Walter Jens, one of Germany’s most prominent public intellectuals whose image was tarnished by his membership of the Nazi party during World War II, has died aged 90, his university said Monday.
A spokesman for the University of Tuebingen where Jens had been a professor emeritus of rhetoric said he had died Sunday after a long battle with dementia.
Walter Jens, as a writer, researcher and the former head of Berlin’s Academy of Fine Arts, served as a “moral authority” as West Germany worked to rejoin the community of nations after the horrors of the Nazi period.
In impassioned essays for national newspapers, Jens argued that academics must raise the alarm over threats to West Germany’s nascent democracy and urged the country to develop a culture of tolerance in political discourse.
He was outspoken in his stands for reconciliation between Jews and Christians in Germany and against the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
However the revelation that same year that Jens had belonged to the Nazi party during the war — a fact he said he could not remember — cast a long shadow over his moral stature.
Tilman Jens attacked his father for remaining silent about his Nazi past but later defended him against his most virulent critics.
“Everyone who was even a little bit of a Nazi was discredited,” the son said.
Walter Jens said he had been registered with the party “automatically” in the early 1940s after his time in the Hitler Youth but admitted he should have come clean earlier.
“I understand that many people are disappointed in me,” he said. “Being clear a bit earlier, such as at the end of the 1950s or the early 1960s, in the interest of complete honesty would have been appropriate.”
Jens’ spirit of combative intellectual engagement drew comparisons to 18th century French revolutionary thinkers, winning him the sobriquet of “the little Voltaire of the German republic”.
He worked closely with his wife Inge, including on their groundbreaking biography of the Nobel laureate Thomas Mann’s wife Katia.
Despite his membership in Hitler’s party, Jens vocally defended Mann against Nazi critics even after the author went into exile.
Chancellor Angela Merkel offered her condolences, calling Jens “one of the most important intellectuals in our country”.
“His voice set the tone over the course of decades for the major intellectual and political debates of our country,” her spokesman Steffen Seibert told a regular government briefing.