In the Opposite Direction

David Blackbourn

Poet, essayist, political commentator, dramatist for radio and stage, influential editor and publisher, Hans Magnus Enzensberger is one of Germany’s leading public intellectuals. He belongs to the same generation as Günter Grass and Jürgen Habermas, although he has been less bien pensant, less predictable, than either. His early poetry, lyric verse with a strong political content, won him the Georg Büchner Prize and he is now widely regarded as Germany’s foremost living poet. Enzensberger is the most important postwar writer you have never read.

He was born in 1929 in the Bavarian town of Kaufbeuren. His father was a post office bureaucrat with expertise in radio and telecommunications, aspects of a burgeoning modernity that would engage the interest of his eldest son. Expelled from the Hitler Youth for his bad attitude, Enzensberger was drafted at the end of the war into an anti-aircraft unit, from which he deserted. He supported his family after the war by black-market dealing while he worked for his Abitur, before studying literature and philosophy at German universities and the Sorbonne. After completing a dissertation on the Romantic writer Clemens Brentano in 1955, he worked as a radio editor in Stuttgart. The Swabian capital was then, as it long remained, a stiflingly conservative place which deserved its reputation as Germany’s largest village. Yet the city of Bosch and Mercedes-Benz provided – almost behind its own back – surprisingly fertile ground for cultural experimentation. That was true of architecture and modern dance; it also applied to Enzensberger’s pioneering radio broadcasts on media and the ‘consciousness industry’, later published in his first collection of essays in 1962.

Enzensberger enjoyed a nomadic life in the 1960s, living for extended periods in Norway and Italy, and undertaking long study tours – he was in Moscow, for example, in 1967. The following year he accepted a fellowship at Wesleyan University in the US, but found the campus intolerably genteel (‘opposition to the war in Vietnam was reduced to a polite whisper,’ he later wrote) and bolted to Cuba, which provided good copy for the political essayist.

He was a strong supporter of the extra-parliamentary opposition (APO), the student movement that developed in West Germany in the late 1960s. He wrote about issues dear to the radical left and provided a platform for others to do so in the Kursbuch, a journal he started with a colleague in 1965. In 1967 he signed the founding declaration of the Republican Club in West Berlin, the avant-garde of the German New Left. Earlier that year, Kommune I, an ultra-radical offshoot of the APO that combined Situationist street happenings with hippy acting-out (Jimi Hendrix was a later visitor), began life in Enzensberger’s Berlin apartment. Its members included his ex-wife, Dagrun, his young daughter and his brother Ulrich.

It’s hard to imagine a more impeccably radical pedigree. Fast forward 40 years, and what we have looks like a journey from left to right. The critic of the Vietnam War has witnessed the Khmer Rouge and become a critic of ‘the cant in Western anti-imperialist discourse’. The critic of archaic German orthography has become the critic of orthographic reform. The writer who excoriated the left’s culturally elitist disregard for the possibilities of the new mass media has written television off as a ‘zero medium’ and spends much of his time writing about Diderot and Goethe. And on one issue after another – Iraq, Bosnia, Islamist terrorism – Enzensberger has taken positions that sit uneasily with progressive orthodoxy. All true. Yet the notion of a slide into conservatism with advancing years (a lazy idea anyway) does not fit his career. He was, and remains, a contrarian. The writer Peter Chotjewitz made the point cruelly a few years ago: Enzensberger was, he said, a political dandy, ‘a conductor who calls everyone aboard and then nips off on a train going in the opposite direction because it’s so wonderfully empty’.

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