Why Enzensberger Matters

Germany’s greatest postwar intellectual rejected labels and opposed tyranny in all forms

There is a dark irony to our having lost Hans Magnus Enzensberger, the German poet, essayist, critic, children’s author, and publisher, on this past Thanksgiving Day, just as the furor over online speech and Twitter’s role in having banned or “de-platformed” content heated up.

Though not quite as well-known stateside, Enzensberger’s reputation in European letters easily ranks with those of Nobel Prize winners Günter Grass and Peter Handke. He was a trenchant and versatile writer who brought a rare perspective to bear as someone who had lived through the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s and played a critical role in the upheavals of the century’s latter half, as the West German state seized ever broader powers of surveillance in response to the crises precipitated by Red Army Faction terror and subjected intellectuals and writers to the kind of treatment associated with despotic states.


Thanks partly to the breadth of his experience, Enzensberger grasped, as few others have, the fluid and mercurial nature of the repressive mindset and the myriad forms that tyranny takes. It is a pity that Enzensberger is no longer around to lend his voice to the public spats over free speech and the role of the tech titans in promoting or squelching it. Pieces he contributed to the New Left Review read more like something you would come across on Substack these days than in a journal that for many years has been the standard-bearer of the academic far left.

All the way back in 1970, long before the founders of Twitter and Facebook came into the world, Enzensberger saw which way the wind was blowing. In an essay in the New Left Review’s 64th issue, “Constituents of a theory of the media,” Enzensberger foresaw how the titans of burgeoning electronic forums would come to hold sway over everything.

“With the development of the electronic media, the industry that shapes consciousness has become the pacemaker for the social and economic development of societies in the late industrial age. It infiltrates into all other sectors of production, takes over more and more directional and control functions, and determines the standard of the prevailing technology,” he states.

The Personal Is Political

Enzensberger developed and reiterated his critiques in later articles and essays, where he detailed the harassment and intimidation that he suffered at the hands of security forces under the direction of Horst Herold, the president of the Federal Criminal Office from 1971 to 1981 and the architect of West Germany’s fast-growing surveillance state. As bad as the repression of creative freedom had gotten, Enzensberger argued that it might ultimately fall short of what the private sector in parts of the world would inflict on citizens.

Under Herold’s direction, the surveillance carried out in the name of fighting terrorism made increasing use of the aggressive culling and sharing of data, foreshadowing practices for which social media platforms in our time have come under fire. The New Left Review’s 118th issue presents the text of an eloquent speech in which Enzensberger tried to warn his audience of the rising dangers. Herold was bad news.

“His power does not come from the barrel of a gun but from the software of his computer. From his 40 million dollar headquarters in Wiesbaden he rules over the most modern police data-processing system in the world,” Enzensberger writes in “A Determined Effort to explain to a New York audience the Secrets of German Democracy.”

Those secrets are dark indeed, and Enzensberger makes no secret of his contempt for the state’s invasiveness and its mimicking of the methods and tactics of openly totalitarian regimes. What made the West German apparatus of surveillance different from the rote data-gathering that has traditionally been a part of policing was its reach and its joyous overstepping of bounds once deemed sacred.

Home Invasions

Some of the incidents Enzensberger relates in his talk are trivial. He says that he got so familiar with the plainclothes cops who used to sit outside his house in a Volkswagen that when his lighter ran out, he felt tempted to walk over and ask to borrow theirs. Different in tone were the searches of his house by Herold’s men and a late-night raid on the Frankfurt abode of a fellow publisher, Karl Markus Michel. During that incident, the antiterrorist police set about going through every book in Michel’s 9,000-volume library, looking for incriminating texts. They also arrested Michel’s wife on charges of supporting an illegal organization. These and other police actions were part and parcel of a regime of surveillance making use of the stuff of citizens’ lives.

“The use of data by the police reaches far into what are supposedly ‘private’ areas. Informally the booking systems to hotels, car hire firms, airlines, travel agencies, estate agents, pawnbrokers and credit inquiry offices are tapped,” states Enzensberger.

This will sound familiar to those of us presented with ads on online platforms for products and services we may have run an online search for at one time or another, not realizing how much our habits or even random one-off searches would come back to haunt us.

“It is certain that the population of West Germany is subject to a degree of surveillance without precedent in history. . . . In the foreseeable future, Dr. Herold and his colleagues will probably be in the position to follow all our movements on their monitors if they feel like so doing,” adds Enzensberger.

Indeed the surveillance relies heavily on, and is hard to imagine without, the seemingly harmless activities that people engage in from day to day without objection.

