Rowohlt Celebrates its Centenary
Ernst Rowohlt first established the Rowohlt Verlag publishing house in Leipzig in 1908. He repeated the process in Berlin in 1919, in Stuttgart in 1945 and a little later in Hamburg, where the company is still based today, albeit as part of the Holtzbrinck publishing group. In the Group's own publicity to mark Rowohlt's centenary, its history is depicted as a sequence of charismatic personalities – from the authors to the editors and publishers. And yet in this centenary year, another and more scandalous side to publisher Ernst Rowohlt (1887-1960) has been portrayed, with claims that he wrote anti-Semitic letters and engaged in propaganda, that he voluntarily returned from Brazil in 1940 in order to serve as an officer in the Wehrmacht, and that he joined the Nazi Party as early as 1937. As the scandal reached boiling point, one commentator remarked that there can be no direct route from a dictatorship into a "free society", pointing out that at Der Spiegel too – the news magazine which unleashed the furore over Rowohlt – former Nazis had held key positions since the 1950s. That could be true: Rowohlt would not be the only firm to smooth out the twists and turns of Germany's post-war history in its company literature. But what is also true is that the publisher incurred the wrath of Hitler's stormtroopers, protected his Jewish colleagues, and was banned from pursuing his occupation in 1938 for "concealing Jewish writers".
The marketing trailOne of the publishing house's post-war successes was its paperback series, Rowohlts Rotations Romane, or rororo for short. The rororo brand was the brainchild of the founder's son, Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt (1908-1992). It was not just Germany's first-ever paperback series; it was also a solidly built literary bridge across the Atlantic. Indeed, the bridge existed even in the early days of the Nazi regime. With domestic writers in short supply, authors such as Tom Wolfe and William Faulkner were widely read. It took some time before the German public was ready for Henry Miller, but Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis were popular Rowohlt authors as early as the 1930s. And although there is no longer a monopoly in this still flourishing area of literary exchange, Rowohlt's hardcover editions with the season's new publications regularly feature North American literature. Its portfolio includes writers such as Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Siri Hustvedt and her husband Paul Auster, Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon.
Ernst Rowohlt, the founder of the company, was well-known in his day for his use of modern marketing techniques and hard bargaining, although not always with guaranteed financial success. Indeed, as the debts mounted, he was sometimes compelled to run his publishing house as a director in the Ullstein company. The rororo brand became known for its daring blend of literature and advertising – every now and again, readers would quite unexpectedly encounter a page-long ad for mortgages or cigarettes in the middle of a story.
A literary sensationA title such as Neue deutsche Mädchen (i.e. New German Girls) by Jana Hensel and Elisabeth Raether in the Junge Literatur (New Literature) series shows another direction that the publisher is taking. But you don't have to be young and beautiful to be taken up by Rowohlt; being famous is another way. Martin Walser is a good example: when he walked away from his longstanding relationship with Suhrkamp Verlag after the death of Siegfried Unseld, the head of the company and one of Germany's leading literary publishers, Rowohlt naturally welcomed him with open arms. The author, whose life has centred around Lake Constance, retains a strong adherence to German topics in his writing, notably with his current novel about Goethe. Another Rowohlt regular, Daniel Kehlmann, created a literary sensation with his book Die Vermessung der Welt (published in English as Measuring the World), a quirky novel about two luminaries of the German scientific world, Humboldt and Gauss, which has topped bestseller lists around the world.
A playground for free spiritsCombined with the transatlantic bridge to the USA, Rowohlt seems able to afford regionalist tendencies even in this dawning age of cultural globalisation. And yet despite this trend, there is a strong focus nowadays on Germany's literary antecedents as well: Inge and Walter Jens – the bedrock of German literary studies – are stalwarts in the Rowohlt portfolio, for example. Rolf Hochhuth and the late poet Peter Rühmkorf, who died early this year, stand for a left-wing tradition which was once very much in vogue. Elfriede Jelinek and Karlheinz Deschner – whose monumental work on Christianity's Criminal History now runs to nine volumes – are other authors who epitomise the culture of this publishing house, which Ernst Rowohlt once described as "a playground for free spirits".
100 Jahre Rowohlt. Eine illustrierte Chronik (i.e. 100 Years of Rowohlt. An Illustrated Chronicle). Uwe Naumann, Hermann Gieselbusch Dirk Moldenhauer, Rowohlt 2008, 383 pages, ISBN-13: 978-3498025137
Peter Rühmkorf: Paradiesvogelschiß. Gedichte (i.e. Peacock Shit. Poems), Rowohlt 2008, 160 pages, ISBN-13: 978-3498057824
works as a freelance journalist in Berlin
Translation: Hillary Crowe
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online Editorial Team
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