Critic, philosopher and intellectual;

Born: March 8, 1923; Died: June 9, 2013.

An Appreciation

Walter Jens, who has died aged 90, was as a public intellectual of the left second only to Gunter Grass, but curiously little-known in Britain – although his birthplace in Hamburg was the most British part of Germany.

Lanky, actorish, comfortably at home in his ageing double-breasted suit, Jens would have been happy wrangling away like the liberal poet-professor Ludwig Uhland in the Frankfurt parliament. But he also had a sharp sense of politics in the outside world – among the students, on the streets – and was always approachable in the Tuebingen "Brechtbau", the modern languages faculty, draping himself over some of Europe's most boring agendas and episodically lobbing in a subversive comment or ironic cackle that jerked matters forward. That was what his unique (for Germany) subject – rhetoric – was for. Anyone who has heard Edinburgh's Owen Dudley Edwards on song will get an idea of the style. He envied the British universities their corporate government, thought that federal law penetrated too deeply into German academia and either trapped people or made them "commerzant": "We professors go too much into the retail business!"

I first met him when he was trying to stop Franz-Josef Strauss as the fiery right-wing candidate of the Union against his fellow Hamburger – though not exactly soulmate – Helmut Schmidt. Jens has just been commemorated by Angela Merkel; but her godfather Helmut Kohl, who would take power in 1983, was denouncing him as communist for his opposition to the stationing of US tactical nuclear missiles.

To a generation pulling itself round from the horrors of 1933-45, Jens's confrontation with the ahistorical situation of the new Federal Republic was important. His involvement with Gruppe 47, which also included Grass and Heinrich Boll, was critical: creating an independent literary voice which took on the burden of re-engineering a discredited domain, in which sheer survival had impelled the creative world to compromise itself more and more with a homicidal regime.

A travelling collective – commemorated in Grass's The Meeting at Teltge – had to do the national conscience work of predecessors such as Georg Brandes in Denmark or the Goncourts in France. For Walter Jens the "household god" was always the bourgeois Scotophile Berliner Theodor Fontane, rather than his own Hanseatic colleague Thomas Mann. With his feisty wife Inge, he literally relativised Mann by bringing out in a prizewinning biography his debt to his resilient Jewish wife Katia.

The German problem was also represented by Mann's tragic son Klaus in his Mephisto, in which an avant-garde artist, modelled on the actor Gustav Grundgens, is drawn deeper and deeper into the Nazi mire. It affected Freiburg University, under the compromised Martin Heidegger, where Jens received his doctorate in 1943 (Tuebingen University was then "uberall braun", completely Nazi: only saved in 1944 by the local commander who handed it over to the French, realising they would need its hospitals.)

In 2002 it emerged that Jens had become a member of the Nazi party in 1942. He denied knowledge of this, believing his membership of the Hitler Youth, difficult to get out of, must simply have stayed on file; but like the similarly situated Gunter Grass as a high-profile lefty, he came in for tabloid flak, tragically at the same time as Alzheimer's descended on him.