As yet, no international media firm has succeeded in luring Klaus Wagenbach out of his reserve. No accusation (orig. “Klageschrift”), for instance on the occasion of his eulogy at Ulrike Meinhof’s funeral, could turn this unyieldingly unconventional Berlin publisher into a callous book exec. Today, he claims - not without pride – he is the German publisher with the longest rap sheet.
That’s true. Klaus Wagenbach is associated with getting fired, house searches, spectacular accusations and splits. But he is still around; in the meantime, editor Susanne Schüssler, his third wife, has taken over the management of the publishing firm. Unlike other leading lights of the German publishing industry, Wagenbach has taken care of his succession ahead of time. On his eightieth birthday this past summer, all his companions agreed: he will go down in history for publishing books that stood both for the excesses of the left-wing intellectual milieu as well as for the artistic sensitivies of the later “Tuscany Caucus” (Toskana-Fraktion). With Klaus Wagenbach, the question of whether one is dealing with an endangered dinosaur species arises unavoidably. And what does this dinosaur species stand for, this Wagenbach-Verlag culture that has gained such fame through infamy?
Targeted by the Springer press
Klaus Wagenbach, formerly an editor with S. Fischer-Verlag, founded Wagenbach-Verlag in 1964 with the proceeds from a field in the Hochtaunus region that he inherited from his father, after being dismissed from his job due to political differences. Ingeborg Bachmann, Peter Rühmkopf and Günther Grass were among his supporters, but the small Berlin publisher shot to spectacular fame with the publication of polemical left-wing pamphlets. Their publisher distanced himself from some of them later on; he never allowed himself to be carried away by political furor in any case. He was an anarchist, but more in the sense of a kind of intellectual freedom that was always undogmatic, however defiant and obstreperous, a quality that was later resented by all possible sides; he was not left-wing enough for the leftists, the “bourgeois” publishers saw him as a spoiled-brat rebel, the political establishment accused him of supporting the RAF. After all, books by Che Guevara, Rudi Dutschke’s Versuch, Lenin auf die Füße zu stellen
(i.e. attempt to place Lenin on his feet
) and Ulrike Meinhof’s Bambule
appeared in his “Rotbuch” series. Wagenbach became a target for the Springer press, then the Attorney General’s office got on his case and he was sentenced to nine months of imprisonment. The publishing house had to cover the costs of the trial; Wagenbach’s solicitor was Otto Schily.
Combatting the “stupefying frowstiness of the official left”
In the end, it was his own people from the camp of left-wing dogmatists who turned their backs on him. Compelled to reinvent his publishing house, he first concentrated on the area of literary fiction. Critics, who as usual at the time were propagating “the death of bourgeois literature,” identified this as as a flight into the innocuous, uncritical domain of the fine arts – all the more so because Wagenbach had developed an effusive – and for the ’68 generation paradigmatic – love of Italy. From then on, accompanied by intellectuals such as Carlo Ginzburg, Salvatore Settis and Horst Bredekamp, he combatted the “stultifying frowstiness of the official left” with aesthetic means – and he produced books that his readers not only wanted to read, but above all books that they should read.
Klaus Wagenbach once named the duties of a publisher as hedonism, historical awareness and anarchy. He defined hedonism as a “moment of self-determination;” historical awareness as the privilege of literature to narrate stories about human beings ever anew, whether or not - in the arrogance of its asceticism - the left turned up its collective nose at it; anarchy in turn meant conditions without leaders. And that brings us to Wagenbach’s business model, which he has been practicing more or less successfully for over forty years.
Impossible and successful at the same time
Of its experiments with collectivistic – i.e. based on rights of co-decision - publishing work, egalitarian compensation principles still remain today. To this day, Wagenbach Verlag, consisting of ten permanent employees, is still immune to the star-author model customary among major general trade book publishers – but in spite of this, Wagenbach has created stars in Germany, with his discovery of Michel Houellebecq, for example. Thus runs the firm’s coy self-description: “The publishing house is independent and makes use of its independence. It presents its opinions at its own cost. It is not big, but recognisable. Its work is not aimed at profit; instead, the pursuit of content is its aim.”
One should let this overweening idealism just sink in. In other words: this publishing firm was always both impossible and successful. In West Germany Klaus Wagenbach was viewed as a communist, in East Germany as a capitalist, he once termed himself a “literary patriot.” And somewhere in between these descriptions, are the books with which he has persistently fought the staple-goods mentality of business-as-usual in the book business. Wagenbach once described his method as an “anticyclic mode of production.” Perhaps this is the secret of his sustainability as a publisher.