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German author Hans Magnus Enzensberger dies

Heike Mund | Verena Greb
November 25, 2022

Writer, cultural critic, translator and publisher: Hans Magnus Enzensberger was a multi-talented thinker. He became famous in the 1960s and never stopped writing. He died at the age of 93.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger
Hans Magnus Enzensberger was one of Germany's leading philosophers and writersImage: Marcus Brandt/dpa/picture alliance

Hans Magnus Enzensberger was a passionate smoker — something he had in common with former chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Above all, however, he was one of Germany's most important intellectuals. For more than 60 years he supplied the international literary world with thoughtful, poetic and highly sophisticated works. Alongside Günter Grass and Martin Walser, Enzensberger made up the power trio of German postwar literature.

He has now died at the age of 93.

Expelled from Hitler Youth organization

Enzensberger was born in Kaufbeuren, Allgäu, on November 11, 1929, as the eldest of four sons. His father was a telecommunications technician, his mother worked as a kindergarten teacher. 

He began writing as a young boy. He enjoyed his literary exercises more than the military drill of the Hitler Youth organization, from which the defiant boy was expelled.

At the age of 15, he was drafted to the Volkssturm, the Nazis' national militia, in 1944, but shortly before the end of the war, he managed to desert. "I was very lucky with my parents. They may not have been resistance fighters, but they weren't Nazis either. That gave me a different view of the so-called Nazi community from the very beginning," Enzensberger later recalled. 

In 1949, Hans Magnus Enzensberger began his studies in literature and he obtained his doctorate in philosophy in 1955.

During that period, he also published his first texts and became a member of the "Gruppe 47," or Group 47. For 20 years from 1947, the participants of the legendary writers' circle came together to renew German literature after the end of the Second World War. Testimony to the debates of that time is provided by an exchange of letters between Enzensberger and poet Ingeborg Bachmann, published only in 2018, who received the Gruppe 47 Prize in 1953 for poems from "Die gestundete Zeit" (Deferred time).

Hans Magnus Enzensberger
Hans Magnus Enzensberger in 1968, taking position against the German Emergency Acts, which felt too close to Nazi legislationImage: Manfred Rehm/dpa/picture alliance

Literary globetrotter 

Postwar Germany soon became too small for Enzensberger. Traveling to the USA, Mexico, Norway and Italy gave him the internationality that would remain important to him throughout his life. 

In 1957, his first book of poems "Verteidigung der Wölfe gegen die Lämmer" (Defense of the wolves against the lambs) was published.

Three years later, he became an editor at the renowned Suhrkamp publishing house.

In 1965, he founded the cultural magazine Kursbuch, which became the intellectual reference for revolutionary students who took to the streets in 1968. Enzensberger interfered in the political debates of the time with a strong voice, shaping public opinion.  

Poems from this period read like stations of German cultural history. His first volume of poetry already caused a sensation when it was published in 1957. Like many of the politically committed writers of the early Federal Republic, the young Enzensberger set out to shatter the heaviness of existentialist postwar literature with his light, ironic poetry.

Günter Grass, Peter Rühmkorf and Hans Magnus Enzensberger.
With two colleagues from the former Group 47, from left to right: Günter Grass, Peter Rühmkorf and Hans Magnus Enzensberger Image: Wolfgang Langenstrassen/dpa/picture alliance

The 'Other Library' 

Enzensberger was awarded the Georg Büchner Prize in 1963, and many other accolades followed.

After the publication of his only novel, Anarchy's Brief Summer: The Life and Death of Buenaventura Durruti, Enzensberger settled in Munich as a freelance writer in 1979. In 1980, he embarked on another publishing adventure with a friend, Chilean writer Gaston Salvatore. However, the ambitious literary magazine TransAtlantik survived for only two years. 

Together with the book artist Franz Greno, Enzensberger founded the prestigious book series "Die Andere Bibliothek" (The Other Library) in 1985, in the left-leaning Eichborn publishing house, in which he published classics and forgotten treasures as well as first editions by authors of other cultures. Today these volumes are prized works on the shelves of book collectors.

With a publishing instinct for talent, he brought literary reportage to the German book market for the first time. The Polish author and journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski  was one of his discoveries, and he also had a decisive influence on the careers of renowned writers and poets such as Raoul Schrott, Irene Dische, Christoph Ransmayer and W.G. Sebald. 

After a long break in production, Enzensberger made a comeback as a lyricist in 1991 with the poetry collection "Zukunftsmusik" (Future music). As an essayist, he continued to intervene in debates, commenting on the Iraq War, genetic research and controversial intelligence tests.

With "Tumult" in 2014 he published his first text with slightly autobiographical features: "Confessions are not my strong point. It's far from me to display the landscape of my soul before the public," as he then told the German weekly Der Spiegel

Hans Magnus Enzensberger: A man with glasses.
Hans Magnus Enzensberger in 1991Image: Heikki_Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva Oy/dpa/picture alliance

Huge volume of work  

Enzensberger published not only under his own name, but also using pseudonyms, the best-known one being Andreas Thalmayr, under which he published an entertaining handbook for budding authors "Schreiben für ewige Anfänger" (Writing for eternal beginners) in 2018 and "Louisiana Story" in 2019.

Two of the pseudonyms assigned to him were even female: Elisabeth Ambras and Linda Quilt. The former was also still active in 2019, with the publication of "Fremde Geheimnisse" (Strange secrets).

Hans Magnus Enzensberger's already extensive oeuvre thus includes several more titles. Who knows how many other pseudonyms Enzensberger has used that could not be attributed to him so far.

Enzensberger was the father of two daughters, namely Tanaquil, born in 1957, from his first marriage to Dagrun Kristensen from Norway, as well as Theresia, born in 1986, from his third marriage to journalist Katharina Bonitz. In his second marriage, Enzensberger was married to Maria Makarowa from Russia in the late 1960s. In his autobiographical work "Tumult," he said about this episode in his life that it resembled a "Russian novel." 

This article was originally published in German.