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The Long Demise of Germany’s Student Revolt

The German student revolt of the 1960s gave birth to a wave of left-wing publishers, whose politics gradually shifted from radicalism to accommodation with the end of history.

Student protestors in West Berlin, 1968. (Stiftung Haus der Geschichte, via Wikimedia Commons)

The room had a high ceiling with stucco features and a rich brown parquet floor. My mattress lay on this floor—no bed frame. The high line carrying the tube to Schlesisches Tor thundered past the window of the late nineteenth-century flat, the whole night through at weekends. The rent was cheap.

This was Berlin in the mid-1980s and it is a description of my flat on Skalitzer Strasse, which is repeated almost word for word in Philipp Felsch’s study of the fate of theory in Berlin in the post-war period. In Felsch’s account, it is not simply a description. It is an explanation of how a context contributes to a culture, how possibilities occur within spaces that lend themselves to  behaviours—in this case, spacious kitchens in Wohngemeinschaften (communal households) allowing for endless late night discussions, or, as is the case in The Summer of Theory, the founding of critically-oriented publishing houses.

On that parquet floor, I too leafed through the German translations of Foucault, Deleuze, or Lyotard, in small squarish books with a rhomboid shape on the cover bearing the author’s name, the title of the book, and the name of the press: Merve Verlag.

Berlin’s Schlesisches Tor (Wikimedia Commons)

Felsch has written a study of this publishing house and the figures associated with it, in particular Peter Gente and Heidi Paris. It is also a history of Berlin (West), and the Federal Republic of Germany, in the wake of the years of the Student Movement of 1960s-70s. The German original appeared in 2015, and was titled Der Lange Sommer der Theorie. In losing the word ‘long’ an ironic connection to Merve’s interlocutors is lost.

The original title echoes Hans Magnus Enzenberger’s The Short Summer of Anarchy, a documentary montage novel about the life and death of Buenaventura Durruti. It is told through documentary sources, and yet, in outlining the disputed circumstances of the death of Durutti, is full of contradictions. The novel was published by Suhrkamp in 1972 and its author was at the heart of what was called by George Steiner ‘Suhrkamp Culture’. Suhrkamp produced the books that conveyed the heavyweight theory and philosophy of the post-war period. Wittgenstein, Bloch, Adorno, Husserl, Heidegger, and Marcuse were some of the better sellers.

Enzensberger’s writings in this period extended the critical analyses of the ‘culture industry’, as coined by Adorno and Horkheimer, into a criticism of TV and media in general as products of a disempowering ‘consciousness industry’, to be countered by a socialist emancipation of media, in the manner of Walter Benjamin.

For all its theoretical aims of democratising theory, Suhrkamp came late to the idea of accessible and attractive paperbacks—and, once it had been proposed, Enzensberger argued that one could not have brightly-coloured covers on a ‘intellectual series’. As a result, the dust jackets were removable to expose a grey underneath. These were the books read by activists in the student movement, though sometimes they got hold of them in pirate copies.

Suhrkamp was a ‘culture’ to a remarkable extent. One author, Adorno, received heaps of correspondence each time he published a book, and much hate mail after each radio appearance. He felt compelled, Felsch tells us, to respond to much of the correspondence. For example, one student of philosophy from Berlin wrote to him about his Suhrkamp volume Minima Moralia: ‘I cannot grasp the last sentence of the Minima Moralia. And I can’t find anyone who could help me somehow. Because I cannot bear to go on living and talking as if it were possible to lead a personal light-hearted life.’

Adorno suggested meeting in person to discuss and warned her against doing anything rash, for the route from thinking to ‘so-called practice’ was more convoluted than the student rebels were imagining. The meeting must have been a success, for the student wrote again that she was much improved, having found with him solidarity in her hopelessness. Suhrkamp was an institution, and its authors seem charged with some responsibility. Merve as a phenomenon, as a conveyor of theory, would not be institutional and it would eschew any sense of responsibility.

Adorno’s Minima Moralia (Suhrkamp)

Philipp Felsch, a Professor of Cultural History in Berlin, was tasked with writing a history, having been given access to the papers of Merve Verlag—sold by its founder Peter Gente, in order to finance his final years in Thailand. The job appealed, as he had his own entry point. In Bologna in the mid-1990s, taught by a student of Foucault, Felsch received his Merve-backed theory by mail. A decade later, he pored through the paperwork and interviewed the protagonists to convey a broader history of how theory develops, takes root, distributes and communicates itself, at least in a very specific place and time. And this was specific.

It is unimaginable without the local conditions of Berlin—as mentioned above, the large cheap flats, which made possible the squatters, the collectives and communes, and there were the bars, and the fact that Berlin (West) was a ‘Frontstadt’, split city of the Cold War, enclosed by a wall and absent from East German maps. It was a hole, a void that could be all the more frantically populated by experiments and under-the-radar actions, because neither East nor West wanted it in sight. This was a self-conscious city.

