Power and Impotence — the Predicament of the Intellectual: The Great Wall of China

  • Michael Butler


On 1 and 25 July 1946 the United States successfully exploded two Atomic bombs on Bikini Atoll in the Western Pacific Ocean. In the previous few weeks Max Frisch had been able to travel throughout a war-shattered Germany for the first time since 1939. Not surprisingly, such a juxtaposition of events brought home to him the extraordinary fragility of the peace which had followed the unconditional surrender of the Nazi State. In his Sketchbook 1946–1949 Frisch noted wryly the euphoric excitement the successful tests had provoked:

Bei Hiroshima, als Hunderttausende daran starben, war solche Freude nicht möglich. Diesmal ist es nur eine Hauptprobe. … Der Fortschritt, der nach Bikini führte, wird auch den letzten Schritt noch machen: die Sintflut wird herstellbar. Das ist das Großartige. Wir können, was wir wollen, und es fragt sich nur noch, was wir wollen. … Es liegt an uns, ob es eine Menschheit gibt oder nicht.’ (II, 401)

When Hiroshima was bombed and hundreds of thousands died, such joy was not possible. This time it’s merely a dress-rehearsal. … The progressive stages which led to Bikini will lead to the final one, too: the Flood becomes capable of being manufactured. That’s what is spectacular. We can do what we want, and it’s merely a question of what we want. … It’s up to us whether there will be a human race or not.


Western Pacific Ocean Wireless Operator Didactic Point Bikini Atoll Unconditional Surrender 
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  1. 4.
    For the major variations, see II, 761–5. A short discussion of the first three versions can be found in: Peter Gontrum, ‘Max Frisch’s Die Chinesische Mauer: a New Approach to World Theatre’, Revue des langues vivantes 36 (1970) pp. 35–44.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil (New York/London, 1963). Arendt records the appalling mixture of conscientious civil servant and mass murderer that the organiser of the Final Solution presented.Google Scholar

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© Michael Butler 1985

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  • Michael Butler

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