Book Review: David Oels: Rowohlts Rotationsroutine. Essen: Klartext Verlag, 2013.

Book cover

Book cover.

Oels, David. Rowohlts Rotationsroutine. Markterfolge und Modernisierung eines Buchverlags vom Ende der Weimarer Republik bis in die fünfziger Jahre [Engl. Rowohlts Rotation Routine. Market Success and Modernization of a Publishing House from the End of the Weimar Republic to the 1950s]. Essen: Klartext Verlag, 2013. 440 pages. Paperback. €29,95. ISBN 978-3-8375-0281-7.

Review by Corinna Norrick-Rühl, Institute for Book Studies, Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz

In this important book, David Oels challenges readers to re-conceptualize the history of the publishing house Rowohlt, which is often considered a living legend of sorts among German publishing houses. Rowohlt is well-known in Germany, tracing its history back to 1908. Its claim to fame in the German-speaking world is that it brought the “modern paperback book” to Germany. Rowohlt is still one of the bigger players active in Germany in the areas of fiction and non-fiction, and today belongs to the Holtzbrinck group.

As Oels describes, among other things, the status of Rowohlt as a living legend stems from the fact that the publishing house allegedly “modernized” the German book market – inventing “Zeitungsromane” (newspaper novels, i.e. full-length novels printed on newspaper to save paper and binding costs) in order to bring literature to German readers after WWII; introducing paperback books to the German market in 1950, etc. The clear strength of Oels’ book is that it does not fall victim to these platitudes, often reiterated and never proven. Instead, he sets out to clear up a number of facts surrounding Rowohlt’s reputation by both revisiting old sources and drawing on new material, for instance from the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach.

At the beginning of the book, Oels admits that he cannot write the history of Rowohlt from the end of the Weimar Republic to the 1950s for a simple reason – the publisher’s archives are no longer available; and those which can be found cannot be considered complete or representative. Rowohlt’s archive was destroyed in a fire in 1970 and since then, an erratic and incomplete archive has been pieced together. Today, what is left of these archives has been donated to the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach and to the Mainzer Verlagsarchiv at the Institute for Book Studies of the Johannes Gutenberg-University in Mainz; within the next years, this material will be made available to researchers.

RO-RO-RO newspaper novel.

RO-RO-RO newspaper novel: Kurt Tucholsky’s “Schloss Gripsholm. Eine Sommergeschichte”. Due to the ephemeral character of the publication, only few copies still exist. Some copies have been preserved by private collectors, some by public libraries, e.g. in the library of the Institute for Book Studies at Johannes Gutenberg-University in Mainz (Fachbereichsbibliothek 05, IB Buchwissenschaft, call number Is 68 RaRa).

The logical consequence of the difficult archival situation is that instead of offering his readers a purely chronological “Verlagsgeschichte” [publishing house history], Oels focuses on books/products that played an important role in the publisher’s history: In chapter 3, Oels discusses the aforementioned RO-RO-RO newspaper novels, published between 1946 and 1948, which in existing research are widely touted as innovative and an entrepreneurial stroke of genius; they are also considered to be the predecessor to the modern paperback in Germany. Chapter 3 also deals with the early RO-RO-RO paperback books and the introduction of the paperback to the German book industry. Chapter 4 focuses on the runaway non-fiction bestseller Götter, Gräber und Gelehrte, which was written under the pen-name C. W. Ceram by the Rowohlt employee Kurt Willi Marek. The non-fiction bestseller is usually considered a stroke of luck, but Oels shows that it was a planned success. Chapter 5 deals with the publishing history of the autobiographical bestseller Fragebogen by Ernst von Salomon, first published in 1951. The book is structured according to the long questionnaires distributed by the American military government, and von Salomon constructs his autobiography within the framework of the questionnaire. The book was highly controversial, especially in the UK and the USA, though it became quite popular in Germany and was even reprinted in 1999. Oels emphasizes the role the book has played in the self-representation of the publishing house throughout the decades. Each of these three chapters could stand well on their own as meticulously researched case studies in German cultural and literary history.

Chapter three on “RO-RO-RO und das modern Taschenbuch” [“RO-RO-RO and the Modern Paperback”] is particularly strong. So far, the research on the phenomenon of the RO-RO-RO newspaper novels has not managed to offer a critical “big picture” interpretation. Oels’ book remedies this and gives us a helpful overview of the phenomenon in regards to previous Rowohlt publishing projects, reeducation and postwar marketing strategy. He accentuates his “big picture” with a review and re-interpretation of well-known and much-quoted sources (e.g. the press releases about the RO-RO-RO newspaper novels; interviews about the post-WWII period with the publisher Ernst Rowohlt and his son Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt; the timeline on the Rowohlt website, which was corrected and replaced with a more comprehensive and critical version in 2008), giving readers more context and background information on the state of the publishing house during this critical period in German history.

An ongoing theme throughout chapter two (“Verlags- und Verlegergeschichte 1931–1946” [“Publishing House and Publisher History, 1931 to 1946”]) and the case studies are the continuities in Rowohlt’s history – continuities that were ignored and re-interpreted for many decades. Rowohlt, like many German publishers, were quick to claim that they had started anew after the so-called “Stunde Null” [“Zero Hour”] in 1945, and that they had been persecuted for their literary and non-literary programs during the Nazi regime. On the basis of the available sources, using Rowohlt as an ideal example, Oels re-evaluates the concept of the “Stunde Null”, illustrating how authors and employees who had been active before WWII found their way back to Rowohlt after the war was over. In particular, Oels re-interprets the role of Ernst Rowohlt. The book begins with the discussion of Ernst Rowohlt’s NSDAP membership (he joined in 1937, a fact that the publisher Rowohlt did not mention in its representation of the events surrounding WWII on its website until after its 100-year anniversary in 2008).

In keeping with the theme of finding continuities, Oels also shows that the seemingly modern publishing strategies such as the RO-RO-RO newspaper novels were not as unheard-of and unique as often claimed by Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt in interviews. These famous interviews in turn have been quoted repeatedly by the existing research on RO-RO-RO newspaper novels. Oels suggests instead that the RO-RO-RO newspaper novels might have been inspired by projects undertaken by other publishers during the war such as the so-called “Frontausgaben” or “Feldpostausgaben” – lightweight paperback books sent to the German frontlines by mail. To support his argument, Oels recreates the manifold connections between publishers making these successful “Feldpostausgaben” and Ernst Rowohlt.

Besides book historians, literary scholars will find this book useful, in particular scholars in the fields of German Studies and Comparative Literature Studies. In addition, this book can inspire cultural historians to re-evaluate long-standing and popular interpretations of source materials, in particular of source materials published by Rowohlt about its own history. For a number of courses on 20th-century book and literary history in Germany, the chapter “RO-RO-RO und das moderne Taschenbuch” should be included in the syllabus as required reading as an addition if not replacement of existing research on the RO-RO-RO newspaper novels and the introduction of the “modern paperback” to the German book market. Finally, the fact that Oels has included numerous illustrations makes the book attractive for readers beyond the scholarly world who are interested in this period of German literary and cultural history.

It is commendable that the price is so low (€29,95) for a 440-page scholarly book, and the paperback format is certainly fitting for a book about Rowohlt. This also makes it suitable for class room recommendation. Regrettably, however, the type area takes up almost the entire page, with meager line spacing. A more generous layout would have guaranteed a better reading experience of this important, well-researched, and well-written book.

First published: August 6, 2013.

Last modified: August 16, 2013.


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