Heidi Paris, key player in the development of Merve from 1975, after Gente left his first wife, Merve Lowien, epitomised it in the 1980s when she developed an interest in design, specifically the Berlin School of the Ready-Made. She organised exhibitions at the headquarters of the publishing house featuring repurposed objects from everyday life, such as the Consumer’s Rest Lounge Chair, made of a barely transformed supermarket shopping trolley—protagonist of countless May Day Riots.

Here the contradictions of Merve are contained: theory as an object of consumption, theory as prelude to riot, or at least a little rebellion in the Kempinski Hotel, and some edgy posing with the vol-a-vents, before dancing with David Bowie in a Schöneberg nightclub. But that is later in the story, when Merve’s diagnosis of the age is distinctly post-histoire and Berlin is the centre of the end of things. Merve is, by that time, a publisher that surveys theory which floats, like Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory, above a dense blanket of cloud covering over the extinct volcanoes of Marxism.

Felsch begins his book with Peter Gente, a young man fascinated by Adorno from the late 1950s. Gente develops into ‘an encyclopaedist of rebellion’ (Helmut Lethen’s coinage), who knows all the debates, can access all the periodicals, knows every branch and brand of every movement, revolutionary, anarchist, terrorist, as it develops through the years of the student movement. Felsch takes us through the years when—as in 1977—competitors for German word of the year were Scene, Terrorism, and Sympathiser.

In these years Merve engaged with Foucault and questions of micropower—desiring to help unravel the historical fixations of the Left. Merve disrespected copyright and cultivated French poststructuralists. Merve was comprised of cool people, who moved through a milieu—such as that of the Berlin Tunix conference of 1978, when 20,000 radicals re-grouped to discuss the way forward after the Hot Autumn and the recent deaths of RAF members in custody in Stammheim prison.

This is Merve’s milieu and it is not. They stand to one side of it, for their interest is against ‘movement fetishism’ and for Nietzscheanism, and does not include political organising or the founding of the left-wing daily newspaper TAZ, which came from the conference. And in any case, they preferred, as Paris and Gente put it in a letter to Foucault two months after Tunix, to act ‘on the margins’. Merve’s practice involved printing up little stickers to leave in nightclub toilets, citing Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: ‘Make Rhizomes—The Pink Panther’. edition suhrkamp, by contrast, at this point, was publishing its 1000th volume: Jürgen Habermas’ edited collection Keywords on the ‘Spiritual Situation of the Age’.

(Merve Verlag)

The latter part of The Summer of Theory depicts a marginally fashionable publishing house, in the 1980s, engaged in producing Baudrillard and his sign inflation for coffee tables, getting involved in the Berlin art scene and publishing books that have pictures not words (by Martin Kippenberger). All this is conceived as a war against the sea of grey theory and its tyranny. Merve-style theory suffuses the art world—it is aimed at intensity. It finds in the Neue Wilden art movement a colourfully splattered equivalent. It develops a cult around philosopher Jacob Taubes, who in turn was promoting the fascist Carl Schmitt, which was where I came in and why I only leafed those little square books with some suspicion.

This is the period when Berlin (West) starts to become hip and visible and it begins to internationalise. Semiotext(e), a parallel project run by Sylvère Lotringer at Columbia University from 1974, published a German Issue in connection with Merve in 1982. Heiner Müller, in his interview in the volume noted of the advantages of Berlin: ‘One can see the end of history more clearly from here’.

Did history end, or did anything change when the wall that surrounded the scarred part-city came down? Felsch’s end of the story details how the protagonists at Merve loosen their geographical ties to a city that was becoming a capital and different to what it had been. It is also a story of the institutionalising of Merve books on German university curricula, as theory becomes a thing and, then, a rather more jaded thing.

Felsch tells the story well, with humour and ironic observations. It is translated effortlessly, for the most part, by Tony Crawford, and it has some evocative photographs. All the stranger that Polity chose to put some students from New York University on the cover, when the specificity of place evoked here is a crucial aspect of the history. And the title is a little off—in Germany it is not a history of a rebellion, but of revolt.

Revolt signals better the ways in which this is as much a battle against the political order, as it is with the then New Left, as it became older, as well as against publishing houses and copyright, against the state, the rest of Germany, the Eastern Bloc, left-wing taboos, and against the idea of revolt itself.

Philipp Felsch’s Summer of Theory: A History of Rebellion 1960-1990 is published by Polity.

About the Author

Esther Leslie is Professor of Political Aesthetics at Birkbeck College, London. Her most recent book is Liquid Crystals – the Science and Art of a Fluid Form.