Last week at the Faculty Club, critically acclaimed German author Martin Walzer addressed students and faculty on the art of public speaking. Walzer, Born in 1927 and raised in Nazi Germany under the shadow of World War II, quickly became one of the most important authors of contemporary German literature. In fact, in 1955, “Group 47”, an influential German literary association seen as Germany’s moral compass, awarded Walser a prestigious prize for one of his stories. In 1998, Walser was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1998. During Walser’s acceptance speech, however, he triggered a heated debate on what to do with the German past, namely, Holocaust remembrance. His trip to the United States is part of the “do Deutsch” event series on German culture and language. The do Deutsch campaign aims to raise awareness among students and their parents, teachers of German and political decision makers as well as the media of the value of language learning.
After receiving flak for his 1998 acceptance speech, Walzer defended himself in his work “On Talking to Yourself: A Flagrant Attempt.” To explain his reasoning behind his speech, specifically, why he was so dissatisfied with German Holocaust remembrance, Walzer first defines two forms of public speaking: prepared addresses and spontaneous internal conversation. While the former is utilized to prove a point, the latter occurs when the speaker essentially “talks from the heart.” According to Walzer, it is the latter form of speech that is desirable and the former that is despicable. Conceptually, it seems a bit tacky to prepare a speech in advance to an unprepared audience. Rather, the ideal form of public speaking is an unprepared and spontaneous speech. The speaker should talk as if having a dialogue with his or herself. In other words, a “soliloquy” in which the audience is privy. In doing so, Walzer believes that the speaker is better able to communicate a message since spontaneity will flush out what the author truly thinks. On the other hand, rehearsed rhetoric often uses formalized phrases and fails to grasp the audience’s attention nearly as well as unprepared speech.
Thus, Walzer’s acceptance speech expressed frustration with the way Germans were reconciling with the past; primarily with leaders and politicians who employed ritualized Holocaust commemoration speeches. In doing so, Walzer felt that they were detracting from the German individual’s ability to reflect and come to terms with their own conscious. Walzer lashed out against those German public speakers, asserting, “There’s no chance of making yourself into a better person through righteous sentences, to serve the victims linguistically by casting convenient aspersions at the Germans, who either because of guilt or shame or even moral exhaustion can’t do it themselves any more” (Walzer, 114).
Therefore, Walzer felt that Holocaust remembrance speakers must refrain from using the often repeated language that is employed whenever Holocaust remembrance comes up and instead use “an unauthorized…unbaptized usage of language” (Walzer 116). By utilizing such “involuntary language,” the speaker is better equipped to remind the audience of their own experiences rather than make them feel as if they are the target of a rehearsed address.
Walzer meant to reform the way Holocaust commemoration was undertaken, not to do without it. It was this misinterpretation that prompted a national dialogue and compelled Walzer to defend himself publicly. And I think Walzer was just in bringing attention to the unfortunate way Holocaust remembrance speeches were taking the place of individual reflection. And I am convinced on his views of public speaking: I think he’s right in that an audience would rather prefer to hear a speaker talk from the heart than use formalized speech to prove a point. Whenever a speaker or a lecturer rambles on from a prepared speech that was memorized, I always find myself dozing off or find myself hearing but not listening. On the other hand, when a speaker is unprepared I feel engaged and actually actively listen as opposed to passively hearing. I just wish Herr Walzer’s view on public speaking would reach the ears of some of the professors here at Brandeis. If your a professor and half of the class is falling asleep and the other half giving you blank stares, its probably because your rambling a rehashed speech you gave last semester. Instead, why not try to mix it up so it doesn’t become routine and boring?