German Unification Aufbau Publishers – 70 years between the state and literature

Aufbau Publishers in Berlin
Aufbau Publishers in Berlin | Photo (detail): © Annette Kusche

The history of the German Democratic Republic can be read off from its programme. Today Aufbau Publishers must hold its own in the re-unified German book industry.

Moritz Square in Berlin-Kreuzberg is no place to linger. While somewhat farther on in the Oranienstraße you can enjoy the metropolitan scene, here traffic roars and there is nothing to see of culture. And yet behind the sober concrete façade of Prinzenstraße 85 has hidden since 2011 one of the formerly most important publishing houses of Germany, an institution that is bound up with the history of the GDR like no other: Aufbau Publishers.

After the disaster of the dictatorship, many Germans hoped for a new republic, in which what had happened between 1933 and 1945 would never be allowed to repeat itself. On 16 August 1945, commissioned by the recently created Cultural Alliance for the Democratic Renewal of Germany, Kurt Wilhelm, Heinz Willmann, Klaus Gysi and Otto Schiele founded Aufbau Publishers Limited. The Soviet military administration supported the publishing house and saw to it that there was sufficient paper, which in the post-war years was more important than any other assistance. Until 1991 Aufbau Publishers had its headquarters in the Französische Straße.

The Who’s Who of German exile literature

Among the first books it published were Theodor Plievier’s novel Stalingrad, which in the Soviet Zone sold nearly 200,000 copies by the end of the decade, and Heinrich Heine’s Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen (Germany: A Winter’s Tale). The works of many writers who had been banned since 1933 could now be finally published again – for example, those of Heinrich Mann, Arnold Zweig, Lion Feuchtwanger, Alfred Döblin and Bertolt Brecht. The German appetite for books and truth was great: Anna Seghers’s resistance novel Das siebte Kreuz (The Seventh Cross) reached an edition of more than 100,000 copies, while Hans Fallada’s Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Every Man Dies Alone) enjoyed a similar success. By the end of the 1940s the publishing house’s programme read like a Who’s Who of German exile literature. In addition to anti-fascist classics, Aufbau also dedicated itself to preserving the cultural heritage. It re-issued Goethe’s Iphigenie auf Tauris (Iphigenia in Tauris), Schiller’s letters Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen (On the Aesthetic Education of Man) and Lessings Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise).

From the publishing programme of the following decades could be read off the history of the GDR. Phases of greater state influence alternated with those of liberalisation; editors and publishing directors tried again and again to use the latitude allowed them to come up against the limits of party doctrine. This succeeded at least on a small scale in the publication of works (soon sold out) by Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre and Marcel Proust.

One of the darkest hours in Aufbau’s history was the trial of publishing director Walter Janka. In December 1956 he was arrested on the charge of “counter-revolutionary conspiracy” and in a show trial in July 1957 sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. After Janka’s dismissal and under his successor Klaus Gysi, the publishing programme became narrower and Western authors disappeared from it. In the years after 1970, when the GDR was stabilized not least because of the Wall and the death strip, Aufbau published books by Jurek Becker, Volker Braun and Christa Wolf, but when in 1976 many of its authors protested against Wolf Biermann’s expatriation and left the GDR, it lost well-known writers such as Sarah Kirsch and Günter Kunert.

Dispute over ownership

With the collapse of East Germany, Aufbau was forced to give up its outstanding position. On 18 September 1991 the entrepreneur Bernd F. Lunkewitz bought the publishing house from the privatization agency. Aufbau moved to the Neue Promenade at Hackescher Markt and sought to establish a profile in the incipient re-unified German publishing scene. When in March 2008 the Federal Court ruled that Aufbau was still the property of the Cultural Alliance – that is, was never the property of the privatization agency – Lunkewitz ended his financial support. In May 2008 the management declared bankruptcy. In October 2008 the investor Matthias Koch took over Aufbau Publishers, and three years later moved into the new building in Moritz Square.

The significance of the move from the centre of Berlin to the western part of the city should not be exaggerated, yet it is a symptom of the normalizing of Aufbau. After its unique history as the central organ of literary reconstruction, as the steward of the classics past and modern, as intermediary and hinge between the two German literary cultures, Aufbau Publishers now finds itself in the often barren lowlands of the German publishing world. No longer protected by a nimbus, it must hold its own in the competitive market. The purchase of several smaller publishers such as Blumenbar and the acquisition of the renowned Die Andere Bibliothek, a high-quality book series founded by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, are hopeful signs of faith in the future of Aufbau, bolstered by much commitment and capital.