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From Linden Trees to Poplars

As Suhrkamp moves from its long-time home in Frankfurt to settle in Berlin, Jeremy Gaines looks back at the publishing house’s distinguished history.

It has taken Suhrkamp Verlag almost 60 years to open offices in the city where Peter Suhrkamp first registered the company, namely Berlin. Suhrkamp had spent the Second World War years in the German capital acting as trustee for the rights of the Bermann Fischer publishing empire, as the latter had been forced into exile by the Nazis. Suhrkamp himself was thrown into a concentration camp by the Gestapo in 1944, but survived, if in frail health. In the post-War period Berlin was, however, not the place to be. It was in ruins, a divided city bereft of the vibrant culture of Weimar, and at the whim of the Four Powers. It was, essentially, the hard edge of the Cold War.
The small town of Bonn was the new German capital, but hardly any more attractive. So it was to Frankfurt that Suhrkamp looked when seeking a base for his new company in 1950, publishing the 30-odd authors who had stayed loyal to him after Fischer had returned. And Frankfurt was a good choice. It had a fast-emerging cultural scene, dominated by the presence of the Hessischer Rundfunk radio station, where the cultural desk had been set up by no less a light than Alfred Andersch, back from life as a POW in the United States, with regular broadcasts contributed by literary scholar Hans Mayer.
In this liberal climate, Suhrkamp flourished, not least because among his authors was Hermann Hesse, whose sales kept the company employees in bread and butter, as did the fact that Suhrkamp held the West German rights to Bertolt Brecht. Suhrkamp set about wooing the new young authors of the Gruppe 47, and in part succeeded, with both Günter Eich and Ingeborg Bachmann choosing the publisher.
However, Suhrkamp died in March 1959, before the company had made a real mark. On his deathbed he handed over the helm to Siegfried Unseld, a
titan of a man and an equally formidable publisher. He was also a fiercely competitive chess player with a keen sense of loyalty to his authors, a very broad horizon of literary interests and much business acumen. It was in fact Unseld who shaped the company that was to lay the core foundations of West German intellectual life from its base in Frankfurt’s Lindenstrasse during the 1960s and 1970s. Surprising, perhaps, considering that neither Heinrich Böll nor Günter Grass were Suhrkamp authors.
Suhrkamp achieved this rise with the assistance of Walter Boehlich, the well-connected Chief Editor until 1968 (he quit over a typical Suhrkamp argument about whether authors should have co-determination rights), and Hans Magnus Enzensberger, the sharp philosophical mind with an equally sharp poetic pen, who made of the company a magnet for thinkers and writers alike – helped by the fact that the local university was home to the returned ‘Frankfurt School’ of Adorno and Horkheimer.
It was the typically Frankfurt and typically Suhrkamp mixture of politics and letters that characterized Edition Suhrkamp, the paperback series with the now legendary covers designed by Willy Fleckhaus that first hit bookshops in 1963. And two years later Enzensberger brought out the first issue of the famous kursbuch journal (it ran through 20 issues at Suhrkamp before going independent, or, as Unseld in his inimical style quipped ‘A child has grown up and is now leaving its parental home. And?’). Only a few years later and suhrkamp taschenbuch brought good literature to the market cheaply, followed in 1973 by stw, the series that made good thinking likewise affordable. After all, it was at this time that sales of the works of Adorno and Benjamin were no doubt emulating those of Hesse and Brecht.
This was the vintage Suhrkamp era. In the 1970s and early 1980s Frankfurt was a hotbed of radical thinking (a sounding board for Joschka Fischer, among others), with Suhrkamp publishing both Jürgen Habermas and Peter Sloterdijk – contrasting foils who signify the breadth and depth of its list of thinkers. And they were equalled on the level of literature by a veritable powerhouse of socially-committed writing of the 1970s: Enzensberger, Peter Weiss, Max Frisch, Uwe Johnson, Martin Walser. If there was a social democracy in literature that did not go on the campaign trail, this was it, defining a new form of realism. Not to mention the Austrian faction, perhaps more avant-garde, of Peter Handke and Thomas Bernhard. They all famously met in Frankfurt at Unseld’s villa at Klettenbergstrasse, where the debates went on deep into the night.
In the 1990s, Frankfurt was bypassed by the events that created the new Federal Republic of Germany. The city lost its sheen, and was known more as Bankfurt than as a cultural magnet, its star waning as that of Berlin ascended, with many artists leaving for the new capital, where rents were cheap and fortunes stood to be made. Likewise liberal thinking was just as much at home in the universities in the capital, and new literature was also starting to emerge there. It was in this situation that, in 2002, Siegfried Unseld died. The grand seigneur’s wife Ulla Berkewicz-Unseld took over the helm, with a clear focus on new horizons for her company, no less clear-sighted and strongwilled than her husband; and she has been ably supported by Raimund Fellinger, who has lived through many a change in Lindenstrasse, as her editorial lieutenant, and Thomas Sparr, who won his spurs shaping Jüdischer Verlag, as her Managing Director. She found herself, so rumour has it, wooed by Oberbürgermeister Klaus Wowereit into relocating to Berlin. And that Suhrkamp has just done, setting up an interim house in Pappelallee until its permanent residence at Brüderstrasse in the Nicolaiviertel is ready.
Suhrkamp title Der Turm won the
German Book Prize in 2008
One of Suhrkamp’s most recent innovations is filmedition suhrkamp, releasing films by and about Suhrkamp authors
Be that as it may, and irrespective of all the vitriolic attacks on Suhrkamp in the press for leaving Frankfurt, the move ‘back’ to Berlin was logical, given that the city had established itself as the new vibrant cultural capital. Moreover, new thinkers from a variety of disciplines, such as those around Ulrich Beck or Josef Reichholf, were not Frankfurt-based, but more international, with schools of thought now being established by email rather than presence in a lecture theatre. In addition, new heavyweight Suhrkamp writers such as Uwe Tellkamp focused more on the capital than on what is now rather the country’s financial heart.
In all the controversy surrounding the move, what has been overlooked is that both Berlin and Frankfurt lost out, and the world of literature has won. For now everyone will enjoy the treasures formerly kept in the basement at Lindenstrasse and in various buildings around the old university campus in Frankfurt, which make up the Suhrkamp Archive. It includes the papers and manuscripts of Uwe Johnson, Max Frisch, and Thomas Bernhard, to name but three, and has been sold in its entirety to the German Literature Archive in Marbach, not far from Stuttgart. There, efforts are under way to make the reams of paper available to literary scholars as soon as possible, and thus keep them busy at their desks for years to come. But not the philosophers. For the Frankfurt School archives of Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Benjamin, and Habermas have remained faithful to the city from which critical theory took its name.
Time will tell whether Suhrkamp’s move to the united republic’s capital is more than symbolic. What is certain is that Berlin is now home to the publishing company that best epitomizes what German culture seeks to be, an admirable blend of Dichter and Denker.
Jeremy Gaines
lives in Frankfurt. A writer, translator and art critic, he is currently active on various book projects, concentrating mainly on issues relating to sustainability, infrastructure development, climate change and West Africa. His most recent book is A Manifesto for Sustainable Cities (Prestel).