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Notes from the Intellectual Sanitation Department

The Guardian profiles Hans Magnus Enzensberger:

Born in 1929 in small-town Swabia, the eldest of four boys, Enzensberger is part of the last generation of intellectuals whose writing was shaped by first-hand experience of the Third Reich. Contemporaries include Günter Grass (born in 1927), Martin Walser (1927) and Jürgen Habermas (1929). The Enzensbergers moved to Nuremberg, the ceremonial birthplace of National Socialism, in 1931. Julius Streicher, the founder and publisher of Der Stürmer, was their next-door neighbour. Hans Magnus joined the Hitler Youth in his teens, but was chucked out soon afterwards. "I have always been incapable of being a good comrade. I can't stay in line. It's not in my character. It may be a defect, but I can't help it."

...At the start of his career, Enzensberger was frequently compared to Britain's "angry young men", Osborne and Pinter – misleadingly so, because playwriting was never a particular strong point. He was always more convincing when he channelled his anger into poetry. His first two collections, verteidigung der wölfe gegen die lämmer (Defence of the Wolves Against the Lambs) and landessprache (Native Language), railed against Germans' instinctive submission to authorities ("you'd love / to be torn limb from limb. you / won't change the world"), and wrestled violently with the language he had inherited.

Looking back on his early poems now, Enzensberger admits they sound "shrill". "But when you are 18 or 19, you can't stomach silence. Immediately after the war, there was one priority for us: we had to get rid of the bastards. And that was a great nuisance, because you can't change an entire population. Fifty per cent were followers of Hitler, 35% were opportunists and a few others didn't agree. You had all these professors, judges and chiefs of police who were old Nazis, and you had to get rid of them, and a certain violence was necessary to clear up the mess. For a few years we worked in an intellectual sanitation department."

And speaking of Defence of the Wolves, here is Jerome Rothenberg's translation:

The wolves defended against the lambs


should the vultures eat forget-me-nots?

what do you want the jackal to do,

cut loose from his skin, or the wolf? should

he pull his own teeth out of his head?

what upsets you so much

about commissars and popes?

why do you gape at the fraudulent TV screen

as if someone just slipped you the shaft?


and tell me who sews the ribbons

over the general's chest? who

carves the capon up for the usurer?

who proudly dangles an iron cross

over his rumbling navel? who

rakes in the tip, the thirty pieces

of silver, the hush money? listen: there

are plenty of victims, very few thieves: who's

the first to applaud them, who

pins on the merit badge, who's

crazy for lies?


look in the mirror : squirming,

scared blind by the burden of truthfulness,

skipping the trouble of learning, abandoning

thought to the wolves,

a nose ring your favorite trinket,

no deception too stupid, no comfort

too cheap, every new blackmail

still seems too mild for you.

you lambs, why crows would be

nuns stacked up against you:

all of you hoodwink each other.

fraternity's the rule

among wolves :

they travel in packs.


blessed are the thieves: you

ask them up for a rape, then

throw yourself down on the mouldy bed

of submission. moaning

you stick to your lies. you'd love

to be torn limb from limb. you

won't change the world.


(jerome rothenberg)