociological literary studies in his new field of activity when he increasingly turned to German-Jewish literature. In Potsdam, first at the Moses Mendelssohn Center and later as a professor at the university, he was responsible for the first major sociological study on Jews who immigrated to Germany, Israel and the USA from the former Soviet Union after 1990. At the same time, he drew attention to the fact that the newly arrived Jewish writers enriched the literatures of the three countries with an invaluable transnational component.
The literary scholar, who was born in Lavelsloh in Lower Saxony in June 1945, inevitably focused his attention on German-Jewish literature on National Socialism and the Holocaust. Here it was the cultural-historical “German special path” that Jasper repeatedly described with emphasis. When in 1992 the renowned Germanist Hans Schwerte was unmasked as a former SS Hauptsturmfuhrer, Jasper took this as an opportunity to write one of his most important books.
In “Faust and the Germans” he traced a line of tradition that for him stretched from Goethe through the First World War and the “Third Reich” to the present day. Already in Goethe’s “Faust” Jasper saw a “German community experience” created, which embodies the typical German split between spirit and power, a sense of reality and megalomania. Here, too, it was the intellectuals who had succumbed to the dangerous pull of Faustianism that Jasper brought to the fore.
That doesn’t mean that Willi Jasper didn’t reflect on his own role as well. He did this most clearly in his book The Glass Coffin, where he reported on his role in the Maoist ’68ers. Although there was no doubt in his mind that the political aims of the time were wrong, he would neither deny nor condemn his work for the Communist Party of Germany (KPD/AO). With an ironic smile, but not without pride, he showed his visitors the printing plates of the party organ “Rote Fahne”, of which he was editor-in-chief for a time in the 1970s. “Anyway,” he would say, “we did something back then.”
Physically marked by a long illness, Willi Jasper recently complained again and again about deep exhaustion. He had meanwhile modified his calls for commitment: “Now it’s you who have to do something.” Last Friday he died in Berlin at the age of 77.
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