In his autobiography, Walter Janka, who died in 1995, records the following exchange during his interrogation by the infamous Erich Mielke (Minister of State Security in the gdr) after his arrest in 1956 on charges of endangering state security while head of the Aufbau Publishing house. ‘Mielke:“Don’t talk rubbish! You wanted the counter-revolution, like the Hungarians. Petöfi Circle there, Aufbau here! Do you deny it?” Janka:“Would you mind stepping back a little? I don’t like people spitting in my face”.’footnote1

Carsten Wurm’s history of Aufbau in its early days is in some ways a mini-literary history of the first twenty years of a German state which no longer exists, and it culminates with a fireworks display in 1956, annus mirabilis and horribilis with its arrests and repression, thus providing the background to the above scene.footnote2 It records much else besides, with considerable authority and detail, for its author has for the last twelve years been Aufbau’s chief archivist.

Aufbau was founded in August 1945 in the period before the setting up of a separate Soviet-controlled administration in April 1946, a period sometimes referred to as the Azdakzeit—after Azdak, the judge in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle whose rulings ushered in ‘a brief Golden Age when there was almost justice’. This is perhaps romantic ‘ostalgia’, but compared with what followed, especially after early in 1947 when the separate zones of Germany were formalized, these months, during which Aufbau quickly grew to become the biggest literary publisher in Germany—challenged later by S. Fischer in Munich and Rowohlt in Hamburg—can be seen as a liberal period when, for instance, the Soviet military administration’s chief cultural officer reined in his own censors for being too harsh.

One of the early important associates of Aufbau was Johannes R. Becher, sometimes cruelly called the William McGonagall of German Expressionism. Becher, a middle-class German communist who had spent years in emigration in Moscow, had seen more senior German communists killed there in the purges than were lost in Hitler’s camps; he had learnt very little Russian, longed to step once more upon German soil, and looked forward to the revival of literary publishing as it had been before 1933. Instead, he became a prime mover in a policy of cultural reconciliation and renewal which sought to include non-Nazi writers who had stayed in Germany—like Gerhart Hauptmann and Hans Fallada—as well as the politically more acceptable exiles like the communist playwright, Friedrich Wolf (unhappy at the inclusion of non-exiles), Willi Bredel, Theodor Plivier, Heinrich Mann and others. In this earliest period, Aufbau often resorted to creating books—essays by Lukács, for example—by reprinting articles from International Literatur, the Comintern’s literary journal, as well as reprinting classics from pre-Nazi editions to which new introductions were added.

In Zurich in 1947, Brecht noted in his Journals ‘with a shudder’ that, not having had a revolution of its own, Germany ‘will now have to assimilate the Russian one’. And in the period that followed, from 1947, Aufbau duly issued its share of translations from Russian, including major editions of nineteenth-century classics but also such old chestnuts as Makarenko’s Road to Life and hagiographies of Lysenko and Pavlov.

The first head of Aufbau was Kurt Wilhelm, a non-communist who had worked in German publishing and had resistance credentials. He resigned in Spring 1947 under political pressure and was replaced by Erich Wendt, a communist typesetter who had been in emigration in Moscow, including two years in prison and deportation to Siberia. Although stubbornly sympathetic to Soviet policies, Wendt was forced to take account of the great appetite among the East German public for exile literature from the West—Lion Feuchtwanger, Bodo Uhse, Anna Seghers and others. He also inherited from Wilhelm one of the most culturally sophisticated and interesting figures in Aufbau’s history, the former art historian and New York-émigré, Max Schroeder, one of several senior editors who stayed with the company through the worst years and did what they could to preserve its literary reputation.

By 1952, when Aufbau’s catalogue included pamphlets which reprinted articles from the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia, Wendt complained that it was becoming more a scientific publishing house than a literary one. He left, opening the way for the appointment of the impressive Walter Janka who combined Party loyalty with an outsize sense of his own political and moral rectitude and, as a worker—he was another typesetter—an absolute determination to beat ‘middle-class’ West German publishers at their own game.