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Culture

Paying Tribute to a Publishing Legend

German intellectuals gathered in Frankfurt to honor the life of the longtime publisher of the Suhrkamp Verlag, who brought Brecht to the masses and found a way to sell paperbacks on philosophy.

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Siegfried Unseld led the Suhrkamp Verlag for nearly half a century

Hundreds of Germany’s elite and writers from around the world gathered in Frankfurt on Saturday to pay tribute to Siegfried Unseld, the former head of the Suhrkamp publishing house who died a week earlier.

Israeli author Amos Oz praised Unseld’s work and his commitment to publishing Jewish authors such as Nelly Sachs, Paul Celan and Walter Benjamin.

“He changed my life,” Oz said. “I once thought that I could shake hands with a German but could never be friends with one.” Unseld, Oz said, changed that view. “He showed me that everything in the world can be changed.”

Imre Kertesz, this year’s literature Nobel Prize winner, recalled how Unseld travelled to Budapest to woo him to Suhrkamp. “He didn’t have a hard time with me,” Kertesz said.

Unseld, who overtook the leadership of Suhrkamp Verlag in 1959 just seven years after joining the company at age 28, died on October 26 at age 78 after struggling for months with complications stemming from heart disease.

Unseld, wrote the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, was responsible for bringing Bertolt Brecht and authors such as Max Frisch and Herman Hesse to several generations of German students. The collective thanks offered to Unseld is not due because he personally wrote or inspired the thousands of books he published, but rather, that he gave them a place in the many collections he published.

Edition Suhrkamp

With the publication of a paperback series called "Edition Suhrkamp," Unseld brought socially challenging and philosophical works to a broad public starting in the early 1960s. Published with monochromatic jackets in varied bright colors, the series set the company apart intellectually and brought it financial success as well.

Under Unseld's leadership, the publishing house grew from 20 employees with sales of 100,000 DM (approximately 50,000 euro) to 140 employees with annual sales of more than 10 million euro, according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

More recently, Suhrkamp's growth included the acquisition of the Insel (Island) Verlag in 1981 and the Jüdische (Jewish) Verlag in summer 1990.

But it was his intellectual integrity and concern for authors that distinguished Unseld from other publishers.

"He influenced the intellectual life of the German-speaking world like no other publisher ever," said renowned literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki in a statement to the German news agency DPA. Germany has lost "one of the strongest personalities in the cultural world in the second half of the century. Unusual vitality and an enormous passion were his trademarks: Books were his passion."

"Helped shape Germany's development"

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who attended Saturday’s funeral services, wrote in a condolence letter to Unseld's widow, the writer Ulla Berkewicz: "Like few others, Siegfried Unseld helped shape Germany's development over the course of nearly half a century."

Known as a publisher who supported authors through ups and downs – and not just with the publication of a single book – Unseld's protégés included Hans Magnus Enzenberger, Uwe Johnson, and the scandal-plagued Martin Walser.

Unseld had approved the publication of Walser' s novel, "Death of a Critic." But this summer, when a media scandal broke out over alleged anti-Semitism in the book – about an author who murders a Jewish book-reviewer that many view as a portrayal of Reich-Ranicki – Unseld was in the hospital recovering from a difficult operation.

Unseld's chosen successor, Günter Berg, faced his first crisis on his own.

Sales weren't only priority

"He was a publisher for whom authors, books and sales were equally important," recalled Berg in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Industry observers don't expect many changes in the company in the coming months as Berg will remain on as publisher.

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