The death of Susan Sontag this week has received extensive coverage in Germany. Germany's minister of culture - Christina Weiss - called Sontag America's Conscience: „Mit ihren leidenschaftlichen Appellen an Vernunft und Verantwortung der Politik wurde sie zum öffentlichen Gewissen der Vereinigten Staaten“, sagte Weiss. And that moniker has been repeated in most of the tributes.
Sontag had a special connection to Germany and German culture. As a young girl, she met Thomas Mann in Los Angeles. She was an expert in German literature and thought, introducing Elias Canetti and Walter Benjamin to American readers. She called herself "the most famous Germanist, who can't speak German." She spoke about this in her acceptance speech last year for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Even before Bach and Mozart and Beethoven and Schubert and Brahms, there were a few German books. I am thinking of a teacher in an elementary school in a small town in southern Arizona, Mr. Starkie, who had awed his pupils by telling us that he had fought with Pershing's army in Mexico against Pancho Villa: this grizzled veteran of an earlier American imperialist venture had, it seems, been touched --- in translation --- by the idealism of German literature, and, having taken in my particular hunger for books, loaned me his own copies of Werther and Immensee.
Soon after, in my childhood orgy of reading, chance led me to other German books, including Kafka's "In the Penal Colony," where I discovered dread and injustice. And a few years later, when I was a high school student in Los Angeles, I found all of Europe in a German novel. No book has been more important in my life than The Magic Mountain --- whose subject is, precisely, the clash of ideals at the heart of European civilization. And so on, through a long life that has been steeped in German high culture. Indeed, after the books and the music, which were, given the cultural desert in which I lived, virtually clandestine experiences, came real experiences. For I am also a late beneficiary of the German cultural diaspora, having had the great good fortune of knowing well some of the incomparably brilliant Hitler refugees, those writers and artists and musicians and scholars that America received in the 1930s and who so enriched the country, particularly its universities. Let me name two I was privileged to count as friends when I was in my late teens and early twenties, Hans Gerth and Herbert Marcuse; those with whom I studied at the University of Chicago and at Harvard, Christian Mackauer and Paul Tillich and Peter Heinrich von Blanckenhagen, and in private seminars, Aron Gurwitsch and Nahum Glatzer; and Hannah Arendt, whom I knew after I moved to New York in my mid-twenties --- so many models of the serious, whose memory I would like to evoke here.
The entire speech - which received no coverage in the US press - is remarkable, and one of the best analyses of the US - European Rift . The rift was evident at the actual event of Sontag's speech, as Frank Olbert recalls in the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger:
Im vergangenen Jahr, als sie den Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels erhielt, da war es nur ein Augenblick, ein kleiner Moment, der die Feierlichkeit des Anlasses umschlagen ließ in eine Demonstration überlegener Ironie. Susan Sontag stand hinter dem Rednerpult der Paulskirche, vor sich ein Auditorium mit hochrangigen Würdenträgern aus deutscher und internationaler Politik. Nur einer fehlte, der amerikanische Botschafter Coats, der es vorgezogen hatte, der Zeremonie fernzubleiben, statt seiner Pflicht nachzukommen und dabei zu sein, wenn eine Amerikanerin mit einem hochrangigen deutschen Preis bedacht wird. Offenbar, so stellt die Geehrte mit größter Lakonik fest, liege Coats mehr "an einer Bekräftigung der ideologischen Position und des verbitterten Unmuts der Regierung Bush als daran, die Interessen und das Ansehen seines - und meines - Landes zu vertreten"
Susan Sontag was in Berlin when the planes hit the towers on 9/11: her observations at the time eerily foretold what would become of America, and for that she was reviled by most of the American media and the political establishment. Her last contribution - commentary on the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison - Regarding the Torture of Others in the New York Times Magazine may also be one of her most important.
But the real push to limit the accessibility of the photographs will come from the continuing effort to protect the administration and cover up our misrule in Iraq -- to identify ''outrage'' over the photographs with a campaign to undermine American military might and the purposes it currently serves. Just as it was regarded by many as an implicit criticism of the war to show on television photographs of American soldiers who have been killed in the course of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, it will increasingly be thought unpatriotic to disseminate the new photographs and further tarnish the image of America.
After all, we're at war. Endless war. And war is hell, more so than any of the people who got us into this rotten war seem to have expected. In our digital hall of mirrors, the pictures aren't going to go away. Yes, it seems that one picture is worth a thousand words. And even if our leaders choose not to look at them, there will be thousands more snapshots and videos. Unstoppable.
Like the pictures of torture she describes, Sontag's critical voice will not go away with her passing. Her writings will stand as a mirror of truth that America will have to look at, if it dares.