“When you present your passport at a West German airport it is laid on a glass plate. The video terminal that reads it is connected to a central computer. But also when you spend a night in a hotel, borrow a book or visit your doctor, you leave behind a permanent trace,” he writes.

Of course, the same is even truer for us today when we use our cell phones and subject ourselves to monitoring through triangulation, when we send texts, and indeed when we engage in any activity at all from unique IP addresses.

Enzensberger describes these trends as gathering force in other parts of the world, such as Britain and Sweden, and brings the United States into his analysis, with a caveat of amazing prescience for someone writing in 1979.

“The same holds good for the United States with this difference, that there daily life is less highly controlled by the state; as a result important surveillance networks controlled by private interests are being developed,” he writes.

Surveillance networks controlled by private interests—an apt description of Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, and other platforms.

While Enzensberger blamed the right in Germany for much of the repression, he well deserves his reputation as a contrarian with the iconoclasm and moral courage to which Christopher Hitchens aspired.

He would not have gotten along with, for example, Greta Thunberg. In a scathing New Left Review essay from 1974, “A Critique of Political Ecology,” Enzensberger called out the hypocrisy of an environmentalist movement that purports to speak for everyone—save the world from eco-catastrophe!—but in reality uses this missionary stance to cloak its exclusively middle-class leadership’s demands for power under a guise of moral responsibility, urgency, and inclusiveness.

Breadth of Knowledge
‘The Number Devil,’ by Hans Magnus Enzensberger.

The foregoing précis of Enzensberger’s more provocative views offers just a tiny glimpse into the intellectual worlds he inhabited over the course of a long life. Nor does it provide much of a sense of his engaging and relatable personality.

Peter J. Burgard, a professor of German at Harvard University and the author of studies of Herder, Goethe, Nietzsche, Kafka, Mann, Adorno, and many other figures in German-language and world literature, hosted Enzensberger in 2000 after the writer and intellectual said yes to a number of teaching and speaking engagements. In an interview with Book and Film Globe, Burgard described an encounter that would have left any scholar in the field in a state of awe.

“Meeting Enzensberger and spending the better part of two weeks with him—in our seminars, at a dinner at the German Consul General’s home, during an evening at my home, and on a coastal tour of the North Shore—was an extraordinary experience,” Burgard recalled.

One of the things you could not fail to appreciate was the sheer variety of his cultural role. At the time of his passing, Enzensberger had written dozens of books. He had also had a huge impact as the founding editor, in 1965, of the journal Kursbuch, and as the creative force that launched and oversaw Die andere Bibliothek—“The Other Library”—which turned out some 250 books by other writers from 1985 to 2004, including reprints of works that Enzensberger thought deserving of wider notice as well as new books, Burgard noted.

“From early on—as a member of Gruppe 47 making a new start for German literature after the abominations of the Third Reich and as an unusually young winner of Germany’s premiere literary award, the Georg Büchner prize—he was, in his poetry, his essays, and his critical commentary on culture, society, and politics, a central figure in postwar German literary and cultural life,” said Burgard.

As if all that were not enough, Enzensberger had a formative influence on West Germany’s student movement of the 1960s and 1970s and produced a number of works aimed at younger readers, including what we today call YA fiction and two children’s books that have become classics, Burgard observed. Enzensberger’s book about the Esterhazy family of hares, and his math treatise, The Number Devil, hold up so well today that Burgard gave both books to his daughter. Not quite six years old, she held up her copy of Esterhazy, prompting the visitor to open the book and write in block letters on its title page HANS MAGNUS WAS HERE.

“For seventy years, Enzensberger created and represented German culture and was its most trenchant poet-critic,” Burgard said.

Introducing Enzensberger to some 250 guests one frigid January evening at Harvard’s Lowell Lecture Hall, Burgard described his wonder at meeting a rare personality uniting such an uncommon breadth of interests, knowledge, and talent with an engaging and likable personality not so often found in celebrities of any kind, let alone public intellectuals.

“Here was an endlessly accomplished and famous seventy-year-old poet, essayist, and philosopher, a cultural icon, giving up weeks of his life to talk to some Harvard students and give a public reading, accompanied almost nonstop by a recently tenured forty-two-year-old professor he’d never met and only briefly corresponded with, and yet from the moment of meeting one felt that one knew him,” Burgard said.

“For some reason, I hadn’t expected such a celebrated figure, and an often sharp-tongued (or -penned) one at that, to be such a thoroughly gracious guest. In our seminar sessions, his critical intellect was front and center, while his interactions with the students were kind and gentle.”

In an age of ever-worsening tribalism, we will remember Enzensberger as much for his decency and honesty in defense of intellectual freedom as for his contributions to world literature.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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