Leipzig Book Fair: right-wing publishers debate continues | Books | DW | 16.03.2018
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Leipzig Book Fair: right-wing publishers debate continues

While there's a plethora of topics on the program for the Leipzig Book Fair, there's one thing on everyone's minds: the presence of right-wing publishers at the trade fair. Not a new subject, but a hotly debated one.

It's been nearly half a year since a ruckus broke out at the Frankfurt Book Fair and now the question remains the same for the Leipzig Book Fair: Should right-wing publishers be allowed to take part in the industry event?

The book fairs view themselves as a place of exchange and freedom of expression. But where is the boundary between freedom of expression and incitement to hatred?

In fall 2017, Juergen Boos, the director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, said that there is no legal possibility to exclude right-wing press. Even more so, they did not want to. "An idea does not disappear just because one has forbidden it."

Read more: Frankfurt Book Fair: Violence follows calls for 'active debate'

Heinrich Riethmüller, president of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, sees things similarly. "If we want to take freedom of expression seriously, we have to allow for those whose opinions and values we do not share, even when we view these perspectives as dangerous," he said at the official opening event in Leipzig Wednesday evening.

At Frankfurt in October, there were tumultuous scenes on the last days of the trade fair which required police to intervene. As a result the Leipzig Book Fair has updated its security plans. What can visitors in Leipzig expect this week?

Leipzig Book Fair's logo (picture-alliance/dpa/H. Schmidt)

Leipzig Book Fair's logo

A place for discussions and debate

The bulk of the program includes typical book fair events, with readings, awards ceremonies and podium discussions.

Director Oliver Zille pointed to the diversity of themes planned for the fair in his opening speech and said that he hoped that the trade fair "would not be dominated a few especially loud participants." A desire that will likely not be met, with speakers including  Akif Pirincci, who has been charged over hate speech  in September, and Jürgen Elsässer, the controversial publisher and editor-in-chief of Compact magazine, on the agenda.

Alexander Skipis, CEO of the German Publishers Trade Organization, used the opportunity to propose a new culture of debate in Germany, "because in the past, many topics were brushed aside in silence and made taboo and we did not really confront them." The process of creating a consensus of opinions requires that a variety of positions be heard as long as they do not violate the law, he said.

Read more: Asne Seierstad: 'We must understand why Europe has come under attack'

That was an opinion shared by Martin Buhl-Wagner, CEO of the Leipzig Trade Fair. "We have drawn a clear line and have positioned ourselves against racism and incitement to hatred." The boundary is also drawn by the German Constitution; any statements made at the Book Fair which are punishable by law will be reported to the police by the event organizers. "And clearly, as part of that punishment, we can deny a person entry to the event."

Similarly, Burkhard Fritsche, a cartoonist for different left publications, also believes that tolerance requires to allow everyone to participate. "In Germany, freedom of expression has legal limits, for example when one denies the Holocaust. This also corresponds to what I would morally set as a limit. Everything else should be possible," he told DW, adding that as a cartoonist he is permanently crossing limits too, which is why he wouldn't want to see any strict limitations imposed.

Read more: Mistrust and Islamophobia see dramatic rise in Germany's melting pot

Protesters show their inspiring book picks at a demonstration against right-wing publishers (picture-alliance/dpa/S. Willnow)

Protesters show their inspiring book picks at a demonstration against right-wing publishers

Initiatives against the right

While the opening of the Leipzig Book Fair was taking place on Wednesday evening, around 400 people protested the presence of right-wing publishers at the fair. "We are not going to accept that right-wing ideologies are being spread at the book fair," said René Arnsburg, co-coordinator of #verlagegegenrechts (#publishersagainsttheright). It is not about forbidding something, he said, but about resisting it.

The initiative is supported by more than 70 publishers as well as 200 individuals who signed a petition against allowing right-wing propaganda at the book fair. They have also planned actions at the Leipzig Book Fair. "We do not want to create a scene as these only help the right-wing publishers who use them to position themselves as victims. We want to have a political discussion and speak with visitors to the trade fair," said Arnsburg.

Even before the trade fair opened, the topic of right-wing ideologies in the publishing world was being hotly debated in Germany after novelist Uwe Tellkamp revealed provocative opinions during a panel debate in Dresden.

In it, he repeated false information about refugees and claimed that by speaking out against them, he would be sorted into the right-wing camp. Suhrkamp, his publishers, distanced themselves from the author, which caused further controversy. Tellkamp, as a result, cancelled a planned book reading tour through northern Germany.

cartoon from 1847, The Good Press (Gemeinfrei)

Not a new debate: This cartoon from 1847, "The Good Press" criticized censorship

Leipzig reads  — an event on 550 stages

The discussion about the right-wing publishers is not the only topic on the agenda in Leipzig. With more than 3,600 events planned, the book fair and its complementary reading festival, Leipzig Reads, visitors and authors from around the world will be descending on Leipzig.

In contrast to the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Leipzig Book Fair is conceived of as a trade fair for the public. Readings will be held in locations around the city over the four days.

The 2018 guest of honor is Romania. Young authors from the country will open a door to the nation's culture for visitors; for the occasion, around 40 works have already been translated into German.

Organizers anticipate around 300,000 visitors to the fair. The hope still remains that while there is plenty to be discussed and debated, the hot topics will not lead to the physical struggles seen in Frankfurt.


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